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1,100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama have been on strike since April 1, and 1,400 Kellogg’s workers at cereal plants in Nebraska, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee have been on strike since Oct. 5. Facing intense financial, physical, and psychological strains from being on strike for so long, violence and hostility from scab workers on the picket line, and threats of being permanently replaced, these workers have held strong. However, they are now facing additional obstacles imposed by business-friendly courts that are stripping their legally protected right to picket. At the Warrior Met picket line in Brookwood, Alabama, as well as the Kellogg’s picket line in Omaha, Nebraska, striking union workers have been slapped with injunctions that restrict who can picket, how close they can stand to company entrances, what they can and can’t do, etc. But the unions aren’t giving up without a fight.
“For too long, the courts have sided with corporations over labor, fundamentally and perniciously reshaping American law, life and liberty,” Sara Nelson, president of the American Association of Flight Attendants-CWA, recently wrote in The New York Times. “Today, they are doing their part to unravel the American dream—and the social contract that has been in place since the 1940s, offering the working class a good life if they spend 40 hours on the job, the means to enjoy it in off hours and a secure retirement.” To discuss where things stand now with each of these important strikes and how companies like Kellogg’s and Warrior Met Coal are trying to use the courts to break them, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez speaks with Larry Spencer in Alabama and Dan Osborn in Nebraska. Larry Spencer is currently serving as Vice President for District 20 of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents the 1,100 miners who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal since April. Dan Osborn has worked at the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha, Nebraska, for 18 years and currently serves as president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union (BCTGM), Local 50G.
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome everyone to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s great to have you all with us. Here at The Real News we’ve been working hard to bring you all on the ground coverage of the many vital worker struggles that have been taking place around the country. From strikes or potential strikes at Columbia University and healthcare giant Kaiser Permanente, to rank and file movements for more democratic union representation within the United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters.
In text articles, podcasts, and YouTube interviews, we’ve been bringing you all voices and perspectives from workers and organizers on the frontlines of these crucial battles which we should all be invested in. But as we know, the American media landscape has a long way to go to make up for the decades of, frankly, bad or just plain absent coverage on the labor movement, and there are a lot of important details regarding workers’ struggles and the barriers that workers face to successfully fighting back against the bosses that go unreported or underreported today. And one of those details concerns the ways that companies like Warrior Met Coal and Kellogg’s – Two companies where workers have been on strike for months – Are effectively weaponizing the court system to try to break strikes and to roll back workers’ rights including their essential right to picket when they’re on strike.
In a recent article for The New York Times, Sarah Nelson, President of The Association of Flight Attendants wrote this, “For too long the courts have sided with corporations over labor, fundamentally and perniciously reshaping American law, life, and liberty. Today they’re doing their part to unravel the American dream and the social contract that has been in place since the 1940s offering the working class a good life if they spend 40 hours on the job, the means to enjoy it in off hours, and a secure retirement. In one stark example, a judge in Alabama in October barred union mine workers from picketing within 300 yards of mine entrances, even as the authorities there have failed to charge the drivers of vehicles that struck lawful picketers.
In a more common infringement of free speech, a judge in Iowa limited United Auto Workers picket lines outside a John Deere plant in Davenport last month to just four people at each entrance to the plant. The wholesale theft of workers’ rights is happening in broad daylight. With the help of conservative judges, corporations have systematically weakened labor laws for decades, leaving workers fewer and fewer tools to hold their bosses accountable. In the rare cases when workers win judgments against a bad boss, employers rarely face more than a slap on the wrist.”
As I mentioned before, and as Sarah Nelson referenced in this piece for The New York Times, striking workers at Warrior Met Coal but also workers who were on strike at farming equipment giant John Deere and workers who have been at strike at Kellogg’s have faced these kinds of repressive measures that have been enacted through the courts at the behest of the companies themselves where the workers are striking. It’s really important that all of us who are invested in the labor movement and all of us who are workers ourselves understand how the law can be and is being used against workers in this country. And it’s equally important for us to learn from different workers’ struggles how this all plays out on the ground and how we can fight against it. And that is precisely what we’re going to do here today. And I’m honored to be joined by two guests who are here to help us navigate this thorny issue which they have both been confronting firsthand.
