ELWYN LOPEZ (CORRESPONDENT): A searing split for these coal miners in Brookwood, Alabama, calling this the fight of their lives. This small town, the latest flashpoint in the battle over workers’ rights
BRAXTON WRIGHT (STRIKING MINER): It's proud. One of the things I like to see and it almost brings tears to your eyes when you see a sea of camouflage marching into an area. It’s a -- I don't even know how to say it. It's just a strong sense of pride.
(SPEAKER): Every union in this country owes something to coal miners.
LOPEZ: More than a thousand workers took off their hard hats and walked off the job back in April, spending the past four months on strike, the first one in the area in four decades. This after they say the company they work for, Warrior Met Coal, is treating them unfairly. Now, they want better benefits.
LOPEZ: Braxton [Wright] has been working at the mine for 17 years.
You come from a family of miners. You take a lot of pride in the work that you do. How difficult was it for you to make that decision to say, “I have to go on strike"?
BRAXTON WRIGHT: It wasn't a difficult decision to go on strike because we knew that we had to fight for what we deserved. We wanted the dignity back in our job.
LOPEZ: In 2016, Warrior Met Coal took ownership of the mine after the previous company went bankrupt. According to the union, workers took drastic cutbacks in hourly wages, holidays, time off, as well as medical coverage, and lost their pensions; allegedly believing all of those would be restored in the next contract.
LARRY SPENCER (VICE PRESIDENT, UMWA INTERNATIONAL DISTRICT 20): We need to you know get these people back up to standard and the contract that was offered was not up to the other coal mines and the people turned it down.
LOPEZ: Chris Lowery says the workers kept the mine afloat for years.
CHRIS LOWERY (STRIKING MINER): I give you my youth. I give you my time. I've worked six days a week for the last 17 years. You bought a coal mine. You bought an underground coal mine You knew what the wages were when you bought it. We saved this coal mine. This ain’t the first time we've saved it. We've saved it from fires. We've saved it from explosions. We've saved it from a lot of things.
LOPEZ: Coal mining is one of the most dangerous professions in the country. In 2001, the No. 5 Mine in Brookwood exploded, killing 13.
BRAXTON WRIGHT: These are the gassiest mines in North America. You have gas, you have water, a lot of the working areas is knee-deep in water. It's a difficult job, not to mention the dust. You have more dust you know around the working face because that's where you're cutting the rock and the coal.
LOPEZ: According to the CDC, rates of black lung have more than doubled over the past 15 years. The workers we spoke to say Warrior Met Coal provides them with 80% coverage of medical fees -- they used to receive 100%. Add to that claims of strict time off. Independent labor reporter Kim Kelly has been following the strike for months.
KIM KELLY (INDEPENDENT LABOR JOURNALIST): They're only making about $20-some an hour and they're spending six days a week, sometimes seven, underground — 12 hours a day. You know their bodies are broken, their lungs are all messed up, their health insurance costs have skyrocketed because of Warrior Met. It's really an egregious situation.
LOPEZ: Just last week, Haeden, along with a group of strikers, traveled more than 1,000 miles to New York City to protest in front of BlackRock -- Warrior Met’s largest shareholder. BlackRock declined to comment for this report.
HAEDEN WRIGHT (LOCAL UMWA AUXILIARY PRESIDENT): We’re here to bring the picket, to bring the strike, to their front door, because this is affecting our lives, our families, our communities.
LOPEZ: Even actress Susan Sarandon, showing solidarity with the workers.
SUSAN SARANDON: So I stand by you -- one day longer, one day stronger.
LOPEZ: The strike has divided this Alabama community.
AMY PINKERTON (WIFE OF STRIKING MINER): All the sudden I heard an acceleration of a vehicle and he hit me on the right side, slinging me forward into his windshield.
LOPEZ: Warrior Met told ABC News that it does not condone acts of violence and got a court ordered injunction limiting the amount of strikers outside the mines to, quote, “allow for peaceful ingress and egress to our facilities, as well as maintain public safety.” The strain has also been financial. The union pays workers $700 every two weeks to hold the line, but it's still not enough.
LOPEZ: As of 2020, only 12.1% of workers were represented by a union -- that's half of what it was nearly 40 years ago -- and on average, unionized workers earn about 11% more than non-unionized workers.
HEIDI SHIERHOLZ (SENIOR ECONOMIST, ECONOMIC POLICY INSTITUTE): The reason that we've seen such a big decline in unionization, despite workers interests in being unionized, has everything to do with massively increased employer aggressiveness against unions.
BRAXTON WRIGHT: Eyes were on us for, you know, not just the union workers but for just workers in general because once the company is allowed to do one thing to one group, all your other companies is gonna follow suit. This isn't just our fight here at Warrior Met Coal with the UMWA. This is America’s fight for working people everywhere.
LOPEZ: This sea of camouflaged workers, fueled by the motto “one day longer," making it clear they aren't going anywhere.
What if you don't reach that agreement? How long will this continue to go on and when will it end?
HAEDEN WRIGHT: We'll be here one day longer than the company will. I don't think that we're giving up. We're already planning a toy drive for Christmas.
LOPEZ: You're expecting this to go through Christmas?
HAEDEN WRIGHT: We don't know when it will end, but we're going to be ready. That's what your union does. So if we get through Christmas, we'll make sure that our union kids have Christmas.
LOPEZ: And into next year potentially?
BRAXTON WRIGHT: If that's what it takes. We'll be here one day longer than them.