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A Portrait of a Modern Day Union Man on the Picket Line

Union leader Bryan Kelly and more than 1,000 other coal miners in Alabama are picketing hedge-fund ownership over broken promises and cut pay. It’s another chapter in a long history of miners who pioneered the art of the strike — to the benefit of all

To everyone who witnessed him in action, John L. Lewis was a force of nature. He was an intellectual who didn’t mind throwing hands with his foes, made famous by his scowl, bulldog jowls and penchant for facing monumental odds. 

As the president of the United Mine Workers of America, Lewis led one of America’s most influential unions into battle. And over the course of 40 years, from the onset of the Great Depression through the aftermath of World War II, Lewis helped usher in a new age of labor power, growing solidarity and building what would eventually be known as the Congress of Industrial Organizations — all in the face of unprecedented anti-union politics in the form of the oppressive Taft-Hartley Act and rampant accusations of communism. 

Lewis’ reign ended in 1960, and his dedication to improving worker wages, safety and agency across the country was rewarded with a Presidential Medal of Honor in 1964. But nearly six decades later, the union he led is once again fighting for the future of workers whose livelihoods are withering under the pressure of corporate capitalism and dubious austerity cuts. 

Since April 1, 2021, some 1,100 members of the UMWA have been on strike in Alabama, holding out for the wages, medical benefits and hours they claim were promised by the owner of two valuable coal mines in the rural town of Brookwood. 

It’s now officially the longest strike in Alabama history — and Brian Kelly, president of UMWA Local 2245, says the coal miners are committed to holding out until they can negotiate in good faith to restore everything that had been stripped away in the last five years. “People are wanting to stand up, and I get calls all the time asking about how we’re doing on the picket line and how starting a strike actually works,” Kelly tells me. “You gotta open your eyes and look at this country now. People are tired of taking this crap while watching CEOs and executives make all the money. This is a way to take the fight to them.” 

Amid a 2021 full of strikes across multiple major industries, the fight down in Alabama is an illuminating example of how the history and future of unions are intertwined. Once again, in an age of economic consolidation, exploitation and hardship, solidarity among workers is looking increasingly like a solution. 

Brian Kelly (right), president of UMWA Local 2245, poses with a striking miner and a prize for UMWA’s float in the annual Brookwood Christmas parade. 

The crisis in Brookwood began more than five years ago, when mine owner Jim Walter Resources filed for bankruptcy and the remains of the operation were scooped up by a consortium of two-dozen-plus hedge funds. As part of that takeover, Local 2245 agreed to major concessions, allegedly in order to keep the operation, now dubbed Warrior Met Coal, afloat. Along with taking on higher insurance costs and losing various overtime wages, workers lost $6 on their wage and were often forced to work seven days a week — a first for Kelly, who is a third-generation coal worker and a 25-year veteran at the Brookwood mine. In turn, the miners were promised a restoration of benefits and pay when time came for a new contract in 2021. 

“It was natural that the market would bounce back and they would make good profits. They kept telling us, ‘You’ll get your day. Everything’s going to get better,’” Kelly says. Instead, what the miners were offered in April was an increase of just $1 an hour, with a 50-cent bump in year four of the contract. And it confirmed a suspicion of Kelly’s: This was more than cruel economics at work — it was disrespect, distilled into a bad-faith negotiation. 

“We got the feeling when we came back from the bankruptcy layoff, when we had a front-porch meeting and the new owners came out and said, ‘Hey, this is no longer Walter Energy. We’re going to do things our way,” Kelly says. “It turned into a miserable place to be. And, unsurprisingly, the turnover rate of miners went through the roof. We lost a lot of valuable, experienced UMWA miners.” 

But the mistreatment alleged by Kelly had a silver lining: Mass discontent led union miners sensing an opportunity to fight in 2021. Warrior Met Coal noticed this, and began preparing union-busting maneuvers in response, building up replacement workers from Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia. The best weapon UMWA workers had was to convince new workers to join their side, a gambit that Kelly says was highly successful in the beginning. 

Nonetheless, that act of solidarity didn’t prevent an escalation by Warrior Met employees, who even ended up hitting picketing workers with trucks, as with the case of husband-and-wife duo Greg and Amy Pilkerton, who were both struck in separate incidents last summer. That violence, in addition to the lack of positive negotiations, inspired Kelly and dozens of other Alabama miners to travel to New York City in November, where they protested and rallied in front of the offices of majority shareholder BlackRock and two other funds. 

Kelly was arrested at that protest, along with UMWA President Cecil Roberts and six other miners. That conclusion punctuated the irony of the whole day: Here was a hedge fund allegedly mistreating workers and mismanaging mines, yet the workers were the only ones facing legal trouble. 

For now, Kelly and the 1,100 other miners on strike continue to hold out, only staying afloat with a combination of odd jobs, donations, savings and grit. The little things have gotten a lot trickier in the Kelly household: Gas money is a tenuous exercise, and gifts for the kids have been shelved until the future. His oldest son is taking a sabbatical from college to work a full-time job, and Kelly’s wife has also taken on a job to help compensate for lost income. 

The Local 2245 president admits that, if he could do one thing different, it would be to budget more wisely for the fight: “I’ve started telling people to think about a contract strike and start saving up from about two years back,” he says. “Put your money in the bank, because we’re going to have to stand up to a big company.” 

Most of all, Kelly is buoyed by the sensation that, all around the country, working people are becoming aware of the fight for better pay and conditions — and why every labor fight, from Kellogg’s to John Deere to Spectrum internet, is built upon the success of other union workers around the country. “People are paying attention. I have a brother who works at Mercedes-Benz’s plant in Vance, Alabama, and even though they’re non-union, they’re all supporting us because they know if we lose this strike, their plant could get gutted in a similar way,” Kelly says. 

The heyday of the fierce American union may lay in the 20th century, under figures like Lewis, Chávez, Cruikshank and Debs. But 2021 was a milestone year for worker-led movements that are responding to the duress of a global pandemic and generational economic crash, and leaders like Kelly remain steadfast in their belief that stubborn solidarity can change lives. “The United Mine Workers of America have once again achieved the impossible. We have once again negotiated an agreement against the greatest concentrated opposition that ever faced a labor union,” Lewis declared in 1951 after his miners held out for a month. 

After nearly 10 months of striking in Brookwood, some 1,100 workers keep waiting, hoping for those words to ring true again.