Kentucky coal miners have spent days blocking a railroad that serves coal trains in Harlan County as they demand unpaid wages from their bankrupt employer.
The dispute highlights the disproportionate impact the collapsing coal industry is having on its workers, many of whom are caught in the crossfire.
Coal has been on the decline for years, with five major coal producers all filing for bankruptcy this year alone. As that spiral has played out, coal companies have denied workers backpay, in addition to voiding union contracts in certain cases.
Some activists say this trend enforces the need for protections for frontline communities — from those on the coast impacted by sea level rise to workers affected by the transition to clean energy — laid out in proposals like the Green New Deal.
Many also say the collapse of coal serves as an indictment of lawmakers, including President Donald Trump. The president has kept close ties with coal executives, even as they come under fire for abandoning their workers.
“Coal executives are raking in money even while their businesses fail and the promises they’ve made to mining communities are broken time and time again,” said Bill Price, Appalachian Field Organizing Manager at Sierra Club, in an email to ThinkProgress on Friday.
Blackjewel, the nation’s sixth-largest coal producer, abruptly declared bankruptcy last month, imperiling the jobs of well over 1,000 coal miners in several states including Kentucky. That move impacted roughly a quarter of all miners in southeastern Harlan County, where more than 32% of the population lived below the poverty line as of the 2010 Census.
The company did not post a payment bond with Kentucky, as is required by state law — a move that would have covered a month of payroll for impacted workers. When Blackjewel declared bankruptcy, miners say their paychecks bounced; some also say their 401(k) contributions have not been credited to their accounts for months.
Fed up, miners camped out on Monday on top of a railroad track in an effort to block the path of a coal train. Many have said they will not leave until they have some guarantee of payment — allowing them to afford medical expenses, monthly bills, and other critical needs. While the protesting miners are not protected by a union, United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) members have expressed solidarity and came to assist their industry colleagues.
“Their fight is our fight!” the union asserted in a tweet on Wednesday.
— United Mine Workers (@MineWorkers) July 31, 2019
Local reporters on the scene of the protest said that miners and their supporters have endured hot weather coupled with pouring rain over the course of the week as they demand their wages. Miners have allowed the train company, CSX, to move engines, but not the coal. Workers argue that since they are the ones to have mined the resource, they should be paid for it.
The stand-off is the latest flashpoint for the coal industry, which has largely been dethroned by the rise of cheaper renewables and natural gas. And as coal companies have collapsed, workers have been hit hardest.
Companies like Westmoreland, which declared bankruptcy last October, have walked away from union contracts, leaving many miners in dire financial straits. Some without any union obligations have simply filed for bankruptcy without paying their workers, leaving money with executives and not with miners — as is the case with Blackjewel’s Kentucky workers.
“The fact that a millionaire is refusing to pay these miners for their hard work shows yet again that, for these coal executives, their profits always come before the health and well-being of everyone else,” said Price, the Appalachian field organizer.
This tension has also spilled into federal politics.
Last week, Appalachian coal miners suffering from black lung came to Washington, D.C., to lobby Congress for help. Their trip coincided with Trump’s visit to West Virginia for a fundraiser hosted by Bob Murray, the head of coal company Murray Energy. Trump has repeatedly fought to keep the coal industry alive, going so far as to push for a government bailout of both coal and nuclear, which is also struggling. But the president has not commented on the protest in Kentucky, or on the trend of companies backing out of paying workers.
Meanwhile, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who has deep ties to coal industry executives, has been under pressure to side with the protesting miners, some of whom have questioned his commitment to helping them. On Thursday, McConnell called Blackjewel’s treatment of its workers “shameful and outrageous,” establishing his stance.
“These miners need to be paid in full for their work,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement, although he did not indicate what measures he might take to assist that process.
Some activists argue that coal’s decline underscores the need for worker protections in any proposed climate action that might pass the federal government. Many have called for a “just transition” — one that would see communities reliant on fossil fuels protected as the industry collapses. Proponents of the Green New Deal, a proposal to rapidly zero-out emissions across the United States, pointed to the Kentucky miner protest to underpin their argument.
“The coal & mining industry isn’t sustainable,” wrote the youth-led Sunrise Movement on Twitter this week. “But when these companies go under, the workers just trying to put food on the table don’t deserve to suffer the consequences[.]”
Sunrise, which supports the Green New Deal, went on to argue that the proposal would “provide the safe & sustainable green jobs our workers deserve” and shared a link to a fundraiser for the miners.
Unions and labor groups have taken varying stances on the Green New Deal, with some supporting its emphasis on worker protections and others arguing that it is too vague and could harm groups like coal miners. But clean energy advocates say that protecting impacted workers will remain a top priority.
“These miners deserve what they are owed,” said Price, “and every worker with a job that depends on the fossil fuel industry deserves access to pensions, healthcare, and good-paying, family-sustaining careers as we transition to the clean energy economy.”