Alabama Women, Like Predecessors, are Keeping a Strike AliveBreaking News
tags: strikes, labor history, womens history, Coal, working class history
“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 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.
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.
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