Miners fight for pay, jobs in Blackjewel bankruptcy

By John Studer
September 2, 2019
Laid-off Blackjewel miners and supporters express solidarity with rail workers as train engine leaves without coal cars. They’ve blocked tracks since July 29 in fight to be paid for work done.
Mountain Top NewsLaid-off Blackjewel miners and supporters express solidarity with rail workers as train engine leaves without coal cars. They’ve blocked tracks since July 29 in fight to be paid for work done.

“We want our pay, but we want everyone — from West Virginia to Wyoming — to be paid,” former Blackjewel coal miner Jeff Willig told the press in Harlan County, Kentucky, Aug. 15. He had worked at the company’s Cloverlick No. 3 mine in Cumberland before the bosses abruptly shut it down and workers’ paychecks bounced. 

Overall, Blackjewel put over 1,700 miners on the streets when it suddenly declared bankruptcy July 1. In addition to mines in Kentucky, the company has two surface mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin — with the fourth and sixth most production in the country — and in West Virginia and Virginia.

Miners and growing numbers of supporters have been camped out on rail tracks owned by CSX Railroad outside the Cloverlick mine since July 29 when they found out the bosses were trying to move a train carrying 75 full hoppers of coal worth more than $1 million. The miners are blocking coal bosses from hauling coal out of the mine. Their slogan is, “No pay, we stay.” 

Willig said their action is “for every blue collar worker that’s ever been stepped on.” 

“Their voices weren’t heard,” he said. “They got walked over. Well, now the time stops. Don’t let corporate people take advantage of you.” 

He urged workers to organize and fight. “Stand, unite, remain strong, defend your rights,” Willig said. 

Their camp has won broad support from area workers and small business people. The tents they’ve set up were donated by funeral homes. A Chinese restaurant has raised thousands of dollars for them. Barbershops have offered free back-to-school haircuts for their children. And portable toilets, a generator and books, toys and cribs for a children’s tent have all been donated. Ice for cold drinks comes from a local nursing home. Food is coming in by the carload. 

In nearby Clay County, where some of the displaced miners live, dozens came out for a march Aug. 17 wearing T-shirts that read, “I stand with Blackjewel miners.” 

“We established this walk just to bring awareness that there are Blackjewel miners in a number of different counties,” former Blackjewel worker Clifford Berry told WYMT-TV. Similar actions were planned in Bell and Laurel counties.  

“I support the Blackjewel miners 150% and I’ve stopped by their camp,” Keith Adams, a city worker in Cumberland, told Amy Husk and Samir Hazboun, Socialist Workers Party candidates for governor and lieutenant governor of Kentucky, in Lynch, Aug. 9. “My stepdad worked for Blackjewel and his bank balance is negative $2,100.” Adams had been a coal miner for 14 years until he was injured on the job. 

“The bigwigs make their money from the ones with the calloused hands and sore backs,” Adams said. 

After Blackjewel declared bankruptcy, its mines and other assets were put up for auction in a West Virginia court. KopperGlo bought the Cloverlick mine, pending agreement by the U.S. government. KopperGlo bosses offered the workers $800 toward their unpaid wages if they would end their protest and get off the tracks. Miners calculate they were each owed $4,202.91 on average. 

“They’ve offered $800 in exchange for $4,000 in unpaid wages,” miner Chris Rowe told Trains News Wire Aug. 16. “The way we see it, we’ve already worked for it once, so we’re not interested in doing the work twice and getting paid for it once.” 

At the same time, former CEO of Blackjewel Jeff Hoops has asked the bankruptcy court to grant him some $22.2 million. Half of that is for loans he said he made to the company, though he admits there is no documentation. Two other companies run by Hoops have filed claims for $11.2 million in royalties and rents — with documents signed by him as both Blackjewel boss and the head of the companies making the claims against Blackjewel! 

Hoops is currently building a multimillion dollar resort in Milton, West Virginia, which will include a hotel, a 500-person convention center, nine-hole golf course, a 3,500-seat replica of the Roman Coliseum, horse stables, and replicas of Yankee Stadium and other baseball stadiums.