Kentucky miners block coal train out of frustration over bounced Blackjewel paychecks

These Kentucky miners blocked a train. They said they’re here to stay.

Out-of-work Blackjewel miners blocked a train hauling coal July 30 in Harlan County and continued their protest into July 31.
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Out-of-work Blackjewel miners blocked a train hauling coal July 30 in Harlan County and continued their protest into July 31.

Miners frustrated over not being paid by a bankrupt coal company blocked a train moving coal from a mine in Harlan County on Monday and continued their protest into Tuesday.

Miners and family members were gathered along the CSX tracks at Sand Hill Bottom, near Cumberland, on Tuesday.

The protest grew from the bankruptcy of Blackjewel LLC, a coal company that had several mines in Harlan County. About 1,100 miners in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia lost their jobs when the company shut down.

Paychecks the company issued to miners on June 28 bounced, leaving hundreds overdrawn and forced to turn to public assistance and donations for help.

“If you aren’t gonna give me my money, I’m gonna do what I can to make sure you don’t get yours,” said Chris Rowe, one of the miners at the protest.

The group moved off the tracks at a different location Monday, but some people, including miners’ wives, continued to block the track Tuesday morning and into the afternoon.

Cumberland Mayor Charles Raleigh said the protesters don’t seem cowed by the potential to be arrested for trespassing.

“Some of ’em are determined to stand there,” he said. “It wouldn’t look too good arresting a bunch of women.”

The miners were passing the time playing cornhole, and supporters had donated food, drinks and chewing tobacco.

Out-of-work Blackjewel miners play a game of corn hole on the railroad tracks near Cumberland on Tuesday after blocking a train Monday afternoon. Will Wright

Raleigh, whose son and brother were affected by the shutdown, said miners are upset because the bankruptcy court has approved nearly $8 million in loans for Blackjewel since the bankruptcy, yet they still haven’t gotten any money to cover their bounced checks.

The effort to move out coal angered miners. The company received money for the coal, but the miners who worked to produce it didn’t get paid, Raleigh said.

Raleigh said there is a great deal of support for the protesters, and plenty of people would be willing to post bail if they are arrested.

“I’d be one of ’em,” he said.

A spokeswoman for CSX said Tuesday afternoon that the rail company is keeping up with the situation in Harlan County and hopes the impasse is resolved quickly.

The company was not able to immediately provide any information on who had bought the coal or hired CSX to move it out.

Jeffrey Willig, a miner who worked at a Blackjewel mine near Cumberland, said he and other miners are determined to block the tracks “as long as it takes.”

Willig, a father of six, said his bank account was left overdrawn after his last Blackjewel check bounced.

His wife, Sarah Banks, teaches special education, but the money she makes isn’t enough to cover their monthly expenses, Willig said.

Banks said she has had to rely on help from friends and family to buy school supplies.

“We don’t know if we’re gonna be able to buy school shoes,” Banks said.

Willig and other miners said they have not heard anything from the company on when they could expect their paychecks.

“We’re not expecting our jobs back, we just want our money,” Willig said.

Out-of-work Blackjewel miners Brandon Hatfield, left, and Chris Rowe, right, stand on the railroad tracks near Cumberland on Tuesday after blocking a train Monday afternoon. Will Wright

State Rep. Adam Bowling, R-Middlesboro, joined the miners Tuesday and said he wanted to show that state government supports the miners and will advocate for their pay.

Bowling said he is in the process of crafting legislation that he hopes will compel the company to designate money to pay the miners’ back wages.

Last week, Blackjewel secured court approval to move ahead with its plan to sell mines in Wyoming and West Virginia to another coal company, but the court has not yet ordered Blackjewel to pay the wages of Kentucky miners.

For some, wives taking part in the protest echoed the involvement of women on the picket line during a strike by union miners in Harlan County against a subsidiary of Duke Power that lasted for more than a year in 1973 and 1974.

The Brookside strike ended after a union member was shot and killed.

The strike was documented in a film called Harlan County U.S.A that won an Academy Award.

“I just think wives want to help as best we can,” Banks said. “It’s our men that go underground and do all the hard work, but we’re all in this together. We suffer just as much as they do.”

In a statement issued to employees Tuesday, Blackjewel said the sale could bring 500 Wyoming miners back to work. The proposed deal also includes “a commitment to pay returning employees amounts owed at the time of our Chapter 11 filing if the sale is completed.”

“We know how eager you all are to understand what will happen to your mine and whether you will be able return to work,” the company said in its statement. “We share this desire and assure you that we are doing everything possible to bring as many employees as possible back to work as quickly as possible.”

The release did not include any information on making good on the bounced checks of miners not called back to work.

Lexington priest Jim Sichko paid the electric bills of about 200 Eastern Kentucky miners who were left in financial turmoil following the bankruptcy of Blackjewel LLC.