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‘Bloody Harlan’ Revisited: Blackjewel Miners Draw on Labor History While Facing Uncertain Future

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A quiet moment for miners and their supporters. Photo: Curren Sheldon

This article was originally published by Ohio Valley ReSource.

Curtis Cress sat in the gravel beside a railroad track in Harlan County, Kentucky. Tall and thin with a long, black beard, Cress is every bit a coal miner, or, he was until a month ago.

“It’s part of my heritage, you know? My dad and papaws had always done it,” he said. “And I’m proud of that heritage.”

Cress had been at these railroad tracks for days, with little sleep. Not far down the rails sat a row of hopper cars filled with coal from his former employer, Blackjewel Coal.

In the last month, Cress and his fellow miners have gone from moving coal out of the ground to stopping coal in its tracks. Blackjewel’s chaotic bankruptcy filing on July 1 left about a thousand miners like Cress with bounced checks and unpaid bills, and largely in the dark about their future.

An aerial shot of the encampment that has grown up around the protest site. Photo: Curren Sheldon

Days turned into weeks, and miners had no way to know if they still had jobs, health insurance or access to their retirement savings.

On July 29, five miners saw an opportunity. A train full of coal was leaving a Harlan County loading facility. The five men clambered onto the railroad tracks to block the train. More than a week later, they hadn’t left.

“If they can move this train, they can give us our money!” miner Shane Smith said.

That rag-tag group quickly grew to a full-fledged protest camp, complete with solar showers, a chore list, and a rotating schedule of miners to hold the place down. Community members brought food. Politicians stopped by to make speeches. Kids played cornhole on the tracks.

“We’re suffering, our kids are suffering, water’s getting cut off,” Austin Watts said. “As long as I gotta stay here, I’ll stay.”

Protesting Blackjewel miners in Harlan Co., KY. Photo: Curren Sheldon

Arnold Shepherd, a miner from Leslie County, Kentucky, was among those who said the protest recalled an earlier period in Harlan County history.

“This thing here, it puts you in mind of ‘Bloody’ Harlan, back years ago,” Shepherd said.

Bloody Harlan. The name comes from the nearly century-long and sometimes violent struggle between coal companies and workers seeking to unionize.

“Harlan is one of the locations used to undercut wage stability for the rest of the country,” Northern Illinois Univ. labor historian Rosemary Feurer said. Harlan miners started to organize in the 1920s, a struggle that culminated in a long and violent strike in 1931. Miners picketed again in the early 1970s, also sparking violence.

“What the miners were saying is, we can’t be basically just extraction engines and robots and tools left to die of black lung,” Feurer said.

Today, the protest is peaceful. The union is largely gone from Kentucky mines. And the entire coal industry is a fraction of what it was decades ago. Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, though more chaotic than most, is just one of many recent shocks to a declining coal industry. Dozens of companies went under in the past decade, and despite a coal-friendly president rolling back regulations, more have followed. In 2019 alone, BlackHawk Group LLC, Cambrian Coal LLC and Cloud Peak Energy Inc. all went bankrupt.

With lower union representation and an expectation of more bankruptcies to come, miners’ advocates and industry watchers worry that coal miners and mining communities will suffer the brunt of the industry’s decline. The Blackjewel miners who took to the tracks are following in a long history of worker protest in Harlan County. They are also stepping into an uncertain future for themselves and their community.

Scene Of Labor Struggles 

“You have to look at ‘Bloody Harlan’ in a long history of a bloody coal industry,” said labor historian Feurer, who has written about the region and legendary labor organizer Mother Jones.

Feurer said the coal industry pushes the full cost of coal onto workers’ health, workers’ wages and on the environment. The United Mine Workers of America, Feurer said, arose from workers’ demands for better treatment.

Women of the Brookside women’s support group talk with tow truck operator at a roadblock in 1974. Photo: Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

“It’s not only bloody for the labor violence, but for the death toll,” she said, from mining accidents and black lung disease. “It’s more than most wars.”

