Blackjewel miners end protest camp, fight goes on

By Maggie Trowe
October 14, 2019

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Miners who had blocked the railroad near Cumberland, Kentucky, since July 29 took down the encampment, cleaned the area and ended this phase of their struggle Sept. 26. But, they and their supporters said that this doesn’t mean the fight is over. 

“We will remain strong,” Donna Sexton, a home health worker and mother of Chris Sexton, the miner who first set up the blockade, told the Militant  Sept. 28. “That’s what we are and what we truly believe in.”

After Blackjewel LLC, the sixth-largest coal mining company in the U.S., declared bankruptcy July 1 and laid off 300 miners in southeastern Kentucky and 1,400 more in Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming, the company withdrew the final paychecks out of the bank accounts where miners had deposited them. 

When angry miners in Harlan County found out the company was planning to haul coal they had mined out of the Cloverlick No. 3 mine July 29, Sexton rushed to the tracks and put out a call to fellow miners. Chris Rowe, Chris Lewis, Dalton Lewis and Blake Watts came to reinforce him. Soon families, friends and other supporters from the surrounding area joined them. Retired union miners, members of the United Mine Workers of America, stopped by. Individuals, unions, organizations, churches and small businesses gave moral and material support. 

After two months, however, many miners have had to find other jobs or go to school to acquire new skills, and only a handful of miners and supporters were able to keep up the occupation 24/7. 

Chris Rowe, who slept in a tent next to the tracks every night, has just bought a rig and started taking driving jobs to pay for it. His wife Stacy, another stalwart at the protest, will go with him. As they and others cleaned up the camp area they spoke with WYMT television reporters, who have given supportive and consistent coverage of their struggle. 

“I’m not really comfortable with it but I gotta do what I gotta do,” Chris Rowe said. 

“I hate backing down from anything,” Stacy Rowe texted this reporter after taking down the camp. “I’m very proud of us, but I’m hoping this doesn’t affect the process of everyone getting their money.”

Coal train still can’t move

Blackjewel bosses remain legally barred from trying to move the coal. Because the miners haven’t been paid, the U.S. Department of Labor ruled the coal is “hot goods” and got a court order to keep the company from taking it out. The bosses contested that ruling in court. The bankruptcy judge in Charleston, West Virginia, set a mid-October deadline for the company and miners to reach a settlement. 

Chris Rowe told WYMT the experience has led him to conclude, “If you take enough people that have been treated as wrong as we had got, you can come together and make a bond with people you never think you would.” 

Rowe expressed gratitude to the many who have supported the miners. “The phone calls, the messages, the food, I mean everything, and I just want to say thank you cause you guys are what kept us going.” 

Donna Sexton told the Militant, “Thank you so, so much for all your support and help. Thank you for believing in us. Thanks to all for standing behind us and being there throughout all this big old mess. Sometime we all have to do what we have to do, but that doesn’t mean that anyone has given up!”

“I don’t talk about win or lose,” Joyce Cheng, owner of Panda Garden Chinese restaurant in nearby Harlan, told the Militant  Sept. 13. She has helped raise more than $20,000 for the miners and their families. “The miners are winning because they’re standing up for what’s right.”

Messages of solidarity, money and other contributions to the fighting miners can be sent to With Love from Harlan, P.O. Box 1621, Harlan, KY 40831. Checks should be payable to the community organization “With Love From Harlan,” with “Coal Miner Fund” on the check’s memo line.