Still Without Pay, Kentucky Coal Miners Continue Month-Long Railroad Blockade

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Chris Rowe, an unemployed Blackjewel coal miner, mans a blockade of the railroad tracks that lead to the mine where he once worked on August 24, 2019 in Cumberland, Kentucky. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Chris Rowe, an unemployed Blackjewel coal miner, mans a blockade of the railroad tracks that lead to the mine where he once worked on August 24, 2019 in Cumberland, Kentucky. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

In late July, unpaid coal miners in Harlan County, Kentucky blocked a train loaded with more than $1 million worth of coal to ship out.  Nearly a month later, they’re still there.


Sydney Boles, reporter for the journalism partnership Ohio Valley ReSource, working out of WMMT in Whitesburg, Kentucky. (@sydneyboles)

Jeffrey Willig, worker at Cloverlick Mine in Cumberland, Kentucky for the past 11 years.

From The Reading List

Ohio Valley ReSource: " 'Bloody Harlan' Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw On Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future" — "Curtis Cress sat in the gravel beside a railroad track in Harlan County, Kentucky. Tall and thin with a long, black beard, Cress is every bit a coal miner, or, he was until a month ago.

" 'It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,' he said. 'And I’m proud of that heritage.'

"Cress had been at these railroad tracks for days, with little sleep. Not far down the rails sat a row of hopper cars filled with coal from his former employer, Blackjewel Coal.

"In the last month, Cress and his fellow miners have gone from moving coal out of the ground to stopping coal in its tracks. Blackjewel’s chaotic bankruptcy filing on July 1 left about a thousand miners like Cress with bounced checks and unpaid bills, and largely in the dark about their future.

"Days turned into weeks, and miners had no way to know if they still had jobs, or health insurance, or access to their retirement savings.

"On July 29, five miners saw an opportunity. A train full of coal was leaving a Harlan County loading facility. The five men clambered onto the railroad tracks to block the train. More than a week later, they hadn’t left.

" 'If they can move this train, they can give us our money!' miner Shane Smith said.

That rag-tag group quickly grew to a full-fledged protest camp, complete with solar showers, a chore list, and a rotating schedule of miners to hold the place down. Community members brought food. Politicians stopped by to make speeches.  Kids played cornhole on the tracks.

" 'We’re suffering, our kids are suffering, water’s getting cut off,' Austin Watts said. 'As long as I gotta stay here, I’ll stay.' "

Courier-Journal: "Amy McGrath ad calls out Mitch McConnell for his short visit with Kentucky coal miners" — "Amy McGrath released a new campaign ad Friday that calls out her senate race opponent, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, on not doing enough for coal miners.

"In the one-minute ad entitled, '10 Hour Bus Ride,' a Pike County coal miner, Jimmy Moore, talks about a visit to see McConnell that took 10 hours and how the senator only spoke with miners for one minute.

" 'We were coal miners with black lung disease going to see our senator, Mitch McConnell, to try and save our disability benefits' Moore says in the ad. 'Ten hours on a bus, and we got to see him for all of one minute.'

"The ad is referencing a July trip miners with black lung disease took to see McConnell in Washington. They did it to convince legislators to help fund their medical care through reinstating a higher excise tax, Reuters reported.

"Moore says in the ad he's lost family members to black lung disease and, 'Mitch McConnell let the coal companies walk away from us and after one minute, he did too.'

"VICE: "Bernie Sanders Sent a Bunch of Pizzas to the Coal Miners Blocking a Train in Kentucky" — "Dozens of Kentucky coal miners protesting over millions’ worth of unpaid wages received a gift of encouragement from Sen. Bernie Sanders: 18 pizzas.

"The Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate called the local Pizza Hut Friday and sent a pie to the miners for each day they’ve been blocking a train full of over $1 million in coal from their former employer, Blackjewel, according to the local NBC affiliate. The demonstration started on July 29 with five men standing on railroad tracks. Three weeks later, the blockade has ballooned into an encampment with what feels like a round-the-clock tailgate.

"The miners have plastered the words 'No pay, we stay' on banners and other surfaces across their camp in Harlan County, Kentucky. In early July, Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy and estimated it owes $4.5 million in backpay to hundreds of workers. The miners want to make sure the proceeds from the sale of the coal shipment goes toward paying them — not other Blackjewel creditors.

"State officials, like Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath, have shown up at the camp to voice their support for the miners, but Sanders isn’t the only national politician to weigh in. On Aug. 5, President Donald Trump froze the shipment of coal using an Obama-era measure that his administration had previously derided and tried to strike down."

Stefano Kotsonis and Liz Neisloss produced this hour for broadcast.

This program aired on August 29, 2019.



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