The UMWA negotiated its first successful wage increase in 1898 and went on to fight for eight-hour workdays and standard measurement for coal. The union helped miners weather the mining industry’s boom and bust cycles, and many of the union’s hard-won health and safety standards are still in place today.

Mine operators viciously opposed miners’ efforts to unionize, particularly in Harlan County. In the bloody 1930s coal wars, miners known to be union members were fired and evicted from company-owned homes. Soon enough, most miners had gone on strike out of solidarity.

Conflict broke out again in the 1970s in what was known as the Brookside strike. Two miners were shot, and one died in a strike that lasted over a year and resulted in a new contract.

Victory photo after the miners of the Highsplint mine voted to join the UMWA in 1974. Photo: Robert Gumpert, from the Appalshop Archive

Labor Losses

But union membership is in decline across the country, and the miners’ union has declined faster than most. Between 1997 and 2017, overall mine employment in the Ohio Valley dropped by 50 percent. Union participation has declined much faster. Between 1997 and 2017, Ohio Valley miner participation in unions has dropped by 76 percent.

“The reason that unions have really been imperiled in the southern parts of the country is because they’ve been told the only way the South can rise again is by being a non-union, anti-union reserve for companies that were moving from the unionized areas of the north,” Feurer said.

Credit: Alexandra Kanik, Ohio Valley ReSource

Feurer said that even though the Blackjewel miners are acting without a union, their protest follows the tradition of labor action in the area.

“Putting their bodies on the lines is what I see is historically connected,” she said. “People who risk themselves, that is what has resonance to a long body of history.”

The Blackjewel miners still feel a strong sense of solidarity with their fellow workers. “If you work in the coalfield, you spend more time underneath that mountain than you do with your own family,” said miner Shane Smith. “These men are like a brother to me.”

Some UMWA retirees and other union workers have joined the Blackjewel miners on the tracks in a show of solidarity.

UMWA spokesperson Phil Smith said he thinks Appalachian coal miners lost their sense for the power of unions in the coal slump in the 1970s. Mine employment was low for nearly a full generation of workers entering the labor force, Smith said, effectively breaking the chain of stories passed from father to son, stories of how unions improved working conditions and fought for better wages.

By 2017 there were no union miners left working in Harlan County, and only a handful in all of Kentucky.

Phil Smith worries that a weak union puts miners at risk of losing protections that previous generations of miners fought for.

“The minute that a government who is intent on doing away with many of these worker protections feels like they can without there being any political blowback from doing it, they’re going to do it,” he said.

Policies like so-called “Right to Work” laws, which have been passed in 28 states, including Kentucky and West Virginia, threaten the economic viability of unions. Still, Smith finds hope in teachers’ strikes around the country, and efforts to unionize other workplaces.

“I think we’re seeing a resurgence in people making sure they have a voice at work.”

Chris Lewis was one of the first five Blackjewel miners who blocked that train on July 29. The bankruptcy has been a struggle, he said, but he and his wife have it better than do workers with young children.

Lewis has complicated views on unions. “I was raised union, and I believe in the union. But I also believe in a man’s right to feed his family, you know what I’m saying?”

He resents miners who call strikebreakers “scabs.” Still, Lewis thinks he and his coworkers wouldn’t be in this predicament if they had been in a union.

After his experience with Blackjewel, Lewis isn’t ready to give up on the industry. But he is giving up on Kentucky. Lewis leaves Kentucky later this month for a job in a coal mine in Alabama. In that new job, he’ll be a part of a union.

“The End Game”

The uncertainty many Blackjewel miners feel about their future is true for the coal industry as a whole. Declining demand and competition from cheap natural gas from fracking has led to the closure of eight coal-fired power plants in the Ohio Valley since 2010, with more planned to shut down in the future.

“No matter what policies are developed and put forward in D.C.,” said the UMWA’s Phil Smith, “the fact of the matter is, coal-fired power plants are closing.”

