The U.S. Department of Labor has asked a judge to stop a train filled with $1 million worth of coal from leaving a remote mine in Southeastern Kentucky until the non-union workers who produced it are paid for their efforts.
The emergency motion was filed in federal court on Monday, one week after coal miners began occupying a set of railroad tracks to block the shipment. Their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, had issued bad checks to hundreds of miners in Harlan County before abruptly declaring bankruptcy on July 1. Now out of work, many are owed more than three weeks in back pay.
On Tuesday, Knoxville-based Kopper Glo Mining LLC announced that it had successfully bid for the Blackjewel mines in Harlan County. In a statement, the company said it “has a plan to re-start certain operations and is confident this plan will bring jobs back to many of the former Blackjewel employees.” It also committed to funding a portion of the money due to the Harlan County miners, who are reportedly owed about $2.6 million. The deal includes $450,000 toward those unpaid wages, promising an additional $550,000 from future royalties after mining operations resume.
“In order to recover the rest of what they are owed, the miners also have a priority lien against the six million dollars that Kopper Glo will pay to the debtor at the closing,” wrote Ned Pillersdorf, an attorney representing the miners, on Facebook. “However, we believe that all or nearly all of the lien holders have separately resolved their liens, and so our primary competitors will be the government.”
Protestors remain at the blockade and continue to receive support from politicians, law enforcement, and a community that was built around a once-thriving coal industry. Some of the miners say they will continue obstructing the train’s path out of Harlan County until they get their money in full.
According to the proposed order by Acting U.S. Secretary of Labor Patrick Pizzella, “the coal is considered ‘hot goods’ and should be prevented from being transported or transferred in interstate commerce” until the miners have been paid in accordance with the Fair Labor Standards Act.
As Bloomberg Law explained on Thursday, the Trump administration’s move to support the miners “relies on a powerful if rarely used tool,” elaborating:
The tactic, called “hot goods,” seeks to freeze the movement of goods produced by workers who were shortened on pay…
The leverage gained by government from invoking hot goods is so strong that the mere suggestion is usually enough to cause employers to cave, according to several former DOL officials. Typically, to achieve the desired results, the department doesn’t even need to file a motion as it did this week.
The Blackjewel case is complicated by its Chapter 11 filing earlier this summer. That means the final outcome could be determined by a bankruptcy judge who has other priorities besides protecting workers’ wages … In response to the department’s filing, an attorney for Blackjewel told the judge that the company will hold some of the proceeds from the sale of coal in Harlan County until the workers there are paid. The judge will continue to consider the hot goods motion when the bankruptcy proceeding resumes.
Meanwhile, the Richard and Leslie Gilliam Foundation donated more than $1 million to help 508 laid-off Blackjewel miners in Central Appalachia earlier this week. The money was disbursed to local assistance groups in Southeastern Kentucky and Southwestern Virginia. Miners listed in immediate need databases will reportedly receive $2,000 each as early as Friday.
“The nation rallied around them, understood how badly they’d been mistreated and I think that impacted things,” Pillersdorf told WYMT Mountain News.
Follow Jeffrey Cawood on Twitter @JeffreyCawood.