Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Kentucky: MIners and Teachers, White Workers and Black Face the Same Foe

We share this article from theGuardian US Website. This protest has been going on for quite some time and it is occurring in a poor part of the state and in Harlan County where there were major battles between miners and the coal bosses in the past. If you haven’t seen it, watch Harlan Country USA.

Most importantly, we have had numerous articles on this blog over the last two years detailing the heroic struggles of Kentucky teachers, parents and their allies against the right wing governor and the state. When the teachers shut down the schools earlier this year, the state went after them demanding the names of those teachers that called in sick that led to the shutdown. An intense period of harassment and what is in actuality, economic and political terrorism, was directed against the teachers.

Readers of this blog should be familiar with these events and as we reported, how trade union officials from the Jefferson County Teachers Association, SEIU, AFSCME and the Teamsters publicly condemned the teachers for this activity. The Teamster leader attacked them for “pimping out” his members, and the AFSCME official for causing her members to lose money. You can watch this press conference here.  Throughout the teachers’ battles, the trade union leadership in education also refused, despite requests from black trade union members and parents, to do so, to publicly oppose gang ordinance legislation directed primarily at the youth of color and poor or low-income communities. One of the excuses an influential union official used was that to do so would have fractured the movement or “muddied the waters.”. This was an insidious attempt to blame mostly white workers for her own decision not to publicly oppose the gang ordinance.  Such a decision would have strengthened and united the movement and it is this prospect that our conservative labor hierarchy fears most of all. FFWP commented on this here.

Now we have had this six-week protest and direct action in blocking railroad tracks by miners and their families. What an opportunity! If the leadership of organized labor in Kentucky had any strategy at all to push back the offensive of big business while breaking down racial and regional divisions-------a divide and rule strategy of the bosses--------building links with the teachers and parents and the miners would be an important step. Uniting rural poor and urban poor, white Eastern Kentucky and Western Kentucky against the same enemy would begin to overcome these divisions.

The Louisville labor council has some 50,000 workers affiliated to it and union resources should be used to send delegations of teachers, parents, community activists out to the miners camp, organize joint meetings of all those under assault from the state government and its right wing hedge fund manager of a governor, and start the process of building a united movement against the assault of working people. The governor visited the miners and we know his intentions are to ensure no such unity or joint activity develops.

But as we can see in that video, the present trade union leadership will not take advantage of this situation despite having the resources to do so. But all is not lost.  As we mentioned in an earlier piece on the GM strike, both Labor Notes in conjunction with the Democratic Socialists of America have the resources to organize a rank and file conference, starting in Kentucky for example, inviting miners, teachers, parents and community activists, veterans of the struggles of the last few years. Rank and file representatives of striking GM workers could be invited as well. My point is that both these organizations have significant resources that can be used to do what the trade union hierarchy refuses to do; build a generalized untied working class movement against the capitalist offensive

A group of miners’ protest has endured for more than six weeks now, garnering nationwide attention – including a video of support from Bernie Sanders Photograph: Scott Olson/Getty Images

Laid off and owed pay: the Kentucky miners blocking coal trains

Wed 18 Sep 2019 02.00 EDT
The protest has endured for more than six weeks, gaining national attention and support from Bernie Sanders

Harlan county, Kentucky, earned the nickname “Bloody Harlan” from a
series of labor strikes and violent confrontations in the 1930s led by coalminers and union organizers against coal corporations and law enforcement. In 1973, Harlan’s coalminers went on strike for 13 months when contract negotiations with Duke Power Company broke down after miners voted to form a union.

There are
no longer any unionized mines in Kentucky, but Harlan’s miners are currently continuing the region’s legacy of labor struggles against wealthy and powerful coal corporations: they are blocking the coal trains from leaving a mine that laid them off.

A collection of tents next to some rail tracks may not look like much compared to that rich legacy of labor struggle. A small group of families have occupied the site since 29 July, sitting on camp chairs, struggles against wealthy and powerful coal corporations: they are blocking the coal trains from leaving a mine that laid them off.

A collection of tents next to some rail tracks may not look like much compared to that rich legacy of labor struggle. A small group of families have occupied the site since 29 July, sitting on camp chairs, occasionally hosting live music and attracting sympathetic supporters from all over the US.