Joining me today is, first, Larry Spencer, who is currently serving as vice president for District 20 of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents the most diverse group of coal workers in the UMWA, and mainly in the US staff. Larry has been fighting with and for the 1100 coal miners who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama since April, which we’ve been covering extensively here at The Real News.
I’m also honored to be joined by Dan Osborn. As you all know based on a previous interview that I had with Dan, Dan has worked at the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha, Nebraska, for 18 years and currently serves as president of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, or the BCTGM Local 50G down there in Omaha. 1400 Kellogg’s workers at plants in Nebraska, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Tennessee went on strike beginning on Oct. 5. And as of right now are still on strike, as are the workers at Warrior Met Coal.
So Dan, Larry, thank you both so much for joining me. I know you got a lot going on and it’s a real honor to have you both here at The Real News.
Larry Spencer: Thank you, Max.
Maximillian Alvarez: I was wondering, I want us to dig into this question of the specific question of how you all have been fighting on multiple fronts, including in the courtroom with these judges essentially working to restrict mine workers and Kellogg’s workers’ abilities to picket. But I was wondering if we could actually start, since I have both of you here, if we could start by giving Real News viewers and listeners an update on the strikes at Warrior Met Coal and the strike at Kellogg’s. Larry, do you think you could maybe give us an update on where things stand now and how folks are doing down there in Alabama?
Larry Spencer: Well, we started on April 1. Today is 251 days of being on strike, and we’ve been negotiating with the company and with no success of trying to get back what was lost in the bankruptcy back in 2016. See, this company that we’re working for, Warrior Met Coal, they actually bought these mines after Jim Walters went bankrupt. And there was a contract that was signed to try to keep them, get them up and going. And we did. The coal miners worked hard and got this company up and making a very good profit.
So when it came time for this contract, we asked for what we had given up back. And that’s what had been promised to us through them anyway, was that once they got to making profit that they would put it back into the workers’ pockets. And instead they’re putting it in their own. Their CEO makes $7 million a year and they don’t feel like they can afford to help or to put back more of what we lost back in 2016 and our guys are just… April 1 they decided that, hey, look, we’re tired of what’s going on. We got some labor board charges, and we came out on an unfair labor practice strike, and were in negotiations too, and this company has fought us tooth and nail all the way through this, all the way up to date.
The biggest thing here lately has been in the courts, and they’ve limited us, as you said too, we can’t be within 300 yards of any direction of the entrances. And if you look at the layout of their coal mines, that pretty much shuts our picket lines down. So we have still been struggling to keep up some sort of appearance out around the mine sites and areas that we can, mostly at our union halls and on the sides of the roads, there at our union halls and letting people know we’re still here. We participated in a Christmas parade the other day and the community was, they were very excited to see us in that parade.
We didn’t do it necessarily for this strike, we felt like we needed to be seen out there and that was our opportunity. But we’ve been hit hard with just absolutely not being able to put our people on the picket line, but they’re staying strong. We have a rally once every week. Every Wednesday night we have a rally. Right now it’s at 5:00. We’re talking about moving the time but we usually have quite a few people out there anywhere, from 200 to 500 people, and we try to give them an update once a week of where we’re at. Hasn’t been a lot of movement, so there hasn’t been a lot to update besides that we’re still here and we’re fighting to get them through Christmas and stuff. That’s pretty much where we’re at right now.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, for folks watching and viewing, we’ll obviously link to some of our coverage in the show notes for this episode, but definitely go back and look at the reports that Kim Kelly has done for The Real News, Working People episodes that we’ve done on the miner strike. But as Larry said, these mine workers have been on strike since the beginning of April. They’ve been holding the line. The motto is one day longer, one day stronger. And the community is behind them. The auxiliary is behind them. But that’s a long damn time to be on strike and it’s really important that all of us don’t get swept up in the news cycle and forget about the struggles that are still very much ongoing.
So Larry, thanks so much for giving us that update, man. And Dan, I was wondering if you could give us an update from the Kellogg’s picket line. I know that we’ve had some recent developments there, actually as of this morning.
