Laid-off miners in Kentucky have been blocking a shipment of coal from leaving a shut-down mine for almost six weeks. One miner says they’ll be out there until the bankrupt company pays them the money they’re owed.
Coal miner Blake Watts says he’s owed $6,000 in backpay plus severance pay from Blackjewel LLC, owner of the Cumberland, Ky., mine which filed for bankruptcy on July 1. Most of the workers camping at the tent city surrounding the mine are owed a similar amount.
Since late July, miners have been camping out on the tracks around the clock to prevent the company from completing the sale of the coal before paying the miners who extracted it.
“It's affected me being able to pay my bills and even buy my little girl things,” Watts says. “It's made it tighter and a struggle on just daily living really.”
Watts was preparing to work the third shift of the day starting at 9:30 p.m. when a coworker told him the mine was closing and all the miners were going to lose their jobs.
The company tried to discreetly transport a final batch of coal, but when the miners heard the final train cars being loaded, Watts says they saw an opportunity to force the company's hand to reach its wallet.
The blockade has received assistance and support from across the country — including an order of pizzas from 2020 Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.
President Trump has not weighed in on the blockade despite his previous statements about saving the coal industry.
Blackjewel is a 2-year-old company that owned four mines and employed more than 1,000 miners in central Appalachia, according to The New York Times.
Blakckjewel repaid most of the $52.8 million it had taken out in loans over a six month period before filing in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Charleston, W.Va., The Wall Street Journal reports.
“It's made me realize that, you know, you need to look into things, especially with coal mining,” he says. “Because it's up and down, … you just never know.”
Over the past 10 years, the total number of coal mining jobs in the U.S. has decreased from 80,000 in August 2009 to 53,500 this July, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Watts has a new job at a coal mine in Virginia. He commutes 45 minutes from his home but the pay is better, he says.
Some of his fellow displaced miners have found jobs at another mine in Alabama, but others are doing odd jobs such as painting houses and mowing lawns while they wait for an answer from the company.
“It's sort of like a cat and mouse game,” he says. “We're just sitting here waiting and waiting and we never seem to really get the answer.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports unemployment in Kentucky was at 5.1 percent in July, a significant tick up from the national rate of 3.7 percent.
This blockade isn’t the first time coal miners have had to stand up to their employer in Harlan County, Ky.
The area is known for its bloody labor wars, but there haven’t been unions present there for decades.
In the 1930s, thousands of union coal miners suffering during the Great Depression faced off against coal companies and law enforcement in a deadly conflict dubbed “Bloody Harlan.” Then in the 1970s, a 13-month strike at the Brookside mine again also resulted in violence.
Watts says the miners today are taking a different approach to organizing.
“We've actually made contact with people instead of just showing up … and causing violence,” he says.
This segment aired on September 6, 2019.