[Marxism] Unpaid Miners Blocked a Coal Train in Protest. Weeks Later, They’re Still There.
lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Aug 19 10:24:20 MDT 2019
NY Times, August 19, 2019
Unpaid Miners Blocked a Coal Train in Protest. Weeks Later, They’re
By Campbell Robertson
CUMBERLAND, Ky. — A little after 4 p.m. on Friday, four hulking big-rig
cabs, facing each other in pairs and taking up both lanes, brought the
Kingdom Come Parkway to a standstill. On the highway between the trucks,
eight out-of-work coal miners raised a banner: “No Pay We Stay.”
That is the miners’ plan in its entirety, and for close to three weeks,
that is what they have done.
A protest that began with five men blocking a train full of coal has
grown into a small 24-hour tent city along some railroad tracks next to
the highway. It has become a pilgrimage site for labor activists, a
rallying point for the community — “a tailgate party on steroids,” as
one local official approvingly put it. And it is the first organized
miners’ protest that anyone can remember for decades in Harlan County,
Ky., a place once virtually synonymous with bloody labor wars.
The railroad blockade began in late July, about a month after
Blackjewel, the two-year-old company where the miners worked, suddenly
declared bankruptcy. Blackjewel owned mines in four states, and employed
over a thousand miners in central Appalachia.
Miners learned in the middle of an afternoon shift that Blackjewel was
shutting down immediately and putting everyone out of work. It did so
without filing a mandatory 60-day advance warning and without posting a
bond, required by Kentucky law, to cover payroll.
Workers received no pay for their last week on the job. Then they
learned that their paychecks for the previous two weeks had bounced.
Bankruptcies and layoffs have become routine in the coal fields during a
grueling industrywide decline, but no one seemed to recall anything
quite like this.
“It’s no different from robbing a bank,” said Jeffrey Willig, a wiry
40-year-old father of six.
In Harlan County, hundreds of miners found themselves with negative bank
balances, staring down mortgages, car payments and medication costs.
Some were alerted to the news by ex-spouses who had not gotten automatic
child-support payments. Lawyers representing the miners in the
bankruptcy proceeding estimated that Blackjewel’s employees in central
Appalachia were each owed $4,202.91 on average, for wages and benefits
But the employees are just one party, fighting alongside Blackjewel’s
other creditors over pieces of the company in federal bankruptcy court.
One of the company’s assets was a trainload of coal, over a million
dollars’ worth, at the Cloverlick No. 3 mine in Harlan County. The coal,
dug up by the unpaid workers, had been sold, but had not yet been
transported to the buyer. On the afternoon of July 29, the train rolled
slowly out of the mine. It did not go unnoticed.
“They was doing it as quiet as could be,” said Dalton Lewis, 20.
A fellow miner called him with the plan: “Come on down here, we’re going
to stop this train.”
This instinct runs deep in Harlan County. In the 1930s, efforts to
organize miners led to “Bloody Harlan” — currently a hashtag printed on
protest signs — a deadly conflict pitting thousands of union miners
against coal companies, law enforcement officials and strikebreakers.
Blood was spilled again in the early 1970s during a bitter 13-month
strike by workers at the Brookside mine, the subject of the
Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County, U.S.A.”
But 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.
Nearly three weeks later, the coal train sits idle, back at the mine.
Alerted by news of the Harlan standoff, the Department of Labor
intervened to block the shipment of the coal, deeming it “hot goods.”
Blackjewel soon agreed that proceeds from sale of the coal would go to
its former employees.
Some have found work, often away from Harlan; Mr. Lewis has left for
Alabama. Blackjewel’s mining operations in Harlan have been bought, and
the new owners have pledged to pay the miners some of the money they are
owed. But the mines have not reopened yet, and no money has arrived —
not from the new owners, and certainly not from Blackjewel.
So day in and day out, a small band of families sit in camp chairs
alongside the tracks, trapping a million dollars’ worth of coal up and
around a bend. A string band occasionally gathers on the tracks to play
old mountain songs and labor ballads.
The tents have proliferated, some bearing the logos of the local funeral
homes that provided them. There are portable toilets, delivered by the
city and county, as well as a generator and a children’s tent with
books, toys and portable cribs. A philanthropic foundation gave $2,000
to each miner, and the owner of a local Chinese restaurant has raised
thousands of dollars for them on her own. Barbershops have offered free
back-to-school haircuts, and the county probation and parole office has
fielded donated toiletries.
The camp runs on Red Bull and soda — with ice courtesy of a local
nursing home. Meals are cooked in an improvised kitchen that takes up
two tents. Donated food has come in by the carload since the beginning
of the protest.
“I’ve got some pizzas here from Bernie Sanders,” said a perplexed Pizza
Hut delivery woman who pulled up on Friday afternoon. Someone involved
with the protest had apparently gotten word about it to someone with the
Sanders presidential campaign.
Politicians have flocked to the scene, including Gov. Matt Bevin, a
Republican, and Amy McGrath, a Democratic candidate for Senate. But camp
leaders, to maintain their eclectic coalition, have tried to curb
explicit talk about partisan politics. This is particularly difficult
when outsiders show up, like the solidarity-pledging truckers who drove
in from all over the country last week as part of a group called Black
Smoke Matters, one of them wearing a T-shirt celebrating President
Trump’s building of a wall.
Much of the daily life at the tent city has been organized by a group of
activists who are camping there, many of whom identify as transgender
and anarchist. The activists came from around the region in the first
few days of the blockade, some with experience operating these sorts of
camps at environmental protests, and they quickly got to work running
the kitchen and tapping networks of liberal interest groups for
In an echo of some unexpected protest alliances of the past, the
activists have quietly blended in to the tent city’s daily traffic.
Meanwhile, evangelical preachers stop by to hold impromptu prayer
services, and union officials deliver stemwinders from the bed of a
There haven’t been union mines in Eastern Kentucky for decades, but the
speeches allude to the old labor wars in Harlan County. It is not too
far a reach: Out-of-work Blackjewel miners recall their fathers talking
of dynamite and gunshots.
“History’s repeating itself,” said Mr. Willig, who stood on the pavement
with the miners on Friday holding up the protest banner.
The highway blockade, arranged by the truckers, lasted about ten
minutes. There was no specific plan for what would come next, Mr. Willig
said as he walked back to the tent city. No plan, that is, other than
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