Dan Osborn: Yeah. It was about a half hour ago. I have here the tentative agreement that we voted on on Sunday, and the results just got back to us about a half hour ago where it was overwhelmingly rejected by our members. That means we hold the line. I think the company’s leveraging the winter months and Christmas against us right now. There’s some two-tier language in the contract is… I can’t speak to why every member voted or each member that voted no voted no, but there’s some language in there that keeps the two-tier systems strong. Only 3% of our lower tier get to move up into the upper tier each year. We believe that number’s too low.
Your transitional time does not count towards your pension. So when you do move up that kind, your time basically starts over. Even if you’ve spent eight years at Kellogg’s on the lower tier that wouldn’t count towards your pension. We don’t believe that’s good enough. I think we just don’t want to leave anybody behind on this contract. There are some good things. We got our cost of living language added back into the contract that they were trying to take away, but ultimately this tentative agreement that we voted down doesn’t offer enough security for the future of our workers.
Maximillian Alvarez: And just like I was saying before about our Real News coverage on the Warrior Met Coal strike, we will also be linking in the show notes here to our coverage on the Kellogg’s strike, which as I said has been going on since early October, including a past interview that I got to do with Dan. So if folks watching want to know more about that two-tier wage system and why it is such an important sticking point for Kellogg’s workers who want to overturn it and what that will mean in the lives of rank and file workers, Dan explained that beautifully in our last interview. So I point folks to that. I would also point them to the great text reporting that Mel Buer has been doing for The Real News. Again, we’ll link all of that in the show notes here so that folks watching can have that additional context on each of these important strikes and the topics that Larry and Dan are bringing up.
But as I mentioned at the top, one particular aspect of these strikes that we wanted to focus on today, because it’s been so underreported and because it’s so opaque to most of us, is this question of how companies like Warrior Met and Kellogg’s are using the courts to roll back workers’ protected rights to picket, and basically their right to free speech. And that’s something that, again, all of us should be concerned about and invested in right now.
I think both Larry and Dan, you mentioned in one form or another that these companies, one of the best tools that they have is time. They just want to wait out workers who are on the line. They want workers and their families to feel the squeeze on their bank accounts, especially as the holidays approach, as the winter months approach and it gets colder out there on the picket line. It’s a lot easier for workers to get demoralized and companies are hoping that supporters around the country will just forget about these struggles. We know tha, that’s one of their most vital tools that they use to try to break morale and break these strikes, but they’re not going to just leave it up to that. They’re going to try to use other tools available to them like the courts to sort of hamstring these different strikes.
I think a lot of us don’t really know how that works or what that looks like. So I was wondering if we could go back around the table, starting with Larry, if you could just break down for laymen how Warrior Met and how Kellogg’s have been using the courts to hurt these strikes. What exactly is going on there?
Larry Spencer: Well, they filed to have injunctions put in with the court down in Tuscaloosa, under Jim Roberts, the judge. The main thing that they’re going after is they’re calling it picket line violence, but they produced a video that was so hacked up that all you seen was things that happened from the picketers’ part. You didn’t see where the strikers were actually hitting our people with cars and causing the people to turn around and try to stop them from hitting them. And part of that was to hit their cars. They turned around. There were some different things that went on, some windows busted and stuff, but it all started from those people hitting people with cars.
We’ve had wives hit with cars. We’ve had people that were actually just standing to the side of the picket line, they swerved over and hit them with a car. And one of the wives was standing beside the picket line one day and they swerved at her and hit her for no reason. And of course I don’t know any man out there that’s going to sit there and watch their wife get hit by a car and not do something back. But they don’t show that. They cut all that out and then they show the person stepping up and hitting a car or something. They don’t ever show what really started it. And that’s why the courts are turning it back on us because they’re only seeing part of it and they’re not looking at our clips that we’ve got that show where they are hitting the people and stuff.