Additionally, renewable energy makes up an increasing share of the nation’s energy portfolio. For the first time this year, renewable energy exceeded coal in percentage of energy generated in the United States.

In 1997, there were about 18,000 coal jobs in Kentucky. In 2017, there were about 6,200. According to the Appalachian Regional Commission, coal production has fallen most sharply in Central Appalachia compared to other coal-producing regions.

Kentucky Coal Association spokesperson Tyler White said his group is committed to fighting for the longevity of the industry.

“The coal industry is still struggling with a lot of over-burdensome regulations that were put in place under the previous administration,” he said. Most energy analysts contest that view and point instead to the market forces driving coal’s decline.

Similarly, the UMWA’s Smith said that he’s not ready to give up on coal. He fears significant regulation to prevent further climate change could put the coal industry out of business, and he views the union’s role as advocating for policies that would promote clean, safe coal mining and keep miners employed for generations.

Blackjewel’s bankruptcy has been messier than most. But Clark Williams-Derry, the director of energy finance for Sightline Institute, a research organization based in Seattle, says we should expect more chaotic bankruptcies like it.

“We’re sort of in the early stages of the end game, I would say, of the coal economy,” he said.

Williams-Derry worries that in the chaos of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy, some mine lands may end up without money to pay for reclamation, and he thinks future bankruptcies may have the same result as fewer companies want to take on risky mines. The costs of worker pensions, land reclamation and other debts may well be passed on to taxpayers, or left unpaid altogether.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” he said. “We don’t really know what happens when the industry is shrinking so rapidly that we see mines just simply abandoned.”

Blackjewel miners and supporters enter the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV. Photo: Brittany Patterson, Ohio Valley ReSource

Down The Line

marathon bankruptcy hearing in federal court brought mixed news for the Blackjewel miners. The auction of Blackjewel properties attracted enough buyers to generate money to go toward some of the wages owed, and lawyers representing the miners were able to win some concessions from other Blackjewel creditors.

Still, when attorney Ned Pillersdorf addressed the protesting miners on the tracks, he was clearly managing expectations.

“You know I’ve told you that bankruptcy is kind of like a funeral home,” he said. “Nobody leaves happy.”

Kopper Glo, a Knoxville, Tennessee-based mining company that purchased some of Blackjewel’s Kentucky properties, has committed to pay $450,000 to cover miners’ wages. That is expected to cover about 35 percent of the total amount owed to Blackjewel workers. Kopper Glo has also said it hopes to rehire many of Blackjewel’s workers, though it has made no legal commitment to do so. Blackjewel miners worry Kopper Glo will pay less than Blackjewel did.

“I was a roof bolter, I made $25 an hour,” said Shane Smith. “A belt man, they make $22. A different company comes in, what’s to say everybody won’t make $20?”

Kopper Glo said it could not answer specific questions, but said in a press release that the company “has a plan to re-start certain operations and is confident this plan will bring jobs back to many of the former Blackjewel employees. Kopper Glo is also committed to funding to the portion of the back wages due to the employees.”

Near the scene of the miners’ protest in Harlan Co., KY. Photo: Curren Sheldon

In days spent occupying the train tracks, the Blackjewel miners have plenty of time to consider what their future holds. Do they return to work and hope their new employer doesn’t meet the same fate as the last? Do they try to retrain in a new industry? Or do they look for another job, knowing they may never make as much money as they did in the mines?

“This ain’t a game, we ain’t a bunch of kids,” said miner Caleb Blevins. “We’re grown men with families. Around here in the Appalachian mountains, this is all we got, the coal mines. We’re too far in to try to go to college for 12 years. Our kids need us now, not in 10 years.”

Miner Tim Madden also just wants to get back to business as usual. “I think if they’d roll up here and issue us all a check, I’d be out of here, end of story.”

But Curtis Cress said he’s done with the industry. “You never know from one day to the next if you’re going to have a job,” Cress said. “They’ll get you used to making a whole lot of money and then take it away.”

