Labor's Gotta Play Hardball to Win!

Showdown on West Coast Docks: The Battle of Longview
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Chicago Plant Occupation Electrifies Labor
(December 2008). 
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May Day Strike Against the War Shuts Down
U.S. West Coast Ports

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The Internationalist
  August 2019

“No Pay, We Stay” – Stop Blackjewel in Its Tracks!

Harlan Miners’ Fight:
Inspiration for Workers Everywhere

By Mark Lance

Kentucky coal miners draw the line: “No pay, we stay.” Workers everywhere must back them up.
(Photo: Marcus Dorsey / Lexington Herald-Leader)

The following article was distributed as an Internationalist leaflet to Blackjewel miners and their supporters Monday, August 5, at a bankruptcy hearing in Charleston, West Virginia, to much appreciation and enthusiasm. Miners volunteered to take stacks of the leaflet back to the train tracks they are occupying in Cumberland, KY.

AUGUST 3 – Coal miners from Harlan County, Kentucky stood in the railroad tracks outside the Cloverlick #3 mine last Monday and stared down a CSX freight train laden with stolen coal. The miners have been laid off – and ripped off – by Blackjewel LLC, the sixth largest coal producer in the U.S, which filed for bankruptcy on July 1.

The miners’ paychecks bounced, they have no benefits and they can’t even access their 401(k)s. “It is amazing to me what men have to do to get what they earned,” one miner told a television reporter. He and his co-workers are det­ermined that, until they get what they’re owed, the coal trains will not pass. “If you aren’t gonna give me my money, I’m gonna do what I can to make sure you don’t get yours,” the miner said (Lexington Herald-Leader, 30 July).

The news from Harlan County has spread across the world. It strikes a chord with workers all over who know how the owners get away with murder, while they get lied to, ripped off and thrown on the scrapheap by the bosses’ profit system. To help win victory for the Harlan miners’ fight, the power of workers solidarity must be brought to bear to stop Blackjewel in its tracks.

It started around 4:00 p.m. on July 29. “My wife picks my check up, pays a few bills. Next thing we know our account’s three thousand in the negative and our account’s frozen,” a miner told a WYMT Mountain News reporter. By then, five men, mostly from Cloverlick #3 in Cum­berland, had had enough and went to the tracks. Their number grew to 20. As of 10 p.m. Tuesday, 60 to 100 people were blocking the trains. The blockade continues around the clock.

The shutdown by Blackjewel has targeted 1,700 miners, including in Virginia, West Virginia and Wyo­ming. CEO Jeff Hoops was forced to resign as a condition for a $5 million emergency loan, though his multimillion-dollar plans to build the Grand Patrician resort in West Virginia will reportedly not be impacted. “Some people have been denied unemploy­ment which is owed to us,” a Kentucky miner told The Guardian (23 July) “He didn’t pay into it for some people, but yet he can build a $30-million resort, and doesn’t have to pay us.”

Harlan County miners block CSX coal train, July 31. (Photo: WKYT)

This Monday, August 5, a bankruptcy hearing is scheduled in Charleston, West Virginia. Harlan County miners are planning to send busloads of their supporters to the West Virginia capital to rally for their cause. That’s good. But while Blackjewel lawyers stall in a Charleston courtroom, the railroad tracks in Cumberland, KY is where the crucial showdown is going on.

Community support for the miners has been massive, with food and water being provided at the tracks, including by a restaurant from nearby Corbin that brought a mobile kitchen and is feeding the miners free of charge. Yet on the bosses’ side, CSX has its own police force, and state and local police are on hand.

If the order is given to clear the tracks, who will stand with the miners? First off, union miners in neighboring West Virginia and elsewhere, like those who work for Murray Energy (which boasts of being “the largest underground coal mining company in the United States”), should be mobilized by the United Mine Workers to come over to Harlan County NOW.

