Blackjewel Miners, Appalachia, and Solidarity
He pulls back his sandy blond hair to show the place where his ear once was and tells us that — I kid you not — his name is Choppy.
It was a long story about how he lost his ear, full of dramatic reenactments, swigs from his Coors can, and a couple sidetracked stories that wound around and around and came to dead ends just like the backroads that run through the hollers here.
The short version is that he was really high. He’d fixed up his car to run too fast on too small roads, Reagan was in the White House, Knight Rider was on TV, coal was dying, and so was he.
His had us doubled over laughing; he’d been perfecting this tale for thirty years and he was a hell of a storyteller. Matewan, West Virginia has only three streets and I imagine everyone in town could hear us carrying on. My friend who was traveling with me was an East Coast sort, the type of guy who grew up in suburbs with neat lawns and cul-de-sacs, and he was looking at me like he couldn’t believe his damn luck: A real live Appalachian on his first trip here.
Choppy was what my grandma would call a hoot and it’s true: He fit every bit of the hillbilly stereotype that West Virginia and Kentucky, right there across the Tug Fork, is known for. He was wearing overalls, his hair was cut into some strange page-boy haircut (presumably to cover his namesake), and here he was telling a long winded-tale of police chases, moonshine, and car crashes as we stood under the rising moon on Hatfield Street. He was playing up the archetype for us, I could see that, but I also saw through his apartment’s open door that on top of the TV blaring Judge Judy was a copy of Anna Karenina. And I couldn’t help but notice the way he gently placed his hand on his girlfriends back when she coughed, leaning in saying quietly, “Hey, babe, you feeling alright?”
My point is Choppy isn’t just one thing and neither is coal country.
I came down 44 through Switzer, through Chauncey, through Omar where most of life happens in the fifty yards of flat land next to the creek and the rest comes from deep underground. I’ve come to Matewan to be in a place of working-class renown: In 1920, the entire town, including the sheriff, backed mineworkers trying to unionize and defended them against armed company guards, resulting in a deadly shootout commonly recognized as the impetus for two decades of miner uprisings throughout this hard-knock land. My family traces right back into these hills and hollers and everyone I know seems to be running from this land — and there’s a lot of good reason for that. But a lot of folks are staying put, defending their land and their communities, and there’s a lot of good reason for that, too.
Appalachia has always been either the inbred boogie man of the American imagination or has been painted with idyllic over-simplicity: Homemade quilts, simple people, and a dog out in the yard. And it’s true that when you lace up your boots and hike these ridges you trek from dark tangled muddy tracks all the way up to glorious rock outcroppings with wondrous views. But there is a lot of trail in-between those spots and we’re the fool for not seeing it.
A kettle bottom is a smooth, rounded piece of rock, cylindrical in shape, which can drop out of the roof of a mine without warning.
Everything about mining is hard, dangerous, precarious. Coal peaked in the early 1900s, mines consolidated in the 1950s and automated in the 60s, so for generations now mine shutdowns and layoffs have become familiar: Coal miners, like all blue-collar workers, live and work at the whims of bosses and markets. But for a lot of folks, it’s the only job in the area and, even when it’s not, the tradition of mining runs deeper through these mountains than the mines themselves.
I had already heard from a friend that all the paychecks from the Blackjewel mines bounced. Miners packed their dinners and followed the twisting roads up to the mines only to be told to go home again. Blackjewel had abruptly declared bankruptcy on July 1st and without warning closed all their mines — from Virginia to West Virginia to Kentucky to Wyoming — jeopardizing 1,700 mining families.
My friend told me that most miners didn’t even hear the about the shutdown from their foreman; they heard it through texts from other miners, from neighbors, and from the cashier at the grocery store. Checks for the prior months' pay went into their checking accounts, but before they could pay the rent or the light bill, the money got pulled right back out again. One miner was on vacation at Dollywood and his check didn’t clear, leaving him looking for gas money to get his family home.
Blackjewel now owes about $11.8 million in wages and benefits to more than 1,000 Appalachian coal miners. The miners’ checks should have been protected by a bond that is required for construction and mining companies, but Blackjewel had never posted even one bond in the years since it incorporated. Nobody knew this, of course, because out here in Appalachia coal companies and other big businesses have always been left to police themselves.
Politicians have always been close with the companies, or sometimes even one and the same with them. Massey Energy’s Don Blankenship was convicted of a mere misdemeanor after being found to have willfully conspired to violate safety standards causing the death of 29 miners in an explosion at West Virginia’s Upper Big Branch Mine, but, unscathed, he still went on to run for a senate seat while continuing to deny any culpability. West Virginia’s current Governor Jim Justice’s coal companies were found to owe millions of dollars in property taxes, but he reached a deal with Kentucky officials where he could pay off the balance, minus the accrued fees and penalties.
