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Laid Off and Owed Pay: The Kentucky Miners Blocking Coal Trains



September 18, 2019 - Harlan County, Kentucky, earned the nickname “Bloody Harlan” from a series of labor strikes and violent confrontations in the 1930s led by coalminers and union organizers against coal corporations and law enforcement. In 1973, Harlan’s coalminers went on strike for 13 months when contract negotiations with Duke Power Company broke down after miners voted to form a union.

There are no longer any unionized mines in Kentucky, but Harlan’s miners are currently continuing the region’s legacy of labor struggles against wealthy and powerful coal corporations: they are blocking the coal trains from leaving a mine that laid them off.

A collection of tents next to some rail tracks may not look like much compared to that rich legacy of labor struggle. A small group of families have occupied the site since July 29, sitting on camp chairs, occasionally hosting live music and attracting sympathetic supporters from all over the U.S.

The small protest has endured for more than six weeks now, garnering nationwide attention – including a video of support from the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – and preventing trains carrying more than $1m worth of coal from being moved out of Harlan county until workers are compensated for the unpaid wages they’re owed since mining firm Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy.

About 1,700 coalminers in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming were laid off without any notice on July 1 when Revelation Energy and it’s affiliate, Blackjewel Coal Company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Unlike other bankruptcies in the coal industry, Blackjewel’s mines have been shut down during proceedings in court and workers experienced previous paychecks and 401k deductions bouncing from their bank accounts, while owed wages were left unpaid.

“With my husband’s checks, they owe him $6,000,” said Stacy Rowe, who has helped run the Blackjewel blockade since it began. A class action lawsuit was filed in July 2019 against Blackjewel for violating the Warn Act, which mandates companies must provide workers with a 60-day written notice in advance of any mass layoffs of 100 or more employees.

The Rowes had just closed on a new home prior to Blackjewel’s abrupt bankruptcy.

The laid off miners are currently grappling with what to do next to make ends meet. Several workers have opted to relocate out of the area for better job opportunities. Chris Rowe is one of several laid off miners working on obtaining a commercial driver’s license to work as a truck driver, as his wife, Stacy, plans on enrolling their seven-year old son in a homeschool program in order to travel on the road with him.

“There is nowhere to get a job unless you move away. For some of us, that’s not possible,” added Rowe. “The payscale around here is ridiculous because coalminers, they deserve their pay, but there is no middle ground here. There is minimum wage, college or coal.”

Rowe explained even after obtaining a college degree, there are no job opportunities to utilize it, which has contributed to a drastic population decline in Harlan county, from over 40,000 in 1980 to around 26,000 today.

Curtis Cress has worked as a coalminer for more than 10 years, and still has a negative bank account due to his bounced paycheck from Blackjewel.

“I almost lost my home. It’s been really hard, when you work a month and they don’t pay you for any of it,” Cress said.

Though around 2,000 jobs have been added to the coal industry since Trump took office, the industry has shed more than 30,000 jobs in the past decade due to automation and market changes in the energy industry. Between 2012 to 2015, eastern Kentucky lost 8,000 coal mining jobs. Coal employment in Harlan county dropped 53.7% in the second quarter of this year compared to last year, driven by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.

After nearly 40 years of working in coalmines, David Pratt is also mulling a new career as a truck driver at the age of 62.

“Courtesy of Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops, people have lost vehicles, homes, been threatened by law,” said Pratt. “What would happen to the general public if they wrote bad checks, what would the law do to them and why can’t they do it to him?”

Though Hoops was forced to resign as Blackjewel CEO as part of an emergency financing agreement, he’s received criticism from workers for his role in the construction of a resort in Milton, West Virginia, that will include a hotel, convention center, wedding chapel, a 4,000 sq ft spa, baseball fields, golf course and an indoor swimming pool.

Hoops did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. Blackjewel referred comment to a page with bankruptcy hearing updates.

The first phase of the project is expected to cost $30m and open in mid to late 2020, while Blackjewel is liable for at least $500m in debt owed to creditors, unpaid taxes and unpaid wages, nearly $10m in payments owed to federal black lung benefits fund, and mine clean up costs that will be passed on to taxpayers if the mine properties aren’t resold.

Blackjewel is one of several coal companies in Kentucky that have not complied with laws requiring them to post bonds to protect miners’ wages in case the company abruptly shuts down.

A federal bankruptcy judge in Charleston, West Virginia, is currently hearing arguments to decide on the fate of the blockaded coal in Harlan county, with Blackjewel arguing the coal was previously sold to a different company, Blackjewel Marketing and Sales Holdings, though the company was formed in December 2017 by Blackjewel Coal Company as part of a joint venture with two other companies.

As court proceedings to determine when and if Blackjewel’s laid off miners will be compensated for their owed wages and possibly be permitted to return to work, miners and their families are continuing to run the protest camp.

They have no intention of backing down until they’re paid what they’re owed.

“We’re going to stay here until we get our money,” said Darrell Raleigh, a laid off Blackjewel miner who spends everyday at the camp with his wife.

“We have better things to do then sit on the tracks, but that’s what it’s come down to,” said Donna Raleigh. “Rain, sleet, snow or hail, we’re going to be here until the checks clear.”