By Kim Kelly
January 7, 2022 - "Happy miners run more coal.”
When coal miner Greg Pilkerton spoke those words to me in his gruff Alabama drawl, it sounded like the most natural statement in the world. Of course workers are more productive when they’re respected, well-compensated, and safe. Any argument against the notion would betray a profound lack of understanding of both the labor market and human nature writ large. Only a fool would say otherwise. Unfortunately, there are quite a lot of fools who sign our paychecks. Take the owners of Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Ala.; instead of sitting down at the bargaining table and hammering out a mutually satisfactory contract with the union negotiators who represent the will of their workforce, they have chosen to stall and, as an unfair labor practices charge filed by the the United Mine Workers of America alleges, to operate in bad faith. This kind of stubborn cruelty is bad for workers, but it’s also bad for business. The strike has cost Warrior Met nearly $7 million and counting.
The strike’s circumstances have shifted over the past 10 months, but the root of the conflict remains the same: The coal miners want a better union contract, and the company does not want to give it to them. The workers have held fast to the same demands they laid out back on April 1, when they first voted to strike, and again on April 9, after the membership resoundingly rejected a tentative agreement that had been negotiated between Warrior Met and the UMWA. As the miners saw it, that April 6 offer was just a linguistic reshuffling of the 2016 contract under which they already labored and which had caused them so much pain. When Jim Walter Resources, the former owner of the mine, went bankrupt in 2015, Warrior Met brought in and rehired the laid-off workforce with the caveat that they’d have to accept a stripped-down contract and deep pay cuts.
After five long years of sacrifice, low pay, and grueling working conditions, the workers expected something that was at least as good as what they had before Warrior Met swooped in. Improvements would be nice, too, but now they also need to ensure that the company doesn’t follow through on its threat to give their jobs away. The workers want higher wages, more time off to spend with their families, lower health care costs, and, most importantly, respect on the job. Since this is an unfair labor practices strike (rather than an economic one), the company is prohibited from permanently replacing the union workers, but Warrior Met—who has kept the mines running with scab labor from Kentucky, West Virginia, and elsewhere—isn’t budging. Out on the picket lines, miners set copies of that hated old contract on fire, consigning that physical representation of the company’s avarice into a rusty burn barrel.
For Pilkerton, the union—and coal mining—has always been about family. When I met up with him during a recent reporting trip for More Perfect Union, I visited his wife’s parents’ house, a spacious haven decorated with family photos. A frothy white Christmas tree winked out from a corner, and the requisite college football game was unfolding on the flatscreen TV hung behind him. A burly white man with a bushy beard and kind eyes, Pilkerton was dressed in green and gold UMWA camo; his cheerful blonde wife, Amy, looked on as her mother knit beside her. He settled into the sofa, and told me about how he got here.
His father was a coal miner who spent 47 years underground and served as a UMWA district representative, and for as long as he could, he did his best to instill union pride in the next generation. Greg said he remembers growing up going to meetings with his parents and playing with other coal miners’ children at union-sponsored picnics; their union hall had playground equipment outside, and they’d square off against kids from other local mines in games of tug-of-war. When a deadly explosion rocked the Jim Walter Resources No. 5 coal mine in 2001, killing 13, Greg’s father was supposed to have been down there with them. Miraculously, Greg had cajoled his father into missing work to attend his grandson’s birthday party that afternoon instead, because he’d never made it to one before. Coal miners are used to missing out on family gatherings and milestones because of their punishing 12-hour work schedules, and this lack of family time has remained a major point of contention throughout the Warrior Met strike. Back then, though, the rules were looser, and that “guilt trip” may have saved Greg’s father’s life.
Later, “like so many other coal miners, he retired, and died shortly after,” the younger Pilkerton told me. Greg followed in his footsteps, and worked in various local mines for years before he landed at Warrior Met in 2016. There, the mood was hopeful, with workers expecting that their efforts would be rewarded once the company was back on its feet. That honeymoon period didn’t last, though. “We were miserable the last two years, absolutely miserable,” he said. “But we knew if we did a good job, the company was going to do what they said they was going to do and take care of us. We put the right faith in the wrong people.”
Pilkerton got an up-close look at just how much Warrior Met values its employees when he was injured on the job several years ago. One night, he came out of the mines bleeding, his left hand crushed and mangled by machinery underground. Instead of calling for an ambulance, his boss asked a security guard to drive him to the nearest hospital, and to take the bumpy back roads instead of the highway. Then, after forcing Pilkerton to interrupt treatment and shunt between different medical providers, Warrior Met fired him. “It is sad that money becomes more important than the people,” he said. “But to hear that we’re not worth what we’re making? That’s what gets me, because that hurts my feelings.”
The company eventually hired him back, but Pilkerton had to fight it every step of the way toward his reinstatement. He also sustained permanent damage to his hand. When I showed him my own missing fingers (an accident of birth rather than industry), he gave me a wry grin, and told me, “We’re family.”