And not to get away from our strike, but I think shortly after John Deere started there was a man killed on the picket line from a car hitting. And we were scared to death that something like that may happen on our picket line and we were doing things to try to stop that, but you can’t keep people calmed down when the company is allowing their people to do that kind of stuff. We get our laws and stuff that says the picketers can’t carry guns onto the picket line, and we’re not, but we’re getting guns pointed at us every time we’re on the picket line. We have somebody come through and point guns at us.
We’ve tried to take pictures of it, and what the company did was they paid to have the strikers’ windows tinted down so that we couldn’t see inside their cars. But we can’t take a picture of the gun that is pointed at us. You can see it, but when you take a picture it flashes and you can’t catch what’s inside. And we’ve had a couple of professional photographers out there trying to get a picture of the gun that has been pointed at us, you just can’t do it. But the courts are seeing things that’s happening from our side and they’re going against what… They’re making these TROs to appear that we are the ones that’s causing all of it, and we’re just not.
There’re videos out there where we have people stationed at these picket lines and they tell the picketers to walk across the road, give them a break and let one car in, walk again, let one car in. And that’s what the labor laws tell you to do. We’ve got a right to protest, but we’ve got to do it in a certain way. And we’ve tried to keep people out there that were doing that and we still are having people [bumping] cars and the police are turning their heads at it. Not to say all of them, but a lot of them are just saying, well, I didn’t see that. And then when you take it in your own hands to try to get it stopped then they turn that kind of stuff against us with these videos.
Right now, like we said in the beginning, the injunction that’s on this right now, we can’t come anywhere close to the entrance of there without putting ourselves in jeopardy of being arrested. The leadership of this union has tried to keep its membership doing things in a way to keep them from getting in trouble and our main goal is get them back to work. I hope I didn’t ramble too much there.
Maximillian Alvarez: No, no, that was great, man. And just to boil that down for viewers, just to make sure that I have it right, what Larry’s describing is 1100 coal miners there at Warrior Met Coal in Brookwood, Alabama, have been on strike since April 1. There’s been an ongoing, protracted strike. It’s gotten heated at the picket line because you have workers and their families walking the picket line, demanding a fair contract. And you have scab workers basically driving in and out of the entrance hitting picketers, including one coal miner’s wife, and I believe sending her to the hospital. And so, this sort of violence that mine workers are experiencing on the Warrior Met Coal picket line is obviously really terrifying and very dangerous.
Larry, you mentioned that at John Deere where they got slapped with a similar injunction, one worker was actually killed by a car. So the stakes are very high here. And yet the company is essentially taking very selected clips of miners pushing back against these aggressive scabs or anti-union [inaudible] in their car. They’re only showing the courts that and saying, oh, it’s the miners who are the ones responsible for the violence. But they’re not showing that you guys are getting hit on the picket line by cars, and that they’re the ones instigating the violence. And then they’re using that to basically say that you can’t be within 300 yards of the entrance, effectively pushing you off the map. Do I have that right?
Larry Spencer: You’re correct. Some of the other things that’s going on is our governor, Kay Ivey. She is allowing state troopers to escort these scabs in buses to the work area. Now, the thing about it is most of these scabs are from Kentucky, Illinois, Virginia, and she’s allowing them to escort them in with Alabama tax dollars to a work area that I’ve never been escorted into. We’ve never been escorted one time. We have actually had people that got tickets from the state troopers for running the speed limit. And they said, well, there were blue lights behind you. There wasn’t a safe place to pull over. Did we know the scabs were coming down the road? We did, but where is it an emergency to run scabs into a work area? Whether it be the coal mines or Kellogg or John Deere, or where it’s at? Where is the emergency to take people into a workplace to run the blue lights and sirens, and these people aren’t even paying tax dollars here in Alabama? It doesn’t make sense. We’ve got a lot that’s been going against us, that’s been fighting against us.
Maximillian Alvarez: Yeah, I would say so. Dan, I want to bring you in here and ask how this has been playing out for you all on the Kellogg’s picket line. I know it may not necessarily be the exact same situation, but the courts have also been involved in that strike. Am I right about that?
