What Happens When Mom And Dad Go On Strike
When the Wrights and their two young daughters joined the picket line, it upended every aspect of their lives — and that was just the beginning. Two years later, they look back at their family's role in one of the longest coal strikes in U.S. history.
Dusk had just fallen on a cool March evening in the sleepy rural mining town of Brookwood, Alabama, and Haeden Wright had her hands full. She was simultaneously unpacking a bag of donated toiletries and giving an interview to a pair of German trade unionists, while keeping an eye on her oldest daughter, 8-year-old Averi, who sat absorbed in her Roblox game nearby. A volunteer and I rifled through Dollar General bags, stocking the shelves with bottles of pink V05 shampoo under the intense gaze of John Lewis, iconic leader of the United Mine Workers of America, whose portrait hung beside grainy black-and-white photos of coal miners past. A few of the overhead light bulbs had burned out, and the strike pantry — which had been operating out of a local union hall for nearly two years — was filling up with shadows as the sun set.
The slightly surreal scene was nothing new to Haeden, a 35-year-old high school English teacher and mother of two, who had spent the past 23 months doing everything in her power to keep her family afloat.
On April 1, 2021, Haeden’s coal miner husband, 40-year-old Braxton, and more than 1,000 of his co-workers had walked off the job following months of tense negotiations between their union (the UMWA) and their employer, Warrior Met Coal. On that day, the miners — and by extension, their families — were launching what would become the longest coal miners’ strike in Alabama’s history. Throughout the ordeal, families had to cope with the great economic and social pressures that come with holding the line during a long labor conflict, from keeping up with bills and juggling doctors’ appointments after losing their company-provided health insurance to watching friends — and even family — cross the picket line. It was a long and grueling fight for the strikers, most of whom had to come home each day and explain what was going on to their children: The vast majority of Warrior Met Coal strikers are parents.
And then, just a few weeks shy of the strike’s two-year anniversary, it all came to an abrupt end. On Feb. 16, UMWA President Cecil Roberts sent Warrior Met Coal an offer to have the miners return to work; the company accepted, and months later, that process is still unfolding as miners undergo medical exams and a safety refresher training in preparation for their return into the mines.
The reasoning behind the UMWA’s decision was simple: The strike wasn’t having the intended effect on the company’s ability to operate and profit. As time went on and metallurgical coal prices remained high — the coal mined at Brookwood is used in steel production — the miners themselves were the only people being harmed. Warrior Met was able to keep the mines running by bringing in outsiders to cross the picket line, and despite the striking workers’ sacrifices, the strike couldn’t make a dent in the company’s profits.
The End Of A Strike And A Town In Turmoil
The announcement came as a shock to the miners and their families. At a membership meeting in late February, emotions ran high; the miners’ reaction to the decision ranged from cautious optimism to confusion over the return-to-work process to anger over a perceived lack of transparency. Many, including the Wrights, suddenly found themselves weighing their options.
Unlike many of his co-workers, who worked the mine some 2,300 feet below the surface, Braxton’s job as a control room operator on the late night (“hoot owl”) shift kept him aboveground. Belowground is famously dangerous work: In 2001, 13 people were killed in a pair of mine explosions in Brookwood, at the time, the worst mining disaster in the United States in decades. “All I done was sat and played on the computer all night,” Braxton joked about his more tech-centric work at the mine. “I gave up an easy job to fight for better.”
The strike had reshaped everything about daily life and family life for the Wrights — and would come to largely define a chapter of childhood for their two daughters, Averi and 2-year-old Everly. For Averi, who was 6 when the strike began, that meant rushing from karate lessons to rallies, helping out in the strike pantry (and playing Roblox on her tablet when the grown-up talk got boring), and joining her parents on the picket line. As for Everly, she’d never known anything else.
Haeden and Braxton saw the strike as an opportunity to educate their kids about the values they hold dear. Both of them come from union families, and both have deep roots in coal. Braxton has worked in the mines for 17 years, as did his father and grandfather before him, and Haeden’s father is a retired miner and member of UMWA Local 2397, so the girls have grown up with the union. (UMWA opened up its first Alabama office in 1890.)
“We are as militant as you can be in the South, as far as being vocally outspoken, and that’s part of our family,” Haeden explains. “We talk about what a union is, what union wages do; we openly criticize in my household places like Amazon; if someone is on TV and they start bragging about paying people $15 an hour, we’re very quick to point out that $15 an hour is a poverty wage. So for our kids, I hope the strike lets them know that it is OK to demand what you’re worth. It’s OK to say, ‘I’m worth more than that. You can’t function without me.’”
