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July 14, 2021
What A Day
The Strike At Warrior Met Coal

In This Episode

  • Miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, have been striking for nearly four months in protest of drastic cutbacks to wages and benefits. It’s one of the largest work-stoppages in the state’s recent history. We hear from Haeden Wright, a United Mine Workers supporter and a miner’s wife, and Kim Kelly, a labor reporter for The Nation magazine, about the current status of the strike and the rising tide of violence and hostility that strikers face.
  • And in headlines: Biden condemns Republican voter suppression efforts, Tennessee fires its top vaccine official, and officials announce the greatest rise in inflation since 2008.

 

Transcript

 

Akilah Hughes: It’s Wednesday, July 14th. I’m Akilah Hughes.

 

Gideon Resnick: And I’m Gideon Resnick, and this is What A Day where we believe that everyone who is nominated for an Emmy yesterday also deserves to win.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, straight up. It was a hard year, so let’s just give tons of Emmys per category this year so everyone feel special.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah. I mean, I’m also pushing for free Emmys to just be strewn about on the street.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah. I mean, I think it’s just first come, first serve. Whoever wants one come get it. On today’s show, we’ll have some headlines, but first we’re going to tell you about a coal miner strike in Alabama that is now in its fourth month.

 

[clip of Michael Wright] The goal is to get a better contract, to get a fair contract, to get what we deserve. That’s the goal. And we’re going to stay here until we get it.

 

Gideon Resnick: That was Michael Wright, a union official being interviewed by WVUA TV a few months back. So on April 1st, about 1,100 miners at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, walked off the job. It has been called one of the largest strikes in recent history in Alabama, which is a right-to-work state. And it’s also on the heels of a recent failed union drive at an Amazon facility in nearby Bessemer. So we wanted to make sure that our listeners knew about this effort since it hasn’t gotten quite as much attention.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, and so what are workers at this mine actually striking over?

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, they want better pay, more paid holidays off, better health insurance coverage, among many other things. And five years ago, the company Warrior Met bought the mines due to the prior owner’s bankruptcy and there were layoffs at first. When workers were rehired, they agreed to a contract that drastically cut back on wages and benefits. I talked with Haeden Wright, who’s the wife of a striking miner and leader at an Auxiliary of the Union United Mine Workers of America. She runs a pantry to help keep food on the table for striking miners, among many other things she does. And she told me about how and why that initial contract came to be accepted in the first place.

 

[clip of Haeden Wright] This is actually a contract that we were forced to accept coming out of a bankruptcy. So basically we accepted this contract to, at that time, protect our retirees pensions and insurance—that was the big thing that we were fighting for, because the bankruptcy judge ruled that they didn’t have to honor those at all. They could just stop paying these guys that had worked 40 or 50 years for this company, that they didn’t have to pay them anything. So we had to take concessions to protect those workers, those are still our workers, so we couldn’t leave them with nothing. That’s not right. That’s not what labor is. That’s not what a union is.

 

Gideon Resnick: But now that the company’s finances are reportedly better and it’s all flowing to the top, workers want a better contract, which was part of the bargain.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, they’re just literally asking for what they were promised. But unfortunately, the strike has been more intense than a picket line. There’s reports of intimidation and the miners being put in danger. So what’s going on there?

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, there have been some reported instances of violence against the miners. And the company has reportedly also dispatched private armed security as well. Here’s Wright talking about this right here.

 

[clip of Haeden Wright] Basically, they’re trying to do anything they can as an intimidation tactic, limiting us on the lines on how many they could have. That was the first thing. Well, when that wasn’t really effective, we were still out there, we just had numerous picket lines. Well, then they started bringing in drones and microphones to record everything happening on the picket lines. Some of the latest things have been violence using vehicles of bosses, company employees, and then some of the scabs hitting some of the union members on the picket line who are trying to picket.

 

Akilah Hughes: Wow. That is just abhorrent.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, it’s really crazy. And we’re now more than 100 days into the strike and there is a whole lot more to learn. So last week I talked to labor reporter Kim Kelly, who has been all over this from the start, and I first asked her where things stand right now.

 

[interview starts]

 

Kim Kelly: A lot of the workers think that the company is trying to starve them out. The thing is that the company is trying to keep producing and keep the mines running. They’ve brought in scabs. They’ve brought, they’ve been having management and bosses work these jobs that they’re not used to—their office people, they’re not commanding people, but they’ve been brought in to try and keep up those production quotas. Meanwhile, the strike is still going. There’s a lot of support for the strike. It’s really kind of a test of wills at this point.

