Competing economic forces have sustained a miners' strike for over 18 months : The Indicator from Planet Money The average labor strike lasts just over 40 days, but a union of coal miners in Alabama has been on strike for over a year and a half. Protesting for that long requires help, both from the community and the economy.

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The never-ending strike

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DROP ELECTRIC'S "WAKING UP TO THE FIRE")

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: So, Wailin, let's say THE INDICATOR goes on strike.

WAILIN WONG, HOST:

Oh, wow. That's quite the scenario. OK. Yeah. Let's say we're - we could use some more office snacks. We demand better office snacks.

BISAHA: Yes, exactly. So, OK, THE INDICATOR strike is on. And with any strike, there's one big question you got to answer - how long do you think you can last? Let's start with one day.

WONG: One day? Easy peasy (ph). That's like a snow day.

BISAHA: OK. Well, what about one month?

WONG: I think it would be tough, but I think I could hold out for a month.

BISAHA: OK. Let's bump it up to six months.

WONG: I don't know. That's a long time.

BISAHA: What about a year and a half?

WONG: No, I - you lost me at six months. I don't think I have this much fortitude.

(LAUGHTER)

WONG: That just seems like a complete non-starter. Like, who can last a year and a half on strike?

BISAHA: Actually, there are some strikes that have gone on that long. They've gone on even longer in some cases. I mean, the average modern strike only lasts for about 41 days, according to Bloomberg Law. But right now, about 500 coalminers in Alabama are on strike and have been doing so for one year and nine months.

WONG: OK. I got to ask because that is remarkable, how does anyone go without their paycheck for more than 600 days?

BISAHA: Well, to find out, we're going on a trip to the small coalmining town of Brookwood, Ala.

WONG: This is THE INDICATOR FROM PLANET MONEY. I'm Wailin Wong.

BISAHA: And I'm Stephan Bisaha with the Gulf States Newsroom. We're a family of public radio stations in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana. For today's show, a coal miner gives us a lesson on how to last more than 600 days on strike. And we'll talk about the global economic forces that have kept this strike going for so long.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BISAHA: So to find our strike endurance coach, I went to a union rally in Brookwood, Ala.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) Warrior Met Coal.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting) Ain't got no soul.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Chanting) Warrior Met Coal.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting) Ain't got no soul.

BISAHA: And that's where I found Antwon McGhee. He's one of the striking coal miners. And coal mining runs deep for Antwon. He says he comes from a family of coal miners, a coal mining city and even a coal mining high school.

ANTWON MCGHEE: A lot of people say that, why won't you go somewhere else? Because I've spent 17 years with this company, and what I know is coal mining. I don't know building cars. I don't know computers, electronics. I know coal mining. I love this job. The main reason I'm staying here - because I love this job. Yes.

WONG: OK. So our first lesson for a long strike is love?

BISAHA: Well, really, it's about having a strong motivation. And if love isn't doing it for you, how about anger, specifically anger at the employer?

MCGHEE: They're holding out on us on purpose and not giving us the contract we deserve.

BISAHA: Why do you think they're holding out?

MCGHEE: I think it's evil, purely evil - no other reason to explain it. It's purely evil. And I hate to say it that way, but that's what I think it is.

BISAHA: Anger that's nonviolent can be a good thing for a union and motivate workers to stick it out through a long strike. Of course, anger isn't always a good thing.

(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BLOWING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Shouting, inaudible).

BISAHA: The miners were fined around $400,000 this fall, partly for picking fights with workers who crossed the picket line and damaging their vehicles. The source of all this anger goes back to 2015 because the coal from these mines is not used for making electricity but instead used for making steel.

WONG: Right. And 2015, that was a tough time for the industry. China was flooding the international market with cheap steel.

BISAHA: Yeah. This led to multiple U.S. mines going bankrupt, including this one. But it was reborn with new owners and a new name - Warrior Met Coal. And at that point, the company goes to the miners and says, hey, times are tough right now. To keep these mines open, we got to cut your pay and benefits. But listen, five years down the line, we will give you a better deal. At least, that's what the miners say happened.

Warrior Met says they never made any promises, and the company says it has raised pay since then and that a lot of workers make nearly $100,000 a year, which goes really far here in Alabama. But the miners say they're still not making as much as they did before these mines went bankrupt. So they are motivated to keep this strike going.

WONG: OK. So strong motivation is one thing, but we all know motivation doesn't pay the bills.