With that experience fresh in his mind, Pilkerton was still a little shocked when contract negotiations came around in early 2020, and the company essentially flipped them the bird. He and his coworkers hadn’t expected things to escalate into a strike so quickly. Neither had the company—but then the miners, all 1,100 of them, walked. “The first couple of weeks were pretty dadgum intense,” Pilkerton told me. “You had so many people out there at one time, and the intensity that was going on then, we actually had them stopped—the company wasn’t getting in and getting out. It was a situation where we had a little bit of bargaining room, too. It shouldn’t be one-sided all the time.”
Amy and Greg Pilkerton
Courtesy of Greg Pilkerton
Warrior Met disagreed. Beginning in July, the company filed a series of court-ordered injunctions against the union, whittling away bit by bit the number of picketers allowed on the line. By mid-December, a temporary restraining order had knocked it down to zero, and the strikers were left without a picket line at all. The company justified this measure by alleging that the picketers were “violent,” and even hired a high-powered publicity firm, LA-based Sitrick and Company, to feed stories to the local press that painted the UMWA members as lawless thugs. All the while, Warrior Met and local police were twiddling their thumbs as vehicular attacks on the picket lines landed multiple workers in the hospital. Greg hasn’t forgotten, though, and neither has Amy; as I reported for this publication back in June, both of them were victims of these attacks, and had witnessed others.
One hot summer morning, around 6:30 AM, Greg was on the line as usual when, following a heated exchange of words between the strikers and the driver of a white Dodge truck, who’d been antagonizing them, the truck turned around and plowed into the picket line, flinging a heavy burn barrel directly into him. “I had to dive into the road to keep from getting hit any worse, and there was all kinds of cars behind it,” he remembered. The impact tore his meniscus, and he’s since had to receive expensive gel injections in his knee to help alleviate the pain. “I’m trying to keep from having a knee replaced so maybe that’ll last,” he said ruefully. The driver, a contractor from West Virginia who was employed by Warrior Met, was eventually arrested. “They found him guilty,” said Greg, “but I still haven’t got any medical bills paid.”
When Amy was struck, Greg was wrapping up his picket-line duty for the day. He got a phone call, and rushed over in a panic to where she’d been picketing with other strikers. Cell phone service is spotty at best out on the more isolated roads around the mine, and all he had heard was, “Amy got hit by a car.”
She was struck on the right side of her body, and was sore for weeks after; at the hospital, she was found to have deep tissue bruises. “I didn’t even see the car coming,” Amy told me. “He didn’t even attempt to stop. He just barreled through the picket line, and luckily he hit me just on the right side. Had he hit me head-on, who knows whether I’d be sitting here talking to you right now.” To literally add insult to injury, Amy is among the multiple UMWA members and auxiliary members who have been slapped with additional legal charges in relation to the ongoing restraining order. “I’ve done been subpoenaed to court for criminal trespass, and the only thing I can figure is they’re trying to say that I was criminally trespassing on the day that I got hit. If I did step over onto their property, it is because one of their employees hit me with a car!”
Greg’s eyes glistened as he spoke about that day, still shaken at the memory. “??That’s my wife,” he said. “You can hit me with a car, you can curse me, you can throw a bottle at me, I don’t care. But you’re not gonna mess with her or my kids.”
Beyond family ties, both Greg and Amy (and many other miners and auxiliary members I’ve spoken with) say that Warrior Met’s attempts to break the strike has only made the union stronger, and strengthened the community bonds between them. “They think that if they threaten us enough that the union will just give up, or some will decide to cross the picket line,” Amy told me. “But ??my message is, we’re not going anywhere. They supposedly are telling their new hires that the union is gone, but the UMWA is probably stronger now than it was on March the 31st of 2021.”
Ten months in, the strike has become a long-haul struggle, and even with all of the mutual aid projects, donations from unions and labor groups across the country, and local support networks that the miners and auxiliary have built up, it has still been a very hard year for Brookwood, and for the Pilkertons. Though the Warrior Met strike has yet to surpass the UMWA’s historic battles against Massey Coal strike’s 15 months or Pittston’s April 1989 to February 1990 stretch, it’s getting damn near close—and is now the longest strike in Alabama history. Despite the company’s best efforts to smear them as marauding brutes, the union’s motto that its members will stick it out “one day longer, one day stronger” is not a threat. As far as Greg and his union siblings down in Brookwood are concerned, it’s a promise.
“Keep your head up and keep pushing forward because we will get through this,” Greg said. “I’d rather stand out here without and say, ‘You know what, I’m union, and I’m proud, and I’m not going to stand to be mistreated any longer,’ than to go back and have to face my kids and say, ‘Look, I’m a coward.’ I’m not. I can’t do it any other way.”