A father of four, Cress is at risk of losing his home. He says he feels hopeless about what comes next, both for him and for central Appalachia. He thinks his best bet is to find work in manufacturing. He hopes his kids leave the region when they’re old enough.

The miners occupying the Harlan County train tracks say they’ll stand down when they see Kopper Glo’s money in their bank accounts. With mining starting up again in some of Blackjewel’s former mines, some men will likely be headed back underground.

But for many miners, and for the coal industry as a whole, it’s hard to know what’s coming down the tracks.

Benny Becker, Brittany Patterson and Jeff Young contributed to this story.

Future of coal

Protesting Kentucky Miners Could Get Some Overdue Pay From Bankruptcy Sale

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Laid off miner Jeffrey Willig knows that taking part in the protest might hurt his future employment opportunities, but wants to be an strong example for his six children and fight for other miners who can’t protest themselves. "I was just like enough's enough,” he said. "I'm not going to stand by and watch those guys and their families be affected the same way I am. They've gone through this time and time again. That's when I felt like I needed to step up.” Photo: Curren Sheldon

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

More than a thousand coal miners left unpaid by the abrupt bankruptcy of Blackjewel mining could soon be getting some – but not all – of the money they are owed.

Dozens of miners have staged a week-long protest on railroad tracks in Kentucky’s Harlan County, blocking delivery of a load of coal from a Blackjewel mine and demanding their pay. 

A federal court overseeing the Blackjewel bankruptcy Tuesday concluded the sales of the mining company’s properties and equipment, and buyers have put money toward paying some of the roughly $11.8 million in pay and benefits due to miners in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia, most of whom have been without pay for a month.

“That won’t pay off all of the wages that are due,” labor attorney Sam Petsonk said, “but it’ll be a good downpayment.”

Petsonk, an attorney with West Virginia’s Mountain State Justice, is representing miners from Blackjewel’s eastern division. He said miners

“So additional wages and penalties damages that are owed to the workers will have to come through further litigation,” he said.

Presiding Judge Frank Volk approved the sale of the mines in West Virginia, Kentucky, and Virginia. A proposal by Contura Energy for Blackjewel’s two Wyoming surface mines remains unresolved pending federal government approval.

Under an agreement by Kopper Glo Mining LLC to purchase Blackjewel’s Lone Mountain and Black Mountain mines in Kentucky, the company committed to set aside $450,000 to pay former employees owed wages. In addition, the company said it would provide up to $550,000 in additional money to the Kentucky miners from the royalties of the operations at Lone and Black Mountain mining complexes.

The company agreed to pay $6,350,000 cash for the properties as well as royalties for six years totaling more than $9 million. Kopper Glo also agreed to assume responsibility for some bonding liabilities.

Employees at West Virginia’s Pax mine are likely to get their full back wages. Buyer Contura Energy, based in Tennessee, said it will create a $5 million fund to pay the employees what they’re owed.

Rhino Energy LLC paid $850,000 cash and agreed to pay $208,000 in royalties over one year for some of Blackjewel’s Virginia mines.

Requests for comment to both Kopper Glo and Rhino Energy were not immediately answered.

It’s not clear if any of the new owners are obligated or plan to rehire Blackjewel employees.

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Few Answers For Unpaid Miners After Day One of Blackjewel Sales Hearing

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Miner Bobby Cole and his wife Melissa Cole listened intently as a miner advocate briefed the crowd of protestors last week on where things stood with Blackjewel LLC’s bankruptcy proceedings. Bobby Cole estimates the company owes him close to $8,000 in wages and benefits. Photo: Curren Sheldon

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Blackjewel coal miners will have to wait at least another day to learn if the sale of the bankrupt coal company’s mines and equipment will deliver their overdue paychecks.

The U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of West Virginia recessed Monday after an all-day hearing that yielded few results. The court is scheduled to resume the hearing Tuesday at 9 a.m.

Presiding Judge Frank Volk approved six bids, however the three main sale proposals for Blackjewel mines in Kentucky, Virginia, West Virginia and Wyoming remain in limbo.

