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Lockouts and Train Blocks: An Update on the Coal Country Protests

The Kentucky miners' stakeout highlights the vulnerable position workers face when coal companies go belly-up in bankruptcy.
A front-end loader dumps coal at the East Kentucky Power Cooperative's John Sherman Cooper power station near Somerset, Kentucky, on April 19th, 2017.

More than 50 coal plants have closed since President Donald Trump was elected.

When five out-of-work coal miners decided to block a coal train in its tracks in Harlan County, Kentucky, early last week, they garnered national attention and renewed the conversation about the demise of the coal industry. Over the course of the week, dozens of other laid-off miners and their supporters joined the makeshift blockade to prevent a delivery of coal from leaving the facilities of their recent employer, Blackjewel LLC.

"No Pay, We Stay," was scribbled in black marker on a cardboard sign at the protest site. "If they can move that train, they can get us our money," miner Shane Smith told reporters with the Ohio Valley ReSource. Smith is among roughly 1,100 workers in Kentucky, Virginia, and West Virginia who are collectively owed more than $11 million in backpay and benefits by the coal behemoth that filed for bankruptcy last month. The hectic and abrupt filing left about 1,700 employees (nearly 600 worked at mines in Wyoming) locked out with no notice.

In the wake of Blackjewel's bankruptcy filing, employees at the company's eastern mines said they were owed backpay for close to four weeks of work, that paychecks they did receive bounced, and that they hadn't received 401(k) or health savings contributions in months. But the workers' claims are just a few of the many financial obligations that the court is attempting to parse in Blackjewel's bankruptcy case.

The company also owes more than $100 million in royalties, taxes, and clean-up fees to the federal government and the counties and states it operated in, and at least another $100 million to equipment manufacturers, local vendors, and other creditors.

Typically, in a bankruptcy case, government obligations would take precedence over employee wage claims. The miners' stakeout at the railroad—and their demand to be recognized as a priority in the bankruptcy case proceedings—highlights the vulnerable position workers find themselves in when coal companies go belly-up in bankruptcy.

On Monday, some protesters stayed behind to continue the coal train blockade, while more than 40 miners traveled by bus or drove themselves to Blackjewel's federal bankruptcy hearing in Charleston, West Virginia. TV station WYMT in eastern Kentucky reported that the miners said they were attending the hearing to show the federal judge the faces of those affected by the court's decisions. According to WYMT, the miners and their families wore neon yellow T-shirts that read, "Pay the miners first ... the lawyers last."

Over the weekend, several companies made last-minute bids to take over some of the mines across the region and potentially re-open them. But Judge Frank Volk, who is overseeing the case, had approved only a few of those sales by the end of Monday's hearing. He also hadn't ruled on a motion filed Monday morning by the Department of Labor to keep Blackjewel's coal in Harlan County until miners had been paid. The motion states that the coal is "hot goods" because it violates the Fair Labor Standards Act and was mined by employees who have not been paid for that work.

Blackjewel was the sixth-largest coal mining company in the country before it filed for bankruptcy on July 1st. The company produced more than 34 million tons of coal in 2018. But in Kentucky, the company violated state law by not posting a mandatory bond that would have covered four weeks of employee wages. And more broadly, as the company fell behind in payments, private vendors and government agencies like the Bureau of Land Management extended Blackjewel's loan payments, allowing the coal company to spiral into a pit of debt that only a bankruptcy filing could resolve.

Coal has been in decline for years, as cleaner and more affordable energy sources have gained popularity. Coal consumption in the United States fell to a 41-year low this year and shows no signs of turning around. More than 50 coal plants have closed since President Donald Trump was elected, and eight coal companies have filed for bankruptcy protection in the past four years, often walking away from union contracts and financial obligations.

As the bankruptcy hearing continued into Tuesday, Blackjewel's former employees hoped they would get more answers about when and if they would receive their owed wages. But even if the miners do receive backpay and the mines continue operating under new ownership, Blackjewel's bankruptcy highlights the myriad ways the mining industry and government regulators continue to let miners down as the coal industry declines.