And Jeff Hoops, the now-former CEO of Blackjewel, wrote a public statement when employees’ paychecks started bouncing — “I realize we have 1,800 hurting people out there right now and no one is hurting more than me over what has occurred” — which rings a little hollow when the bankruptcy didn’t impact his personal wealth in any way. In fact, officials assure investors that Hoop’s Grand Patrician Resort is still on schedule to open next year in Milton, West Virginia. The resort's website promises a golf where each hole is styled after world-famous courses, a Roman-themed chapel complete with a gilded foyer, and hotel rooms “WITH ALL THE GREATNESS OF THE ANCIENT ERA” (caps theirs) and where “the future of the world and the future of hospitality are one in the same.”
Grand Patricians, of course, can’t exist now or in the future without plebians. When Hoops, Justice, and Blankenship say they want to “bring back coal,” it’s not the damn rock they are talking about, it’s the business model. For miners, coal has always meant a trade-off between black lung, cancer clusters, and children with asthma for a make-do living, but for the bosses and owners, it has always meant some of the land’s best profit-margins. When then-candidate Trump said “Miners, get ready, because you are going to be working your asses off,” he wasn’t exactly lying — the truth of the matter is that in a patrician economy, working your ass off for someone else is just kinda what plebians do.
Preliminary figures for 2018 show 80,778 people were employed by mine operators and contractors nationally — that’s a record low. In Kentucky alone, coal jobs have dropped 60 percent since 2011. It’s as if all the politicians and businessmen, and all those who wear those hats interchangeably, know full well that the mines are closing but they want to rig the game so they can make money until the very end. That’s exactly what Blackjewel was doing as a business model — they bought up unprofitable mines being dumped by other companies and had the miners pump out the last profits for them like they were scraping up change from under the car seats. Those same unviable mines that Blackjewel just closed were snapped up at auction by other mining companies this week.
Wealthy outsiders, politicians, and big bosses have always been afforded a lawlessness, a recklessness, and a devil-may-care that miners and locals will never have. Deep under these mountains, miners are using backfill to support the roof, but there is nothing they can do to buttress themselves against the purposeful, structural weaknesses in this economic design. While the company officials sit in offices, miners wear their hard hats — thin protection from what may, at any moment, drop.
“My cousin already had his lights cut off,” my friend says about a Blackjewel miner in Southwest Virginia. “They closed so quick he didn’t even get layoff papers so now he’s having trouble at the unemployment office. I sent them money for the kid’s school supplies.”
Blackdamp is a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen. It’s a choking or suffocating gas; there is no oxygen in a pocket of blackdamp and you cannot light a lamp to see.
Even though I knew about the bankruptcy and everyone losing their jobs, I was still surprised to wake up last Monday morning to hear that miners outside Cumberland, Kentucky were blocking a train loaded with coal along the CSX tracks. No pay, we stay, they said.
Someone had noticed that the train had been loaded up with coal, even though the Harlan County Blackjewel mine has been shut down all month. The miners knew full well that this was coal they had mined and not been paid for and they weren’t about to let it leave Harlan County along with their jobs. Nearly two weeks later, they are still camped out on the tracks, their folding chairs and card tables and tents blocking the way.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. From farms to factories to service workers to teachers to academics, American families have no room to breathe. With poverty and financial instability remaining for the majority of Americans despite a “booming” post-recession economy, and with rates of inequality advancing on that of the Gilded Era, the last couple years have shown a quick rise in organizing and in peoples’ movements. Teachers have been organizing from Oklahoma to Arizona to West Virginia to California, leading walkouts and strikes; fast-food workers and other service industry employees have been organizing to push for a $15 minimum wage; Amazon workers have staged walkouts over long hours and harsh working conditions; Wayfair workers have whistle-blown their bosses for selling to immigration camps; even workers in the gig economy such as freelance writers and Uber drivers are organizing. These are only small movements, but as if on cue, the courts are hitting back hard against the slightest momentum with rulings such as Janus v AFSCME, which weakens public employee unions.
In truth, however, only a handful (10%) of workers in the United States are unionized today — about half as many as in the 1980s and — forebodingly — about the same as during the Great Depression. And unions have mostly lost their grit and teeth in the United States: As the big unions focused on politics, their money could never rival the money that corporations infuse campaigns and politicians with. Strikes have become nearly a thing of the past for the mainstream unions — last year there were only seven major work stoppages in the United States, the second-lowest number in our nation’s history. The frenzied pace of American production in the last sixty years has left workers feeling suffocated and barely able to organize. It’s hard to light a lamp when the oxygen is so low.