 

Gideon Resnick: What sort of resistance have workers faced from the company or otherwise? What all does this look like right now?

 

Kim Kelly: So it’s getting a little ugly down there. I think at this point, we’re up to three different incidents in which people who work for the company have driven trucks into the picket lines and hit people—

 

Gideon Resnick: Wow.

 

Kim Kelly: —on the strike and sent to the hospital. I talked to the wife of one man who had a torn meniscus, which sounds pretty ugly. I think something like 80% of the folks who work there are parents, and that’s a lot of kids who are depending on this, you know, this strike to shake out in the right way, too. So it’s really taking a toll. Even outside of the violence, it’s taking a toll on the communities and the families. When a man, woman, a person signs that contract with Warrior Met to work for them, the whole family signs. And that’s what we’re seeing. This is a whole coal community in crisis because this hedge-fund backed giant coal company, who makes millions of dollars a year, won’t give them a better deal.

 

Gideon Resnick: And this is happening in Alabama, a conservative state, also a right-to-work state, meaning it’s not designed to be hospitable to unions. So what does this actual labor dispute say about labor rights in Alabama, and also across the country?

 

Kim Kelly: I’ve learned that there is such a deep, deep-rooted sense of pride and dedication to the labor movement there and to unions there. Obviously it’s a lot harder to join them and organize them because of the legislation. But that doesn’t mean folks haven’t been trying. There’s a really rich history of labor in that state. It just doesn’t get as much attention because it’s so much harder for folks to get well, to get attention in general. That was something we saw when I first went down there to cover the Amazon union effort at Bessemer. It was almost a feel-good story in a way, like a lot of coverage happened. That was great. And those workers needed that coverage and deserve that coverage. And now what’s happening with the strike, which is about 16 miles from Bessemer, it’s kind of been crickets, because it’s a, it’s a more complicated kind of story. Cover the Amazon Union, like it’s not, like these folks are dyed-in-the-wool pro-union, you know, fourth generation, third generation coal miners—these folks aren’t going to get the congressional delegations and the celebrities coming in. So it’s really, there are a lot of really interesting tensions and layers to the story. And that’s really what pulled me into it.

 

Gideon Resnick: Earlier I was asking Union Auxiliary President Haeden Wright about what it says that this Bessemer union effort at Amazon was also happening around when this all got started. Here’s what she said:

 

[clip of Haeden Wright] How those go together is you’re still fighting for working conditions for the working people. We’re still talking about extremely long hours and dangerous working conditions. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re in. So I think that plays into a big fact with both of those. I would also say they act for insurance and better benefits because for us, striking is not so much about pay, and really for Amazon, from when I’ve talked to most people and heard them say, they wanted to be treated with respect, that’s what we want.

 

Gideon Resnick: But Kim, what do you make of all of this?

 

Kim Kelly: Honestly, I think it’s kind of just a coincidence. You know, this contract happened to be up at the same time. And, you know, the thing is, with labor stories in this country, there are always things like this happening.

 

Gideon Resnick: Right.

 

Kim Kelly: You know, if it happens in L.A. or Chicago, New York, there’s a lot more attention than if it happens in Brookwood, Alabama, or like the kind of place I grew up. So these things are always happening. Workers are always rising up and fighting for one another. But you don’t often hear about it because there just isn’t that robust local press everywhere, and there aren’t that many people who are able to show up, or who may be care to show up. There aren’t that many labor reporters out there. It’s been kind of hard to get people to let me cover this story and to convince people to cover it. I think there is maybe less sympathy for coal miners, too, versus like obviously exploited warehouse workers who are already marginalized and being treated like robots. You know. I think the idea of the coal miners is sort of this almost archaic image, kind of like the cowboys or, you know, like the dockworkers of old, but they’re still here. And right now they need our help. Even if we don’t necessarily thrilled with the nature of their labor, they still need to make a living and I think a lot more people need to be paying attention to this. And to labor stories in general. Over the past 18 months of this ongoing pandemic, workers and essential workers have come to the fore. I think people have kind of reevaluated the way they think about labor stories. But we need to keep pushing that forward.

 

Gideon Resnick: Right. Absolutely. Yeah, and that doesn’t end when the pandemic ends either. We’ve talked about a lot of the sort of surprising elements of this entire story, but what has surprised you the most in reporting on this so far?

