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© Frank

interviews

In Conversation With Alabama's Striking Coal Miners

by Larry Spencer and Mike Wright
March 31, 2021

These interviews with Mike Wright, a striking coal miner at Warrior Met Inc, and Larry Spencer, the Vice President of United Mine Workers District 20, were conducted and condensed by franknews and Payday Report

I. 

frank | Can you tell us about what's going on here? 

Mike Wright | We are on an unfair labor practice strike with Warrior Met Coal Inc, which we work for. That's why we're here. 

Basically, five years ago, the company went into bankruptcy. And we were presented with a contract five years ago in which a lot of things were subpar and below the standards that we were used to. But, that is what was offered to us and we had to take it in order to keep the union. 

We basically worked for five years under that contract and brought this company out of bankruptcy. We brought them back into a competitive place in the coal market. 

And now, we are out of that old contract and trying to get a new one. But, they are not offering what we want. Actually, we don't even have a contract right now. We are in negotiations right now. We basically just want the company to take care of us.

What do you want? 

Me, personally, I want 100% insurance coverage. We had 100% insurance in the old contract back in 2011. When I went to the doctor, I only had to pay $20 for a copay. My youngest daughter, who is 13 years old, was born under that insurance, and all I paid was $12. I paid $5 for a prescription. I would go to CVS and that's all I paid.

Now, under our current insurance, I will go to the doctor and pay a deductible. I still get bills in the mail. Every time I go to the doctor, they draw blood, and I still have to pay for those. I'm still behind on that. 

We need full coverage because when you go into the ground, you're inhaling all these diesel fumes. You're gonna get sick. It happens. Even though we wear personal protective equipment, you're still gonna get sick. 

Another thing is that we are penalized for going to the doctor. AAt most companies, you can just bring in a doctor's note as an excuse. Here, they want to give us a strike or penalize us. A doctor's excuse is not enough. I think that's wrong. I mean, you got to you can't take the human element out of this. 

We deserve time and a half after we work eight hours. We deserve holiday pay. When we work on holidays right now, we get paid straight time. And I think that's just absolutely ridiculous. I just think the company should understand that we're people and that we have families we want to spend time with. 

We've done a great job by getting this company back to where they need to be. It's our time now, to be paid what we're supposed to be paid. And to have great health insurance. I just think it's time for that man. And that's why we're here today striking. 

How do you feel?

I guess the exciting part of it is that you don't really know what's gonna happen. We are here to make a statement, and to let them know that we mean business. They know that we mean business now. I think they knew this day was going to come, but I don't think they knew just how big this gonna be. We got a lot of people that are on our team. 

We just want to be treated like we're supposed to be and get what we deserve. I think we deserve the best. We're coal miners, It takes a special person to be a coal miner. We do something that nobody does. We go on the ground, we get resources for energy. I mean, this is our resource for energy today. I think that coal is always going to be here. I know, they are trying to go to another type of resource, but I think cold is always going to be around. I mean, God blessed us and put it here for us to go down there to get it to provide for our families. And so that's what we do. And I think we do a great job at it. 

I have met some of the greatest people in my life here at this place. I've met some great friends. Especially the older guys that were here that have now retired. With those guys, you were basically laughing and enjoying your work all day long. We got a lot of pride in ourselves. I think everybody would go to bat for you at the end of the day. If something happens, we all gonna come together. That is just the type of people we are man. 

It's a great place to work. I just think we just need to be treated and paid and compensated for what we've done. The people that are on the executive board and are in these higher-up positions are there because of what we've done. And they're getting paid and living the life that they're living because of us. If we don't go out and do what we do, they can't live the way they live. So that's just the way I feel about it. 

What does it feel like to be a part of the union? 

It's just a special bond. When you are part of this union, you can meet somebody in a totally different part of the country who is in the union, and there is an automatic bond. You feel that connection because this a brotherhood. 

Coal miners are just a totally different breed of a person. Two coal miners could be having a conversation and it sounds like two engineers or two doctors sitting there talking. Nobody knows what you're talking about.  You can't understand unless you've been there and done it. We have this bond because we know what it feels like when you go down there that you're breathing coal dust and all that stuff change here and changes when you go down. 

But being a part of the union is a great thing. I love being a part of this thing. And I just believe in my heart that we're gonna get what we want. I believe God is going to bless us to have what we are supposed to have. That's it in a nutshell, man. 

II. 

Larry | Unions always help out with the health and safety aspect of a job. With coal mining, we keep a watch on coal dust, we keep a watch on methane levels and we try to make sure that companies are following the law. Most companies, if they can cut corners, will cut corners. We try to make sure they don't cut that corner, and that they keep all the people safe — not just the union guys. 

When you go down the hill, and you'll go across railroad tracks back up, you'll see a church. On the left-hand side, there's a monument. There was a coal mine there, but it blew up back in 2001 and it killed 13 people. It was devastating for the whole community. When we're fighting for our people's safety, we're fighting to make it safe for everybody. 

Every year in September, we try to remember those coal miners and all coal miners who have lost their lives, by putting on a pretty large memorial service. It reaches beyond just our community. And it's just … it's something that you have to be there to understand. 

But I am concerned about some of the people that we have working in this area right now. I'm just not too sure if they learned anything. I see things that are happening that scare me. I see some unsafe things going on. You know, this could happen again. 

frank | Where do most of the folks that work here come from? 

Some of them come from right around here and some come from other states. This company tends to go out to other states first. It's not that we don't want people from other states, but we would like them to hire from Alabama first. But people come in from all areas and they are good people. Off the top of my head, we've got some from West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Illinois. The big majority are from Alabama. Yeah.

Does it feel like a learning curve or a struggle to get solidarity and to get interest in a union? 

Yeah. There is. I don't think they know the importance of union, some of them. Some of them do. Some of them grew up in union families. Times have changed so much that it's hard to show as much solidarity. 

But, when it comes right down to it, solidarity is there. You can go up that road and look at that picket line and you will see the solidarity. We are talking about 15 different locations. Some places have 15 to 20 people striking, some places have 30 to 40.  

Why do you think more and more people, especially young people, are interested in unions? 

Well, to put it bluntly, I think because the management treats them like crap. A lot of the management teams at these mines treat you like a substandard person. These young guys are realizing, I don't have to live like that, I can do better than that. People are starting to realize that there's something better. These supervisors don't talk to these young guys like men, they talk down to them. They treat you like a machine. They demand you to do things with no consideration to whether that thing is safe. 

Some of this is similar to what I have heard from people at Amazon in terms of bullying and that sort of thing. 

There's a point in your life where you realize you're not a teenager anymore, you're not a child anymore. You realize that you are a man and that you have to take your destiny into your own hands. I think that a lot of these guys are getting to that stage. When these young men come in here, they know that they have responsibility. They know that they have a family to take care of. When they go underground with a supervisor that screams and hollers at him, that is, first of all, dangerous. When you put someone in that type of position, it causes mistakes. It is never good for these supervisors to be harassing and intimidating their employees. 

But, the supervisor gets away with being intimidating because these young guys are worried about going back home to their family and supplying them with a house and a car and food and clothes. 

So what we do is try to get them with an older hand. We let them see how that guy handles himself when the supervisor is trying to intimidate him. Eventually, those guys start realizing, “Hey, he doesn't have to put up with that kind of treatment, so I don't have to either.”