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Despite labor movement popularity, U.S. union membership is as low as it's ever been

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

High-profile union campaigns at places like Starbucks and Amazon have led to a more excited, more unified labor movement. Even so, union membership in the U.S. is tied for its lowest level on record. Stephan Bisaha of the Gulf States Newsroom spoke with coal miners in Brookwood, Ala., who've been striking for nearly 10 months.

STEPHAN BISAHA, BYLINE: That is a long time to be on strike, but miner Reginald Mann says working in the volatile coal industry taught him how to survive lean times.

REGINALD MANN: You go from feast to famine. You go from bologna to steak right back to bologna. You know, you just got to be like an ant. You got to store up.

BISAHA: Mann's one of the miners rallying at a local ballpark. They're here to pick up their strike insurance checks. Last April, about 1,100 Alabama miners went on strike against Warrior Met Coal, which specializes in coal used to make steel. Miners want to get back some of the pay and benefits they lost in their last contract when steel prices were low.

MANN: We standing up and saying we want something better. We gave you our blood, sweat and tears. We gave you everything on a word. You reneged on your word.

BISAHA: The number of active strikes in the U.S. has picked up pace. There were nearly twice as many strikes last November than in the summer, according to Cornell University. A tight labor market has given workers more leverage, while attempts to unionize some of the most recognizable American brands like Amazon and Starbucks led to more national attention for unions. It's also led to more support between labor groups. Here in Alabama, other unions have helped keep the miners' food pantry stocked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Do y'all want Fruity Pebbles or Cocoa Pebbles?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I want Fruity Pebbles.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Fruity Pebbles.

BISAHA: They're also giving away healthier options like mixed greens and other veggies. Cheri Goodwin is married to one of the striking miners. She's been unpacking pickup trucks filled with donations.

CHERI GOODWIN: We would have never made this pantry last this long if it weren't for all the support of all the other people that just said, hey; we think you're fighting the good fight. Keep fighting. Every single time we get anything, it is like - they don't even know us, but they know what we're fighting for.

BISAHA: Goodwin appreciates the support her family received and wants to pay it forward.

GOODWIN: A couple of us ladies have already talked like, OK, we're slammed right now with this strike. But when this is over, if there's other strikes, we're headed out to help them 'cause this is a hard fight, and we're not done with this.

BISAHA: At least a few striking miners are already involved in another labor fight - the one at the Amazon warehouse in Bessemer, Ala. Braxton Wright says he's one of at least six miners who took a job there to cover bills.

BRAXTON WRIGHT: I kind of applied for a joke, you know. I was like, sure, they're not going to hire me. I've been a strong advocate for the union. So I applied, and they hired me. So I started pushing for the union and talking about the union from day one.

BISAHA: Wright wears his camo United Mine Workers T-shirt as he's about to head over to a strategy meeting held by the Retail Workers Union. Last year, Amazon workers voted more than 2-1 against joining that union, but a federal labor official ruled that Amazon's anti-union tactics tainted the vote. A new mail-in election will be tallied in late March, one year after the first vote. Wright says whether at a warehouse or a mine, workers want the same thing.

WRIGHT: Not just a job, but turn it into a career. Make it something where you can stay and retire, not just jump from door to door.

BISAHA: Ironically, that job-hopping has now become workers' greatest strength with shorthanded employers desperate to keep workers. Union membership has matched its lowest point on record, but now employees have more leverage to change their workplace. And labor supporters hope that will mean turning around decades of union decline. For NPR News, I'm Stephan Bisaha in Birmingham.

KELLY: The French and German public broadcasting company Arte TV contributed to this story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephan Bisaha is a former NPR Kroc Fellow. Along with producing Weekend Edition, Stephan has reported on national stories for Morning Edition and All Things Considered, as well as other NPR programs. He provided data analysis for an investigation into the Department of Veteran Affairs and reported on topics ranging from Emojis to mattresses.
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