Unpaid Harlan County miners sitting in and blocking coal trains
View from above Harlan, Kentucky in Harlan County. | Wikipedia (CC)

CUMBERLAND, Kent. – Never piss off a coal miner, especially if you haven’t paid him for weeks – and then try to ship the last load of coal he dug out of the mountains out of town.

That’s what Blackjewel Company learned on July 30 in Harlan County, Kent., around the mining town of Cumberland. When the firm tried to send the coal away by train, the unpaid miners found out, marched out to the tracks, and sat down on them.

As of August 2, they were still there. They vow to stay. They’re blocking a CSX coal train, at times forming a human chain to make sure it doesn’t move.

One miner wrote a sign in black marker on a used cardboard pizza box: “No pay we stay.”

The miners are non-union, but that didn’t stop them from taking “protected concerted action,” in federal labor law’s language, to stand up for themselves. In this case, of course, it’s to stand up and get paid in what was historically and still is one of the poorest regions of Appalachia.

The sit-down is nothing new in Harlan County. It’s been the scene of bitter battles for years, as coal company bosses warred – often literally – against workers standing up for themselves.

The Blackjewel workers have had to stand up again, and most of the town of Cumberland, population 2,200, is supporting them one way or another since the sit down on the tracks started. A Chinese restaurant is sending over free meals and people are bringing donations of food, blankets and tents against frequent thunderstorms. There are port-a-potties, too.

Blackjewel had been losing money. Its sudden bankruptcy filing on July 1 was disclosed by a pro-worker area foundation. It stopped paying the 400 Harlan County miners, and at least 700 others at its other mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia, at the start of July.

Those first July paychecks, for the last half of June, bounced. The miners never got others. By the end of the month, the Harlan County contingent had had it, especially when they learned about the CSX coal train – with their coal in it. And their mine was padlocked, too.

“We’re doing without money, food and everything else before our kids are starting back to school. We can’t even get clothes or nothing else for them, so it was like a kick in the face,” miner Chris Rowe told CNN affiliate WYMT. “That’s basically what it was.” Added fellow miner Shane Smith: “But until then, there’ll be no trains coming in, there’ll be no trains going out.”

Coal train operating in Pennsylvania. | AP

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is monitoring the situation. “Blackjewel failed to pay them for weeks of hard work and the way the company filed for bankruptcy prevents miners from accessing their 401(k)s, making it even harder for them to feed their families,” he said. “What this company is doing to them is wrong.”

“The miners can’t draw unemployment because they technically were not fired and they didn’t quit,” Cumberland Mayor Charles Raleigh told CNN. “They can’t get medical insurance, so they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

The former mine owner, in an open letter, apologized. He’s also stiffed the four states and their counties some $57 million and owes $62 million in coal royalties to the federal government. In somewhat-chaotic bankruptcy proceedings, he’s trying to sell the firm and its 24 mines, including three strip mines, in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming.

The Harlan County mine is non-union, and the Mine Workers have yet to comment on the sit-in on the tracks, but 41-year UMW miner Stanley Sturgill drove from Lynch, Kent., to join fellow miners.

“If the trains get out that’s more money for the company and nothing for the coal miners and they have shafted these coal miners,” he told Ohio Valley Resource, a non-profit group that tries to find jobs for ex-miners. “It’s terrible they…left them high and dry. They can’t go to doctors, they can’t eat. That’s why we’re trying to help them.”


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.