 

Kim Kelly: The thing that stood out to me is, you know, I told people I have not been around this many conservatives since last time I went to grandma’s for Christmas. But there are a lot more conservative people than me who are involved in this. I’ve seen the ways that we’ve found common ground just in speaking, talking about the boss, talking about unfairness, talking about how maybe we should improve society somewhat. But I think there’s so much value in meeting people where they are. Maybe we can find some common ground and inch forward a little bit. In terms of labor organizing, you’re not always going to agree with the people that you’re talking to or you’re fighting for, but you should always be willing to fight for them.

 

Gideon Resnick: And so we are about four months into this strike. What do you think comes next here and how does this conceivably end?

 

Kim Kelly: I mean, they want to go back to work. So really all they’re waiting for is for the company to come to the table and offer them a decent deal. It’s really all on them. And I think that’s why they’re, they’ve been ramping up efforts to get more public attention and get more pressure on the companies. They’re trying to get eyeballs on it, because if it’s just them against the company, it’s going to be pretty hard. But if it’s public opinion and public attention and maybe politicians chipping in, eventually there’ll be a crack. But they really need as much support as they can get because, you know, as we saw with Amazon, it’s really hard to go up against a giant.

 

Gideon Resnick: Totally. Well Kim, thank you so much again for your time and for all your reporting on it.

 

Kim Kelly: Thank you so much. I appreciate it.

 

[end interview]

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah. We have a link to Kim’s report for The Nation and our show notes and definitely follow her work in tons and tons of places, which has been indispensable on all of this. She also has a book on the way called “Fight like Hell” which I’m personally excited to pick up as well. We’ll check back in on the story soon, but that is the latest for now.

 

Akilah Hughes: It’s Wednesday, WAD squad, and for today’s temp check, we’re talking about the public health effects of sick beats and hard-driving baselines. South Korean officials have banned gyms in Seoul from playing songs faster than 120 beats per minute in some workout classes as part of an effort to counteract a steep rise in coronavirus infections in the region. The bpm limit is intended to somehow stop people from breathing too fast or sweating on each other, but unsurprisingly, it’s been met with skepticism. One gym owner interviewed by Reuters pointed out that many people in gyms listen to music through headphones, so there’s really no way authorities can determine whether their beats are too amped up or just the right amount of mellow. Treadmills at gyms are also limited to a speed of about 3.72 miles per hour. So Gideon, what’s your take on these new guidelines?

 

Gideon Resnick: This gym does not sound fun. If there is going to be some kind of mechanism by which we determine how loud people are listening to their workout music, I don’t know if that’s like walking by someone’s headphones and seeing like, does this sound too fast to me? Like, I don’t know what they would really do, but ultimately this doesn’t sound fun. And it’s also like, aren’t there different levels of physicality that people have such that like maybe one person’s 120 bpm is like getting people breathing harder than another person’s 120 bpm? I don’t know.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, it is a good point. I mean, you could also walk to anything. Like the music doesn’t really affect your choices, but yeah, you know, I feel that low and slow is for eggs and Slocum is not for gyms.

 

Gideon Resnick: Right. Right. I have a lot of concerns and questions about all of this, but how are you taking these guidelines, Akilah?

 

Akilah Hughes: I mean, I just think it’s dumb. Like, we know that this is, you know, the effect of re-opening too quickly. I’m sure that, you know, when the Delta variant or whatever next variant shows up in America, things are going to get a little weird and people are going to come up with their own sort of shoddy guidelines for how to, you know, stop the crisis, when the only thing that has worked so far is getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, and keeping your distance. And I don’t think that there’s any way you can be in a gym where people are presumably going to be sweating no matter what, because that’s why they went there, you know, to have a good time. I feel like you can’t, there’s no way you can stop the spread of a virus in that environment unless you mandate that people are vaccinated.

 

Gideon Resnick: Yeah, I mean, that seems to be the only thing. But, you know, to the people who might be having to monitor the bpm count, god speed. I’m with you in solidarity right now because that does not sound fun.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I imagine people will be slacking on that job and I don’t blame them. But just like that, we’ve checked our temps. Stay safe, go so slow, and we’ll be back after some ads.

 

[ad break]

 

Akilah Hughes: Let’s wrap up with some headlines.

 

[sung] Headlines.

