As we have been covering at The Real News, coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, represented by the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), have been on an unfair labor practices strike against Warrior Met Coal since the beginning of April. Now entering their eight month on strike, workers and their families are facing violence on the picket line, vilification from the company, and even court orders that infringe on their legally protected right to picket. And yet, striking miners and their families continue to hold the line and provide support for one another—and they say they will continue to do so for as long as it takes.
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc speaks with Braxton and Haeden Wright about the conditions that led to the strike at Warrior Met Coal, what families have endured throughout the strike, and how solidarity from supporters around the world has kept them going. Braxton Wright is one of the UMWA miners on strike in Alabama; he comes from a family of miners and has been working at the mine now owned by Warrior Met Coal for 17 years. Haeden Wright is president of the UMWA Auxiliary Locals #2368 and #2245; she is a high school teacher who also comes from a coal mining family. Braxton and Haeden are married.
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Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to have you all with us. As many of you know, Real News has been covering the miners striking in Alabama, in Brookwood, Alabama, for some time now. And it’s been seven months since these mine workers have been on strike. The company is owned by a place called Warrior Met, and they own these mines, and forced them in 2016 to take a $1.4 billion in concessions. That’s $1.4 billion. And forcing workers to work six days a week, work 12 hour shifts without adequate compensation in mines that are dangerous enough because they’re so deep.
So as I said, we’ve been covering this strike, we’ve been on the scene, we’ll continue until it’s done, and now we’re joined by two people who are in the midst of all that. Braxton Wright is one of the UMWA miners on strike at Warrior Met Coal. He’s from a family of coal miners that’s been working in that mine for 17 years. And Haeden Wright is with us, she is president of the UMWA Auxiliary Locals #2368/#2245. She’s a high school teacher, also comes from a coal mining family. And you guessed it, yes, they’re married. So welcome. It’s good to have you with us both.
Braxton Wright: Thank you. It’s good to be here.
Haeden Wright: Thank you for having us on.
Marc Steiner: I appreciate you taking time with us today. So, seven months is a really long time for anyone to be on strike. It’s not easy for the families, the miners, and to keep the struggle going and to keep the attitude going and say, no, we’re not going to quit. I want both of you to chime in here, and Braxton, since you’re one of the miners who went on strike and Haeden you’ve been right in the middle of that fight. What precipitated this? I mean, what made miners walk out? What made the strike happen? And why is it taking seven months? Braxton, why don’t you lead off and then Haeden jump in.
Braxton Wright: At the end of our last contract, they actually wanted to take more away from us than what they took away in 2016. And just, we wanted our dignity back in our jobs. Just the way they had treated us over the last couple years has just declined so much under this new company. And like I said, the strike policy that they’ve put in place is just, almost a point of inhumane. We used to be able to use a doctor’s excuse, but even now with the doctor’s excuse, if it takes longer than two days, they still add two strikes. So there was just a lot of things leading up to it, that –
Marc Steiner: What does that mean? What does two strikes mean
Braxton Wright: Originally, it was, you have three strikes and you’re fired. So even if you went to a doctor and tried to turn in a doctor’s excuse, you still got a strike. And say, if you were in the hospital for a month, you were still given two strikes. The strike system they had set up was, quite honestly, is to keep you from building any kind of seniority in the company. Because sometimes they would hire the people right back, but then they’d start over with nothing. It made the workforce kind of temporary or a turnover workforce, if you would.
Marc Steiner: And Haeden, I mean, so you have not just been the wife of a miner as well as being a high school teacher, you’ve been involved in this. I mean, you’ve been working on Auxiliary teams and been in the heart of it, right?
Haeden Wright: Right. We’ve been going since about the end of April, 1st of May is when we got started. The strike policy was a big thing for our families, not just for the guys, because when you’re a spouse and your husband works at Warrior Met Coal your whole family signs that contract. So when you’re talking about risking a strike and someone possibly losing their job or being brought back in and starting over and losing benefits, you are forced to make hard choices. If your child’s in the emergency room, if you’re in the emergency room, do you even risk calling them and them leaving work and then receiving a strike for that? And then them having an emergency later on and it costing them their job? So for a lot of us, we just learned to take care of everything at home ourselves because our spouses work six or seven days a week, 12 hours a day, and then have an hour drive home and an hour drive to work a lot of times, or more.
