By Jason Morton
July 1, 2021 - When the strike against Warrior Met Coal Inc. began this spring, miners said that they were planning for a protracted fight.
That plan is now becoming action as the strike against Warrior Met Coal Inc. enters its fourth month.
The United Mine Workers of America marked the occasion on Thursday, vowing to retain their resolve in the fight for what they call a “reasonable contract” with better pay and benefits from the Brookwood-based company.
“If Warrior Met is waiting for our members to quit and run back to work, then the company needs to quit waiting,” UMWA International President Cecil E. Roberts said. “It’s not going to happen. I know we are going to win this strike, because we are never going to quit.”
Citing unfair labor practices, coal miners took to the picket line April 1 after an agreement between the union members and Warrior Met Coal could not be reached.
A tentative agreement was announced April 6, but its ratification, in accordance with the UMWA's constitution, was dependent on a vote of the union members.
This tentative agreement between union Warrior Met Coal Inc. was rejected three days later, and the strike by more than 1,100 miners has carried on since.
As the strike reached its fourth month, the union president reiterated his call for higher-level negotiations to resolve the dispute.
“I have made myself available from day one to be part of this collective bargaining process, and Warrior Met knows that. But so far, they have not accepted that offer,” Roberts said. “The team the company has at the bargaining table either wants to continue to punish the workers and deny them what they’ve earned over the last five years, or they just do not have the authority to resolve this with a fair and decent contract.
“I am prepared to talk with the CEO or members of the board of directors at any time and at any place. Let’s get this resolved.”
Warrior Met Coal, meanwhile, has maintained from the beginning of the strike that its negotiation position is meant to protect itself as well as the long-term employment of its 1,400 or so workers.
"Throughout the negotiations process with the United Mine Workers of America, Warrior Met Coal’s vision has remained on the future," the company said through Erin Vogt, director of public relations for Birmingham-based PERITUS public relations, "a future where we provide our employees with a competitive package while protecting jobs and the longevity of the company and its workforce.
"We have always valued and appreciated our employees’ hard work and our priorities remain keeping people employed with long-lasting careers and ensuring Warrior Met Coal remains financially stable in a particularly volatile coal market."
The coal market isn’t all that’s proven volatile.
Last month, the union reported three incidents of vehicular assault on three consecutive days had occurred on picket lines.
“We have members in casts, we have members in the hospital, we have members who are concerned about their families and potential of violence against them if they come to the picket line,” Roberts said, accusing Warrior Met Coal of the violence. “We have been to court on multiple occasions regarding what we can and cannot do on the picket lines and our members respect the guidance of the court.
“Warrior Met seems to believe that it is all right to strike people with cars as they engage in legal, protected activity.”
In response, Warrior Met Coal said it was granted a court-ordered injunction to maintain a safe environment for its employees, “including those actively at work and those currently on strike.”
“This injunction was put in place due to unlawful activity on the picket lines early during the strike, to allow for peaceful ingress and egress to our facilities, as well as maintain public safety,” the company said. “Among other items, the injunction specifically prohibits picketers from interfering, hindering or obstructing ingress and egress to the company’s properties. This is a stressful situation for all individuals involved, and continued violations of the injunction have resulted in recent incidents.”
Now, a reward is being offered for details on who vandalized Warrior Met Coal property in May and June.
The Alabama Mining Association said a cash reward of up to $10,000 is being offered to anyone who can provide information to the Tuscaloosa County Sherriff’s Department that directly leads to the arrest and conviction of whoever intentionally damaged electrical transmission and distribution equipment on Warrior Met Coal’s property on the evenings of May 15, June 1 and June 12.
“Our industry’s greatest responsibility is to ensure the health and safety of our workforce and our neighbors in the communities where we operate,” said Alabama Mining Association President Patrick Cagle. “These incidents were serious threats to Warrior’s team and the surrounding area, and we encourage anyone with information to contact the Tuscaloosa County Sheriff’s Office so this reckless behavior can be stopped.”
Anyone with information on this vandalism was asked to call the Tuscaloosa County Sherriff’s Office Criminal Investigations Division at 205-464-8652.
Warrior Met Coal, which focuses primarily on the mining of nonthermal metallurgical coal for use in the steel production process by manufacturers in Europe, South America and Asia, was created following the 2015 bankruptcy of Jim Walter Resources and its parent company, Walter Energy.
That year, Walter Energy filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, indicating it had around $3 billion in debt with its major holdings in the state being the Jim Walter Resources underground coal mines in Brookwood as well as the rights to unmined coal fields elsewhere in Tuscaloosa and neighboring counties.
In January 2016, the Bankruptcy Court for the Northern District of Alabama approved the sale of Walter Energy to Warrior Met Coal, then operating as Coal Acquisition LLC, which was formed by Walter Energy’s senior creditors during the bankruptcy proceedings.
Warrior Met Coal went on to hire more than 1,000 miners in 18 months, including 350 hourly miners and 150 salaried employees for a new, $19 million portal facility on the company’s No. 7 mine, and last year the company announced another 350 new jobs with an investment of more than $500 million with plans to construct and develop a new underground coal mining facility off Brandon School Road in north Tuscaloosa County.
Warrior Met recently reported a loss of about $35 million for last year compared to net income of $302 million for 2019. Citing uncertainty created by the global pandemic, the company did not release financial guidance for 2021.