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Coal workers' strike in Alabama may be ending — with a big loss for the union

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

What's likely been Alabama's longest strike looks to be ending with a loss for the union. For nearly two years, hundreds of Alabama coal miners fought for a better contract. Now the union is asking Warrior Met Coal to take the workers back unconditionally. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom reports on why the strike failed and how rare it is for a work stoppage to last this long.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: If you listen to the union, they fought Warrior Met Coal to a valiant draw. But it's really more like the union's waving the white flag.

RILY HUGHLETT: Sometimes, when you run out of ammunition and your knife is dull, you got to give it up and fight another day.

BISAHA: Rily Hughlett is one of roughly a thousand coal miners who went on strike about 700 days ago for better pay and benefits.

HUGHLETT: Even on Easter, they would have us come to work. We should have Sunday off anyways, you know? That's - you know, I go to church on Sunday.

BISAHA: Hughlett says he's proud they stood up for their dignity.

So you showed you've been willing to fight.

HUGHLETT: Yes.

BISAHA: But what does that get you at the end of the day?

HUGHLETT: Well, in some instances, probably a sore wallet.

BISAHA: The miners are giving up six-figure salaries. Though, with the tight labor market, it wasn't hard finding lower paying jobs elsewhere. And the reason the strike failed can be explained by what United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said at a union rally last November.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CECIL ROBERTS: The amount of money that they lose will dictate what kind of contract you get.

BISAHA: But the thing is, the company didn't really lose any money. In fact, it made more than $640 million last year with replacement workers, its second-best year ever. Sure, Roberts says, Warrior Met could have mined a million tons more coal each quarter without the strike, but Warrior Met didn't really need to.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROBERTS: Because the price of the coal they're getting in the world market compensates for the fact that they didn't get that extra million tons.

BISAHA: That's because this kind of coal is used to make steel, and the demand for steel has been really high. John Logan is director of labor studies at San Francisco State University. He says the power of strikes has diminished in the United States. But...

JOHN LOGAN: Striking is like, you know, the sort of ultimate weapon that unions have. I mean, in a sense that hasn't changed.

BISAHA: What has changed is that today, it's really all about the short strike, one or two days during negotiations to show the bosses, hey; we're serious and united. Logan says even though they're shorter, they still grab a lot of media attention.

LOGAN: If you're talking about public-facing companies like Starbucks or Trader Joe's, then that type of reputational damage that it can inflict upon the companies is really, really important.

BISAHA: But when a long strike fails, it really hurts a union's standing, like the United Mine Workers here. When the union told the strikers it was going to ask Warrior Met to take them back unconditionally, miner Braxton Wright was confused.

BRAXTON WRIGHT: Confused and a little angry, you know, because, I mean, we kind of wasted two years to go back for the same thing that we walked out for.

BISAHA: I caught Wright on his wife's cellphone before he was about to leave for a new maintenance job at a steel manufacturer he's been working at during the strike. He's making more money now and has better benefits. So he's not sure if he's going to go back to Warrior Met.

WRIGHT: Yeah. The pros and cons list, the pros list is - it's pretty short.

BISAHA: For its part, the company says it's talking with the union about how to bring the workers back safely, and negotiations for a new contract will still continue even after the miners return, though the union will be negotiating with significantly less leverage. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Stephan Bisaha