The past and future of Harlan County

Vincenzo Blandini puts the recent coal train track occupation in Harlan County in perspective.

I wrote a review of the movie “Harlan County, USA” not too long ago. It was, frankly, a painful experience for me. I truly hoped to not be writing about Appalachian coal country, and much less Harlan County, Kentucky, for some time. I’ve long since moved on from the coal industry, but it still pains me whenever I read news of some tragedy among my brothers and sisters in darkness.

On July 1, Blackjewel LLC filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. In the balance are nearly 1,700 employees’ livelihoods across Kentucky, West Virginia, Virginia and Wyoming. Immediately upon filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel closed many of the mines it operated and workers had their paychecks bounce. The mineworkers had their hard-earned wages stolen from them, both from their paychecks and from their retirement and benefit plans. Some miners have even reported that their 401(k) contributions haven’t been properly credited for months. The miners are owed nearly $12 million in wages and $1.2 million in retirement contributions. This bankruptcy doesn’t appear to be disrupting recently ousted CEO Jeff Hoops from building a $30 million resort in West Virginia, however. 

In fact, this outright lack of responsibility from the coal bosses is business as usual. In 2012, Patriot Coal filed for bankruptcy. The United Mineworkers of America (UMWA) responded with huge concessions in employee pay and benefits, as well as cutting $130 million in retiree healthcare and benefits that were already promised. Their taste buds already whetted for concessions, and facing harsh market conditions, the coal bosses went to bat again in 2015. Patriot Coal again declared bankruptcy and auctioned itself to Blackhawk Mining. As part of the purchase, Blackhawk Mining refused to honor the terms of the mineworkers union’s contract. Blackhawk Mining abandoned Patriot’s nearly $1 billion of healthcare and pension obligations to the mineworkers, as well as $233 million in environmental cleanup costs.

Fast forward to two weeks ago, and Blackhawk Mining has declared a restructuring through bankruptcy which, if the recent past has told us anything, will almost certainly be paid for through robbing the mineworkers who did all the actual work. Indeed, the majority of coal mined in the U.S. is done by companies that have declared bankruptcy at least once (and usually more times) since 2015 alone.

For years, the coal industry has been declining dramatically in the face of the massive boom in natural gas extraction and renewable energy sources, as well as a huge drop in demand for coal as a result of the all-but-extinct use of coal for comfort heating in both the residential and commercial market. As a result of this, the coal companies have taken reckless action to lower their operating costs, in order to try and stay relevant in a market with cheap natural gas and renewables whose cost is steadily decreasing. They did so through automation of mine work, as well as pushing more and more for open-pit mining (which is much cheaper to operate and much more automated). They’ve done so through extracting concessions from the growingly jaded and out-of-touch United Mineworkers of America. Finally, they are now doing so by brazenly refusing to pay their bills. The mine operators are playing business like it is a child’s lemonade stand, and the miners who have sacrificed so much already are paying the bill against their will and at great personal cost. Truthfully, this behavior is no less than highway robbery.

Similar to the decline of the coal industry has been the decline of the populations it operated in. Harlan County was a sparsely populated place before coal mining started there in the early 20th century. By the 1940s, 75000 people lived there. Today less than 27,000 do so. The number of mineworkers employed in the county dropped off from more than 13,000 to less than 800 in the same period. The average lifespan of a Harlan County resident has actually gotten shorter between the 1980s and now, and they live on average ten years less than the average American. Unemployment in Harlan is double the national average. A similar story can be told across Appalachian coal country.

Against this backdrop, miners affected by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy heist in Harlan County, Kentucky are putting their collective foot down. The bankruptcy has left nearly a quarter of Harlan County miners out of work. For five days now, a group of miners has occupied the railroad tracks leaving from a mine. They are blocking a train loaded with coal (the train was only allowed to pass after it abandoned its load). Coal that they worked to get out of the ground. Work that they haven’t been paid for. Blackjewel intends to have its cake and eat it too: it intends to keep making money while the miners go without their pay. The group of miners blocking the rail say that they aren’t leaving until they get paid. “No Pay, We Stay” is their motto, and if they are successful in keeping that coal from being shipped to a buyer, then they may just get what is rightfully theirs.

By all accounts, nearly all of Harlan County is fired up about this madness. Even their politicians, heartless wretches that they are, have been pressured into showing up to the occupation to voice their support. 

Possibly their biggest obstacle is making enough of an impact in their efforts. After all, this is only one train load (granted that it is estimated to contain about $1 million worth of coal). It will take larger scale action to truly hurt Blackjewel, the sixth largest coal operator in the U.S. and that action would be greatly aided by coordinated work actions. However, there are currently no mines in Kentucky organized into the United Mineworkers.

It goes without saying that the miners of Harlan and their families are the heirs to some of the United States’ most bitter class conflict. They too are acutely aware of that, with references to “Bloody Harlan” on their signs, a nickname given to Harlan during the violent struggles between the miners and the operators in both the 1930s and the 1970s. Perhaps one of the most important lessons (and arguably the most difficult) for those of us involved in the labor movement is an understanding of this generational continuity. (Not long after the beginning of the occupation, UMWA retirees joined the initial occupiers in solidarity.) These are people who have grown up knowing about how their parents fought, and how their grandparents fought, the coal operators in order to win a better life. These lessons have been passed on through the years. This isn’t to say that people with no experience organizing with their fellow workers are incapable of doing so, but I am convinced that organizing begets more organizing. It ought to be our task as organizers to build our fellow workers up, to experience organizing with them, to experience fighting the boss together with them. These things build our confidence as workers. If we do our work well, someday all working people will be as up to the task of taking the fight to the bosses as the people of Harlan county currently are.

With this, though, we have to face a warning. We won’t always win. More often than not, we will lose. Hard work isn’t a guarantee and there is no destiny here. Just take long-suffering Harlan as an example. It has historically been one of the hardest-fighting working communities in this country, and yet it remains one of the poorest. It will take much more than just militancy. It takes organization, and organization among a large swath of people — not to sound dated, but truly “One Big Union.” Quite frankly, alone, the people of Harlan County have no power to force their will on the coal operators unconditionally. However, actions like the ones taking place on the rails in Harlan are the building blocks upon which we need to build larger organizations. Organizations large enough and robust enough to go toe-to-toe with the bosses. After all, combine enough drops of water and you’ll have an ocean. Nobody will be able to stop that tide. 

Vincenzo Blandini

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