So really they came home, they slept and then they were back at work again. So everything at home fell to us. And when this strike started, a lot of us took it as a chance to finally say, hey, you haven’t just done this to your workers. For five years our families have only been able to spend three holidays together. Because we have three physical holidays with our spouses a year, that’s Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, and Christmas Day. And really if your spouse worked out shift, you didn’t even really get those days because they would work that night to have to come in and sleep and then go back in. So it was just really inhumane and it was really affecting our family time. Because they could say that they give eight holidays a year, but when that’s your spouse sitting at home by themselves eating cold barbecue, that’s not their holiday, that’s just an off day that you gave them whenever you wanted.
So that’s one thing that we’ve been really focused on is how this has really affected our families and I think that’s why so many women have gotten involved and been so active, and getting mutual aid to keep this strike going. We normally have something going on two or three days a week. We feed every single family every Wednesday night at the rally, we grill hot dogs, chips, we serve them the food every single week. That’s over 300 people. Then we give out 200 pantry bags a week to families who need food items. We supply diapers, baby formula, baby food every week to families who have young children. I myself have a baby that’s about to be one, so really most of her life has been on strike. She’s grown up around her strike cousins at the pantry because our kids come and help us make those bags. Our kids come to those rallies. They know what a scab is and they know what solidarity means because our kids have lived it. They’ve been there every step of the way watching it happen.
So this isn’t just a fight against a company and with against men, we’re here fighting for our families.
Marc Steiner: To me, which you all both just described, I mean, on my mother’s side they come from miners, and years back I worked with Miners for Democracy just a little bit. And when you describe what’s going on, you’ve been saying that because when you describe what’s going on, it’s like what mines were like before the mine workers union got in there. I mean, it doesn’t even sound like you have a union.
Braxton Wright: That last contract took away a lot of the union drops. With the strike policy, it even took away the right to fight for their job because it was the four strike and you was gone completely. The union couldn’t even step in and fight for your job. It didn’t matter if you was in a car wreck on the way to work or what, four strikes and you were done.
Haeden Wright: But that really speaks to the labor laws that we have in this country that allow judges to do that. Because in the bankruptcy, what that judge allowed was for Jim Walter Resources and Jim Walter Energy to come out free and clear from a bankruptcy. While keeping the same upper management –
Braxton Wright: That put us in bankruptcy.
Haeden Wright: – That put us in bankruptcy to begin with. They kept their jobs, they kept making millions of dollars. But when that bankruptcy judge said that this company could come out free and clear, they didn’t have to honor pensions. They didn’t have to honor all the retirees’ healthcare. The UMWA had to pick that up, the UMWA fought and fought to make sure that those retirees had healthcare. Then it was due to the UMWA that federal legislation was passed over pensions, because that was something we were fighting for. So when they came back to the bargaining table, as Warrior Met Coal, what was presented was basically, you take these concessions or there will be no union and we’ll just close, or either we’ll reopen completely non union. We really were backed into a corner of, there was nothing else to do. And what they said was when production increases after five years, when y’all start making money and we’re profitable, we’ll get you back to where you were. And then they turned around and slapped us in the face with that tentative agreement that they offered.
Marc Steiner: So, I mean, what you’re describing here is really important for people to understand. I mean, because what you’re saying is, is that what happened in 2016 when Warrior Met Coal took over these mines, the other company they took it over from did fine, but in a process forcing workers to take over $1 billion in concessions that they have not gotten back. And I just read a piece today about the hedge fund in New York, BlackRock, that has all these investments and they’re selling these stocks and other investments in Warrior Met Coal because they know it’s going to make money. I mean, and they’re always crying poor. So tell me, how long do you think that the workers and the workers’ families can keep the battle going? It’s been seven months and you, I know if I have it right Braxton you took a job at Amazon just to help make ends meet, right? During the middle of the strike?
