Cheri Goodwin never thought she’d grow up to marry a coal miner. Born in Mexico to a pair of Christian missionaries, she spent most of her early childhood there before moving to Michigan, then made the move down to Alabama as a seventh-grader to be closer to her grandmother. The soft-spoken 36-year-old smiled conspiratorily as she told me that the jump from the Midwest to the Deep South had been a bigger cultural adjustment than crossing the border. After she met her husband, adjusting to his job took some time, too.
“I didn’t grow up in this area, so I didn’t understand the pride in it at first,” she explained. “When I married him, he was just getting started. But the longer my husband’s been a coal miner, the longer I’ve been a coal miner’s wife, and seeing why those people fought before, and seeing what our guys are going through now, has made me proud of it.”
Back in seventh grade, meeting her best friend, Connie Jones, was Goodwin’s saving grace, and now, decades later, the two are still as thick as thieves—and, like many other women in the area, belong to a very particular sisterhood. In coal country, where family ties to the mines go back generations, the title of coal miner’s wife still means something. It’s not merely a reflection of their husbands’ profession, but a calling—and a full-time job—in and of itself, and the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of coal miners think of themselves as a special breed. Some compare it to being a single parent, thanks to their partners’ grueling work schedules.
“I think all coal miners’ wives are pretty strong; we have to be, we raise our kids pretty much alone during the week,” Goodwin told me. “Twelve hours a day, six days a week, he’s underground, and there’s no reaching him. It has to be an emergency, like a medical emergency, to call and get a hold of him. We have to handle everything above ground.”
When I met Cheri and four of her friends at Connie’s smoothie shop in West Blocton, a small town about 45 minutes outside Birmingham, their husbands had already been on strike for three weeks with no resolution in sight. The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA)-represented miners at Warrior Met Coal had called a strike on April 1, citing alleged unfair labor practices and bad faith bargaining by the company; on April 8, when presented with the tentative agreement that their union had reached with the company, the membership overwhelmingly rejected the offer and voted to stay on strike.
In response to questions from ELLE.com, Warrior Met Coal said in a statement that the company “values and appreciates ALL of our employees, including those currently on strike.”
“We have and will continue to work with the UMWA to reach a fair and reasonable contract that provides our employees with a competitive package while protecting jobs and ensuring the longevity of the Company,” the statement continued. “Understanding this is a stressful situation for all individuals involved, we continue to take measures to protect the wellbeing and safety of our team and we are hopeful for a speedy resolution.”
Warrior Met came to Brookwood in 2016. They were owned by Jim Walter Resources before the company’s 2015 bankruptcy, and the wives told me that the workers were treated far better back then. Mass layoffs followed the bankruptcy, and when Warrior Met set up shop, the company rehired many of the laid-off workers on the condition that they accepted what many viewed as a subpar union contract. (The judge in the bankruptcy case also ruled that Walter could terminate its collective bargaining agreement with the union and end paying retirees’ health benefits.) The company went on to rake in massive profits—according to Warrior Met’s 2017 annual report to the SEC, its revenue for the year was $1.2 billion, which increased to a reported $1.4 billion in its 2018 filing—and, in March and November 2017, the company paid out a total of nearly $800 million to shareholders, according to the same 2017 report. So when negotiations began for a new five-year contract, the miners expected to be rewarded for their sacrifice. Instead, the company offered them peanuts to continue working their lives away in one of the deepest and most methane gas-emitting mines in the country.
The women I spoke to for this story were a fairly homogenous bunch—all white mothers in their late 20s and 30s—but they accurately reflect the character of their community. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 93 percent of coal miners are white, and about 90 percent are men; women make up about 10 percent of the workforce, and just under 8 percent of coal miners identify as Black or Latinx. At the Brookwood mines, a majority of the miners are family men, and their desire to spend more time with their children is a driving force behind the strike. On top of higher pay, paid lunch breaks, and a more affordable health insurance plan, the miners, their wives, and the union officials I spoke with said the old contract allowed more vacation days and holidays to spend at home, and also offered more flexibility with regard to emergencies, whether that meant a flat tire, a school event, or a sick child.
