Miners in Harlan County, Kentucky are demanding weeks in back pay after a major coal company issued bad checks to hundreds of non-union workers before abruptly declaring bankruptcy, resulting in lost jobs and overdrawn bank accounts.
Protestors have occupied a section of railroad tracks near the remote town of Cumberland since last Monday, when six out-of-work miners gathered to block a train loaded with about $1 million worth of coal from leaving a mine owned by their former employer, Blackjewel LLC. The encampment grew last week as churches, politicians, and a community already ravaged by a declining coal industry rallied to support the miners’ effort to get compensated for their work. Blackjewel reportedly wrote cold checks to about 350 miners in the county.
“We’re not out here trying to get more than what we’ve earned,” miner Chris Rowe, one of the original demonstrators, told CBS News.
On Sunday, the Louisville Courier Journal reported that dozens of miners “are boarding buses bound for West Virginia” to attend Blackjewel’s bankruptcy hearing on Monday to seek help from a federal judge. Some miners will remain at the protest site.
The demonstrators agreed to briefly withdraw from the tracks last week to allow the train operator to retrieve its engine, but nearly 100 rail cars filled with coal were left behind. Miners chanted, “No pay, no coal” as the locomotive pulled away. Many vowed to remain until Blackjewel, once the nation’s sixth-largest coal company, pays them what they are owed.
As the Lexington Herald-Leader recently reported:
Blackjewel had issued paychecks to its miners on June 28, three days before declaring bankruptcy. It did not have cash on hand to cover its payroll in Appalachia, but requested approval for a loan July 1 that would have covered them, according to a court record.
When that request fell through, banks that had credited Blackjewel checks to miners’ accounts couldn’t get paid. The banks deducted the money from miners’ accounts during the first week of July, leaving them not only out of work but overdrawn by $1,000 or more in many cases because they had paid bills with the money.
Blackjewel did not furnish a performance bond to secure the miners’ wages as required by state law. Kentucky Labor Cabinet Secretary David A. Dickerson described the policy as self-policing and said not all companies comply.
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for Republican Governor Matt Bevin said he “remains committed to using every tool available” to help the miners. He met with demonstrators on Saturday after posting a video on social media, encouraging people to contribute to their cause. Bevin promoted two local nonprofits that have committed to assisting the families in need.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has called Blackjewel’s actions “shameful and outrageous,” adding, “the company needs to be held accountable for its horrific mismanagement.”
His rival, Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Amy McGrath, made an appearance at the protest last week. WYMT News reported that her campaign brought fried chicken to feed the demonstrators.
“It’s something that makes you angry when you see so many hardworking Kentuckians who are not getting paid,” she said.
Some of the miners claimed Blackjewel also failed to honor 401k obligations despite withdrawing the funds from their paychecks. The state has subpoenaed the company’s payroll information and is working with the U.S. Department of Labor to access the miners’ retirement accounts.
Blackjewel’s assets were put up for auction on Thursday. However, creditors are likely to be paid before the miners. The company has not responded to multiple media requests, although former CEO Jeff Hoops wrote in a letter to employees: “I accept responsibility for being unable to lead this company through these difficult times.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, Blackjewel is at least the fifth coal company to file for bankruptcy in the past year.
CBS News reports more than 35% of mining jobs have been lost in the last decade, although there has been a slight 4% uptick during the Trump administration.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.