Which Side Are You On: Still Blocking the Coal Train In Harlan County

Photo by Pat McDonough/Courier Journal. Front photo by Meg Roussos/Bloomberg via Getty

This Labor Day marked over a month since coal miners in Kentucky's infamous Bloody Harlan County, setting up defiant camp under the maxim "No Pay, We Stay," began blockading railroad tracks to protest getting shafted after their employer Blackjewel LLC declared bankruptcy and failed to pay over 1,100 miners for three weeks of work. In July, when the miners got word Blackjewel was quietly shipping a trainload of $1 million worth of coal they'd taken out of the ground, about 20 stood on the tracks and blocked the train. It slowed, stopped, and eventually went back the way it came. Since then, the protest has grown into a 24-hour tent city with dozens of miners working 8-12 hour shifts and broad community support.

Residents have set up a kitchen and brought food, water, first aid kits; local officials have joined the protests and provided help; restaurants have delivered pizza, Chinese, Mexican; a few weeks ago, Bernie Sanders sent 18 pizzas, one for each day they'd been out, and blasted their MIA political "leader"; a GoFundMe campaign has raised thousands, with many contributors explaining they don't sanction the coal industry but support workers exploited in its name; many, including train operators, have expressed support for what they see as a time-honored Appalachian tradition. "In Harlan, Kentucky, we stand up for what we believe is right,” said miner Chris Lewis. “That's been embedded in us from childhood up...Coal miners (are) brotherhoods."

Still, the miners, who are struggling to make car, house, washer payments, face multiple massive battles - against a conglomerate with region-wide operations, a declining industry, a state that's illegally failed to protect them, and larger political and economic forces arrayed against them. In ongoing legal fights, Blackjewel is maneuvering to move their trains and sell their mines, with or without paying the miners; the Department of Labor has sued to block Blackjewel's "hot goods" until workers get paid, with both sides battling over amounts; and the miners have filed a class action suit for back pay that alleges misappropriation of pensions even as they confront grave health issues and the possible loss of health benefits.

Though entangled in so many broader issues, some miners insist their action has "nothing to do with politics." But they live in a state with 10 of America's 25 poorest counties, run by a neo-fascist GOP governor, represented by a do-nothing turtle, where a rabid anti-worker Trump won 85% of the vote by lying he'd bring back coal. They also live in a region with a long, often brutal history of labor activism that has taught generations of miners and workers a key lesson: "Unite, remain strong and do what is right to defend you, your family and your friends.” "There is total injustice here," says miner Jeff Willig. "(We're) doing (this) for every miner that's been under these mountains for 20, 30, 40 years that never had their voices heard and that had been taken advantage of." Says another, "We are taking a stand." Given our unholy alliance between the corporate class and government in which profits are privatized and losses are socialized, notes Charles Pierce, their stand has to be a political fight, part of the "job requirements of being a citizen." That, he says, "is the work to begin on this Labor Day.

Photo by Chris Kenning/Courier Journal

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