 

Gideon Resnick: Some updates on the unraveling situation in Haiti. Earlier this week, Haitian authorities arrested a man they believe planned the assassination of President Jovenel Moise. Christian Emmanuel Sanon, a 63-year old Haitian American, flew into Haiti last month, and according to Haitian officials, Sanon hired people from a Florida-based company called CTU Security to provide security for him, but now we know that seems to not be the only thing they did on that trip. Many of the 28 people involved in the assassination were Colombian mercenaries employed through CTU Security. At least one of the men linked to the killing used to be a confidential informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. The DEA put out a statement yesterday saying that none of the attackers were operating under the agency. And other suspects were found to be ex-informants for the FBI as well. Hmm.

 

Akilah Hughes: That is the sussed of sus. Yesterday, President Biden gave an impassioned speech in Philadelphia regarding the ongoing fight over voting rights in the United States. He argued Republican efforts to restrict voting are the biggest threat to American democracy since the Civil War, and took aim at Donald Trump and other Republicans who have refused to accept the results of the 2020 election.

 

[clip of President Biden] In America, if you lose, you accept the results, you follow the Constitution, you try again. You don’t call facts ‘fade’ and then try to bring down the American experiment just because you’re unhappy. . . . 21st century Jim Crow assault is real. It’s unrelenting. And we’re going to challenge it vigorously.

 

Akilah Hughes: Bars. So this comes a day after more than 50 Democratic state lawmakers fled Texas in protest of Republican-led voting bills that are incredibly restrictive. Although Biden called on Congress to pass both before For the People Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act in his speech, he never mentioned the need to end the filibuster, which is necessary for Democrats to move forward with any voting rights legislation due to their slim majority in the Senate.

 

Gideon Resnick: That is the truth. Tennessee’s top immunization official was fired this week for breaking the first rule of working in public health in a Republican-controlled state: don’t get caught doing public health! Dr. Michelle Fiscus at the Tennessee Department of Health came under fire by conservatives in the state after she shared a memo that minor 14 and above could legally seek vaccinations without parental consent. Dr. Fiscus believes the state’s health commissioner fired her as a concession to conservative state lawmakers who have tried to shut down efforts to vaccinate teens. One state representative even described the vaccination efforts as, quote, “reprehensible” in it’s effort to reach, quote, “impressionable youth.” OK. Internal memos obtained by the Nashville Tennessean showed that the health commissioner’s efforts to appease elected anti-vaxxers did not stop with firing Fuscus—the Tennessee Health Department will also halt all adolescent vaccine outreach for COVID and all other diseases. Yikes, yikes, yikes, yikes, yikes.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Wow. You know, next it’ll be dancing. Somebody think of the children. [laughs] The pandemic prompted innovation in every field and now it has created a type of money that is worth less than normal money: the Consumer Price Index jumped by 5.4% in the year through June, the Labor Department said yesterday, signaling the greatest rise in inflation since the 2008 financial crisis. About one third of the increase was due to spiking prices of used cars and trucks. The White House says that as temporary supply chain issues affecting automobiles and other industries are resolved, the inflation will subside. But other factors are at play here, including heightened demand for goods and services among consumers who spent much of the last year inside watching their dollar bills grow long, scraggly beards. According to The New York Times, some White House aides believe that strong inflation increases could last for a year or more. If prices continue to rise, consumers will feel the squeeze unless wages rise, too. Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell will testify before the House today and the Senate tomorrow, so we’ll get some insight into how he’s interpreting these numbers.

 

Gideon Resnick: For now, barter system rules in the US. If you have a cool item, let’s trade.

 

Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I’m going to stock up on cigarettes. I think they’re really tradable. And those are the headlines.

 

Gideon Resnick: That is all for today. If you like the show, make sure you subscribe, leave a review, enjoy your slightly less valuable money, and tell your friends listen.

 

Akilah Hughes: And if you’re into reading, and not just bpms of songs to determine if they’re safe like me, What A Day is also a nightly newsletter. Check it out and subscribe at Crooked.com/subscribe. I’m Akilah Hughes.

 

Gideon Resnick: I’m Gideon Resnick.

 

[together] And keep an eye on your treadmill speed!

 

Akilah Hughes: You’re going way too fast, Speed Racer. Slow it down.

 

Akilah Hughes: What A Day is a production of Crooked Media.

 

Gideon Resnick: It’s recorded and mixed by Charlotte Landes.

 

Akilah Hughes: Sonia Htoon and Jazzi Marine are our associate producers.

 

Gideon Resnick: Our head writer is Jon Millstein, and our executive producers are Leo Duran, Akilah Hughes and me.

 

Akilah Hughes: Our theme music is by Colin Gilliard and Kashaka.