Ellis said he’s seen a 15 to 20 percent increase in sales volume in the last year, and a roughly 10 percent increase in the last month alone. “As this has progressed, I’ve hired two more people,” he said, one of whom had been a mechanic at a local dealership, and the other an entry-level worker just out of school. “I’d love to hire more.”
During the Obama years, Ellis said, “we were watching our hours,” trying to squeeze more productivity from fewer workers. There were few opportunities for overtime pay: “We want overtime, and in the last year, we’ve seen more overtime.” For Ellis, that means more opportunities for vacation with his two 6-year-old grandchildren: In May, he and his wife took them to Disney World for five days. And the week after we spoke, he and his wife were headed down to Gulf Shores for their own trip. “It’s all just allowed for a little extra money,” he told me, “and it goes a long way.”
Everyone I spoke to for this story, whether at the mine itself or within local businesses, seemed to express sincere excitement about voting in November’s midterm elections. That they’ll vote for Republicans is largely unsurprising—it’s Alabama, after all. But their enthusiasm may signal higher-than-usual turnout for a midterm election in the region.
“For this area, when you see you’ve elected someone who cares about our industry, it makes you want to get out there in November,” Ellis said. “You don’t have to encourage people around here to vote right now.”
“It was sad, the small percentage that would come out and go to the polls,” Chambers added. “But I’ve tried my best to exercise my right to vote.”
Johnson chimed in: “If you don’t vote,” he said with a chuckle, “you can’t bitch.”
It’s a vote, in their view, for the revival of their industry. Yet not lost on them is the chance that Trump could also seal its demise. Earlier this year, Trump announced a 25 percent tariff on steel imports from countries including China and Japan. In the months since, Japan, among others, has signaled its intention to impose retaliatory tariffs against the United States should Trump fail to exempt them.
Tariffs once tore the GOP apart—and may be doing so again
This matters for a mine even as relatively small as Johnson’s. Shannon’s third seam consists of metallurgical coal, for steelmaking. As of now, Johnson plans to mine that seam, wash the coal, and send it to Mobile, where it will be shipped to Japan. For a small, newly reopened company looking to make good on its loans, a retaliatory tariff on steel could be devastating.
“I think steel is gonna stay a global issue,” Cagle, the Alabama Coal Association president, told me. “It’s kind of a wait-and-see moment right now. It’s still not clear what will happen.”
But Johnson holds out hope that Trump has the industry’s interest at top of mind. In his view, the threat of retaliatory tariffs aside, the president’s commitment to “fair trade” is a good thing. “It’s not right for us to lose money to foreign countries. At some point in time in the future, it’s gonna be over for us,” he said. “They’re gonna have all the money, they’re gonna own everything, and we’re gonna be speaking Chinese or Spanish or whatever you wanna call it.”