Dan Osborn: Yeah. We have a temporary injunction against us currently, and what Larry said, shoot, you can almost cut and paste it to ours. They bring them in on buses and those buses fly through our picket lines. We’ve had people hit. Luckily we haven’t had anybody go to the hospital, but Kellogg’s is doing 24 hour surveillance and then they have security guards with handheld cameras too. So they get every angle and they can pick and choose which videos they show the courts. So it leaves you at a disadvantage. We try to get cell phone footage the best that we can. We even purchase GoPros for our gate where the trucks and buses go in and out but the cold weather and battery life, just it really wasn’t feasible to try to record as much as they were recording.
Interestingly enough, the same day the TRO was implemented, Kellogg’s hired, we call them goons. They would go around to each one of our picket sites, try to get us to drink alcohol with them and try to get us to break the law so they could have us on video breaking the law the same day the injunction was put in place. We didn’t fall for it. Right now it’s not as bad as Larry’s, it’s still a civil suit. It hasn’t become criminal which is what they’re looking for. I believe once it becomes criminal then we would have to stay 500 feet from our picket sites.
As of right now there’s really no restrictions on our picketers. I know that’s what they were going for by hiring those goons and trying to get us to make a mistake. When we first started, our lawyer, the Douglas county attorney, his office, nobody could produce the Nebraska state statute on what we could and could not do on the picket line because it had been so long since there was a strike in Nebraska, nobody knew. So we were told, hey, we could cross the street as pedestrians, so that’s what we were doing. Fortunately I haven’t seen any firearms pointed at us, but I know we were told we can’t flip them off, we can’t use profanity, but they certainly can [use it] against us when they’re coming and going. Every one of those scabs on the bus is flipping us off and yelling, but it’s a double standard really.
That’s pretty much what’s going on. Right now we stay off to the side. We don’t walk across our driveway. We have an easement that we can stay on but we’re just trying to mind our Ps and Qs. It’s always been a peaceful protest on our side. I can’t say as much for them with the way they drive their buses and vehicles through the lines. They’re almost instigating violence just like in Larry’s case. So we have to remain bigger than they are. That’s where we’re currently at with that injunction.
Maximillian Alvarez: Man, again, I know we’ve said it already, but it just really does highlight how much the deck is stacked on one side against the other. Workers who already have a very steep uphill battle to unionize, to have any sort of leverage over these bosses to lead a strike, to win a strike. There’s so many barriers in place that stack the deck in favor of the bosses. And then on top of that, all these fricking, like you said, all the minding of your Ps and Qs, when you’re on the picket line, you have to stand over here. You can’t step one foot over there. You can’t flip people off. You can’t cuss at them. You can’t do shit without having the book thrown at you.
Meanwhile, these scabs can do whatever they want on the picket line. They’re being escorted by police. They can bring guns. Just really, I just want to emphasize for people watching and listening right now how dire that situation is and how unfair that situation is. And this should all just go back to that point of us needing to stand together and show solidarity with one another.
I guess, I don’t want to keep you guys too long, but I was wondering if we could maybe round out by talking about how you fight this. I guess how you can fight this in the courts, but also outside of the courts, what workers on the line need to counteract this in Alabama, in Omaha, and elsewhere. I guess, for folks who are watching and listening, how do you fight this in and outside of the courtrooms and how can folks watching be a part of that effort?
Dan Osborn: I can touch on that. On the picket line, like I said, you have to be bigger than them as far as the use of profanity, but really where it all starts is changing the statutes. They’re so restrictive and they give you such a disadvantage that the company’s able to use the courts against you. So really it starts with the lawmakers. And I think we need to be more proactive moving forward about getting these laws changed and sitting down with the other heads of unions and each one of the locals in Alabama and Omaha and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and Kentucky, everywhere around the country, we need to be more proactive and get together and think ahead just like the companies do. The companies are always thinking ahead. They’re probably thinking 10, 15 years in advance.
I believe Kellogg’s has, this has been a long time coming for them. And they picked this time for the fight. So we need to do the same moving forward with meeting with our AFL CIOs locally and statewide. And like I said, other heads of union members and we need to lobby these politicians to get some of these statutes changed.