The approved bids included the sale of two idled metallurgical coal mines in Virginia and a coal load-out and preparation plant in Harlan County, Kentucky, among others.

More than four dozen miners and their supporters traveled from a Kentucky railroad blockade to the West Virginia courtroom. The miners stood quietly in the courtroom in lime green t-shirts that read “Harlan County Strong” and “Pay Miners First and Lawyers Last.” Others at the protest site in Cumberland, Kentucky, listened via conference call to the bankruptcy hearing.

Blackjewel miners and supporters enter the federal courthouse in Charleston, WV. Photo: Brittany Patterson/OVR

“I commend members of the mining profession who joined us this morning and now,” Judge Volk told the court after it returned for the afternoon. “You can make a very powerful statement without saying anything at all.”

Blackjewel owes about $11.8 million dollars in wages and benefits to more than 1,000 Appalachian coal miners who have gone more than a month without pay.

“We wanted some clarity, try to find out if there was a chance of us getting the money that we earned and possibly go back to work,” said former Blackjewel coal preparation plant foreman Derrick Saylor.

Objections Galore

Monday’s sales hearing shared the often chaotic and tense tenor that has characterized much of Blackjewel’s bankruptcy proceedings.

The judge declined to rule on a motion filed Monday morning from the U.S. Department of Labor that sought to keep Blackjewel coal in Harlan County until miners had been paid. The agency argued that transporting coal mined by employees who have not yet been paid for that work violates the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Sam Petsonk, an attorney with the law frm Mountain State Justice, briefs miners attending the Blackjewel bankruptcy hearing. Photo: Brittany Patterson/OVR

Stephen Lerner, an attorney with Squire Patton Boggs representing Blackjewel, argued the majority of the coal had already been purchased by another party, Blackjewel Marketing and Sales Holdings LLC, and therefore the issue was moot.

Three coal equipment companies also voiced objections to the way Blackjewel is proposing to sell bulldozers and other coal mining equipment.

An attorney for Caterpillar told the court it is owed more than $26 million for equipment located in Appalachia. He expressed concern there may not be enough to pay that debt after sales are completed.

Similarly, several surety bond representatives told the court all cash earned through the sales should be set aside and not spent until a full accounting of Blackjewel’s debts, including millions in environmental reclamation obligations, is made available by the company.

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Kentucky Coal Miners Continue Protest as a Blackjewel Bankruptcy Hearing Looms

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The motto of the coal miner protest “No Pay We Stay” demonstrates that the protestors don’t plan on abandoning the train tracks until they are paid the wages they’ve already earned. Photo: Curren Sheldon

This article was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

Miners left unpaid by the bankrupt Blackjewel coal company say they are prepared to keep up their protest on railroad tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky, where they are blocking delivery of a load of coal. As their protest grows and gains – including an unannounced visit by Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin this weekend– a bankruptcy court hearing Monday could determine whether and when the miners get their paychecks.

The blockade began simply enough Monday when five out-of-work miners organized via social media to block a coal train leaving one of the Blackjewel facilities.

“If they can move that train, they can get us our money,” miner Shane Smith said.

The group grew to nine. Police asked them to clear the tracks but the miners simply moved to a different location and stood their ground. They scrawled a simple message of protest on the cardboard from a pizza box:

A supporter with a protest sign made from a pizza box. Photo: Sydney Boles/Ohio Valley ReSource

“No Pay, We Stay.”

They played cornhole, the beanbag toss game, on the tracks. More miners and supporters showed up, and donations poured in: food, bottled water, portable toilets, a generator and lights (for more games of cornhole in the night).

The protest has since grown to dozens of miners and supporters, attracted national media attention, and has become a required pilgrimage site for campaigning politicians.

“It’s a little bit of a good feeling of accomplishment but we still ain’t done,” said miner Bobby Sexton. “We’re gonna stay here until we get some answers.”

But the miners are not the only ones looking for answers – and money – from what was the country’s sixth-largest coal mining company. A federal bankruptcy judge will decide who gets their money, and when.