“We are as militant as you can be in the South, as far as being vocally outspoken, and that’s part of our family.”
Once the strike began in earnest, in the spring of 2021, Warrior Met Coal recruited hundreds of replacement workers from neighboring states to cross the picket line and keep the mine running in the strikers’ absence. There were clashes during the strike, and there is no love lost between the two groups, who occasionally run into one another in restaurants, shops, and community events. Tensions are inevitable — and palpable.
Brookwood, with a population of some 2,500 people, is not a big place: Over dinner with a few auxiliary friends at a local Mexican restaurant, Haeden pointed out a pair of “scabs” — replacement workers hired by the company to work despite the strike to keep the business running — dining a few tables away. They blended in just fine and didn’t look much different from the other men there that evening — they were white, bearded, husky, and clad in T-shirts and shorts or denim overalls. I wouldn’t have been able to tell myself if one of Haeden’s sharp-eyed friends hadn’t pointed out that one of the men was wearing a Warrior Met shirt. She told me that she was willing to bet they’d recognized us — the traitors noshed away happily on a taco platter while the union ladies shot them dirty looks and grumbled into their $5 watermelon margaritas. The memory of the strike won’t be fading anytime soon — and it’s clear that no one is quite ready to forgive, either.
Growing Up On The Picket Line
Averi is keenly aware of the impact that these catastrophic changes have had on their lives and probably knows more about class, labor, and solidarity than most adults — let alone other kids her age. When I ask Averi why the union is important, she has her answer ready: “Because they fight for the rights of other people.”
“My parenting style is I’m honest with my kids,” Haeden explains. “I talk to my kids like they’re adults because they need to know the situation is not a game, and those people that are going in and taking not just your dad’s job but your friend’s dad’s jobs — those people aren’t worthy of respect. They’re disrespecting your family. I don’t want anyone to starve, but those type of people will never have a seat at our table because they turned their back on their fellow workers. She says that ‘scabs are poo,’ because in our household, that’s not something that’s acceptable.”
Haeden is referring to one of Averi’s refrains about the workers who crossed the picket line that became something of a hit on Twitter during the first year of the strike. For the Wrights, it’s a funny line that belies a serious family value: “You don’t cross the picket line,” Haeden says.
As both Haeden and Braxton tell me, their kids were a major reason why the workers went on strike in the first place. Sen. Bernie Sanders noted in his letter to BlackRock CEO Laurence Fink that since 2017, Warrior Met has awarded $1.4 billion — billion — in dividends to its shareholders while also handing out $50,000 bonuses to executives. (Global asset management firm BlackRock is the largest shareholder in Warrior Met Coal.)
“My parenting style is I’m honest with my kids,” Haeden explains. “I talk to my kids like they’re adults because they need to know the situation is not a game.”
Those same executives were bringing home multimillion-dollar paychecks and exporting the fruits of the miners’ labor overseas for huge profits. A year into the strike, Warrior Met’s profits had nearly quadrupled — in 2022, the company reported more than $640 million in net income — but the company remained unwilling to meet the workers at the bargaining table.
It goes without saying that this all matters a great deal to the families trying to negotiate for fair, safe working conditions at the Warrior Met mines. But it should matter to all of us — the coal miner’s strike illustrates the grim economic reality that so many working families face. Corporations continue to profit handsomely as families struggle to make ends meet, battling decades of wage stagnation, rising inflation, a lack of paid sick leave or paid parental leave, and the ever-present issue of health insurance. In 2021, about 30 million people in the United States had no health insurance at all, and 5.4% of them — about 4 million — were children. For most workers in the United States, health care is tied to their jobs, and all too often, workers find themselves forced to accept terrible conditions or low wages because the alternative — losing insurance — is untenable for their own health care needs or those of their dependents.
The Working Parent Trap
The lack of a national social safety net all too often forces working parents to make impossible choices — and it puts striking workers in a considerably more difficult position when they push back against the bosses who have been exploiting their labor. A common strike-breaking tactic is to cancel striking workers’ health insurance when they walk out, leaving the union or individual workers to pick up the slack. The UMWA jumped in to cover its members’ health care during the strike, and that cost it millions — a serious financial drain that contributed to the eventual decision to pull the plug on the strike.