Braxton Wright: That’s right.
Marc Steiner: So how do you all keep this going?
Braxton Wright: Through mutual aid and support. I said, a lot of us has picked up different jobs. Like I started to work at Amazon, and this is where at the Amazon location where they tried to unionize and the vote fell through, but we’re fixing to have to vote again, I think.
Marc Steiner: In Bessemer, Alabama.
Braxton Wright: In Bessemer. Yes. So I jumped out of one frying pan and right into another, so there it is. We had to cut back on a lot of things, maybe our going out to eat, or vacations. We just had to cut back on just what’s necessary, but we’ll make it one day longer than they can handle.
Marc Steiner: I like that.
Haeden Wright: And I will say there’s been a huge outpouring of support within other unions offering aid, from fellow workers offering aid. The only reason we now supply groceries like that, the only reason we were able to make sure that every UMWA child had a backpack full of school supplies so that they could start back to school and be successful in the classroom, was we had donations that allowed us to get those items for our families. And that was huge because a child should never be forced to suffer, not have what they need to be successful in their education, or be worried about that. So for us, we were so grateful when we had that opportunity to give them those school supplies and to have an event, to give them some memorable experience of the strike, that was a positive. And now we’re actually already looking ahead until Christmas.
So we’re not giving up a fight, we’re not giving in. We’ve been planning Christmas on strike since we finished the trunk-or-treat. Even before that, we started this right after back to school bash in October. With what are we going to do to make sure that every union child can still have a Christmas? So we’ve reached out to fellow workers, to other unions, to other labor leaders and they’ve come out. Workers support workers. So when we say online talking about solidarity, that’s what that is. Mutual aid is when we said, ey, we’re on strike for seven months, we’re fighting for our families, we’re fighting for our jobs so we’re fighting for you too. Because if we give up, no matter what your industry is, those companies will come for you next.
So the outcome here and us holding on here is showing these other companies that workers can’t just be pushed around, that we won’t take the first thing that’s offered. And because of that, we’re almost on target to be able to provide every UMWA child that needs a Christmas gift, they will have those requests answered. And that’s only through mutual aid, that’s only through that support. And that’s an overwhelming thing to witness and see.
Braxton Wright: It is. Just a lot of times, just the messages of solidarity that… One time I was going to an event and I was running late, but I stopped by the union hall just for a few minutes and this lady come by that she had retired in the 90s, but she now works at Walmart in Houston, Texas. And she had cards that the Walmart employees from all, it was like three different locations around Houston, but they had all sat together and wrote solidarity cards. And at the time, I guess I was kind of in a bad place and it lifted morale just that much higher just to help push. It’s just, they were messages of saying that we know that we’re not in a union, but we’re watching you because we know if we’re not in a union, they can do even worse to us than what they’re doing to you now. Sometimes the messages can do more than the money or the donations really, I guess is what I’m trying to say.
Marc Steiner: And that’s an important message you both said. And I think that you do and explain this in the context of what you face day to day. I mean, there’s violence on the picket line that I’ve been reading about, you can describe, there’s injunctions to stop you from being able to picket and yell at scabs coming through the gate. And the police are escorting, state police are escorting out of state scabs into the mines. So what you’re facing on the line, which is what you’re describing as resilience, but you’re also facing a line, you’re facing a real fight, a dangerous fight.
Braxton Wright: This last one they come through is not even an injunction, it’s a temporary restraining order that we can’t picket within 300 yards of any entrance or exit to the mine site or any place that the company deems temporary business. So I’m just wondering where they consider temporary business. That may be even the courthouse in Tuscaloosa because it seems like the judge is part of their business now. It is tough, the way they treat us and in the way they’re treating us now, and they got the judge on their side issuing a restraining order for any union member, affiliate, supporter, or person agreeing with the union. I mean, so I don’t understand how they could let something like that even slide.