Larry Spencer: I agree with Dan. We’ve got to look way ahead of what’s happening today and look at probably the political side of this too, and get our people to get out and to vote for people that’s going to represent them, whether it be judges or mayors or governors or whoever it is. We got to make sure that our people get out and work to have people in office that will support labor. The people in labor are the ones that made this country to start with. And we’ve forgotten that, it seems like. It is time for us, not just the mine workers, but the confectionary workers or [inaudible] steel workers, all of us need to form together and to make sure and fight the same battle and trying to get people in these offices that’ll work for us in the future and keep our people together.
I’m sure Dan is very worried about what is going to take place next with his vote being turned out, but keeping the people together is one of the hardest things that we face out there, is trying to make sure that our guys understand that we’re there for them and that that company is not. The companies, it sounds like Kellogg’s is doing some of the same things that Warrior Met is doing and they’re definitely not concerned for the workers’ wellbeing. All they’re worried about, they’re worried about the greed that they’ve got and what they can make out of it. But if we can keep our people together I think we can go a long way. Dan, like I told you earlier, if you need me, call me.
Dan Osborn: Thanks, Larry. Thanks Larry.
Maximillian Alvarez: I guess on that note, just as a final quick question, I know we mentioned earlier that it’s probably no secret that Warrior Met and Kellogg’s, to say nothing of Columbia University and the other places where workers are on strike right now, these companies are definitely thinking about what the cold weather and the holidays approaching is going to do to workers and their families, and they’re hoping that it will demoralize them and they’re hoping that, again, people will forget about them. So I was wondering if Larry, Dan, if you had any kind of final words to people who were watching and viewing about the strikes that are ongoing, any kind of final messages for folks as we head into the holidays.
Dan Osborn: I think for me, BCTGM versus Kellogg’s here, the easiest thing people can do if they want to support our movement and our cause is to simply not buy Kellogg’s. That’s the easiest thing people can do. They can bring in a million scab workers and try to produce the cereal that we’ve all known our whole lives, but if nobody’s buying it it doesn’t matter how much they make. That’s one of the fronts we’re fighting on is our boycott movement. It’s starting to take a foothold. Actually, interestingly enough, after this injunction got put on us we ran some data analytics through Anoto Global out of Washington DC, and 24% of people after hearing about that injunction said they were going to start boycotting Kellogg’s and only 3% of people were actually sympathized with Kellogg’s during this time. So, like I said, that would be the way, don’t buy Kellogg’s products. It’s really easy to do.
Larry Spencer: I guess mine is not quite as simple as that, but I can promise you I won’t buy Kellogg’s and we’ll make sure that our membership will not buy Kellogg’s. Come Wednesday night – We’ve already talked about it a little bit at the rallies – But come Wednesday night we’ll make sure that that’s loud and clear with our membership. With our part, I guess the community’s got to just stand behind these guys that’s working because they’re their neighbors, they’re their uncles, their brothers. They’ve got to stand behind those guys and understand that this company… See our product goes overseas. So we can’t just say don’t buy that product. We really just got to make sure that the community understands that this company, they’re not worried about the community or anything, they’re just worried about the profit.
And if we can get them to really realize that all that we are asking for is to get us back to 2016 standards in the contract. We’re not asking for a lot in the community, just staying behind us, and that’s going on pretty much right now. There’s a lot of support for Christmas and a lot of support for the people that’s out on strike, but just trying to make sure this community does understand that and make sure that the political, the politicians understand that stuff too.
Maximillian Alvarez: That is Larry Spencer, Vice President for District 20 of the United Mine Workers of America, which represents the 1100 coal miners at Warrior Met Coal who had been on strike since April. And Dan Osborn, who’s worked at the Kellogg’s plant in Omaha, Nebraska, for 18 years and currently serves as president with the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union, Local 50G down there in Omaha where some of the 1400 Kellogg’s workers and multiple states have been on strike since October 5.
Dan, Larry, thank you both so much for joining me today. I really appreciate it.
Dan Osborn: Thank you. It was a pleasure being on.
Maximillian Alvarez: For everyone watching, this is Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Before you go, please head on over to therealnews.com/support, become a monthly sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you important conversations and coverage just like this. Thank you so much for watching.