Before they walked out, miners at Warrior Met Coal were working 12- to 16-hour days, six to seven days a week — with many workers shouldering “temporary” pay cuts in excess of 20%. The contract they’d been required to sign with the company in 2016 had included forced amendments, reducing wages, and replacing their 100% health care coverage with an 80/20 split that further strained families’ budgets. Warrior Met had bought up the mines in 2015 — when the previous owner, Walter Energy, went bankrupt — and rehired most of the laid-off workers with the stipulation that they sign the amended contract, which the company promised to improve upon in the next round of negotiations. Five years later, miners say those improvements still hadn’t come, and the UMWA leadership decided to call an unfair labor practices strike.
“The company had made it to where he couldn’t be a part of his family,” Haeden said.
As Braxton told the United States Senate Committee on the Budget in February 2022, “Before the bankruptcy contract, many spouses stayed home because the pay and benefits allowed for families to live well. After the bankruptcy, many spouses were forced to work outside the home while still being the primary caregiver for their home and family. So children saw both parents less as a result of the cuts in the bankruptcy contract.”
That same 2016 contract also made it nearly impossible for them to call out for family or medical emergencies without being penalized by the company’s strict four-strike policy. (After the final “strike,” or disciplinary note, you were out of a job.) But any parent can tell you, emergencies don’t happen on a schedule — and for the Wrights, the restrictive system caused considerable stress and heartache. “When I was pregnant with Everly,” says Haeden, “I thought I was having a miscarriage on my birthday, [but] he was heading into work. So I called my sister, had her come and stay with my older daughter, and drove myself to the hospital. And when my other daughter was born, she had a fractured skull. She was in the hospital for, like, four days. He went out to go into work, then drove to Birmingham to be at the hospital, and drove back into work, because he wasn’t allowed to be off with his family.”
“If you were involved in an accident, had a medical emergency, your child was sick or hospitalized, your spouse was in labor or hospitalized, it did not matter,” Braxton had told the Senate committee. “If you could not give 24 hours’ notice, you would receive a strike. My brothers and sisters have been given strikes for having accidents on the way to work and being late. Our spouses learned to not call to tell us about accidents or emergencies at home until after our shift out of fear that we would receive a strike.”
A Family In Flux
When the strike pulled them out of the mines, all those workers who had become unhappily accustomed to seeing their spouses and children for only a few hours each week suddenly found themselves cooling their heels at home when they weren’t on picket line duty. For Braxton and many of the other fathers, the adjustment was difficult to navigate at first. “We worked so much before we went on strike that we didn’t get to spend as much time with our family, but then once we were at home every day, it was kind of learning how to be with our family,” he explains. “That part was tough in the beginning. I just wasn’t used to being at home that much. Most of Averi’s life, I was at work.”
“When my oldest daughter was little, he was gone all the time,” Haeden adds. “So their relationship isn’t as close because he wasn’t around as much. I coached her T-ball team, not her dad. I took her to gymnastics. I took her to doctor’s appointments. If she was sick, I stayed up with her. He couldn’t — it’s not that he didn't want to — but the company had made it to where he couldn’t be a part of his family. You might have been providing a check, but you didn’t actually get to live with your family.”
As the strike stretched on into its second year, many of the strikers picked up side jobs or new employment, including Braxton; he’d first started working at Amazon about an hour’s drive away in Bessemer, where he’d become involved in the ongoing union campaign there, and later found work at an iron pipe company that pays significantly more per hour than he can expect under the current Warrior Met contract. As a parent with two growing children, he’d had to put his family first, and it’s unlikely he’ll be returning to the mine.
“We worked so much before we went on strike that … once we were at home every day, it was kind of learning how to be with our family.”
The strike created a seismic shift in families’ schedules, and the children weren’t the only ones who had to adjust to a new status quo. It was a big change for the miners’ spouses, too, who had long been accustomed to running the show while their partners were underground. Since their time off was so scant and precious, it was reserved for what Haeden calls “fun time — getting the groceries, going to the movies, going to the zoo.” With their partners suddenly back in the picture, both parents had to renegotiate shared household tasks, child care, and discipline. “That was a balancing act for all of our families too,” she says. “When you’re used to having a spouse that’s only home a couple hours a day, it’s a different dynamic than having to figure it out — actually doing that as partners like it should be — because you’re used to being able to have a set way to do things.”
While Averi had to share her dad with Warrior Met Coal for most of her young life, Everly, the baby, can’t remember what it was like before he was around.