The Blackjewel miners’ desperate situation cries out for representation by the UMWA. On August 1, representatives of the union joined the miners at the blockade. But more than token visits are called for. The last UMWA mine in Kentucky was shut down in 2015. “UMWA on the tracks with the brave miners at #Blackjewel. Their fight is our fight!” an official union statement said. Great. Back it up with some muscle!

And that goes for the rest of the labor movement too. A massive union turnout in support of the Blackjewel miners that got their jobs back would shake the region and could spark an organizing drive as far away as Wyoming. After years of setbacks, it’s high time for a union counter-offensive.

As for the politicians, both Democratic and Republican, we know where they stand – and it sure as hell isn’t with the workers. Their poster boy could be Don Blankenship of the Massey coal company, who ran for Senate just eight years after the company killed 29 workers in the Upper Big Branch mine disaster. (See “Capitalism Killed West Virginia Miners,” The Internationalist No. 23, May-June 2006.)

Workers need jobs – how else can they feed their families? Yet Democrat Hillary Clinton said she was “going to put a lot of coal miners” out of work. This on top of all the broken promises of “hope and change” led many in historically Democratic areas to vote for Republican Donald Trump, who promised to “fix it” and bring jobs. Big mistake.

Trump claimed, “We’re putting our miners to work like never before” – tell it to the Blackjewel miners! Like his right-hand man, the coal bosses’ friend Senator Mitch McConnell, he’s just out to make the rich richer at the expense of all workers, from the immigrants whose kids he puts in cages to the miners left with bogus retraining and unpaid bills.

Wilbur Ross, Trump’s Secretary of Commerce and former owner of the International Coal Group, was formerly a Democratic Party money man and bigtime contributor to Bill Clinton. Now Democratic politicians hope the pendulum of disillusionment will swing against the GOP and benefit them, as candidates from the state level up to the presidential race issue statements or do photo ops “supporting” the miners.

What a fraud! The bottom line for the bosses’ parties will always be the bosses’ bottom line. It is high time for the working class to break from them all and build a workers party.

Hillary Clinton’s infamous remark was pitched as a “response” to climate change. The boss class treats miners like disposable people. They claim that making the working class pay, yet again, for all the damage and devastation wrought by the owners of the mines, land, factories, banks, wealth and just about everything else is just being “realistic.” It’s all refracted through their capitalist profit system. They don’t care about the world and its people any more than they have ever cared about the local environment in Appalachia, which they would turn into one big slag heap for an extra dollar.

To even begin to realistically address these issues, miners – and all workers – need to fight for a workers government that can protect miners’ livelihoods, provide real retraining where called for, combined with nuclear energy with workers safety committees empowered to shut down production. All this means throwing the profit system, not the workers, on the scrap heap.

With an international, planned socialist economy under workers rule, jobs in places like Harlan County won’t depend on the profit margins of shady coal operators out for a quick buck; Kansas farmers producing wheat and soybeans won’t face bankruptcy because of a demagogue in the White House launching a trade war against China; and paper workers in northern Quebec won’t have their jobs threatened by the maneuvers of competing capitalist politicians.

For generations, Kentucky miners fought and died for the rights of all workers. It was during the mine wars of the ’30s in Bloody Harlan that Florence Reece penned the labor movement’s anthem “Which Side Are You On?” In 1973, the award-winning film Harlan County USA vividly depicted the bitter miners’ strike at Eastover Mining’s Brookside mine. This reporter hunkered down under gunfire with strikers in Stearns, Kentucky, as the UMWA sought to win a union contract in a strike that ran from 1976 to 1979.

