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Kentucky Coal Miners Protest After Not Being Paid By Company That Declared Bankruptcy


There's a standoff underway in Harlan County, Ky. Coal miners and their supporters are camped out on train tracks blocking a coal train from moving.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) No pay, no coal. No pay, no coal. No pay...

CORNISH: No pay, no coal.

The coal company Blackjewel, one of the country's largest, declared bankruptcy suddenly earlier this month. Many of its employees haven't been paid in weeks, but the company still loaded up a train with coal. The protest started with five miners blocking the tracks on Monday. Now...

SYDNEY BOLES, BYLINE: There are many tents set up. There's a first-aid kit and port-a-potties, a generator, a food tent.

CORNISH: That's reporter Sydney Boles of the Ohio Valley ReSource. She spoke to us from Harlan County earlier today.

BOLES: These miners have not officially been laid off by Blackjewel. They were just essentially told not to come into work when Blackjewel went bankrupt on July 1. These miners are really frustrated. This is not the way that a coal bankruptcy typically goes. Typically, miners would stay working even if they had a new employer, and they might not even notice a difference. But these guys really haven't been told what's going on.

They're owed, you know, thousands of dollars in back wages, and they're hurting. You know, it's back-to-school season. I've spoken to miners who feel that they may not be able to get their kids new shoes or new clothes for the school year and miners who just bought a new house and can't make payments or who are behind on other expenses that they didn't expect to be behind on.

CORNISH: You spoke with Felicia Cress. Her husband worked at a mine in Harlan County. Here she is.

FELICIA CRESS: It was around the Fourth of July - that Friday. He, you know, got his payday, cashed it, came home on Saturday morning. We were alerted that our bank account was overdrafted $3,000.

CORNISH: So the company paid workers in bad checks. Am I getting that right?

BOLES: Yeah. Many actually had those checks. They thought the money was solidly in their accounts. The checks then bounced, and they didn't have access to that. Some miners spent a lot of that money on normal life expenses only to find themselves pretty far in the red and responsible for that with their banks.

CORNISH: There is a history in eastern Kentucky of coal miners protesting, but they haven't done anything like this in a long time. And I want to come back to that person you spoke to, Felicia Kress, because she, honestly, sounds angry at the leadership of Blackjewel. Here she is.

CRESS: Where would this coal be going if we wasn't standing here? If we wasn't making a statement, where would all this money be going to? Who's getting all of it? Because we're not. These men that worked for it ain't getting nothing from it.

CORNISH: How common is that sentiment?

BOLES: That's a really common sentiment, Audie. Folks here are really frustrated that big companies are continuing to profit while they're, really, stranded with not much recourse.

And you're right. There has been a long history of labor organizing here. Harlan County, where I'm sitting right now, was the site of bloody mine wars back in the 1930s, and eastern Kentucky was the site of a lot of early union activism.

Miners have also rallied to support black lung legislation. They've also been really instrumental in working for stronger, better conditions for this hard work. So I will say that the brotherhood among miners is really strong, and they're familiar with what it takes to stand up to these companies.

CORNISH: What has Blackjewel said about all this?

BOLES: So I've reached out to representatives for Blackjewel, and I've been directed to statements that have been issued to employees. Those statements encourage miners to dip into their retirement savings to make ends meet in the short term. I've also asked specific questions about when the standoff might end, what might happen with the coal and when miners can expect to be paid, and I have not received answers to those questions.

CORNISH: That's Sydney Boles, reporter with the Ohio Valley ReSource public media collaborative.

Thank you for your reporting.

BOLES: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF GOGOPENGUIN'S "BRANCHES BREAK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sydney Boles