As of Wednesday, coal miners in Cumberland, Kentucky are now 23 days into a train blockade that they say will go on until their former company pays them.
The miners suddenly lost their jobs in the middle of a shift on July 1 when their company, Blackjewel, announced it had gone bankrupt. The company wrote two weeks' worth of bad checks for a total of 1,700 coal miners, including 350 people in Harlan County, Kentucky. The company owes a total of $5 million to its former employees—about $3,000 per person.
"It's no different from robbing a bank," miner Jeffrey Willig told the New York Times this week.
The miners' outrage deepened on July 29 when the company attempted to send a $1 million coal shipment to their clients via train. Several miners and their families organized a blockade, holding signs reading, "No Pay, We Stay" and camping out on the train tracks.
"We mined the coal, and company says they don't have money to operate," one miner, Josh Holbrook, told Sarah Lazare of In These Times earlier this month. "But they're selling the coal. And they can't pay us? I see us blocking the trains until we get paid."
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sent 18 pizzas to the miners last Friday, and local churches and restaurants have also offered support to the group. A group of truckers also showed solidarity with the miners last week with a brief highway blockade.
I just want to take a sec to appreciate that a a group of coal miners have been camped out on some railroad tracks for THREE WEEKS bc they haven’t been paid. These are their signs. Whatever you think about politics in Appalachia, you have more to learn. pic.twitter.com/V7WRi1fBdr— Sydney Boles (@sydneyboles) August 19, 2019
A number of unions and labor rights advocates have pledged solidarity with the workers.
We stand with miners at #Blackjewel! Coal miners have a long history of taking on hard fights against rich, greedy bosses - we know whose side we're on.— UNITE HERE (@unitehere) August 21, 2019
One day longer, one day stronger! #NoPayWeStay https://t.co/cEEKPJz9RO
“There had been little in the way of organized labor protest in Harlan for years before that July afternoon, when Mr. Lewis joined Mr. Willig and three other miners on the railroad tracks.” Solidarity with all the workers at the #BlackjewelProtest. #1u https://t.co/FumD7vYqrD— Writers Guild of America, East (@WGAEast) August 20, 2019
In Lexington, Kentucky, the local Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter announced that it would hold a rally on Thursday in support of the miners.
Care about worker rights? Care about people getting stiffed of their hard earned paycheck? Come join us in Phoenix Park tomorrow starting at 3pm. We're going to make sure Lexington doesn't forget about the #blackjewelprotest - Fight for every worker, everywhere, always.— Lexington DSA (@LexingtonDSA) August 21, 2019
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President Donald Trump halted the coal shipment on August 5, a week into the blockade, using a Labor Department measure known as "hot goods," which freezes the movement of goods produced by workers who have not been paid.
One miner, Collin Cornette, spoke with The Hill's online talk show, "Rising," about the blockade, the salary Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops paid himself while leaving workers without their wages, and miners' message for the president three weeks into the protest.
"We appreciate what he's done so far but at the end of the day we're still sitting here almost two months out without a payday," Cornette said. "It's not right. There's something that you can do about it."
Other recent actions by the president and other top Republicans have crystallized the fact that coal CEOs—not workers—are their top priority within the industry that the GOP insists must continue to operate despite mounting evidence that it's contributing to the climate crisis.
A day after dozens of retired coal miners visited Capitol Hill to call on lawmakers to save their pensions—only to be dismissed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who represents thousands of Kentucky coal miners in the Senate—the president traveled to the state for a fundraiser held by Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Corporation and a loyal Trump supporter. As a mine owner, Murray is one of the wealthy executives who make up a fifth of Trump's donor base.
McConnell also blocked a measure to protect miners' pensions earlier this year.
"We've worked years in the coal mines. [The pension] was promised to us," Tom Phillips, a miner who voted for Trump in 2016, told NBC News on Wednesday.
"I'm kind of up in the air" regarding whether he'd vote to re-elect the president in 2020, Phillip added.
At In These Times, Lazare wrote that the blockade "underscores the need for a 'just transition'" in which a much-needed shift away from coal, oil, and gas-powered energy toward renewable sources would be paired with economic support and vocational training for the 1.1 million Americans who work in the fossil fuel sector, as progressives push for a Green New Deal.
Holbrook told Lazare that progressive lawmakers, Democratic presidential candidates, and workers in the pollution causing industries must work alongside one another to ensure that both the environment and working families are protected.
"Come to where we live, come to a small town and tell people how it's affecting the environment and how we can change it," Holbrook said. "If stopping coal mining is how we can change it, then bring jobs in."
"As the coal industry declines, it's becoming increasingly clear that a just transition is not a far-off goal post: People are losing their jobs now," wrote Lazare. "If climate campaigners are serious about building trust with workers, and ensuring they lead a just transition away from the fossil fuel economy, now is the time to engage with coal miners' struggles to survive a transition they did not choose."