BISAHA: Well, Wailin, you're a card-carrying union member, right?

WONG: In a manner of speaking. I opted to go paperless, so now I don't have a physical card. I just have, like, a file on my computer.

BISAHA: OK. I appreciate the green touch. But for that digital union card, where do you think your union dues go?

WONG: I'm thinking salaries for union leadership, administrative costs like rent for headquarters, overhead, that kind of thing, lobbying.

BISAHA: Yeah, lots of lobbying. All those often the case, but some unions use a cut of that money to build a strike war chest. And then when the union goes on strike, that money goes back to the workers as strike checks. The United Mine Workers of America gives these miners here 800 bucks every two weeks and says they got enough cash on hand to keep on handing out checks for years.

MCGHEE: Strike checks has been a big factor for me. It helps a whole lot. Every inch that you can get help on, it helps.

BISAHA: And all the miners have to do to get the cash is attend rallies and man the picket line.

WONG: So we're talking about $20,000 a year for each miner. But like you said, Warrior Met's paying about $100,000 a year. So while strike checks might sound great, that's still a pretty large gap.

BISAHA: You're right. And in Alabama, like in most states, you can't get unemployment while on strike. So the miners here, they rely on outside help, too. Donations from supporters have kept the union's food pantry stocked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Do y'all want Fruity Pebbles or Cocoa Pebbles?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: I want Fruity Pebbles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Fruity Pebbles?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Yeah.

BISAHA: And it's more than just food. There are backpacks for back to school, coats in the winter and, for Antwon, toys at Christmas.

MCGHEE: The food pantry is actually supporting some of our Christmas for our kids. At least I know my kids won't go without Christmas.

WONG: Even with Christmas covered, we're still talking about a pretty big financial gap from not working for 600 days, right?

BISAHA: Actually, a lot of these miners are working. In this tight labor market, it's been pretty easy for miners to find side gigs. One miner told me he operates a forklift at a nearby Mercedes plant. Antwon says he's been picking up odd jobs.

MCGHEE: I have family and friend that has created jobs such as plumbing jobs and home remodeling that they could have got anybody to do. But they chose me to do it just to make that money.

WONG: Talking about making money, how is Warrior Met doing?

BISAHA: Well, first of all, we did reach out to them, but they didn't want to talk. But we took a peek at their financial records, and they're actually doing pretty good. Yeah, the strikes cost them some money. But last quarter, the company still ended up making nearly $100 million in profit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WALTER J SCHELLER III: I'm happy to share our performance from another very strong quarter, delivering results above expectations despite market headwinds. We again demonstrate...

BISAHA: And here's the thing - they were losing money before the strike. During the company's last earning call, the strike was little more than a footnote. And this all goes back to those global forces we mentioned earlier.

WONG: Right? Because of the price of that steel - it's shot up a lot since those tough times in 2015. Just a couple of years ago, it was more than three times its 2015 price. That was partially due to a slowdown in steel production from China, the world's largest supplier, because of pandemic lockdowns there. But high prices don't mean anything if there's nobody in the mines to actually, you know, mine the coal.

BISAHA: Yeah. And this goes back to your skepticism over how these miners have been able to last so long. The truth is many of these miners just haven't. They've crossed the picket line. Even with all that help, going so long on strike is just really tough. Out of the original thousand or so coal miners who started, only about half still receive strike benefits. We don't know how many miners went back to Warrior Met, but that's a lot of miners who gave up on the strike. Antwon, our strike coach who's stuck this out the whole time, he says savings, financial support - that's just part of it.

MCGHEE: The money - you can go out and make the money, but without that moral and mental support, you know, you can't make it. You got to have your family backing you up and friends to back you up on a strike this long.

BISAHA: Are you talking about, like, physical family? Are you talking about, like, the union family?

MCGHEE: I'm talking about physical family and union family. You got to back everybody up. You have to pick them up when they're down. And when they decide they can't take no more, you got to help them up.

WONG: So what we really have here is a stalemate caused at least in part by two giant economic forces - the tight labor market on the side of the miners and hunger for steel on the side of the company. In other words, no easy answer on when this strike is going to end.

BISAHA: Yes. I mean, strikes, they are wars of attrition. And with both sides backed by these global forces, this strike could go on for a lot longer.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

WONG: This episode was produced by Dylan Sloan and senior producer Viet Le, with engineering from Gilly Moon. Sierra Juarez checked the facts. Kate Concannon edits the show. And THE INDICATOR is a production of NPR.

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