The striking miners have also railed against Warrior Met’s implementation under the 2016-2021 collective bargaining agreement, which expired in April, of a merciless four-strike system—as in, four strikes in a year and you’re out of a job—to punish absences and tardiness. The “Attendance Control” policy is also the subject of an ongoing legal dispute: According to court documents, a miner the company said already had three strikes “was tardy by two minutes” for the start of a shift, and so, in accordance with the collective bargaining agreement, received a fourth strike and was terminated. An arbitrator reinstated him with a suspension, but a federal court vacated the arbitrator’s decision, saying he was not allowed to consider whether there was “just cause” for the termination; the union is currently appealing the ruling. This attendance policy can leave a razor-sharp margin for error, and it’s usually left to the spouses aboveground to make that crucial call.
“A lot of times when they’re underground, because it is so spread out, it might take hours to actually find them to even get a message to them,” Haeden Wright, president of UMWA Auxiliary Locals #2368 and #2245 and a high school teacher whose father and husband are both coal miners, explained. “My daughter, when she was a month old, I found out she had a skull fracture. I had to stay at the children’s hospital for them to monitor it, and [my husband] couldn’t stay, because he didn’t have the days and he would have gotten fired if he would have taken those days off. I stayed at the hospital with her by myself for three days, and he would come up there after work and sleep in the chair.”
It’s now been more than five months since the miners hit the bricks. The UMWA told a local news station that miners have been hit by cars multiple times on the picket line. When asked about the incidents, the company said in a statement, “Warrior Met Coal does not condone any acts of violence. We are thankful for the support of local law enforcement as we navigate through these issues.”
On the homefront, miners and their families are beginning to feel the pressure of bills piling up and their savings dwindling. “Some people don’t have the money to spare to get ready for this,” says Leslee Cotten, who’s married to a striking miner and comes from a coal mining family. “Some are struggling more than others. There’s a lot of businesses that have donated, people have brought diapers and canned foods up to the union hall; some husbands have already found part time jobs to get through this, so they’re working jobs and doing their union duties on the line.”
Many of the strikers’ wives have become involved in their local UMWA Auxiliary groups and thrown themselves into the cause, spending months organizing fundraisers and raffles, coordinating and relaying information between the 12 different picket lines, delivering food and firewood to the strikers, and spreading updates about the strike on social media. Their top priority right now is fundraising to keep the strike pantry stocked and packing up to-go bags of supplies for strikers’ families in need; Haeden set up a Paypal donation page @UMWAStrikePantry that has raised more than $40,000, and the local UMWA Auxiliary chapters that she and the other wives lead have been spearheading weekly Costco trips to stock up on necessities. The six women I interviewed use private Facebook groups to share plans and raise support with the broader community and use GroupMe to strategize further actions and debrief after the UMWA’s weekly Wednesday night support rallies, where they can be found handing out bags of groceries and snacks.
Through this work, the women are taking their place in the hallowed halls of U.S. labor history, where coal miners’ battles with union-busting mine bosses have become the stuff of legend, and the mere mention of Bloody Harlan, a bitter series of conflicts in 1931 where the bosses’ bullets rained down on striking workers and their families, still sends chills down an old miner’s spine. Those roots run especially deep in the clay-rich soil of Appalachia, the mountainous region that is most closely associated with West Virginia but dips into 13 other states, Alabama included. It’s where famed labor agitator and hell-raiser Mary “Mother Jones” Harris raised an “army” of miners’ wives to chase scabs (a derogatory term for workers who choose to cross the picket line and continue working during a strike) in Pennsylvania away from the picket lines with mops and brooms, and where she returned time and time again to organize union women and rally striking workers as an organizer for the UMWA. It’s also where Florence Reece, a coal miner’s daughter turned poet and labor activist, wrote the first draft of the now timeless labor song “Which Side Are You On?” as a young girl while her father was out on strike in 1912.
More songwriters with familial ties to the mines like Hazel Dickens, Aunt Molly Jackson, Sara Ogan Gunning, and the most famous coal miner’s daughter of all, country legend Loretta Lynn, spread widely the stories of the coalfields—and the back-breaking work and grinding poverty endemic there—helping to further solidify the American coal miner’s image as an indelible avatar of working class grit. Now, the current generation of coal miners—and their wives—are fighting tooth and nail in the latest chapter of a centuries-long battle between the workers who call coal country home and the corporations that have gotten rich off the land and their labor.
