The End of the Warrior Met Strike and the Utter Failure of the Democratic Imagination

The Democratic Party blows its chance in Alabama.

Hamilton Nolan

The UMWA union hall in Brookwood, Alabama. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

After almost two years on the picket line, the hundreds of United Mine Workers of America members who have been on strike at Warrior Met Coal in Alabama have offered to go back to work. They still do not have the fair contract they have sacrificed so much for. Their negotiations will continue, but they did not win this strike — and that is tragic. The company and its private equity owners bear the most direct responsibility for precipitating this heartless, inhuman struggle. But if you are looking for a meaningful place to focus your rage over the way that this strike has turned out, look directly at the Democratic Party.

Imagine, hypothetically, that we were living in a period of history in which inequality has soared for a half century, thanks in large part to the decline of unions and working class bargaining power; in which the American Dream has been hollowed out, and decades of economic gains have flowed almost exclusively to the rich; in which poorly-designed free trade policies supported by Democrats have sucked middle America dry of once-abundant blue collar jobs; in which the obvious failures of neoliberalism to rectify this situation have soured millions of once-reliable blue voters on the Democratic Party, and tempted them into a Republican Party that offers easy scapegoats for systemic problems; in which this toxic lack of opportunity paved the way for a xenophobic, lying narcissist to spend four years in the White House on the strength of racist fables about making America great again. Imagine, further, that after those dark four years, Democrats were back in power; that they had a leader who proclaimed himself the most pro-union president of our lifetimes; and that he led a party that fretted continuously about how to win back working-class voters from the clutches of Trumpism.

Then imagine that there was a long, grinding strike. By coal miners. In Alabama. Who were fighting against the predations of the sort of ultra-insulated capitalist financiers who are accelerating the inequality crisis. Imagine that walk out became the longest major strike in America, dragging on well past the point when most people would have given up, with the strikers assaulted by oppressive police and court rulings.And yet, for month after month, these workers persevered, held the line, and sacrificed greatly in order to fight for dignity and the fundamental ability for working people to be treated fairly by the faceless forces of capital.

It is obvious to anyone with an ounce of imagination that this scenario represents more than a single, local fight. It contains the potential to be a powerful symbol. Not just a generic workers fight back” photo-op for politicians, but a very specific inspirational symbol of what the Democratic Party could and should be. What better way to overcome the cynical but effective Republican strategy of declaring itself the party of regular working Americans, than to actually be the party of regular working Americans? What better way to overcome the accusations that Democrats are ivory tower elites than to go all out to support a justified, heroic strike of blue collar workers in a red state? Why wasn’t Joe Biden on the picket line in Brookwood, Alabama? Why wasn’t Labor Secretary Marty Walsh at any of the big rallies the UMWA held over the past two years? Why weren’t these strikers invited guests at the State of the Union? Why weren’t Democratic senators and congresspeople on the ground giving speeches for the strikers, again and again? (Bernie Sanders cannot be expected to singlehandedly drag the entire Democratic Party to the promised land.) Where was everyone? Where were the ads rallying national support that should have blanketed America before the midterm elections? Why did the Democrats let this potent symbol slip through their grasp?

The utter failure to harness the political potential of the Warrior Met strike is not the most important failure here. That would be the failure to support the substance of the strike. Because this was not just some missed photo-op for Democrats — this was an instance in which Democrats failed to support what should be the core platform of the Democratic Party. What are the only institutions that can bring together people of different races and political persuasions in the deep South? Unions. What is the key to rolling back our inequality crisis? Unions. How do you start to change the electorate in deep red states and open their eyes to worker power? Unions. What do unions need to advertise themselves to people unfamiliar with their power? Successful strikes. Besides workers, who has the decline of unions in middle America hurt the most? Democrats.

So, does anyone know where the Democratic Party might find a major strike of blue collar workers in a red state, that it could energetically support to prove to everyone that it is not a party of remote coastal elites, but rather that its commitment to regular workers is real, that it is ready to repair the damage done by neoliberalism? If anyone sees a strike like that, please let the Democrats know. It’s not an opportunity they would ever want to miss.

The infinite admiration that we owe to those UMWA members who walked the line at Warrior Met for all these months should be matched by our infinite disgust at their lack of national political support. The Democrats blew this. The whole thing gives me the same feeling I had in 2021, watching the Democratic Party similarly fail to rally behind workers at a West Virginia pharmaceutical plant that was being callously shut down and offshored during the depths of the Covid crisis. That, like the Warrior Met strike, offered a chance for Democrats to stand up for unions, against heartless financiers, and in support of blue collar, red state workers. But nobody cared. That opportunity floated away in the wind, along with the jobs that the union was trying to save. 

For all the billions of dollars spent on lobbying and gauzy political advertisements, there seems to be no one in Washington, DC capable of conceptualizing a way to take advantage of the rare chance to combine substance and symbolism in a pro-worker Democratic Party. Political strategists seem content to cede red states to Republicans, and thereby confirm for the working people living in those states that their belief that Democrats don’t really care about them is justified.

The Warrior Met strikers made labor history in Alabama. They may still make some material gains as their negotiations continue. But the lack of political vision by the Democratic Party establishment means that a priceless chance to shake off the boring, Fox News-style polarization of our politics has slipped away. Do better next time, you oblivious cowards.

Hamilton Nolan is a labor writer for In These Times. He has spent the past decade writing about labor and politics for Gawker, Splinter, The Guardian, and elsewhere. More of his work is on Substack.

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