But back in Harlan County, these aren’t union guys. In fact, none of Blackjewel’s mines were union mines. While the UMWA and other unions have now expressed their support for the blockade, and some UMWA workers have headed down to join the protest, these guys and their families on the tracks are just guys: They saw a train about to take the coal they had risked their lives to mine, they haven’t got paid, their kids are hungry, they know right from wrong, and they are fed the fuck up.
As of the first week of August, the judge overseeing the bankruptcy hearing has declined to rule on a motion seeking to keep the Blackjewel coal in Harlan County until the miners had been paid for extracting it — a possible violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In a federal court overseeing the Blackjewel bankruptcy, the assorted companies buying the mines have agreed as part of the purchases to put some money towards paying the minors due pay — but not all of it. And none of the mine buyers have made commitments to rehire the laid-off workers. So the guys remain on the tracks with their families, cooking meals and playing cornhole, doing what they can in a situation deprived of oxygen.
What happens when the companies who told us we were family leave town without us? What happens when promises ferment? What happens when the systems we thought were here to protect us decompose?
Firedamp is created by the decomposition of coal or other carbonaceous matter. It consists primarily of methane. Everyone knows that firedamp is very, very explosive.
Extraction is the action of taking something out, removing, especially using effort or force.
Underground, contour, high wall, mountaintop removal. 400 million tons of coal can be pulled out of the Appalachian coalfields every year. Through these mountains of catalpas, maples, and larches, train tracks snake by creeks and rivers with coal hoppers strung one to another, 150 cars long. They pull the coal out to flat land, places more forgiving, for it to be processed and consumed.
I’ve often wondered if it’s the roads, the getting in and out, of Appalachia that make it so hard for the rest of the nation to understand. Those hills and bends are hard on a car and a weak stomach; I’ve spent plenty of hours on the side of the road with an overheated truck and a carsick child down by Big Stone Gap, Stopover, Welch, Man, and, just last weekend, Beckley.
But it’s not just that so much of Appalachia is remote by modern standards, it’s also that the rest of America seems to need the Appalachia of their imagination to define themselves against, like thinking you need someone shorter to stand tall.
Appalachia ends up being defined by who gets to speak — and rarely is that the Choppy’s of the world unless he agrees to follow the script we have given him. Contemporary Appalachia is a region still defined by Johnson’s War on Poverty. It is a narrative created by outsiders: White rural poverty, rusted trucks, and backward people needing help.
Like so many charitable endeavors, the War on Poverty seemed more adept at fulfilling the altruistic urges of more prosperous parts of the country than it was at answering the concrete needs of Appalachia. And like so many communities that become objects of politics, Appalachia was determined incorrigible when it did not improve. And like so many people who have been given up on, families here were turned over to robber barons of chemicals, plastics, and coal.
For years at a time, decades even, America seems to forget that this entire region exists, until journalists or politicians descend on the region to use people and places to prove a point about something they already believe. Appalachian natives find their towns to mentioned as a quick statistic about the opioid epidemic, their child’s school named in a quip about child poverty, or they discover that a photograph of a rusted old shack on their granddaddy’s property has made its way into a national magazine — with his perfectly nice house and kempt yard cropped out. America comes to mine the narrative of our most beloved, loathed underclass, letting it follow the coal out of these hills, to be processed and consumed in some flatter space.
It is not a surprise, then, that no one had thought much about the Blackjewel miners until they set up on the tracks. This stuff happens so much, no one ever imagined that they would fight back. But their protest, rightfully, threw them into a spotlight rarely granted to folks of the region. But sadly, instead of careful listening, outside voyeurs began putting meaning onto the Blackjewel protest and situation, without actually hearing what the miners have to say.
“This has nothing to do with Trump,” tweeted Blake Watts, one of the original five Blackjewel miners who discovered the train loaded with a million dollars worth of coal and blocked the tracks. “This is a coal miner versus a businessman. For those of you who don’t even know how any of this works. Just keep your opinions away from us trying to get what we bled and risked our lives for. What was stolen from us. Not to mention the coal that was almost taken under our nose.”
Watts sounds exhausted in his tweet. No doubt he was physically tired from so many nights in the blockade, but perhaps he is also emotionally weary. It is exhausting to have so much extracted from you — your money, your land, your time, your way to make a living. But then when you stand up for yourself and your community, to have outsiders also come take away your words, your meaning, your mission, your voice — it can feel collapsing.
I am watching it from afar: A circus of amateur commentators giving hot takes about McConnell, Trump, tariffs, clean coal, and whether or not the miners brought it on themselves by not going back to school or supporting solar, Obama, or Clinton. These miners seemed stuck not only between paychecks and coal companies but an internet full of gaslighting, self-righteous red and blue when all they wanted to do was stop the damn train and get what they are owed.