Growing Protest

Blackjewel workers have gone without pay since the end of June, when, miners said, paychecks bounced without warning amid a chaotic bankruptcy filing. Backjewel owes more than $11 million in unpaid wages and taxes to roughly 1,100 workers in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia.

But the company also owes tens of millions of dollars in business debts, taxes, mining royalties, and fines for mine safety and land reclamation violations.

During the course of the bankruptcy, federal Judge Frank Volk has expressed sympathy for Blackjewel employees, but has not yet forced the company creditors to pay them.

“The court is concerned about the employees,” Volk said during a July 19 hearing. “Where do they fall in the scheme in respect to recoveries in this case?”

That may become more clear Monday when Volk presides over a sale hearing. Blackjewel’s assets hit the auction block Thursday, Aug. 1. The closed-door process continued Friday.

Looming Decision

Sam Petsonk, an attorney with West Virginia’s Mountain State Justice, is representing miners from Backjewel’s eastern division. He said whether or not miners get paid depends on how much money comes from the sale of Blackjewel’s assets.

“What we need to see out of the auction is adequate proceeds to cover the obligations to the employees who are not returning to work,” he said.

Employee wage claims generally do have some priority in bankruptcy cases, but come below “secured” claims and obligations to the government such as mine reclamation costs, Petsonk said.

He is hopeful unpaid Kentucky miners may be near the top of the list of creditors due to a state law that requires some Kentucky employers to post a performance bond covering wages. Blackjewel didn’t comply with that law.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear has criticized his political rival, Gov. Matt Bevin, for the failure to make Blackjewel secure a bond. Beshear is the Democratic candidate challenging Bevin’s reelection this year.

On Friday Beshear called on Bevin to fire his Labor Cabinet Secretary over the matter.

“His job is to look out for our workers, but he failed to secure the bond from Blackjewel that could have paid the coal miners in Harlan County,” Beshear said at an event in Paducah, Kentucky.

Petsonk said if the proceeds of the sale are not sufficient to pay miners, it could then come from liquidating the company’s remaining assets.

If that isn’t enough, he said, “then we have to look to the we have to look to the liquidation process or to the non-debtor entities like Jeff Hoops personally.”

Hoops is the former Blackjewel CEO who was forced out early in the bankruptcy, when creditors demanded he step down. Hoops is well-known for his philanthropy in the area and is building a resort hotel near his home in Milton, West Virginia. He also has a separate coal entity,  Lexington Coal Company.

Reached by phone Tuesday, Hoops said he’s also frustrated by the situation with the unpaid miners.

“I’m as frustrated as they are,” he said. “I no longer work for Blackjewel, I resigned more than a month ago so I have no idea what’s going on there. I’m really sorry that it’s reached this point.”

“A Real Mess”

Hoops has been the focus of ire for many of the protesting miners, and his name shows up in some unflattering T-shirt slogans. Some industry observers say the company’s management under Hoops’ leadership set the stage for the chaotic bankruptcy and its aftermath.

“Let’s be clear about this,” said Clark Williams-Derry, director of energy finance at the Sightline Institute, a Seattle-based think tank. “Blackjewel was a company that suffered from terrible financial management, just terrible.”

He said the company wasn’t setting aside enough money to pay wages or make its employee retirement plan contributions. And Blackjewel amassed huge debts in back taxes to the federal government and to state and local governments.

“It’s just a mess, just a real mess,” Williams-Derry said.

He said that is what makes this coal company bankruptcy so much more disruptive than the many others that have roiled the mining industry in recent years. It also complicates the sale of assets in order to recover debts, pay miners, and continue with work at some of the mines.

“Some of these mines are probably just not profitable,” Williams-Derry said, especially those carrying large debts for mine land reclamation. “There may simply be no buyer who’s willing to take on some of these mines and and pick up the cost of cleanup.”

The miners in Harlan County say many plan to attend the court hearing Monday to make sure their voices are heard.

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