CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Coal miners thrown out of work here by Blackjewel Coal when the company declared bankruptcy July 1 have been blocking the railroad tracks leading out of the Cloverlick #3 mine to protest the company bouncing their last checks and trying to haul out coal they mined in June. They are receiving a steady stream of material and moral support and solidarity from other workers.
These miners are among the 1,700 coal miners at Blackjewel’s 32 mines in Kentucky, Wyoming, West Virginia and Virginia. Over 600 miners worked in the company’s open pit mines in Wyoming’s Powder Ridge Basin, the largest coal-producing region in the country.
“The miners are going to stay here until they get their money and we’re going to be with them,” Donna Sexton, 55, a nurse’s assistant, told the Militant at the Cumberland encampment Aug. 9. Sexton’s son Chris was one of the laid-off miners who started the protest when workers near the tracks reported Blackjewel bosses were trying to move a trainload of coal July 29.
“That got the ball rolling, and people are standing behind them,” Sexton said. “You’ve got to have a few with backbone to get it started, and then people support you. They think we’re ignorant because we live back in the mountains. But we’re here sweating on the backs of our shirts doing all the work.”
Dozens of miners traveled to Charleston, West Virginia, Aug. 5, in a “Pay the Miners First Caravan,” for a court hearing on the sale of the mine company’s assets to other mine bosses. On Aug. 7 more than 100 miners and their families and supporters rallied at the encampment to hear an update from their attorney, Ned Pillersdorf. Many said they would keep blocking the tracks until they get paid in full.
“We had to give voice to these coal miners,” Chris Lewis, a worker in the mines for 20 years, who was one of the first miners to block the train, told the Militant at the rally. “We miners are a brotherhood. We stand together. Our families are with us. We work hard all our lives at this, and then these companies rob us.”
Their encampment is well supplied with donated food, water and soda. Several churches in town organize food banks for the miners and their families. Hollywood Hair and Spa is offering free haircuts to miners’ families. Dozens of pizzas have been sent over from a local restaurant. Rail union members brought by an ample supply of Kentucky Fried Chicken and sides Aug. 9. Workers at two Walmart stores in Louisville sent food, household and school supplies and cards with signatures, saying, “Pay the miners now!” and “Don’t quit!”
Retired union miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America, began visiting the protest camp as soon as they heard about it. Stanley Sturgill, a UMWA member for 41 years, came from the nearby town of Lynch. “If the trains get out that’s more money for the company and nothing for the coal miners and they have shafted these coal miners,” Sturgill told the Ohio Valley ReSource July 30.
Solidarity in Wyoming
Similar efforts by workers and small business owners in Gillette, Wyoming, have brought solidarity and aid to the 600 miners who lost their jobs when Blackjewel shut down its Eagle Butte and Bell Ayr mines in the area.
When he heard the news, Trey McConnell, manager of The Railroad restaurant, told the Gillette News Record he offered miners half-price burgers and drinks. Within hours people had called in over $4,000 in donations and McConnell made everything free. The next day some 300 Blackjewel miners came in. Similar free meals were offered at other area restaurants and bars.
Miner Rory Wallet decided to set up a group for miners and others to discuss and share information about what was happening and to get solidarity. He started “Blackjewel Employees Stand Together” on Facebook. That afternoon there were 400 members. Now there are over 2,000, including miners from Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia.
The laid-off miners in Wyoming have now started holding fundraisers to send money for their fellow miners thrown out of work in Appalachia.
Miners, supporters stand pat
Savannah Stanton attended the Aug. 7 Cumberland rally with her 16-year-old daughter Kim and her husband Will, a Blackjewel miner with more than 20 years experience underground. “At the bankruptcy court hearing in Charleston,” she explained, “we all went in wearing ‘Pay the Miners First’ T-shirts. And we kept a group of miners here on the tracks to make sure nothing moved.”
The bankruptcy court has approved the sale of the two Wyoming mines and the Pax Surface Mine in West Virginia to Contura Energy and of the Kentucky mines to Kopper Glo Mining. They still have to get approval from the U.S. Department of the Interior. It isn’t clear how many miners would be called back to work, or what will happen to hundreds of other former Blackjewel miners in Virginia and elsewhere.
“It looks like we are making some progress,” Stanton said. “But nobody has been paid any of what they are owed yet.”