Kentucky coal miners demanding weeks in back pay have ended a high-profile railroad blockade despite still being owed their earned wages.
The demonstration, which lasted eight weeks and three days, concluded on Thursday as the number of participants had significantly dwindled. According to one reporter at the protest site, many of the unpaid miners left “to take new jobs, start classes, or move away from their coal-dependent communities.”
After nearly 60 days on the tracks, the #Blackjewel protest is coming to an end today. Many miners have enrolled in schools, found new jobs or moved.
This event overall will certainly go down in the coal mining history books. pic.twitter.com/ezl51HXrW7
— Connor James (@ConnorWYMT) September 26, 2019
Several laid-off coal workers began occupying a section of railroad tracks in Harlan County over the summer after their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, issued bad checks to hundreds of miners in the area before abruptly declaring bankruptcy. As the Lexington Herald-Leader reported, “When word spread that a load of coal was about to leave one of the company’s mines on July 29, miners blocked the tracks out of frustration.”
Former Blackjewel miner Chris Rowe and his wife Stacy were the only demonstrators remaining at the end, according to WYMT Mountain News. The TV station reported that the couple had been at the protest from the beginning, and Chris “slept every night in a tent by the tracks.” Rowe had vowed to remain at the blockade until he was paid what he earned but ultimately decided to leave after he was offered a job as a truck driver.
“Not really satisfied because we were unable to see it all through,” he said. “People have lives to live, and we gotta go on and do what we gotta do.”
The demonstration brought attention to a “loophole” in a state law that required Blackjewel to furnish a performance bond that would have secured the miners’ wages before operations shut down. Lawmakers are expected to consider a pre-filed bill drafted to better protect coal miners when the next legislative session starts in January.
The parked coal, once valued at $1 million, will stay put until a federal bankruptcy judge decides its fate. The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) argues the coal is considered “hot goods” and must be “cooled” – meaning those who mined it are paid their owed wages before the product can be transported in interstate commerce. The court is expected to rule on the DOL’s motion in October.
Felicia Cress, the wife of a former Blackjewel miner, told the Ohio Valley ReSource: “This happened because we got shafted, which happens all the time,” she said. “You got these rich people that s*** on these poor people, and people just overlook it.”
Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney representing former Blackjewel miners, called the bankruptcy filing “a scheme to shed debt.” He is part of a legal team currently negotiating with the company and its creditors to get his clients paid. On Monday night, Pillersdorf said court-ordered mediation with a federal magistrate “will likely commence on October 15,” adding, “it is possible we might resolve before then.”
Former Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops is currently building a resort in West Virginia named after his wife, according to reports.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) announced last week that the DOL would issue $3,724,200 in grant funding to help support coal workers in Harlan County with employment and training services. He said the money “will provide assistance for Kentucky to help miners and their families get back on their feet.”
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter@JeffreyCawood.