Alabama Coal Strike Supported by Women, Families of Union for 600 Days

“You don’t mess with a Southern mama.”

The woman said it with a smile in her voice, and in any other context, it would have sounded impossibly cliché: a real Home Goods coffee mug kind of vibe. But I was leaned up against a truck out front of a union hall in rural Alabama, chatting with a coal miner’s wife who’s spent the past 19 months supporting her striking husband and keeping the families of 900 other striking coal miners afloat, and who woke up that morning prepared to go to jail. Beneath that smile lay a warning.

Cigarettes winked in the darkness like lightning bugs, as burly men dressed in camo and coveralls huddled in small groups all around us. Inside the hall, members of the union’s auxiliary, an affiliated group of supporters (historically, women related to union members plus union retirees), dished out slices of donated pizza, keeping one eye on the kids running around and another on the long line in front of them. It was an early November evening in Brookwood, Alabama, and the miners had been on strike from Warrior Met Coal for 587 days. Earlier that evening, they had defied a court injunction levied against them by Warrior Met management that forbade them from gathering or blocking scabs from accessing company property, and marched up a tree-lined backroad to the entrance of Mine No. 4. The original plan had called for a group of women to block the road, and four of those women had volunteered to take their fight to the Tuscaloosa County Jail.

“We were like, yeah, we want to do this, because we see the human side of this,” Cheri Goodwin, an auxiliary member whose husband is currently on strike, told me during a quiet moment after the march, when the miners had gathered back at the union hall for their weekly rally. “We are the human side. You need people to see the mothers. We need people to see the retired coal miner women, who have been underground, standing next to us.”

The march on Coal Mine No. 4, on November 9, 2022.

The march on Coal Mine No. 4, on November 9, 2022.
Photo: Kim Kelly

However, news of the planned march had gotten back to Warrior Met earlier that week; Brookwood is a small town, and people knew something was coming, if not exactly what. After the coal company’s lawyers sent the union a threatening letter reminding them of the injunction and promising to come down hard on anyone who gave them the merest scrap of a reason—which could have hit any woman who got arrested with a $200,000 fine and 30 days in jail—the union changed tack. While they went forward with the march, they asked the women to stand down… this time.

The Warrior Met Coal Strike Hits 600 Days

The same auxiliary members who volunteered to put their bodies on the line have spent countless hours cooking, cleaning, planning, and running a strike pantry that processes thousands of dollars in donations. Every week, the women fill hundreds of brown paper grocery bags with canned food and shelf-stable delicacies, like ramen noodles and Jell-O, and keep them ready for whichever strike families need one. (In September, rockstar activist Tom Morello joined them, and while his camera crew got a bit underfoot, they appreciated his help.) Deep bonds have been forged in that union hall and on the picket line and at the Mexican joint down the road, where the ladies like to go for margaritas after particularly long days. The longer the coal bosses stall, the stronger they become.

“We are actually sitting there serving families, we’re handing bags to families, we’re getting to know these people,” Goodwin said. “Now, it’s not just our own families that we’re fighting for. They are our family, and we are in this together. They’re our brothers and sisters.”

She never expected that the strike would last this long; no one did. When the miners first walked out on April 1, 2021, their representatives at United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) had already been locked in negotiations with Warrior Met for months, working to hammer out a better contract than the one the miners were already working under. That contract was brutal—it slashed their pay, their benefits, their time off and sick days, and implemented a strict attendance system that gave them zero wriggle room for medical emergencies or family commitments. Five years prior, Warrior Met had swanned in from New York City and bought up the mine after its previous owners went bankrupt, and the workers had believed the company when it said it’d do right by them once it got a handle on operations. But then 2021 rolled around, and it became clear that Warrior Met had lied. The new contract it offered was nearly identical to the old one; and when the UMWA presented the miners with a tentative agreement on April 8, they voted it down.

The miners’ strike is history-making.

The miners’ strike is history-making.
Photo: UMWA

Exactly 600 days in, the Warrior Met Coal strike is the longest current strike in the U.S, the longest strike in Alabama state history, and may well be the longest strike in American coal mining history. Over the past two years, coal prices have soared, while Brookwood police have escorted buses full of strikebreakers from as far away as West Virginia and Kentucky through the picket line and into the mine entrances. Warrior Met has kept the mines running and profits flowing (though they’ve lost out on millions in potential earnings, thanks to the reduced productivity). And though the wave of union actions at workplaces like Starbucks, Amazon, and the University of California has grabbed headlines, the miners have largely relied on a handful of labor-friendly publications and social media visibility boosted by members of the auxiliary, who made a point of building relationships with journalists and labor organizations outside of Alabama.

