As It Happens

Unpaid Kentucky coal miners have been blocking a train track for 3 weeks

Asked when they will pack up and leave, miner Jeff Willig said: "Once we get back to work or until we get our money. That's basically it."

Jeff Willig says miners will camp out until 'we get back to work or until we get our money'

Chris Rowe, 35, a coal miner who used to work for the bankrupt company Blackjewel, poses at the railway blockade protesting for unpaid wages outside of the Blackjewel mining complex in Cumberland, Ky. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
Listen5:27

Read Story Transcript

It's been more than three weeks since Jeff Willig got a call from his buddy Chris Sexton asking if he wanted to go stand in front of a moving train loaded with coal. 

"He called me and said, 'Hey, they're trying to load this train up. You want to stop this train?'" Willig told As It Happens guest host Helen Mann. "I said, 'Absolutely.'"

The two friends are coal miners who have been been out of work since Blackjewel, the company that owned the Black Mountain mine near Cumberland, Ky., shut its doors suddenly in July and filed for bankruptcy. 

More than 1,100 miners in Kentucky, Wyoming, West Virginia and Virginia lost their jobs with no warning. They didn't get paid for their last week of work, and their paycheques from the previous two weeks bounced.

So when the miners got word that Blackjewel was quietly shipping a trainload of coal, worth at least $1 million US, out of Black Mountain — coal the miners took out of the ground — they decided to take matters into their own hands.

'No pay, we stay'

Willig, Sexton, Blake Watts, and Chris and Dalton Lewis stood on the tracks on the evening of June 29 and blocked the train. It slowed down, stopped, and eventually went back the way it came.

Then the miners set up camp nearby on the tracks to make sure it couldn't come through again. They've been there ever since. 

Blackjewel declined As It Happens' request for comment, but pointed to employee updates, including a press release last month that said they are working with "urgency" to address the situation. 

"We are doing everything possible to get our employees back to work and ensure they are able to deposit their paychecks as quickly as possible," interim CEO David Beckman said.

Jeff Willig was among the original five miners who blocked a train from leaving the Black Mountain mine in Kentucky. (Submitted by Jeff Willig)

But in the meantime, what started as a small, spur-of-the-moment protest has blossomed into a 24-hour tent city with the miners, their families, community members and activists from around the region, all organized around a simple slogan: "No pay, we stay."

Asked when they will pack up and leave, Willig said: "Once we get back to work or until we get our money. That's basically it."

'Nothing to do with politics'

According to the New York Times, the protest site is equipped with portable toilets courtesy of the city and county, a children's tent with games and toys, and a kitchen run with the help of activists experienced in setting up these kinds of camps. 

"Our community and our nation has shown us tremendous support by sending us things. We have a local Pizza Hut bringing us pizza, people calling from Chicago, Alabama, Atlanta, Texas making orders for us and having them delivered to us," Willig said. 

"Our local Chinese restaurant brought us food. A local Mexican restaurant brought us food. CSX, which is the train operator that loads the coal, was totally supportive of us. ...  It's just been a tremendous overall experience. We didn't think that it was going to get this big."

At a camp site in Kentucky, coal miners have set up a tent city complete with a performance space, left, and a kitchen, right. (Submitted by Jeff Willig)

Politicians have also taken notice.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic U.S. presidential candidate, sent the miners pizza. Republican Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath have both visited the site.

But the miners say they aren't going to be pawns in anybody's political propaganda. 

"We all agreed when we first started that we're not going to make this political and we're not aiming this at politicians. This is between workers and an employer. Nothing to do with politics," Willis said — a point he reiterated several times throughout the interview.

A history of labour protests

As of Thursday, the train remained idle, and the workers unpaid.

The U.S. Department of Labor has asked a federal bankruptcy judge to bar Blackjewel from transporting coal out of the mine until it compensates the workers.

Earl Boggs, 42, a coal miner of 25 years who used to work for Blackjewel, joined in the railway blockade. (Charles Mostoller/Reuters)

Some of the workers moved on to other jobs, while others are holding out hope they'll soon be back to work in the mines, under new ownership.

Blackjewel is quickly trying to sell off its assets, including the mines. A bankruptcy judge has approved a bid by Kopper Glo to purchase the Black Mountain and Lone Mountain mines in Harlan County, reports WYMT.

The company promised $450,000 US to cover the back wages of all miners, including those who don't come back to work, as well as an additional $550,000 US from anticipated future royalties. 

But the miners say that only covers half of what they are owned, and they expect Blackjewel to pay up. 

The protesters are just the latest in the region's long history of labour movements, which include violent conflicts with mine owners in the '30s and '70s.

It's a history Willig and his colleagues are now a part of. 

"We weren't just doing this just for our own agenda, as meaning our families," Willig said. "We were doing it for every miner that's been under these mountains for 20 to 30, 40 years that never had their voices heard and that had been taken advantage of."

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Jeff Willig produced by Sarah-Joyce Battersby. 

 

Corrections

  • An earlier version of this article misidentified Bernie Sanders as a Virginia senator. In fact, he is a Vermont senator.
    Aug 23, 2019 1:20 PM ET

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.