Culture war hysteria is the cornerstone of Tim James’s 2022 Alabama gubernatorial campaign. Similar to many Republicans running for office around the country during this election cycle, most of James’s campaign ads have centered on attacking teachers and LGBTQ+ folks.
His campaign, however, has taken one minor yet notable detour from the 2022 Republican playbook: making a direct appeal to striking workers. While Republican politicians at the local, state, and federal levels have stayed overwhelmingly silent as coal miners and their families here in Alabama have been on strike for over a year, possibly the longest strike in state history, James broke ranks and voiced his support for the mineworkers. This is something that even many Democrats have, perplexingly, refused to do, regardless of the fact that unions and the struggles of working people for better pay, working conditions, and a more democratic say at work consistently get higher approval ratings than either political party.
James’s vocal support paid off when he received the official endorsement of the Coal Miners Political Action Committee (COMPAC) of United Mine Workers of America District 20, which represents UMWA members in the southern part of the United States, including about 1000 workers who are currently on strike against private-equity owned Warrior Met Coal.
Endorsing James is not an unreasonable political calculation on the part of the miners. Barring an act of God (and even that is no guarantee), a Republican will win the governor’s race in Alabama. Tim James seems to be vying for a place in the runoff with current Gov. Kay Ivey, and he has made strong, concrete commitments to provide material support to the miners if he wins. In an interview on The Valley Labor Report, a weekly union talk radio show that I co-host with Adam Keller, James stated that, immediately upon taking office, he would end the deployment of state troopers to provide security for the company and to escort scabs across the picket line. He also said he would fight the injunction that Judge James Roberts Jr. of the Circuit Court of Tuscaloosa County granted at the behest of Warrior Met Coal, which has restricted strikers’ legally protected right to picket. As James said in our interview, “a limitation like that is absurd on its face” and, as governor, he would “probably resolve it in an afternoon”; moreover, James bucked the trend in his party to further repress speech by saying he would oppose the controversial anti-riot bill that was in the legislature this cycle. Perhaps most importantly, he made a commitment to use the office of the governor to pressure Warrior Met, saying he didn’t think their management would be interested in getting into a fight with a governor who has the power to “inspect the coal mines” and who can ask “tough questions” about the company’s business practices. (President Biden, it should be noted, also has the authority to do such things, but has thus far refused to.)
On top of these strong material commitments, James has utilized strong pro-worker rhetoric when asked about the Warrior Met strike, seeming to channel Bernie Sanders as he rails against “corporate greed.”
With seemingly no viable candidates on the Democratic side and so few options on the Republican side (as far as I can tell, James is the only gubernatorial candidate who even took the initiative to seek the UMWA endorsement in the first place), weary from a long fight with a company owned in large part by the largest private equity firm in the world, and having been left on the vine by a Democratic-controlled federal government that has provided no real support, it’s no surprise the miners are looking to shore up any support they can get from the political class. If James is offering that support, it makes sense to accept it.
It’s important to vet commitments like this, though. Labor has been burned more than once by false promises from politicians. During his 1980 campaign, presidential candidate Ronald Reagan made commitments to the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) to provide better equipment, ensure better working conditions, and hire more air traffic controllers, earning him their endorsement. In fact, PATCO was one of the few unions to endorse Reagan over his opponent, the Democratic incumbent Jimmy Carter. Less than a year after his inauguration, Reagan fired over 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and, with sensational cruelty, barred them from federal employment for life, thus sending a strong signal to bosses all over the country that it was open season on workers and the organized labor movement.
During his 2007 campaign, presidential candidate Barack Obama promised to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, and labor supported him enthusiastically. “I’ve fought to pass the Employee Free Choice Act in the Senate,” Obama said in a 2008 speech to the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO. “And I will make it the law of the land when I’m president of the United States of America.” He did not make it the law of the land when he became president of the United States of America. Not only did he fail to do that, Obama failed to ever put on his walking shoes and support striking workers during his two terms as president; instead, he elevated school privatizers in the federal government and sat idly by as Scott Walker took a sledgehammer to public sector workers and the labor movement in Wisconsin.
