Mitchell Howton knows what it’s like to work at the Warrior Met Coal mine in Brookwood, Alabama. He hasn’t forgotten being underground 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with the promise that next week he would get Sunday off – a promise that never materialized. “They push and push and push,” Howton said of Warrior Met Coal’s management. “They really only care about production.”
Howton left the Warrior Met Coal mine in 2017 and became a union millwright with Local 1192 in 2019. When he read in spring of 2021 that his former co-workers, who are members of the United Mine Workers of America, were striking for fair pay and benefits and safe working conditions, Howton knew exactly what they were facing.
“A lot of the guys at that particular mine are guys that I worked side by side with for a decade,” Howton said. “They’re making less now than they were making in 2016. They have health insurance, but their plans have been getting worse and worse.”
Safety is not a priority in the mine, Howton continued. “If they [managers] don’t have a respirator for you to go on the long wall and breathe clean air, they say, ‘We’ll get you a mask sent down there eventually, but we need production right now,’” he said.
Howton wanted to do something to show support for the miners. He was working at the Wolf Hollow II Generating Station in Texas, and he showed his fellow millwrights there an article about the striking coal miners and told them about the working conditions in the mine. Howton and Local 1192 member Jack Wadkins, who was also working at Wolf Hollow, spearheaded a fundraising drive. In addition to raising funds on their jobsite in Texas, Howton and Wadkins also sent Facebook and text messages encouraging donations.
Thanks to contributions from approximately 30 SSMRC members – including those from locals 1421, 2232, and 1192 – and a donation match by Millwright Local 1192, that local provided 100 meals to miners on the picket line April 20.
Local 1192 business agent Clint Smith met with the UMWA members and several international representatives when he delivered barbecue sandwiches, chips, and tea. “They were very thankful for the lunch and hopeful of a new contract,” Smith said.
“My motivation was just to let them know we stand in solidarity with them,” Howton said. “We’re a union brotherhood, no matter what union.”
Wadkins echoed those thoughts. “We are all union, and we need to stick together,” he said. “We need to look out for our own members, but we also need to look out for other unions and their members.”
Ways to support the Brookwood miners
If you would like to help the UMWA workers on strike, Howton said your presence can be a show of support that “means a world of difference.” The group meets at Tannehill State Park in McCalla, Alabama, every Wednesday at 6 p.m.
You also can support the strike fund. For many of the miners, strike-fund pay is less than half of what they were making when they were working, and the strike began on April 1. “There are a lot of families with kids that are suffering right now,” Howton said.
Another way Howton has been showing his support is by helping one of his former co-workers start a woodworking shop and by spending time with him there. “I thought, if it can take his mind off of being on strike and relieve the stress and anxiety, I’ll help him get a couple of tools so that he can start doing a little bit of work,” Howton said.
Howton’s journey from mining to millwrighting
Howton said he was doing millwright work before he even knew what it was. He worked on conveyor belt lines underground in the mines, and those skills easily translated to the conveyor work millwrights do in other industries such as automotive, distribution, and food and beverage. When a friend who had left the mines to become a millwright asked Howton to join him, Howton took a qualification test and scored well enough to enter the millwright union as a third-year apprentice.
“It has been a blessing in my life,” Howton said of his new career path. “I don’t see myself ever doing anything other than what I’m doing now, and anybody I work with that knows me or has known me for an extended period of time knows that I absolutely love my job.”
Howton says the pay is wonderful, but he also enjoys the work, the camaraderie among union millwrights, and the support he gets from his business agent. “I know that if I have a problem, I can call my business agent, and he’s going to do everything in his power to mitigate the situation,” he said.
Howton said he urges anyone who has a good work ethic and is looking for a job to join the millwrights, but this is especially the case with miners.
It’s an easy transition for anyone who has worked on a coal mine belt crew, he said. At many millwright jobsites, “you’re going to be doing basically the same thing, working with the same precision tooling,” Howton said.
Wadkins’ civic-action work
Wadkins also has been supporting unions and serving Millwright Local 1192 by helping raise awareness about pro-union political candidates.
In 2019, he attended a session at the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ International Training Center in Las Vegas, where he learned best practices for discussing political candidates and issues with people. He then called members in his area in 2020 to make sure they were aware of a pro-union candidate who was running for county school superintendent. Wadkins said he plans to do similar work in the future.
Community Service Challenge Award
The SSMRC is recognizing Howton and Wadkins for their leadership in showing support for the UMWA miners. They have earned the SSMRC’s Community Service Challenge Award and gifts including a lunch cooler, T-shirt, and $250 gift card.
If you know someone who should be honored with the Community Service Challenge Award, please send a text to 855-577-7672.