Unpaid Miners Block Train

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Never piss off a coal miner, especially if you haven’t paid him for weeks – and then try to ship the last load of coal he dug out of the mountains.

That’s what Blackjewel Co. learned on July 30 in Harlan County, Ky. When the firm loaded the coal on train cars, the unpaid miners marched out to the tracks and sat down.

As of Aug, 2, they were still there. They vow to stay. They’re blocking a CSX coal train, at times forming a human chain to make sure it doesn’t move.

One miner wrote a sign in black marker on a used cardboard pizza box: "No pay we stay."

The miners are non-union, but that didn’t stop them from taking “protected concerted action,” in federal labor law’s language, to stand up for themselves. In this case, of course, it’s to stand up and get paid in one of the poorest regions of Appalachia.

The sit down is nothing new in Harlan County. It’s been the scene of bitter battles for years, as coal company bosses warred – often literally – against workers standing up for themselves.

The Blackjewel workers have had to stand up again, and most of the town of Cumberland, population 2,200, is supporting them one way or another since the sit down on the tracks started. A Chinese restaurant is sending over free meals, and people are bringing donations of food, blankets and tents for shelter from frequent thunderstorms. There are port-a-potties, too.

Blackjewel had been losing money. Its sudden bankruptcy filing on July 1 was disclosed by a pro-worker foundation. The company stopped paying the 400 Harlan County miners and at least 700 others at its other mines in Kentucky, West Virginia and Virginia.

The first paychecks that arrived in July, for work performed during the last half of June, bounced. The miners never got others. By the end of the month, the Harlan County contingent had had it, especially when they learned about the CSX coal train – with their coal in it. Their mine was padlocked, too.


"We're doing without money, food and everything else before our kids are starting back to school. We can't even get clothes or nothing else for them, so it was like a kick in the face," miner Chris Rowe told CNN affiliate WYMT. "That's basically what it was." Added fellow miner Shane Smith: "There'll be no trains coming in, there'll be no trains going out,"

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear is monitoring the situation. "Blackjewel failed to pay them for weeks of hard work and the way the company filed for bankruptcy prevents miners from accessing their 401(k)s, making it even harder for them to feed their families," he said. "What this company is doing to them is wrong.”

"The miners can't draw unemployment because they technically were not fired and they didn't quit," Cumberland Mayor Charles Raleigh told CNN. "They can't get medical insurance, so they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

The former mine owner, in an open letter, apologized. He’s also stiffed the four states and their counties some $57 million and owes $62 million in coal royalties to the federal government. In somewhat-chaotic bankruptcy proceedings, he’s trying to sell the firm and its 24 mines, including three strip mines, in Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and two more in Wyoming.

The Harlan County mine is non-union, and the United Mine Workers of America has yet to comment on the sit-in on the tracks, but 41-year UMWA miner Stanley Sturgill drove from Lynch, Ky., to join fellow miners. “If the trains get out, that’s more money for the company and nothing for the coal miners, and they have shafted these coal miners,” he told Ohio Valley Resource, a non-profit group that tries to find jobs for ex-miners. “It’s terrible they…left them high and dry. They can’t go to doctors, they can’t eat. That’s why we’re trying to help them.”



Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Steel for Wind Power

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

Siemens Gamesa last month laid off 130 workers at its turbine blade manufacturing plant in Iowa, just months after GE Renewable Energy decided to close an Arkansas factory and eliminate 470 jobs.

The companies reported shrinking demand for their products, even though U.S. consumption of wind energy increases every year.

America’s prosperity depends not only on harnessing this crucial energy source but also ensuring that highly skilled U.S. workers build the components with the cleanest technology available.

Right now, the nation relies on imported steel and turbine components from foreign manufacturers like China while America’s own steel industry—well equipped for this production—struggles because of dumping and other unfair trade practices.

Steel makes up the bulk of turbine hubs and the wind towers themselves. It’s also used to make the cranes and platforms necessary for installing the towers.

Yet the potential boon to America’s steel industry is just one reason to ramp up domestic production of wind energy infrastructure.

American steel production ranks among the cleanest in the world, while China has the highest carbon emissions of any steelmaking nation and flouts environmental regulations.

The nation’s highly-skilled steelmaking workforce must play an essential role in the deeply-needed revitalization and modernization of the nation’s failing infrastructure. Producing the components for harnessing wind energy domestically and cleanly is an important step that will put Americans to work and position the United States to be world leaders in this growing industry.


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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work