The small protest has endured for more than six weeks now, garnering nationwide attention – including
a video of support from the Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders – and preventing trains carrying more than $1m worth of coal from being moved out of Harlan county until workers are compensated for the unpaid wages they’re owed since mining firm Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy.

About 1,700 coal
miners in West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming were laid off without any notice on 1 July when Revelation Energy and it’s affiliate, Blackjewel Coal Company, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Unlike other bankruptcies in the coal industry, Blackjewel’s mines have been shut down during proceedings in court and workers experienced previous paychecks and 401k deductions bouncing from their bank accounts, while owed wages were left unpaid.

“With my husband’s checks, they owe him $6,000,” said Stacy Rowe, who has helped run the Blackjewel blockade since it began. A class action lawsuit was
filed in July 2019 against Blackjewel for violating the Warn Act, which mandates companies must provide workers with a 60-day written notice in advance of any mass layoffs of 100 or more employees.

The Rowes had just closed on a new home before Blackjewel’s abrupt bankruptcy.

The laid-off miners are currently grappling with what to do next to make ends meet. Several workers have opted to relocate out of the area for better job opportunities.

Chris Rowe is one of several laid-off miners working on obtaining a commercial driver’s license to work as a truck driver, as his wife, Stacy, plans on enrolling their seven-year old son in a homeschool program in order to travel on the road with him.

“There is nowhere to get a job unless you move away. For some of us, that’s not possible,” added Rowe. “The pay scale around here is ridiculous because coalminers, they deserve their pay, but there is no middle ground here. There is minimum wage, college or coal.”

Rowe explained even after obtaining a college degree, there are no job opportunities to utilize it, which has contributed to a
drastic population decline in Harlan county, from over 40,000 in 1980 to around 26,000 today.

Curtis Cress has worked as a coalminer for more than 10 years, and still has a negative bank account due to his bounced paycheck from Blackjewel.

“I almost lost my home. It’s been really hard, when you work a month and they don’t pay you for any of it,” Cress said.

about 2,000 jobs have been added to the coal industry since Trump took office, the industry has shed more than 30,000 jobs in the past decade due to automation and market changes in the energy industry. Between 2012 to 2015, eastern Kentucky lost 8,000 coalmining jobs. Coal employment in Harlan county dropped 53.7% in the second quarter of this year compared with last year, driven by Blackjewel’s bankruptcy.

After nearly 40 years of working in coalmines, David Pratt is also mulling a new career as a truck driver at the age of 62.

“Courtesy of Blackjewel CEO Jeff Hoops, people have lost vehicles, homes, been threatened by law,” said Pratt. “What would happen to the general public if they wrote bad checks, what would the law do to them and why can’t they do it to him?”

Though Hoops was
forced to resign as Blackjewel CEO as part of an emergency financing agreement, he’s received criticism from workers for his role in the construction of a resort in Milton, West Virginia, that will include a hotel, convention center, wedding chapel, a 4,000 sq ft spa, baseball fields, golf course and an indoor swimming pool.

Hoops did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. Blackjewel referred comment to a
page with bankruptcy hearing updates.

The first phase of the project is expected to cost $30m and open in mid to late 2020, while Blackjewel is liable for at
least $500m in debt owed to creditors, unpaid taxes and unpaid wages, nearly $10m in payments owed to federal black lung benefits fund, and mine clean-up costs that will be passed on to taxpayers if the mine properties aren’t resold.

Blackjewel is one of several coal companies in Kentucky that have
not complied with laws requiring them to post bonds to protect miners’ wages in case the company abruptly shuts down.

A federal bankruptcy judge in Charleston, West Virginia, is
currently hearing arguments to decide on the fate of the blockaded coal in Harlan county, with Blackjewel arguing the coal was previously sold to a different company, Blackjewel Marketing and Sales Holdings, though the company was formed in December 2017 by Blackjewel Coal Company as part of a joint venture with two other companies.

As court proceedings to determine when and if Blackjewel’s laid-off miners will be compensated for their owed wages and possibly be permitted to return to work, miners and their families are continuing to run the protest camp.

They have no intention of backing down until they’re paid what they’re owed.

“We’re going to stay here until we get our money,” said Darrell Raleigh, a laid-off Blackjewel miner who spends everyday at the camp with his wife.

“We have better things to do then sit on the tracks, but that’s what it’s come down to,” said Donna Raleigh. “Rain, sleet, snow or hail, we’re going to be here until the checks clear.

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