The auxiliary’s members differ in work experience, political outlooks, and generation, but the ties that bind them are ancient: coal, the union, their men, and their families. Most are family members—mothers, spouses, daughters, sisters—of coal miners, while some are retired coal miners themselves. Before the strike, there was no auxiliary, and those ties lay fallow. With their husbands working 12 hours a day and six days a week in the mine, they were simply too damn busy to make friends.

“You didn’t have time to really have friends or be close to anybody, because your spouse worked all the time, you worked all the time, and then you had to come home and you had to do the house stuff and the kids’ stuff and the practices and the sports,” auxiliary president Haeden Wright, a high school teacher who grew up in a union coal mining family and whose husband is currently on strike, told me in a phone call after the rally. Her social media presence has helped boost the strike and bring attention to the auxiliary’s fundraising efforts, like their upcoming Solidarity Santa event. “This has given all of us a common purpose.”

UMWA President Cecil Roberts joins striking union coal miners as they attend a rally at the local union hall on August 31, 2022 in Brookwood, Alabama.

UMWA President Cecil Roberts joins striking union coal miners as they attend a rally at the local union hall on August 31, 2022 in Brookwood, Alabama.
Photo: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis (Getty Images)

Though many of them identify as conservative, these women approach their work with all the earnest devotion and make-do-mend mentality of an anarchist mutual aid project, and the powerful sisterhood they’ve developed is deeply feminist, even if they wouldn’t necessarily choose that label for themselves. They’ve now got the run of the place, but Wright recalls how some of the menfolk didn’t even want women coming into the union hall at the beginning of the strike.

“I’m sure there still are some that are like, ‘Oh, well, women shouldn’t be here,’ but that’s not the society I want to live in,” she said. “That’s not the society I want for my kids, because I want my kids to fight like hell for themselves. They don’t need a man to fight that battle for them.”

Women Have Long Supported Labor Movements in Coal Mining

The coal industry has always been run by rich men, its glittering profits dug out from beneath the mountains with the sweat and blood of poor ones. Meanwhile, coal barons and miners alike held to the old myth that a woman in a coal mine brings bad luck. Such superstition and sexism made it nearly impossible for women to find employment underground, despite having worked in coal mines for centuries, from enslaved Black women laboring against their will to Ida Mae Stull, the 1930s “Amazon of the coal pits,” who sued for her right to work in an Ohio drift mine. It wasn’t until the late 1960s, with the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, strengthened enforcement against hiring discrimination on the basis of sex, and the tireless work of the woman-focused Coal Employment Project, that coal bosses finally lost their ability to keep women workers out. Even now, men vastly outnumber women in coal mines, with women miners making up only about 4.5% of the workforce. Nevertheless, whenever miners have become embroiled in a labor conflict, the women have been there, too.

That influence is inescapable, even before you make it down to the coalfields. When I landed in Alabama before the planned march, the fellow who picked me up at the airport was full of stories about his own family. A few years back, he set out with a tape recorder to preserve some of his Slovak grandmother’s stories about life as a coal miner’s wife at the turn of the century. She told him all about what it was like to endure—and survive—the 1922 anthracite strike that swept the nation’s coalfields and saw pro-union miners face off against the Coal and Iron Police, a private armed guard hired by the coal bosses to put down the rebellion. The Slovak miners who bore the brunt of their malicious attentions referred to them as the “Pennsylvania Cossacks,” and his grandmother remembered the night that they burst into her home and dragged away her husband, still in his nightclothes. She’d screamed at her man to piss on them.

The UMWA’s president, Cecil Roberts, traces his family lineage straight back to the early 20th century’s West Virginia Mine Wars, when union men squared off against vicious coal bosses and their private army in the long, bloody battle to organize the coalfields. A sixth-generation coal miner, Roberts has often pointed towards his great-uncle, Bill Blizzard, as an inspiration. Blizzard was a union organizer who led the miners on their 1921 armed march to Blair Mountain—still the largest armed worker uprising since the Civil War—and was charged with treason as a result (he was eventually acquitted). Less has been said about Blizzard’s mother, Sarah “Ma” Blizzard, who’d been involved with the UMWA since its 1890 founding and had urged her family members to join. She was not just a supporter, either. Like many other coal miners’ wives before and after her, she took part in the struggle.