Today, the Blackjewel miners are showing that the spirit of Harlan County is still alive. Let them be an example for all of labor. “No Pay, We Stay!” All labor must help the Harlan miners win!  ■

Blackjewel Miners: “When We Stepped
Out on the Tracks, It Set Off a Spark”

With Kentucky coal miners in Charleston, WV, August 5.  (Internationalist photo)

A busload of shafted Blackjewel miners, some with their wives and children, traveled from Kentucky to Charleston, WV to pack a bankruptcy hearing August 5. They were happy to see a fellow worker outside the court with a sign reading, “New England Teamsters Stand with Blackjewel Miners: ‘No Pay, We Stay’.” Inside, miners stood shoulder-to-shoulder wearing t-shirts proclaiming, “Harlan Country Strong” and #payuswhatweearned. In the sweltering heat, they vied for spots in the standing-room-only courtroom with well-heeled corporate lawyers representing the various vulture capitalist interests trying to pick over Blackjewel’s bones.

“We wanted to come here,” a miner from the Lone Mountain operation told The Internationalist, “and make the judge look us in the eye as he decides our fate. Employers across the country are watching this to see if they can get away with not paying their workers.” Asked about the blockade in Cumberland, he said they were still standing solid, adding that some miners didn’t make the trek to Charleston because they feared it would weaken the lines. Their action, in defiance of coal and rail bosses and local authorities, electrified workers everywhere.

Numerous press reports testify to the overwhelming community support in Harlan and elsewhere. Capitalist politicians, mostly Democrats but even the Republican governor, opportunistically and cynically pretend to support the miners. The big news making the rounds that day was a very large contribution from a rival coal baron. But the miners knew, as a lawyer confirmed, “Staying on the tracks gives you incredible leverage, that gives you your power.” The miners laughed, saying they weren’t going anywhere.

The miners and their attorneys discussed the byzantine shell-game ploys and sleights of hand that Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops used to strip assets from the company before leaving the miners out to dry. In particular, they talked about the role of Lexington Coal LLC, a Blackjewel creditor that lists Hoops’ wife as a corporate officer and may have had a hand in day-to-day operations at the mine. These shady dealings are being investigated, but the pattern is clear: capitalist investors move money around, letting the company fail and walking away big, not caring who gets hurt in the process.

One miner, whose grandfather was a proud UMWA member, likened it to how the coal operators got rid of the union in Kentucky: they moved all the assets of organized mines into one company and then let that company fail, whereupon non-union coal combines moved in to pick up the pieces and profits. Although many of the Blackjewel miners have never worked a union job in their life, it is clear that the history of Harlan Country runs in their veins. “United we stand, divided we fall,” a father and son, miners both, told our reporter, “If we hadn’t stuck together, if we had taken this on as single individuals, they would have rolled right over us.”

The stakes are clear to the miners: fight or starve. “We’re doing what’s right,” a miner’s wife told us, “There’s people 15 seconds from poverty back home, there ain’t nothing there, except the mines, a Wal-Mart and a Hardee’s. We were stolen from and we’re gonna get what’s ours.” Austin Watts, one of the first five miners to occupy the tracks on July 29 recalled, “We laced up our boots and dug that coal and they tried to sneak it out and not pay us, so we went out on the tracks. They can pay CSX $100,000 a day, they can damn well pay us what they owe.” His co-worker and friend, Jerod Blevins, added “I couldn’t believe it when we stepped out on the tracks, it set off a spark.”


Two days later, on August 7, miners gathered on the tracks in Cumberland to hear a report from their attorney, Ned Pillersdorf, who announced that the Harlan and Letcher County mines had been bought by the Tennessee coal company Kopper Glo Mining. Kopper Glo is reported to have promised to pay $450,000 to the miners, an additional $550,000 over the next two years (the miners estimate they are owed $2.6 million), and to hire back as “many of the miners as possible.” Pillersdorf also announced a continuing legal battle to acquire a property lien to generate the additional money owed to the miners. Although the miners were happy to hear the news, they said that they weren’t leaving the tracks until they received the money. As miner Chris Rowe told a WYMT reporter, “We’re happy to get our wages, and they’re saying right now that they’re paid, but we’ve not seen it, so when we see it we’ll be on our way.” ■