Behind a coal mine strike: Who cares for workers in a fading industry?

Gary Cosby Jr./The Tuscaloosa News/AP/File
Earl Melton (center) is among many military veterans who are also miners saluting the flag during the national anthem at a rally supporting the United Mine Workers of America strike against Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, Aug. 4, 2021.
  • Quick Read
  • Deep Read ( 7 Min. )

About 1,000 coal miners in central Alabama have been on strike for nearly 18 months, with no sign of stopping. The surface-level battle is over whether their pay will be restored to prior levels, after they made concessions to keep the mine operating. 

But their struggle – and the relative lack of support they are attracting from political leaders of either party – could be a harbinger of a larger problem. As the country shifts toward green energy, a looming need is to ensure that workers like coal miners are still cared for and can find new work when needed. The goal is what’s called a “just transition” to cleaner energy.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Coal miners have been on strike for 18 months in Alabama. Their struggle points to the wider search for a “just transition” for an industry squeezed by energy trends and the fight against climate change.

“The Republicans have kind of always been anti-union,” says mine worker Braxton Wright. “And most Democrats just see the word ‘coal.’”

Today, even as President Joe Biden touts himself as leading “the most pro-union administration in American history” and funnels money toward clean energy investments, the United States largely lacks a national strategy for a just transition.

Some states, however, have begun to act. New Mexico and Colorado have programs designed to address both job losses and the fallout for local communities.

Among the rugged hills and quiet, shady woods of central Alabama, it suddenly appears – a mountain of coal, hundreds of feet high, inky black against the orange of the setting sun.

Braxton Wright points across the mine’s sprawling complex. But Mr. Wright isn’t working today – and hasn’t since March of last year. Instead, he’s standing across the road, on a picket line with a handful of other miners. 

“We wanted our dignity back,” says Mr. Wright, a member of the United Mine Workers of America Local 2368, which was among those that went on strike April 1, 2021. The mine has since been kept running by nonunion workers, as a grinding impasse over wages and benefits drags on between the union and owner Warrior Met Coal. 

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Coal miners have been on strike for 18 months in Alabama. Their struggle points to the wider search for a “just transition” for an industry squeezed by energy trends and the fight against climate change.

But politically, the Brookwood miners say, their pleas seem to be falling on deaf ears.

“The Republicans have kind of always been anti-union,” Mr. Wright says. “And most Democrats just see the word ‘coal.’”

The miners and their union say they’re determined to press on, relying on a far-from-depleted strike fund. But with the outcome anything but assured, the plight of miners like Mr. Wright could be a harbinger of a larger problem – a canary in an even larger coal mine. As the country shifts toward green energy, a looming need is to ensure that workers like coal miners are able to find new work. The general idea is referred to by policymakers as a “just transition” to cleaner energy.

So, what does justice for workers look like in this transition? Some states are seeking initial answers. But the experience of these coal miners may also suggest that, as workers raise their voices, it will require a shift in thought for party leaders on both sides to listen.

“When people, right now, oftentimes talk about ‘just transition,’ [away from fossil fuels] they’re often looking at it from a very moral, ethical viewpoint. ... I see more of a contract” between workers and politicians, says Michaël Aklin, associate professor of political science at the University of Pittsburgh. But, he adds, “This grand bargain only works if both sides trust each other.”

“Many fossil fuel workers have started to turn more towards voting on the right,” he adds. “It’s not clear whether they will actually trust the Democrats on this. And if so, then that’s going to limit how successful this can actually be down the road.”

Nick Roll
Braxton Wright, a member of the United Mine Workers of America, stands on strike outside the Warrior Met coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama, Sept. 6, 2022.

To some onlookers, the question of a just transition for these miners will become salient when and if the mining jobs actually disappear. But for others, at a time when coal jobs are fading around the nation, the miners’ cause already intersects with the debate over caring for workers affected by industry upheaval.

Amid a resurgence of activism around organized labor in the United States, the 1,000 or so striking workers of UMWA might have been expected to catch some of the spotlight. Indeed, some Democrats and Republicans on the campaign trail here in Alabama have voiced support for the miners, and Sen. Bernie Sanders attended a union rally and invited miners to testify on the strike in Congress. But in general, the miners say they have only received a smattering of political support – despite being just down the road from Bessemer, where an effort to form a union at an Amazon warehouse last year became a major flashpoint for Democrats to tout their support of organized labor. It was just days later that the UMWA workers formed their picket lines. 

Using coal: steel versus electricity

The mining jobs in Brookwood aren’t in immediate danger, even as Democrats tout the green energy investments of the Inflation Reduction Act and, separately, as renewable forms of energy become more competitive against fossil fuels. That’s because the coal mined in Brookwood is used in steel production – something Mr. Wright wishes the green energy crowd would acknowledge. Still, steel production is responsible for 7% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, making it a prime target for innovators hoping to curb carbon output. 