A 1918 portrait of famed labor organizer and agitator Mary “Mother Jones” Harris.

A 1918 portrait of famed labor organizer and agitator Mary “Mother Jones” Harris.

During the 1912 Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike, Ma Blizzard not only offered her land as a refuge for striking miners, she led her own battalion of saboteurs. Her group of pro-union women worked in silence; instead of carrying weapons, they targeted the invaders’ infrastructure. One dark night, the women gathered to destroy the railroad tracks used to transport gun-toting mine guards into the miners’ communities, temporarily derailing their reign of terror. Ma Blizzard outlived the strike and was later called in front of Congress to testify about the conditions that had led to the conflict. When one lawyer asked her whether she’d observed any “improper conduct” from the guards during the strike, one can almost hear her scoff. “I didn’t see them do anything else,” she declared in front of a roomful of suited politicians, describing the way that one had threatened her, another striker’s wife, and their two children with a gun. “He told me I looked like Mother Jones and told me to hit the grit down the road.”

Ma Blizzard was one of many coal miners’ wives who protected their flesh and blood. One of the most famous scenes in labor cinema history comes courtesy of Barbara Kopple’s 1973 documentary Harlan County, USA, in which Brookside strike matriarch Lois Scott pulled a pistol from her bra during a contentious meeting, but the push made by Scott and the women she organized alongside during their 13-month struggle deserves just as much attention. “We seen it rough, and we was treated rough, but we won victory,” Sudie Crusenberry, another veteran of the Brookside coal miners strike, said at a 1975 gathering of the Appalachian Women’s Rights Organization, as Jessica Wilkerson documented in To Live Here, You Have to Fight. “I believe in standing up for our rights together.”

Harlan County, USA (1976) 4/5 Unruly women

When mines in Virginia, Kentucky, and West Virginia ground to a standstill for the 1989-1990 strike against the Pittston Coal Company, it was again the women who kept things running. As Richard Brisbin wrote in A Strike Like No Other Strike, some worked at home as caregivers and household managers. Many others cooked and fed strikers and their allies at Camp Solidarity, the repurposed campground that housed visiting supporters and UMWA staff. They also sorted through clothing donations, participated in pro-strike marches, and planned Thanksgiving and Christmas events to boost morale. These traditionally feminine-coded tasks were integral to the strike’s success, and have been replicated in countless ways in countless other strikes. Other women took a more hands-on approach during the Pittston Coal strike and walked the picket lines themselves, as well as joining sit-down demonstrations, blocking roads, hollering at police, and jackrocking (throwing small balls of sharpened nails into the road to puncture scabs’ tires).

On April 18, 1989, the Daughters of Mother Jones, a group of 39 women led by miner’s wife Edna Saul, walked into the Pittston head office in Lebanon, Virginia, and occupied the lobby for 30 hours straight. When asked to identify themselves, the women refused, giving only Jones’ name. “We’ve got to be tough like Mother Jones,” Saul later told a reporter. “Usually the ladies have bake sales, but if we didn’t do this, we won’t have anything.”

The Warrior Met Women Are in It for the Long Haul

Many of the strikers, supporters, and UMWA staffers who participated in the Pittston strike are still kicking, and have shown up to support the Warrior Met Coal strike in Alabama. Deborah Lance (“Miss Deb” to you and I) is an auxiliary member and a retired coal miner who worked at Jim Walter Resources, the predecessor to Warrior Met, for 35 years (29 of which she spent underground). She’d followed her father into the mines in 1980, and when the Pittston strike was heating up, they joined the stream of Southern supporters who flocked north to lend a hand.

“We were there three nights, maybe four days,” she told me. “We slept in a bus, and in the daytime, my mother kept my son and Daddy would take me with him to ride the road. At that time, we’d impede the work traffic, the coal trucks, slowing stuff down. We were fortunate, we never got arrested or stopped, but you had to be careful then.”

Lance is one of the women who volunteered to block the road to Warrior Met, though she couldn’t commit to being arrested due to her husband’s medical needs. At the march up to the mine entrance, she walked alongside her union sisters, holding a UMWA strike sign and singing along to the rendition of “Union Maid” that rattled tinnily out of someone’s portable speaker. Later, she told me how it felt to see her 14-year-old granddaughter showing up at strike rallies now, the same way she did all those years ago.

