Coal miners at Blackjewel ‘stand up for what’s right’

By Maggie Trowe
September 30, 2019

CUMBERLAND, Ky. — Miners laid off and robbed of their wages by Blackjewel coal bosses July 1 are keeping up their encampment they set up July 29 to block the railroad track. They organized the protest on the tracks leading out of Blackjewel’s Cloverlick No. 3 mine when the company tried to move the coal the miners had dug. The bosses declared bankruptcy and put some 1,700 miners on the streets in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming.

Paychecks deposited in the miners’ accounts were withdrawn without notice following the bankruptcy declaration.

A handful of miners who got calls about the company trying to move the train stood on the tracks and stopped it. They called as many co-workers, family and friends as they could. Soon others joined them and they’ve won moral and material support from across the region and beyond.

“This right here started with five guys and then we got out the word,” miner Chris Rowe told worker-correspondents for the Militant when they visited the camp Sept. 13. “If you’ve got support you can win what’s right.

“When it started I wasn’t sure it would grow as big as it has,” he said. “But now that it has, I’m hoping other employers take to heart that they can’t treat workers like this. And I hope other workers will have the courage to stand up and fight when it happens to them.”

Jeremy Ferguson, the newly elected president of the national SMART Transportation Division, a union that organizes train conductors and engineers, visited the encampment Aug. 27. Putting on the miners’ “Pay the Miners First, the Lawyers Last” T-shirt, he had his picture taken and posted on the union’s Facebook page, standing on the back of one of the coal hoppers stuck on the tracks.

Three truckers were at the camp Sept. 13 supporting the miners and building a benefit concert the next day featuring country singer Brandon Fulson, from Cumberland Gap, Tennessee. He was going to perform a song inspired by the struggle, “Black Jewel, White Lies.”

James Toller, Harry Menkhoff and his wife, Chelly Menkhoff, and other truckers on Aug. 16 blocked for 32 minutes Highway 119, which runs past the blockade. The truckers are part of a new group planning an Oct. 4 protest in Washington, D.C.

Solidarity keeps coming

Stacy Rowe, Chris Rowe’s wife, was cleaning the camp kitchen. She told us, “We’ve gotten a lot of support.”

“Rail workers donated $1,000 and brought fried chicken,” she said. “It was great when Wayne Cryts, the Missouri farmer, came here to support us and told us about how he had faced the same problem in the 1980s when a silo company went bankrupt and stole his soybeans.”

Both Chris and Stacy Rowe had high praise for Joyce Cheng, the owner of Panda Garden Chinese restaurant in nearby Harlan, who has raised more than $20,000 of the nearly $90,000 in contributions donated to the miners through the local community organization With Love From Harlan. Cheng held benefit dinner buffet nights for the miners at her restaurant and donated the proceeds, and she ran 50 miles, winning pledges that totaled some $5,000. “Joyce Cheng is awesome,” Stacy Rowe said.

We had lunch at Cheng’s restaurant. Cheng came out to talk with us and thanked us for the coverage of the miners’ struggle in the Militant. She introduced Josh Lee, a high school student whose grandfather was Chinese. Lee works at the Panda Garden and is on the high school cross-country team. He accompanied Cheng on the 50-mile run and helped raise funds.

“I ran not only to raise money, but to bring attention to what the miners are fighting for,” Cheng said. “The newspapers don’t give them a lot of coverage, so I did my part to raise awareness.”

Cheng admires the miners for fighting. “I don’t talk about win or lose. The miners are winning because they’re standing up for what’s right,” she said. A lot of people in the area feel the same way.

Some of the Blackjewel miners have gone to Alabama to work. Jean Hatfield said 20-year-old Dalton Lewis, who went there with his father, Chris Lewis, was injured seriously in a mine there.

The miners’ attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, gave a report to about 50 miners and their families at the railroad tracks Sept. 14 on the results of the bankruptcy court hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, the previous week. At the hearing Blackjewel bosses asked the court to lift the “hot goods” order the judge granted after the U.S. Labor Department demanded the coal stay put until the miners are paid. The judge asked the parties to negotiate a settlement by mid-October.

Going seven weeks without pay has taken its toll on the miners and their families. “A lot of guys are having a hard time making ends meet,” Chris Rowe said. But he’s determined to keep fighting. “They’re either going to make it right or have a big problem. You might knock us down a bit, but one thing we can promise is we’ll always stand up and fight. We’re Harlan strong.”

Messages of encouragement and solidarity sent to With Love From Harlan are posted on the Blackjewel Employees Stand Together Facebook page. The site also carries reports from laid-off Blackjewel miners in Wyoming and Virginia, information about upcoming activities as well as information on how you can join in efforts to win solidarity and support.

A message from more than 20 railroad conductors and engineers of SMART-TD Local 1933 in northern Virginia says, “Your example of blocking the CSX railroad tracks to prevent the company from moving out a trainload of coal that you mined, while the company and the courts refuse to pay you for the work that produced that coal, is an inspiration to workers and unionists everywhere on how to fight to defend our rights and our unions.”

Another benefit concert is scheduled for Oct. 13 at the Mountain Arts Center in Prestonburg, Kentucky.