Strike Work: A Filmmaker’s Statement


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Artist Brett Wallace reflects on filming two significant labor battles in union-hostile, small-town Alabama; one involving Amazon warehouse workers and the other coal miners.


From Starbucks baristas, Amazon workers, writers, and actors, to auto and railroad workers and coal miners, working and middle class families across America are demanding fair contracts and a just future. That is the good news. The not so good news is that corporations and the political establishment are using their power to smother it. What are the complexities and contradictions of this new labor activism? How can artistic practice contribute towards new, progressive social movements that shift power from corporations to people? These questions are central to my work as an artist and filmmaker exploring the practices and territories of labor. My work draws from the observational films of Harun Farocki, the conceptual work of Martha Rosler, the writings of David Graeber, and many others.

In early 2021, I traveled from New York to Bessemer, Alabama to witness the largest union drive in Amazon’s 25 year history. 6,153 workers would vote whether to join the Retail, Wholesale, and Department Store Union (RWDSU). In the run up to the vote, I spent every day in the Birmingham union hall observing, documenting and supporting the action. Bessemer is a predominantly Black city with a strong religious presence evidenced by its many churches, and was once a major center for steel production. In fact, it was named after the Bessemer process of making steel. But, when the American steel industry declined in the 1970s, Bessemer suffered severe job losses. Amazon was attracted to Bessemer because of its blue collar labor force while elected leaders were desperate to bring new jobs to the area. In 2020, with $50 million in state subsidies, Amazon opened its first fulfillment center in Alabama. Just as Alabama was a historic and pivotal battleground in the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, it is now central to the current organizing movement. The Bessemer union drive includes workers fighting back in the hardest of places, a right-to-work red state in the Deep South, and has lit a match around the world.

“Labor battles need as many participants as possible with no other political or social agenda than to support the cause, whether they’re an artist or any other worker. There’s also a unique role for artists in justice movements.”

While the worldwide media watched the brand new RWDSU union drive at Amazon, 25 miles away, in Brookwood, Alabama, another major labor battle was brewing. Coal miners at Warrior Met Coal walked off the job on April 1, 2021 in an unfair labor practice strike. Five years earlier, in 2016, the union had agreed to a $6 per hour pay cut and reduced benefits to help Warrior Met emerge from bankruptcy and preserve their jobs, collectively giving up a billion dollars in lost wages. Now the company was making huge profits, and the mineworkers demanded their wages and benefits be restored and increased. Two weeks into the strike, 95% of the membership voted a tentative offer of a $1.50 raise per hour down. On the first morning of the strike, I drove out to the picket lines in Brookwood, Alabama to meet miners and learn about their fight.

Brookwood is a rural town built by the coal miners. Warrior Met Coal, a large scale coal company backed by Wall Street investors, is the town’s largest employer. The picket line I joined wound past a church, down a long dirt road, and led to a group of 30 miners standing by the roadside in camouflage shirts. When scabs, non-union temporary workers, passed, they yelled and raised signs reading, “No Contract, No Coal”. Unlike the RWDSU union drive, there were no media present.  

Mining is a dangerous job. On September 23, 2001, disaster struck Brookwood when 13 miners were killed in a series of methane explosions underground. These are the deepest mines in North America, a journey of 2,000 feet underground. The miners described their work in the longwall mining operations—where a large shearer, up to 1,300 feet across, cuts 2 miles into the underground coal seam. The shearer moves 60-80 feet forward per day, and the coal is transported above ground using conveyor belts. The result is metallurgical coal, which is necessary to make steel for buildings, infrastructure, and metal products from windmills to weapons and household appliances. The confluence of the RWDSU union drive at Amazon and the UMWA mine strike at Warrior Met Coal provide a timely intersectional angle between traditional and new labor activism.

These miners are a part of a longstanding, proud union, The United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), founded in 1890. They are a close-knit group of men and women of all ages. Most are white men who drive up to 2 hours from small mining towns across Central Alabama. Some are Black men, many of whom live in nearby Birmingham and Bessemer. Most of the workers in the Bessemer warehouse are Black women and their demographics skewed younger attracted to Amazon’s $15 per hour starting pay Many of these younger workers were not familiar with unions or their advantages, and unlike at Warrior Met, there was not already a union in place. 

Unsurprisingly, Amazon used all of its power to attempt to smother the union drive through scare tactics and mandatory anti-union meetings. On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders and other left-leaning elected officials visited Alabama in support. President Joe Biden issued a video statement encouraging Amazon workers in Alabama and warning companies not to interfere with an employee’s right to organize. The miners also found themselves up against anti-union state law and industry determined to break their union. Day by day, filming on the ground, I documented how this capitalist, anti-union ideology was manifested. Alabama Governor Kay Ivey ordered state troopers to escort scabs across the picket line and Warrior Met announced they would starve the miners out. In a brilliant act of resistance, a group of courageous coal miners’ wives transformed a union hall into a food pantry and raised enough money to feed 200 families for 112 weeks. The grassroots solidarity they created stands out as an example of what’s possible when workers and communities band together.

While the mineworkers strike became the longest in Alabama history, running close to two years, Warrior Met CEO Walt Scheller made $12,188,708 in total earnings in 2021 and 2022. And Kelli Gant, Chief Administrative Officer and Corporate Secretary, made $3,477,664 in those same two years. In April 2022, after months of protests outside their New York headquarters, Warrior Met’s largest shareholder, hedge fund manager Blackrock (13%) publicly stated, “we believe it is in the best economic interests of our clients for Warrior Met Coal and the UMWA to reach a resolution.” In February 2023, Cecil Roberts, International President of the UMWA, stated, “the status quo is not good for the company or its shareholders either, as the current workforce it has in the mines cannot match the level of production that our members can.” Roberts pointed out that based on Warrior Met’s own reports, “they have lost nearly a billion dollars in unrealized revenue over the last 23 months.” Despite this, the company reported a net income of $779.8 million in 2021 and 2022 because the price of metallurgical coal skyrocketed during the strike. On June 29, 2023, the coal miners received some validation when National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) Administrative Law Judge Melissa M. Olivero ruled Warrior Met had violated national labor law. After the ruling, UMWA President Cecil Roberts stated, “this company caused this strike by not bargaining in good faith, it extended the strike for nearly two years by not bargaining in good faith, and it continues to violate the law today.”

I grew up in a union family. My dad worked for the Department of Corrections in Massachusetts for 25 years, providing a steady wage and job security to support our family. And it was a union that helped my brother become a skilled electrician—he’s a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW). I have joined and documented many labor strikes and union drives up North, but some of what I bore witness to in Alabama astonished me.

“Day by day, filming on the ground, I documented how this capitalist, anti-union ideology was manifested.”

Artists are embedded in the capitalist system too. Many of us have experienced labor exploitation as freelancers or arts workers. Some of us are union members through our day jobs. We have learned about museum executives trying to smother a union vote or firing an outspoken staff member while claiming advocacy for oppressed communities on social media. As an artist, and someone who grew up in a union family, I feel it is necessary to use my voice to stand with artists and workers challenging systems of oppression. 

Labor battles need as many participants as possible with no other political or social agenda than to support the cause, whether they’re an artist or any other worker. Artists also have a unique role in justice movements, documenting the reality they observe, including evidentiary material, that supports grassroots movements which are too often overlooked or mis-represented.

My documentary film, American Union, shines a light on the struggles, successes, and failures of two unions—one of the oldest in the country and another just getting started—as they build solidarity and push for better labor practices in a part of the country that has been hostile to their needs for generations.

You can learn more about the film in-progress at www.americanunionfilm.com/