LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Coal miners laid off July 1 by bankrupt Blackjewel Coal have vowed to maintain their encampment on railroad tracks in Cumberland, Harlan County, to prevent coal bosses from moving coal out of the Cloverlick No. 3 mine.
“We’re tired, but we’re going to hang in there,” Blackjewel miner Chris Sexton, one of the workers who began the protest, told the Militant by phone Aug. 25.
The miners began blocking the tracks July 29 when they found out Blackjewel was trying to move out 20,000 tons of coal worth more than a million dollars after the company had laid off miners and workers’ paychecks bounced. Begun by a handful of miners with encouragement from union rail workers, the tent city encampment has received support of workers, small business owners and others.
Blackjewel’s bankruptcy affected 1,700 workers in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. At an Aug. 23 bankruptcy court hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, Blackjewel owners requested permission to remove the coal. The judge called for an evidentiary hearing in 10 to 14 days before making a ruling on the coal bosses’ demand.
“We are wanting our money, not just partial,” Darrell Raleigh, a laid-off Blackjewel miner, told WYMT-TV Aug. 23 at the encampment. Kopper Glo Mining has bought the Cloverlick mine subject to government approval and offered workers a paltry $800 towards unpaid wages, which average over $4,000 per worker.
“We want our money — the money that’s owed to us. We are going to be here, that’s a fact. We are not going to move,” Raleigh said.
Others echoed Raleigh’s response. “I’m standing right there behind my son and the rest of them,” Donna Sexton, a home health care worker and Chris Sexton’s mother, told the Militant Aug. 25. Support for the miners is growing, she noted. Her son said that retired United Mine Workers of America miners have been visiting the camp regularly.
Messages of support can be sent to Harlan County CAA, P.O. Box 1556, Harlan KY 40831 or emailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Workers’ claims always come last in hearings by bankruptcy courts, which exist to protect the interests of the billionaire capitalist families. Coal bosses use the hearings to minimize the losses to themselves, bondholders and other creditors, and to maximize the burden that falls on working people, shedding obligations to pay workers’ pensions and other benefits and breaking union contracts. While there are retired United Mine Workers of America miners in Kentucky, there are no longer any UMWA-organized mines.
Decline in coal production
Working people in Appalachia, the coal-rich mountainous region encompassing eastern Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, are suffering from an economic and social crisis, which the steep decline of coal production in recent years has exacerbated.
The number of workers employed in coal production has fallen 61% over the last 30 years, from 136,400 in 1989 to 52,700 today. And laid-off miners face stiff competition looking for work. The official unemployment rate in Harlan County is 13.1%. Statewide it’s 5.1%.
In 2010 almost half of U.S. power was generated by coal-fired plants. Last year the figure fell to 27 percent. Cheaper oil and natural gas produced in increasing quantities by shale-fracturing technology is displacing the demand for coal.
Officials in some counties blame the drop in tax revenue from coal companies for cuts they are making to services that working people depend on. In some eastern Kentucky and West Virginia counties authorities say they cannot deliver drinkable water to residents. Knott County in eastern Kentucky declared a partial government shutdown in January, and officials there are threatening to cut a meals program for retired workers.
Blackjewel’s bankruptcy affected hundreds of miners in Wyoming, on the heels of other bankruptcies in recent years. Six coal companies with Wyoming mines filed for bankruptcy in the past four years. Coal jobs there dropped from over 7,000 in 2011 to some 5,700 last year.
The July 29 Casper, Wyoming, Star-Tribune reports that some laid-off Wyoming Blackjewel miners say the bosses frequently issued paychecks late, and stopped issuing retirement payments six weeks before the mine closures. Local businesses with contracts with Blackjewel reported receiving no payment for invoices as well.