Haeden Wright: Well it’s a violation of your first amendment rights. Because it was a blanket order against all picketers, all striking miners, all other unions, all other supporters, us in the Auxiliary who have done nothing but peacefully protest. They didn’t call out individuals and say, hey, these people we say have done something wrong. They blanket covered everyone. We have a constitutional right to be able to assemble. We have a constitutional right to free speech, so this order strips those away from all of us who have done nothing wrong. And what has happened on the picket line, the violence did not start with the UMWA. We’ve been facing assaults and them running through our pickets, of them hitting members with their vehicles, and this has been going on since May. So these videos that they’re releasing are edited. I have some full ones on my Twitter where you can clearly see before any violence happens on a part of a UMWA member, it’s because they were struck with the vehicle coming in.
So it’s absolutely ludicrous that the judge does this on the case of Warrior Met and the strikers being violent. When what has happened is we’re tired of being run over, we’re tired of seeing videos posted of scabs making fun of members with disabilities. We’re tired of seeing them poke fun at the strike pantry, we’re tired of seeing these cops and state troopers come in that get paid with tax funds that we pay escorting in workers every single day. We’re tired of being pulled over and given tickets for driving the speed limit because they want to get the scabs in quicker. So this is not something that escalated in the last couple of weeks, this has been building on the company side since the beginning of the strike. You didn’t see them doing anything about them mistreating us, when the UMWA has been asking for months for them to do something about the company violence. And a lot of things that they included in that new video that they released that they say has been the last couple of weeks happened at the beginning of the strike.
One of the videos where it shows a brick coming through a back windshield of a car, and they make it appear like that happened on the picket line, in their little propaganda ad. That was a paid Warrior Met security guard that was on union property trying to record members at a union event. He was asked to move. What he did was he pulled across the street and parked on a road that connects the two union halls. Again, he was asked to leave. This is five plus miles away from any Warrior Met property. He continues to record, he’s asked to leave again, that’s when it escalated and that was thrown through his back windshield. So it wasn’t even on a company property, it was near our union halls, where he was there instigating and recording members and their families.
So those videos are completely out of context, but they want to paint it that all of this is on the union, and it’s not. And what has happened is an escalation, because you can only go so far with being pushed and run over and seeing some scab come take your job. From seeing them pay millions of dollars for security, to see them put big huge billboards up in Kentucky and Virginia to try to bring people to not just take our union jobs, but to take jobs from Alabama in general, to bring those people down to scab. So at some point the workers have to say, we’ve had enough.
Marc Steiner: So in what you’re both describing here, it sounds to me that even though this strike may be in one small part of Alabama, what you’re describing here is a strike that the fight has reverberations way beyond your town in Alabama.
Braxton Wright: It does.
Marc Steiner: I mean, it could affect union movements across the country.
Haeden Wright: Exactly.
Marc Steiner: So how do you all see this ending? I mean, you’ve got the billions of dollars that you’ve given up that you’re fighting to get back, the BlackRock in New York clearly is making hundreds of millions dollars on these investments. Warrior Met has the police on their side, the courts on their side looks like. So how do you see this playing out? I’m not trying to be negative here, I’m just trying to say, how do you see this playing out? How do you see, Braxton since you were in the union, I’ll start with you and Haeden, I want you to close this out. Is that, how do you see the struggle ending? How do you see the window of winning this strike?
Braxton Wright: I think we’ll hold out one day longer than they can stand it. I mean, it’s come down to, it’s going to be the workers against the greedy bosses. And I think that the more workers that start standing up, I think it’ll put more pressure on Warrior Met as other companies start to do the same thing or other unions start to do the same thing that we’re doing fighting for our rights. I think it’ll spread, it has spread. I mean, you have the John Deere strike, you’ve had Frito-Lay workers strike.
Haeden Wright: Kellogg’s.
Braxton Wright: You’ve got Kellogg’s strike. I mean, workers across the United States are getting tired of being treated the way we’re treated. I mean, it’s like they’re trying to push out the working class of America, and the working class is fed up with it. I mean, we are completely tired of it.
Marc Steiner: And I understand that come Nov. 4th, a bunch of the workers from Alabama are going to be in New York picketing BlackRock.