“We are more than just housewives,” she said. “We are just as capable as these men to stand up and fight for our right to be treated right. It’s important that we teach our daughters and our granddaughters—just like mine, marching with them. That made me so proud that she was standing up.”

Teens have shown up to support their parents, babies have spent their entire lives on the line, and young children scamper around at UMWA rallies with their “strike cousins.” Wright’s two daughters, Averi and Everly, have been constant fixtures themselves; Averi, who was only a few months old when the strike started, has since learned to walk, and is almost ready to join her parents on their next march. “I’m telling y’all, if we could have all the adults half as energized about picketing and striking and rallies and pantry, we would be unstoppable as a labor movement,” Wright said. “Because you never hear the kids say they don’t want to go to a rally or that they don’t want to go to a picket line. Even after 19 months, they’re still excited.” But because Wright had volunteered to block the road and was fully prepared to follow through, her daughters stayed, unhappily, behind with their grandmother.

“None of us even had planned to bring our drivers licenses,” Wright explained. “We were just planning on saying that we were a granddaughter of Mother Jones and making them figure it out.”

The march on Warrior Met was a family affair, like much of the union actions during this 600-day strike.

The march on Warrior Met was a family affair, like much of the union actions during this 600-day strike.
Photo: UMWA

The risks Wright, Lance, and the other women faced have only increased since the days of the Daughters of Mother Jones. Many have full-time jobs to juggle with family commitments and organizing work. The work itself is stressful, Wright told me. On top of that, Alabama in 2022 is a remarkably inhospitable environment for dissent. Last year, state lawmakers passed a controversial “anti-riot” bill aims to curtail the right to protest and, as Wright says, could also have a chilling effect on workers’ ability to picket.

“A cop can get spooked and say, ‘I think that you’re going to do something wrong.’ And all of a sudden, you have a record,” she said. “We do have a right in this country, or we’re supposed to have the right, to perform civil disobedience, to have nonviolent protests. Any massive movements or changes that have happened that positively affect people, that’s how they’ve been achieved.”

If the women had been arrested, it wouldn’t have been a pretty sight. The speed with which the cops showed up during the march itself, coupled with 19 months’ worth of hostilities, made it very clear whose side they were on before the women even reached the rally point, and the weight of the injunction had borne down on their shoulders as they marched. Over the months, strikers have been injured after scabs and company employees drove their vehicles into the picket line; they’ve been hit with arrests for violating the injunction, and for alleged assaults. There have been altercations, threats, and rumors of sabotage, from jackrocking to a shot-out transformer by the mine. (If you ask any of the miners point-blank about some of those rumors, you’ll get a smile, maybe, or a nonchalant mention of a freak “wind storm” that had somehow left the scabs’ trucks with cracked windshields.)

In the end, the march was a thoroughly tame affair, with retirees and children wending their way up the road alongside striking miners and auxiliary members. Seeing a Brookwood cop car go screaming by, blue lights flashing, as a pair of elderly women waved their signs at its driver was really just business as usual for a coal miners’ strike in America.

When I asked Goodwin if she could have ever imagined herself doing any of this two years ago, when we first met, she laughed ruefully. “I never would have thought it would have come to this point,” she told me. With her soft voice, big brown eyes, perfect eyeliner, and mini-me daughters, Goodwin is the absolute picture of a modern Southern mama; she is the one who gave me that warning not to underestimate her or her new sisters. “I can be a good Southern lady and I can have my faith in Christ, and at the same time, does that not reflect back on my morals?” she said. “You stand up for people who are being treated wrong, and for anybody that is being shoved down. You stay in it.”

Though the plan had gone awry this time and she hadn’t initially volunteered for the arrest list, Goodwin gave me the distinct impression that next time might go differently… and that when push came to shove, like so many other coal miners’ wives before her, she’d be ready.

Kim Kelly is a freelance labor journalist, organizer, and author based in Philadelphia. Her first book, “FIGHT LIKE HELL: The Untold History of American Labor,” is out now via One Signal/Atria Books.

https://jezebel.com/alabama-coal-strike-women-families-1849812070 Alabama Coal Strike Supported by Women, Families of Union for 600 Days

Adam Bradshaw

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