She was only 4 months old when the strike began and spent most of her young life being toted along to rallies and passed around to various union aunties as her mom and dad kept busy with strike work. Now, she’s old enough to run around after her sister and grab the phone from her mom during interviews (hi again, Everly!), and her dad has seized the chance to build a strong relationship with his youngest. “I remember him texting me the first day he had [Everly] home by himself and being like, ‘You’ve got to come home. I don’t know what to do. She won’t stop crying. She doesn’t know who I am,’” Haeden recalls. “And then a few weeks later, that’s the one person she wanted because he actually got to be there for her. She got to know him as being her parent because he got to actually be present in her life when she was young enough to remember.”
“I missed so much of Averi being little, and then with Everly for the first year, that was Daddy’s girl,” Braxton remembers with a smile. “Me and her spent a lot of days just sleeping in the recliner. She didn’t want nobody but me. Once I went back to start working, she got to where she wanted Mom or Grandmom, but to start with, all she wanted was Daddy.”
The Next Generation
In spite of all the disruptions, the past two years have been positive and memorable for Averi, who seems to have enjoyed the heck out of the strike. Haeden’s volunteer job as the president of the UMWA Auxiliary, a support group of spouses, family members, and retirees, meant she spent untold hours organizing events, cooking and serving food at rallies, distributing groceries and other essentials to strikers’ families, and stocking the union’s strike pantry — usually with Averi right there beside her amusing herself while her mom worked or running around with the other union kids she calls her “strike cousins.”
“Man, if unions could all be like kids, if every worker could be like these kids,” Haeden says. “They always wanted to go to the picket line. They always wanted to be at the rallies. They wanted to talk to people, and they were excited. If we could have all had that energy, we’d have a whole lot more unionized workers.”
The beginning of the strike had demanded big adjustments of Averi and Everly. But the latest chapter in the years-long saga — a strike ending without a clear or satisfying resolution — requires even bigger adjustments and another round of careful parental explanations to kids whose settled routines are changing once again.
When we last spoke, Braxton was wrestling with the idea of leaving his job of 17 years on uncertain terms. “I spent so much of my adult life there,” he explained. “Now, I’m kind of starting over at 40 years old at a new place.”
And he was also struggling with the question of how to explain his decision to Averi, since his own emotions were still fresh. He and Haeden were still working out how best to process with their girls that after two years of chanting strike slogans like “no contract, no coal!” alongside their strike cousins, most of their dads would be heading back to work without a new contract.
“Our children were the motivators to where we were willing to fight this long and to fight this hard,” Haeden says.
“This is kind of upheaving their lives; they’re used to having a schedule,” Haeden reflected. Averi was having a particularly tough time, because she hadn’t been allowed to go to the meetings in which the return-to-work order was discussed, and she was still upset about it. “Every other Wednesday, we’re supposed to have a rally, and she’s supposed to see her friends, and she’s supposed to hear [UMWA District 20 President] Larry [Spencer], and she’s supposed to hear [UMWA President] Cecil [Roberts], and she can’t understand — ‘Well, if you’re having a meeting, that’s a rally; why can’t I go?’ So for them, it’s hard because this has become their community; this has become their family; they have their own support system. Her biggest concern, when I even brought this up, was ‘Well, when am I going to see my friends?’ They’ve seen each other so much that that’s their concern, like, ‘Where does that leave us?’”
So where did it leave them? The UMWA continues to negotiate with Warrior Met Coal and continues to try to hammer out a new, improved contract that its membership can approve, but the strike as the Wrights (both big and small) knew it is over. Many of the workers have returned to the mine, but many won’t be going back (in some cases, for the first time in generations) — wherever their stories go next, the workers and their families are a part of labor history.
For the Wrights, the sacrifice, stress, and struggle were worth it. They made it through two difficult years together, brought their girls along for the ride, and feel their family has emerged stronger for it. As Braxton works to settle into a new job and a new industry, and the girls settle into yet another new normal, Haeden is moving forward with the fight. She recently accepted a summer organizer position at Jobs to Move America with an eye to becoming a researcher and spent June boning up on her corporate research skills at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.
“For me, and I know for a lot of the families, our children were the motivators to where we were willing to fight this long and to fight this hard,” Haeden says. “I want to teach my girls to look back and see that no matter what the outcome was — because this wasn’t the outcome we wanted, and it’s hard to explain to a child what this outcome even means — what matters is that we fought because it was the right fight to take. That we fought because it was an injustice. We fought because we were being exploited. And we fought for families that we didn’t know before the strike.”
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