It’s unbelievable how much we think we can take. It’s a wonder these hills haven’t collapsed.
Beam building is when miners work to create a strong, inflexible beam by bolting or otherwise fastening several weaker layers together. This is how mine roofs are secured to prevent collapse.
My dad is a quiet man, thin and strong from years of building and labor, his hearing is nearly gone from the noise of power tools. I can only think of three hard and fast rules my dad ever made for us growing up — but they were each things that set our values in place.
One, he asked us to never buy stocks. He said: “It’s not ever right to make money off of someone else’s labor.” Plain as day, there was nothing more that needed to be said.
Two, he told us to never, ever cross a picket line. When I owned an old foreign-made car, he reminded me not to park it in the Union’s parking lot. He taught me to research my tools to see where they were made and I knew what sweatshops were by the time I was five. He taught me about Chavez and I never once ate a grape from California growing up. He and my mother thank both God and farmworkers when they say grace, and I was raised to always bring work crews iced tea even if it wasn’t hot out. My dad taught me that you NEVER make a complaint about service and you ALWAYS tip because peoples’ livelihoods are not up for negotiation or meant to be subject to your consumption, comfort, or whims.
Three, he told me that when there is a little guy it’s only because there is a big guy, and that whatever the fight, we were going to be on the little’s guys side every time.
I was maybe 19 or 20 and was sitting around the campfire singing Which Side Are You On? in rounds high up in the North Carolina mountains, smoke in my hair and rhododendrons outlined against the moon sky. I was at an Earth First! Rondy and people were making up lyrics, which surprised me at first. I had known Pete Seeger’s version growing up and knew the song came, famously, from coal country. In fact, it comes from the exact same place the Blackjewel miners are blocking the tracks.
They say in Harlan County/There are no neutrals there
You’ll either be a union man/Or a thug for J. H. Blair
Which side are you on boys?/Which side are you on?
Which side are you on boys?/Which side are you on?
Harlan County has been a lynchpin for radical movements, and Florence Reece, the wife of a union organizer and daughter of a miner, wrote Which Side Are You On? during the 1931–1939 coal war; a long series of mining-related executions, bombings, and strikes that revolved around workers trying to unionize against big companies and wealthy men. “There’s no such thing as neutral,” Reece said, “You have to be on one side or the other. Some people say, ‘I don’t take sides — I’m neutral.’ There’s no such thing. In your mind you’re on one side or the other. In Harlan County, there wasn’t no neutral.”
The clarity of no neutral resonated and Which Side Are You On? became an anthem of solidarity. Since the mine wars, the song has been adapted by underdogs and people’s movements across the country — from the Civil Rights movement to environmental movements. More recently, in response to the fatal shooting of Michael Brown, protesters briefly interrupted a performance of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra with a Requiem for Mike Brown, which began with the song Which Side Are You On?
People like Choppy and places like Appalachia are never just one thing; we can, and should, tie ourselves up into knots trying to understand each other. But right and wrong? That’s very plain.
When someone says that there are many sides of a story, they are correct — that is glorious fullness of the world. But when someone says that maybe we should just slow down, maybe there is some compromise, a middle ground, that there are “very fine people on both sides,” they are not being reasonable nor are they being neutral; they are saying that they are just fine letting the bad guys win.
Because when you muck around in the gray area, all you are doing is standing in the long shadow of those who already have power, when you could just come out here in the sunlight with your friends.
Which side are you on? If you live on Buffalo Creek, you know that the dam at the top of the holler is made of mining sludge and is liable to break and that there are children going to school down below it each day. And if you know this, then you can understand that the pain of Ferguson watching a young man lay in the street dead for hours and not being even covered with a sheet.
And if you can understand Ferguson, then you can understand the horror of seeing a generations-old family farm destroyed by a pipeline. And if you can understand that, then you can understand the fear families feel as ICE creeps through their streets prowling for fathers who are just walking out to their cars to go to work. And if you can understand that fear, then you can understand the tragedy of centuries-old trees being cleared for somebody else’s temporary progress. And if you can understand that, then you can understand the desperation of families at the border. And if you can see the injustice there, then you know perfectly well why these Harlan County miners aren’t going to let the coal they mined go on down the tracks. There is no neutral here.
Which side are you on? My daddy gave me that answer and I will share it with you: We are with the miners, the immigrants, the protestors, the poor, and the black mama scared for her children. We are with the farmworkers, the shift-workers, the tree-sitters, the antifascists, the truck drivers, the hobos and the punks. We are with the queers, the farmers, the teachers, the students, the small black church holding its own in the country, the mosque in the big city, the woman cleaning your hotel room and the man laying down the asphalt — because we are always better together.
And we are with the little guy every time.