Braxton Wright: Yeah. That’s correct. They have a group going back and they have some other unions going to meet them there. So that should be pretty interesting. I wish I could go this time, but I don’t have enough days to take off and to go this time. We went last time and it was real impressive, it was real strong. All the different people that came out to show support, it was something to see.
Marc Steiner: And I think it’s important for everybody listening to also understand that this solidarity you all are showing in Alabama at this moment, you’re talking about men and women who are miners and husbands and wives supporting their spouses. You’re talking about Black and white workers together in Alabama saying we want a union and standing in solidarity. And I think that’s a really important message for people to understand.
Haeden Wright: Yes. A lot of people don’t realize that our locals here in Alabama are actually some of the most diverse locals in the country. And what people need to understand about unions and the labor movement as a whole, we’re workers, the working class is the working people. That transcends all race, that transcends your religious preferences, that transcends your political allegiances. Because I can tell you that a lot of these guys here in Alabama are strong Republicans. And I think a lot of them have been surprised when some of those talking heads haven’t come out like they thought they would. And then they’ve been surprised on who has, like the Democratic Party here in Alabama has given donations, raised funds. Representative England has been present at the rallies, he’s posted on Twitter, very supportive of the strike. DSA Chapters coming in, standing up and supporting the workers. Places like Gasp, that’s actually environmental groups have come in, given donations, helped with the pantry.
When workers support workers and you realize that there’s a bigger problem and a bigger goal, we can all find common ground. With all of these other strikes going on, if you listen to the stories and you listen to what’s happening, no matter what your industry, a lot of the things going wrong are the same. So we have to band together to fix those. So when we’re fighting here and I’m hearing the stories from John Deere, I’m hearing them from Kelloggs, I’m hearing them from Nursing Mercy Hospital. I’m hearing it from Canada where we have a huge group of educational aids, maintenance workers, janitorial staff that are now on strike there. When you listen to the problems, the working people all have the same ones. And the biggest one is that we’re getting the scraps from what these multimillion dollar companies are willing to give us. So we have to fight back against that now, because if we don’t, what kind of legacy and what kind of world are we going to leave for our kids later?
Marc Steiner: Well, I just want to, and Braxton, unless you want to just jump in here, you have a closing thought?
Braxton Wright: I said, I’d like to say thanks for all the ones that have shown solidarity, it’s not just the state. With the food pantry, we’ve received donations from New Guinea, from South Wales. We’ve received some donations from really poor countries that they’re saying, hey, we’re watching your fight. So the solidarity is coming worldwide. That’s really amazing to see, that we’re not fighting this alone, the workers are fighting this together.
Haeden Wright: When I leave here, I’m going to meet up with some other members of the Auxiliary and we’re starting to put together Christmas boxes with the donations we’ve got in. What we did is we asked our members, hey, what are some things that your kids really need for Christmas? And what’s going to be heartbreaking is when you go on the registry and look, most people requested one toy and then the rest of it is we need warm clothes, we need new shoes because kids grow so fast and after seven months, those are things that they need. So with support from everyone, we’re able to fill those and we still have some left. So if anybody wants to do a hands on thing to where you actually get to pick what item you want to give a child. And that’s why we did it that way, is because it’s a lot more personable when you say that this five year old boy really wanted this monster truck, to be able to give that to them.
Marc Steiner: So as we close out here, how do people get in touch?
Haeden Wright: You can reach out to me on Twitter. So it’s just @HaedenWright or you can reach out to me at my email, which is firstname.lastname@example.org for more information on how to donate and what we have going on with the Auxiliary.
Marc Steiner: And that’s H-A-E-D-E-N, Haeden.
Haeden Wright: That’s correct.
Marc Steiner: And I want to thank you both for taking the time here at Real News, and Real News will continue covering this strike, continuing this. And as a person who spent a bunch of years as a union organizer, myself, we all stand with you. And so Braxton Wright, Haeden Wright, thank you both so much for joining us today on The Marc Steiner Show at The Real News. We’ll stay in touch, and stay strong.
Haeden Wright: Thank you.
Braxton Wright: We appreciate it.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. And please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to me at email@example.com and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us. So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.