CUMBERLAND, Ky. >> A little after 4 p.m. Friday, four hulking big-rig cabs, facing each other in pairs and taking up both lanes, brought the Kingdom Come Parkway to a standstill. On the highway between the trucks, a group of out-of-work coal miners raised a banner: “No Pay We Stay.”
That is the miners’ plan in its entirety, and for close to three weeks, that is what they have done.
A protest that began with five men blocking a train full of coal has grown into a small 24-hour tent city along some railroad tracks next to the highway. It has become a pilgrimage site for labor activists, a rallying point for the community — “a tailgate party on steroids,” as one local official approvingly put it. And it is the first organized miners’ protest that anyone can remember for decades in Harlan County, Kentucky, a place once virtually synonymous with bloody labor wars.
The railroad blockade began in late July, about a month after Blackjewel, the 2-year-old company where the miners worked, suddenly declared bankruptcy. Blackjewel owned mines in four states and employed over 1,000 miners in central Appalachia.
Miners learned in the middle of an afternoon shift that Blackjewel was shutting down immediately and putting everyone out of work. It did so without filing a mandatory 60-day advance warning and without posting a bond, required by Kentucky law, to cover payroll.
Workers received no pay for their last week on the job. Then they learned that their paychecks for the previous two weeks had bounced. Bankruptcies and layoffs have become routine in the coal fields during a grueling industrywide decline, but no one seemed to recall anything quite like this.
“It’s no different from robbing a bank,” said Jeffrey Willig, a wiry 40-year-old father of six.
In Harlan County, hundreds of miners found themselves with negative bank balances, staring down mortgages, car payments and medication costs. Some were alerted to the news by ex-spouses who had not gotten automatic child-support payments. Lawyers representing the miners in the bankruptcy proceeding estimated that Blackjewel’s employees in central Appalachia were each owed $4,202.91 on average, for wages and benefits earned.
But the employees are just one party, fighting alongside Blackjewel’s other creditors over pieces of the company in federal bankruptcy court.
One of the company’s assets was a trainload of coal, over $1 million worth, at the Cloverlick No. 3 mine in Harlan County. The coal, dug up by the unpaid workers, had been sold, but had not yet been transported to the buyer. On the afternoon of July 29, the train rolled slowly out of the mine. It did not go unnoticed.
“They was doing it as quiet as could be,” said Dalton Lewis, 20.
A fellow miner called him with the plan: “Come on down here, we’re going to stop this train.”
This instinct runs deep in Harlan County. In the 1930s, efforts to organize miners led to “Bloody Harlan” — currently a hashtag printed on protest signs — a deadly conflict pitting thousands of union miners against coal companies, law enforcement officials and strikebreakers. Blood was spilled again in the early 1970s during a bitter 13-month strike by workers at the Brookside mine, the subject of the Oscar-winning documentary “Harlan County, U.S.A.”
But there had been little in the way of organized labor protest in Harlan for years before that July afternoon, when Lewis joined Willig and three other miners on the railroad tracks.
Nearly three weeks later, the coal train sits idle, back at the mine. Alerted by news of the Harlan standoff, the Department of Labor intervened, asking the bankruptcy judge to block shipment of the coal and deeming it “hot goods.” Blackjewel soon said that it would earmark proceeds from the sale of the coal for its former employees, and would leave the coal where it was until there was an agreement on the amount. But the protesters say they will keep up their blockade until they have payment in hand.
Some of the laid-off miners have found work, often away from Harlan. Lewis has left for Alabama. Blackjewel’s mining operations in Harlan have been bought, and the new owners have pledged to pay the miners some of the money they are owed. The mines have not reopened, though, and no money has arrived — not from the new owners and certainly not from Blackjewel.
So day in and day out, a small band of families waits in camp chairs alongside the tracks, while $1 million worth of coal remains parked up and around a bend. A string band occasionally gathers on the tracks to play old mountain songs and labor ballads.
The tents have proliferated, some bearing the logos of the local funeral homes that provided them. There are portable toilets, delivered by the city and county, as well as a generator and a children’s tent with books, toys and portable cribs. A philanthropic foundation gave $2,000 to each miner, and the owner of a local Chinese restaurant has raised thousands of dollars for them on her own. Barbershops have offered free back-to-school haircuts, and the county probation and parole office has fielded donated toiletries.
The camp runs on Red Bull and soda — with ice courtesy of a local nursing home. Meals are cooked in an improvised kitchen that takes up two tents. Donated food has come in by the carload since the beginning of the protest.
“I’ve got some pizzas here from Bernie Sanders,” said a perplexed Pizza Hut delivery woman who pulled up on Friday afternoon. Someone involved with the protest had apparently gotten word about it to someone with the Sanders presidential campaign.
Politicians have flocked to the scene, including Gov. Matt Bevin, a Republican, and Amy McGrath, a Democratic candidate for Senate. But camp leaders, to maintain their eclectic coalition, have tried to curb explicit talk about partisan politics. This is particularly difficult when outsiders show up, like the solidarity-pledging truckers who drove in from all over the country last week as part of a group called Black Smoke Matters, one of them wearing a T-shirt celebrating President Donald Trump’s building of a wall.
Much of the daily life at the tent city has been organized by a group of activists who are camping there, many of whom identify as transgender and anarchist. The activists came from around the region in the first few days of the blockade, some with experience operating these sorts of camps at environmental protests, and they quickly got to work running the kitchen and tapping networks of liberal interest groups for contributions.
In an echo of some unexpected protest alliances of the past, the activists have quietly blended in with the tent city’s daily traffic. Meanwhile, evangelical preachers stop by to hold impromptu prayer services and union officials deliver stemwinders from the bed of a pickup truck.
There haven’t been union mines in Eastern Kentucky for decades, but the speeches allude to the old labor wars in Harlan County. It is not too far a reach: Out-of-work Blackjewel miners recall their fathers talking of dynamite and gunshots.
“History’s repeating itself,” said Willig, who stood on the pavement with the miners Friday holding up the protest banner.
The highway blockade, arranged by the truckers, lasted about 10 minutes. There was no specific plan for what would come next, Willig said as he walked back to the tent city. No plan, that is, other than staying put.