I Reckon: Biden can redeem himself at the UMWA picket line

Silhouette of Biden and three strikers in various colors
(Gavin Sullivan | Daily Trojan)

What’s the longest you’ve had to wait for something you felt you deserved? Did you even get it when all was said and done, or did you get a pat on the back and a few extra words of encouragement? Imagine waiting 600 days and some change. That’s how long coal miners of the United Mine Workers of America in Alabama have been on strike, waiting for pay raises and better benefits. 

In the sea of labor and union-related news that has come to a crest in these last couple of years, this coal miners’ strike walks a narrow line. It predates many recent strikes, and yet has outlasted nearly all of them — perhaps because there isn’t as much public pressure on coal companies to strike a fair deal as there is with, say, a railroad or beverage company. 

Coal is a dying industry, and I put that pretty lightly. This doesn’t negate that in certain regions, coal jobs are the only ones available and paying. It also doesn’t negate that coal miners work one of the most dangerous jobs in America. 

If you’ve read my column long enough, you’ll know the UMWA strike has become somewhat of a motif. There’s something in me that maybe foolishly thinks that this strike can be our generation’s Blair Mountain, and another part that sees this struggle and the subsequent lack of attention that it has garnered as symptomatic of what I’d call a crisis of empathy for our Southern neighbors. Now, there’s a small part of me that thinks that resolving this strike can be President Joe Biden’s chance at redemption.

Why does Biden need redemption, you may ask? Compared to the last commander-in-chief, he hasn’t done anything outright heinous — though these may be words that’ll haunt me in a couple of years. My Democrat pals might be ready to get on my case about how he inherited a mess or can only do so much. But I, for one, think there was a serious lack of judgment when it came to his decision to end a looming rail strike back in December. 

Biden, in 2021, said labor would always be welcome in his administration and that he intended to be the “most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.” Earlier on in his administration, he generally seemed to live up to that promise, but that wasn’t the case after he signed legislation to prematurely settle a rail strike, citing potentially disastrous consequences on the economy. In doing so, he crossed the picket line before it was even drawn in the dirt. And yet, I see a chance for the so-called “most pro-union president” to avoid a post-presidential lifetime of being called a scab, if only he’d finally stand up for his UMWA allies that helped get him to the White House.

The UMWA has been an unabashed supporter of the President and his policies, including his ambitious Build Back Better Framework plan. In a statement released in 2021, the UMWA vocalized its support for multiple aspects of the now-stalled bill, including provisions in the bill that would address Black Lung and investments in transitions to clean energy in coal fields. 

What has Biden done to thank the union for their support of one of his key campaign promises? Wined ‘em, dined ‘em and fined ‘em; his National Labor Relation Board fined the union $13.3 million for damages on the picket line, later reducing the amount to roughly $435,000 following pushback. 

Unions are critical to Democrats’ success at the polls. If Biden and the Democrats keep treating unions this way, though, they’re going to lose them. No voting bloc’s support should be taken advantage of, and support is absolutely subject to change. We saw that in 2016, when working-class voters showed up for former President Donald Trump. 

Biden and the Democratic Party owe it to these coal miners to step in and step up. The President has shown that he has the gall and power to settle large labor disputes before, and he has the chance to do so now. This time, it should be in favor of the workers who are on strike. Biden probably won’t because a prolonged strike in the coal industry won’t have much of an effect on the economy as a whole in comparison to the looming rail strike. 

There’s less of an incentive there. He probably won’t gain brownie points with economic hawks for settling the UMWA strike in favor of the miners, but he’ll gain something a lot more important: the renewed trust and support of Southern union members and a paving stone to help him and Democrats make inroads in the South, starting with Southern workers.

Quynh Anh Nguyen is a junior writing about the implications of current Southern political events. Her column, “I Reckon,” runs every other Monday.