On Nov. 4, 2021, the streets of New York City were flooded with a sea of camouflage. A crackle of excitement warmed the chilly morning air as hundreds of members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), donning their signature camo attire, and their allies rallied on 59th Street and 5th Avenue, just in front of Central Park. It was no ordinary rally, and many of the attendees had come from miles away to take part in the action. Hundreds had traveled overnight from places like West Virginia, Ohio, and Alabama to be there, and the crowd was studded with silver-haired retirees and veterans who remember what it took to win past struggles. Joined by members of UNITE HERE, SAG-AFTRA, the National Writers Union, and more local union activists, UMWA members waved signs and placards proclaiming their solidarity with 1,100 of their siblings in Brookwood, Alabama, who have been locked in a grueling strike against coal operators Warrior Met since April 1. Then, at 10:00 AM sharp, the amassed crowd turned on its collective heel and the miners began to march.
The demonstrators quickly took the streets, shutting down Park Avenue as they marched towards their target: BlackRock, Inc, the majority shareholder in Warrior Met Coal. (With $9 trillion worth of investment holdings, BlackRock is the largest money manager in the world.) As they reached the corporation’s headquarters, the miners and their allies gathered in the hundreds as Billy Bragg’s “There Is Power In a Union” blared from a pair of speakers. Cries of “No contract, no coal!” echoed off the concrete, and passing truckers and taxi drivers—who were fresh off a massive victory of their own—honked their horns in solidarity as they passed by. Texas AFL-CIO Vice President Tevita Uhatafe, a firebrand labor activist who has been traveling to picket lines across the country to lend his support, led a raucous chant of “BlackRock sucks!”
Spirits remained high even as the crowd stayed penned in by metal barricades and supervised by a small army of NYPD officers, whose numbers quietly multiplied as the event went on. It was clear that the organizers were taking every precaution to ensure their people stayed safe, ever mindful of how the local police in Alabama continue to mistreat their members on the picket lines.
Just days before the rally, Warrior Met notched a momentary victory in its quest to break the strike by winning a temporary restraining order against the union that effectively banned them from picketing in front of the mine’s entrances. Aided by the high-powered PR firm Los Angeles-based Sitrick and Company, which had succeeded in planting anti-union stories in the local press, the company was able to convince a judge that the strikers were “violent.” The reality of the matter—that the company’s employees have been attacking workers on the picket lines for months, and sent several to the hospital—appeared to escape both the judge and the local media who parroted Warrior Met’s talking points. Losing their right to picket was a crushing blow for a group of workers who have already been out on the line for a staggering eight months, but they were ready to fight back however they could. Back in New York City, that energy was palpable throughout the day, especially once the speakers got going.
After veteran miner and strike leader Mike Wright opened the rally with a prayer, a number of speakers ascended to a makeshift stage to fire up the crowd, including AFA-CWA President Sara Nelson, who has been a firm advocate for the miners, appearing at UMWA rallies in Alabama and joining demonstrators on the line in previous New York City visits. “Mother Jones said you will fight and win, you will fight and lose, but you must fight!” she told the crowd, who responded with a roar. When UMWA Secretary-Treasurer Brian Sansom took the stage, he spoke even more bluntly. “These scumbags at BlackRock have sat on their asses for the past five years and reaped the profits of our labor,” he growled as he listed the offenses that Warrior Met—and, by extension, BlackRock—has committed against the miners, from slashing pay to cutting retirees’ pensions. “They’ve cheated these workers out of $1.6 billion over the past five years!”
When it was finally time for UMWA President Cecil Roberts to close things out with one of his patented sermons, he announced that not only were the union and its thousands of allies ready to continue the fight, but that he was ready to be arrested for the cause. “We must stand and take back what is rightfully ours, brothers and sisters, and I want you to know something,” he boomed. “Ain’t nobody gonna turn us around! Ain’t no BlackRock gonna turn us around. Ain’t no Warrior Met gonna turn us around. Ain’t no judge gonna turn us around. Ain’t no injunction gonna turn us around. Ain’t no jailhouse gonna turn us around!”
As Roberts spoke, Brian Samson, Mike Wright, Larry Spencer, Brian Lacy, Tanya James, and Brian Kelly lined up behind him; Wright, Kelly, and Spencer have been leading the strike down in Alabama, while Samson, Lacy, and James are UMWA officials. Together, they left the stage, walked down to the intersection of E. 52nd Street and Madison Avenue, and sat down. After a few frenzied moments in which supporters and media crowded around them, the NYPD swooped in. All seven were arrested, zip-tied, loaded into a police van, and taken to the police station, where they remained for the next several hours. They were released at 2:30 PM that afternoon, and will have to return to New York City later this month to appear in court on disorderly conduct charges. For some of them, at least, it was business as usual; in May, several of them, including President Roberts and Larry Spencer, President of the UMWA’s District 20 (the local representing miners striking against Warrior Met), had been arrested for blocking the mine entrance in Brookwood, and held overnight in the Tuscaloosa County Jail.
The Nov. 4 action was only the latest development in what has been a long and grueling fight against Alabama coal bosses and the capitalist vampires who fund their strike-breaking, and the UMWA have already announced plans to come back. We can expect to see more actions pop up in more cities—and more locations within those cities—as the union intensifies its battle against the corporate forces keeping its people down, and continues to live up to the motto of “one day longer, one day stronger,” a rallying cry that has kept these workers going for all these months.
As President Roberts said shortly before he was arrested, “United we stand, divided we fall, a wrong to one is a wrong to all. And as Dr. King said, someday we’ll all be able to say, free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, we’re free at last!”