The outlook is worse for other coal miners: The number of Americans employed in the coal industry has already more than halved, to around 40,000 workers, since 2012. Even under President Donald Trump, who pledged to bring back the coal industry and succeeded in cutting regulations, long-term economic trends meant the industry lost around 10,000 jobs while he was in office. 

“I don’t think [the miners at Warrior Met are] as endangered as steam coal is, but it does concern me – about why haven’t [politicians] been out there, if nothing else but to come talk to the people that’s on strike, and see what they can do?” says Larry Spencer, vice president of the UMWA district that covers the striking miners in Brookwood. “That would help so much with the people feeling that they are being heard.”

Indeed, the impetus for the current strike has nothing to do with climate change. In 2015, the mine’s previous owner, Walter Energy, declared bankruptcy. In a bid to save their jobs, the union accepted pay cuts. Now, with the new owner, Warrior Met, running a profitable mine, they want the return to the status quo – something they say they were promised would eventually happen when they originally agreed to the cuts. Warrior Met has offered multiple contracts during the impasse, but the union is still holding out for a return to 2015 standards. 

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
Men work in the generator room at Longview Power, a coal-powered energy plant, on Jan. 23, 2020, in Maidsville, West Virginia. Longview is one of the most efficient coal plants in the U.S., with much lower emission rates than older coal plants. Many states are seeking to phase out coal burning for electricity, and the coal mining jobs have fallen sharply.

Solutions from the states

The idea of a just transition for certain workers – whether because of a shift to green energy, or because of jobs moving overseas amid expanding global free trade – has been around for decades. As industries come and go, it’s not just individual jobs on the line, advocates say, but entire communities built around them.

In 2016, long before talk of a Green New Deal, Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton gave a speech where she staked out the competing priorities of adopting clean energy, adjusting to the macroeconomic headwinds long driving out coal mining, and supporting workers left behind by such changes.

“We don’t want to forget those people,” Mrs. Clinton said. “We’ve got to move away from coal and all the other fossil fuels, but I don’t want to move away from the people who did the best they could to produce energy that we relied on.” She proposed bringing jobs and economic development to coal country.

But voters and the media latched on to a different line in the speech, where Mrs. Clinton said she was “going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” Fairly or not, a sentiment had formed among many voters that the party at large, despite its past relationship with coal unions, was more focused on green energy than miners’ livelihoods. (This sentiment also coincided with more and more of the Democratic base being made up of both urban-dwelling and white collar workers.)

Today, even as President Joe Biden touts himself as leading “the most pro-union administration in American history,” and his new legislation routes $369 billion to climate and clean energy efforts, the United States largely lacks a national strategy for a just transition.
Some states, however, have begun to act.

New Mexico has dedicated tens of millions of dollars to help workers and communities displaced from looming coal mine closures as the state transitions to 80% renewables by 2040. Colorado has established an Office of Just Transition at the state’s labor department, dedicated to managing not just the jobs lost, but tax bases taken out by closures of mines and coal-fired power plants, scheduled to be phased out anytime between the next few years and 2070.

“We try to have respectful interactions. We try to follow communities’ and workers’ leads in terms of what they want to do moving forward. And hopefully over time we will prove ourselves worthy of some trust,” says Wade Buchanan, director of the Colorado office, who notes that support for its mission has become increasingly bipartisan. During a recent vote for more funding, Republicans still weren’t necessarily warm to the idea of an energy transition, Mr. Buchanan says, but they expressed that “If we’re going to do that, we’re glad we have an office like this.”

While the miners in Alabama say they feel politically abandoned, one group has made inroads with them – but not from the political center. The Birmingham chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America has been active on UMWA picket lines. Haley Czarnek, the local DSA labor committee co-chair, says she doesn’t see a contradiction between supporting coal miners and advocating for climate change action.

“As long as my electricity is coming from coal being burned, I want the people that are mining it to have a dignified life,” Ms. Czarnek says, sitting at a recently unionized Starbucks in midtown Birmingham. 

Buoyed by being suppliers of the steel industry rather than of power plants, workers on the picket line remain confident in the future of their mine. And what they want, they say, is less complicated to figure out than the uncertain future around the transition to renewables and how it will play out. 

“It goes up and down, that’s the way it works” Rob Wright, another miner on the picket line on a recent evening, says about the coal industry. This strike is the longest he’s been above ground in 16 years, and he desperately wants to go back into the deep. “All we want to do is provide for our families.”

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to

QR Code to Behind a coal mine strike: Who cares for workers in a fading industry?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today