LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Blackjewel coal miners in Harlan County and their supporters have been camped out on the rail tracks outside the Cloverlick No. 3 mine since July 29, determined to keep their former bosses from moving about 100 rail cars of coal out until they are paid in full for wages stolen from them. The example these miners are setting by standing up to the mine bosses and their anti-worker laws and courts is inspiring a growing number of workers and others across the state and beyond.
The protests continue as a bankruptcy court in Charleston, West Virginia, is hearing a request from the former owners to let them move the coal.
Some 300 coal miners were laid off by Blackjewel LLC coal company in eastern Kentucky July 1, along with 1,400 other Blackjewel workers in West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming, when the company declared bankruptcy.
Money the laid-off miners had already deposited in their bank accounts was clawed back days later without notice. The miners and their families found out as debit cards were declined when they tried to make purchases and other payments bounced.
“I was the first one there,” laid-off Blackjewel miner Chris Sexton told the Militant Sept. 7. “I started calling miners. Dalton Lewis and his daddy, Chris Lewis, came to the tracks. Then Chris Rowe and Blake Watts arrived.”
Soon other miners, their families, retired United Mine Workers veterans and supporters from Cumberland County and elsewhere joined them. They brought tents and canopies and set up a kitchen and portable toilets. People started bringing food to the encampment and donating money.
Members of the rail workers union SMART, which represents the CSX train engineers who backed off the trains when they saw miners blocking the tracks, stopped by to offer solidarity. There are currently no UMW-organized coal mines in Kentucky.
The court hearing is over the former bosses’ efforts to overturn a decision of the court and the Department of Labor that the coal is “hot goods” whose future is yet to be determined.
The miners’ struggle and the solidarity it is gaining shines a light on the actions of capitalists — coal bosses and others — who don’t make payroll or otherwise stiff the workers they lay off, and try to use the boss-friendly courts to back them up.
Because of protests by workers victimized in this way, a law was passed in the 1980s in Kentucky requiring construction and mining companies in business for less than five years to post bond adequate to pay workers if the company folds. But it turns out that some 30 companies — including Blackjewel — never put up a bond and are in violation of the law.
The coal bosses, trying to get the “hot goods” order lifted, have called “expert” witnesses who claim the coal is oxidizing and losing value.
The miners say the company’s argument about coal deterioration is false. “That coal, after you wash it, it can sit up there for a year and nothing happen to it,” William Stanton, a former Blackjewel miner, told WYMT TV reporter Connor James as miners listened to the bankruptcy court hearing under a canopy on the tracks Sept. 5. “It ain’t milk, it’s coal, it ain’t gonna go bad.”
“We’re gaining support,” said Sexton. “People have come from all over. A farmer and his wife from Missouri came to visit us and a couple from California stayed for a few days.”
Sexton was talking about Missouri farmer Wayne Cryts. An Aug. 31 Washington Post article reported on the visit by Cryts, who told the miners about his fight to get back over 30,000 bushels of soybeans when the silo where they were stored went belly up in 1981. Backed by 600 other farmers and supporters, Cryts took back his beans. He was put on trial. Even though a jury of area workers and farmers — over the sharp objection of the judge — found him innocent, he still ended up serving some time. The Militant covered his fight.
Cryts told the miners he would come back again whenever they needed him.
While Blackjewel’s request to move the Kentucky coal awaits decision, the court allowed the company to cut off health insurance for all 1,700 laid-off employees at the end of August.
Material support for the miners’ action has included more than $87,000 in monetary contributions to the Miners Relief Fund, organized by With Love from Harlan, a community organization; 16 food boxes and 400 bags of groceries from Catholic Charities in Lexington; donations of 5,500 diapers; and prepared food delivered from local restaurants. The Food City grocery store has sent boxes of water.
“My brother Pedro and I have sent food to the miners on the railroad several times,” Angelica Román, co-owner of El Sazón Mexican restaurant in Cumberland, told the Militant. “What is happening to them hurts us, because we’re all human beings.
Joyce Cheng, owner of Panda Garden restaurant in Harlan, who hails from Fuzhou, China, has raised thousands of dollars and contributed a large quantity of food to the miners. “The majority of my customers are miners,” Cheng said in a phone interview Sept. 7. “I raised my kids here and they’re the ones who have supported me. When they told me 300 miners and their families need help, I asked myself, ‘What can I do?’ I’m a cook and runner, so I did it around that.”
Cheng ran 50 miles, asking for pledges for each mile and for contributions from those she passed on her run, and raised some $5,000. “In a small town, everyone helps each other,” Cheng said.
Contributions to the Blackjewel miners in Kentucky can be made by sending checks payable to the community organization “With Love From Harlan,” with “Coal Miner Fund” on the check’s memo line, to With Love from Harlan, P.O. Box 1621, Harlan, KY 40831.
While there’s no similar protest outside Blackjewel’s shuttered mines in West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming — because the former bosses’ aren’t trying to move any coal out there, area workers and small businesses are raising funds to help former miners who also had their pay stolen.
About 600 workers were put on the street in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin when Blackjewel’s two mines there shut down without any notice. Workers say only a quarter of the miners have found other jobs so far. Blackjewel is the third coal company in Wyoming to declare bankruptcy this year.
The Families of Energy Relief Fund, set up during earlier bankruptcies in the area, has stepped up to help organize aid. The group is raising donations and selling T-shirts to provide funds to Blackjewel miners’ families. Contact email@example.com or (307) 228-0353.
The effect of Blackjewel bosses’ shutdown will have broader effects on workers in areas around the mines. The company owes $37 million in taxes to Campbell County in Wyoming, $6 million to the state of Kentucky, $1.6 million to Virginia and well over $100 million to equipment makers, local vendors and others. This means it’s likely other jobs and social programs will end up being shut down.