Blocking a Train in Harlan County
Updated: Jan 16, 2020
On July 29, 2019 a woman in Harlan County, Kentucky noticed a trainload of coal being loaded at the processing plant run by the recently bankrupt, and paycheck delinquent, Blackjewel corporation. She notified some recently laid off coal miners. Five of them scrambled onto the tracks to keep the train from leaving.
The train’s load represents Blackjewel’s top priority. Their bottom line. Money.
They owe millions to their former miners.
In the following hours a handful of coal mining families set up camp along, and on, the railroad tracks , blocking the train carrying approximately $1.4 million dollars of coal from leaving the county.
As part of a long tradition of coal mining in the county, the miners’ lives and financial status have been dependent on the industry for generations. But on July 1, four weeks earlier, their employer, the Blackjewel Coal Company, declared bankruptcy and laid off 1,700 coal miners in West Virginia, Kentucky and Wyoming without notice.
Mines closed down. Paychecks bounced. Wages went unpaid.
Homes and vehicles are threatened.
Lawsuits have been filled.
But lawsuits occur in distant court rooms, take time, and the coal miners understand that without leverage of some sort they will likely lose those wages. The corporation that employed them has court protection because of their bankruptcy filings.
The miners have none.
In blocked the tracks the coal miners connected with, and added another action to, the long tradition of labor union actions in the county. And because of that history, they expected their church to step forward with support.
The miners were in for a surprise. The institution they thought they could rely on left them high and dry, apparently siding with the corporation.
But they received support from an unexpected source on day two of their action. Transgender activists from a nearby county stepped in to fill the void of support. The activists showed them how to transition from a spontaneous action to a strategic occupation, installing a phone, a kitchen, and showers.
The blockade lasted two months, ending on September 29, 2019 with the miners receiving their back pay and needing to move on to new jobs. In the interim tents lined the tracks and camp chairs graced the rail beds . The tracks were occupied by about a dozen miners all day, every day . They held small concerts played bean bag toss games on the tracks, and hosted supporters and reporters from all over the country.
The echoes of the labor movement and their actions on behalf of people, the cleverness and simple elegance of the action–money is owed to us, and here is something we can control–as well as the layering of multiple tactics occurring in real time are captivating and illuminating.
But perhaps the most compelling piece of the story, for me at least, is the blockade is the kind of action employed by the “left” in recent years, taken by a group of people most recently aligned with the “right.” This action, with its reminder of, and connection to, Harlan County’s labor tradition, suggests we, the citizens outside the financial power holders, have more in common with each other than we have with the people who control our resources.
It suggests a question to ask myself on the regular. Who benefits from my anger, my distraction? Is it the coal miners trying to ensure their family’s security? Or the corporations that play fast and loose with those people’s lives and our planetary future?
The answer helps me focus where I spend my energy.
Methods of Nonviolent Action employed:
 No. 170: Nonviolent Invasion, No. 173: Nonviolent Occupation, and No. 183: Nonviolent land seizure
 No. 172: Nonviolent Obstruction
 No. 158: Self-exposure to the elements
 No. 162: Sit-in and No. 163: Stand-in
 No. 36: Performances of plays and music and No. 37: Singing
On Monday January 13, 2020, miners in Pike's County, Kentucky blocked a train loaded with coal from leaving a Quest Energy mine in Blackburn Bottom. The miners had not received paychecks in a month. They planned to stay on the tracks and away from their work until they were paid. Donations of food and water flooded in.
A spokesman for Integrity Coal arrived on Tuesday demanding the coal they'd paid for be released. The miners responded: "When our bank accounts clear, you can have your train. Until then it ain't leaving."
Latest updates on the miners actions note some miners have received partial payment for their work and the Federal Department of Labor is gather information to file a restraining order to prevent the coal from moving as well as claims for wage and hour violations.
The Harlan County miners' nonviolent action is catching.