During his 2016 campaign, presidential candidate Donald Trump swayed many voters, especially within de-industrializing pockets of the country, with bold promises of spurring a manufacturing resurgence. Along with the Carrier furnace plant in Indianapolis, Trump’s campaign promise to revive US manufacturing focused attention on the famous GM plant in Lordstown, Ohio, where he infamously told a crowd of autoworkers “don’t sell your house” because the jobs were “all coming back.” The jobs didn’t come back. Instead, just one decade after getting bailed out by the taxpayers to the tune of $49.5 billion, GM announced near-record profits and pushed forward with a “restructuring plan” that involved eliminating 14,000 jobs and closing or idling a number of manufacturing plants in the US, including Lordstown.
So how can we, as workers, vet commitments like this? Because Tim James has been rejected by the voters of Alabama in his past election runs, he has no record in public office that we can point to. Of course, we can look to what he is saying on the campaign trail, but for the reasons outlined above this feels insufficient.
Tim James may not have a political track record that we can thoroughly examine, but people around him do—specifically, his father, Fob James, who was governor from 1979 to 1983 and again from 1995 to 1999.
Let’s not be coy. This is the primary connection that has gotten Tim James all that he has: his businesses, his nonprofits, and his current position as a potentially viable candidate for governor. Had his father not been governor, we would not know who Tim James is.
So what does Fob James’s record look like when it comes to labor? Well… not good.
In 1980 we can see a situation with almost eerie similarities to the current strike by the 1,000 coal miners in Brookwood. Champion Paper, based in the North, had a plant in Courtland, Alabama, that employed hundreds of union workers. With inflation at 13.5% that year, workers were determined to get raises to match. After an insulting offer from the company that came in at more than 5% below inflation, the workers went on strike. They had injunctions placed on them too, limiting the number of strikers who could be on the picket line to 2. Management refused to budge and refused to bargain with the union.
Instead of siding with Alabama workers, Fob James chose to side with Yankee bosses, much like Kay Ivey today. He did nothing about the injunctions, made no statements in support of the striking paper workers, and utilized state troopers to an even greater degree than Ivey has— sending in over 100 troopers and a helicopter to break up a mass picket. Dozens of striking workers were arrested.
Ultimately, the use of state violence combined with the corporation’s greed made the workers feel that they could not win this battle, and they voted to accept the terms they originally walked out over.
Educators received similar treatment from Gov. Fob James. In 1979, almost 600 teachers and over 100 support staff in Walker County went on strike, shutting down 27 schools for nearly a month. The country saw a wave of teacher strikes that year, and in some of those states governors stepped in with discretionary funds and the influence of their office to reopen schools. James declined and, instead, simply sent in the state troopers. This was just one flashpoint in a series of battles between Fob James and the education community, particularly the Alabama Education Association, with educators threatening a statewide walkout in 1980 in response to Fob’s school budget schemes.
Of course, Tim James is not Fob James. But it is likely that the same types of people (if not literally the same people) who advised former Gov. Fob James would be advising a Gov. Tim James. That isn’t a wild assumption. Because of this, the people of Alabama, and especially the coal miners who have stuck their neck out for him, deserve to know Tim James’s thoughts on his family’s political track record when it comes to (not) supporting workers when they needed it most. Does he condemn his father’s actions? Will he commit to blacklisting staffers who were involved in those decisions when his father was governor? Will he commit to taking a different approach to labor relations than his father?
Because of the strong commitments and pro-worker rhetoric Tim James expressed on The Valley Labor Report and in his speech at a UMWA District 20 union hall, one would think this would be an easy statement to give. However, after nearly a month of requesting comments, he has refused to address this issue. For anyone hoping James means what he says, and that he isn’t just another lying politician trying to win union volunteers and PAC money, this should be cause for worry.