“We’re tough,” Goodwin said, “and we want to support our husbands; we see them and their fight out on the lines, but we’re at home holding down the fort. We’re fighting too, in our own way, holding our guys up and holding our kids close and making it work.”
Part of that is literally wearing their support on their sleeves. Stephanie Russell, Haeden Wright, and Leslee Cotten all showed up to our interview in matching T-shirts with “#CoalMinersWifeLife” emblazoned on the front. Russell, who has a t-shirt printing business, has been pumping out strike-themed shirts to help boost morale and present a united front. Jones has been holding a raffle to benefit the miners’ strike fund, and all of the women are elbows-deep in fundraising. Going on strike is an expensive undertaking; bellies don’t stop rumbling and bills don’t stop piling up just because a worker is on strike, so strike funds and donations are a lifeline for strikers and their families.
“I think every one of us is so tired, but you’ve got to do what you got to do,” said Brittney Wright, whose husband is a strike captain; four of her brothers-in-law also work at Warrior Met and are on strike. “All we can do is stand there and hold our ground.”
They’ve also been showing up on the picket lines themselves, and bringing their kids along to show the next generation what solidarity looks like. “There’s kids out there holding signs with their dad and having a t-ball game, and the dads are thrilled because they’re finally getting to spend some time with their kids, even if it is on the line,” Haeden said. “We’re not just going to stand there silent on the sidelines and be at home with the kids in the kitchen. We want to be visible and vocal too, because the company needs to know that when a man works for Warrior Met, the entire family signs that contract. And women can be a whole lot more vicious when you attack our families than men can.”
Haeden also namechecked the Daughters of Mother Jones, an activist support group of miners’ wives who engaged in civil disobedience to help turn the tide in their men’s favor during a grueling 11-month UMWA strike against the Pittston Coal Company in 1989. “They actually hosted sit-ins at the office until they were removed; they actually stood on the line with the men, they weren’t just bringing food, they were actively involved in striking,” she told me. “If they would get arrested, they made it harder; when they asked your name, you were Mother Jones. It made it a whole lot harder for the company to control that. That’s the energy that we want to bring back.”
The strike has now entered its fifth month with no signs of stopping. On one of my recent visits to Alabama, Auxiliary organizers showed me the school supplies they’re stockpiling for September and said they’re already making plans for a Christmas toy drive. The miners won’t be backing down anytime soon, and the women working overtime alongside them to support their struggle aren’t going anywhere, either. It’s bigger than one strike or one contract; as Jones said, “People before us fought for us to have such a good contract when they started, so if we don’t fight now, it’ll go away. It’s not just the here and now, it’s everybody after; if they take something that’s less, then the people behind us, they’ll have less, too.”
The UMWA recently made waves by countering President Biden’s climate agenda with a demand of their own to protect and preserve coal communities like Brookwood and West Blocton, and coal country is split on what the future could, and should, hold. But as so many miners told me, coal dust runs in their blood, and they don’t want to give it up—even when they know that it could show up in their lungs later on. “It takes a certain kind of breed of person—and not just men, because there’s women down there, and more power to ‘em—to go down there,” Cotten said. “People don’t understand what it takes to be a coal miner, so they’ve lost respect for it, especially if they’re not from a place like this. We grew up in this life.”
These daughters of Mother Jones are in it for the long haul, even as the future of coal remains an open question. Coal mining has an undeniably negative impact on the environment, and as renewable energy sources become more prevalent, there’s a real fear among these coal communities that they could end up left behind. The women I interviewed were clear-eyed about the necessity to find solutions to help halt the climate crisis but aren’t willing to give up on coal entirely. Some of them even have sons who want to follow their fathers down into the mines. No matter what may unfold on a federal or even global level, in places like West Blocton, the circle will remain unbroken, and that fighting history runs too deep to forget.
“I hope that we are doing that justice,” Goodwin said of the legacy of the union-strong mining families that came before hers. “I hope that we are fighting the good fight in a good way, that we can look back on the past and learn from that, and can look to the future, too.”
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