Blackjewel Coal Miners to Get Millions in Back Pay After Train Blockade

Blackjewel went bankrupt in July and about 1,100 workers in central Appalachia lost several weeks of pay. In protest, coal miners blocked a train full of coal for months.

Credit...Kristian Thacker for The New York Times

For two months this summer, out-of-work miners blocked a train full of coal from shipping out of an eastern Kentucky mine, demanding weeks of unpaid wages after their employer, Blackjewel, suddenly went bankrupt.

The protest started as a five-man blockade in July and grew to include dozens before it was disbanded last month. Labor activists, local politicians and the governor of Kentucky visited. United States senators Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell offered public support. The United States Department of Labor intervened.

And now, the miners have received good news. In a series of settlements made public this week in federal courts in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia, Blackjewel agreed to pay about 1,100 workers some $5.1 million in unpaid wages.

“I’m really happy,” said Jeffrey Willig, 40, who helped start the protest. “It’s the whole reason we took our stand. We just wanted the money that we worked for.”

Lawyers for Blackjewel did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday evening.

Mr. Willig said he was shocked by the national and international attention the protest received.

“We were trying to get our point across: You delay our pay, we’ll delay your train,” Mr. Willig said. “We just thought we were going to be five guys blocking a train — it was going to be local news and that was it.”

Bankruptcies and layoffs have become routine in coal fields amid an industrywide decline. But the blockade held particular significance in Harlan County, Ky., a place once synonymous with bloody labor wars. It is also one of the poorest regions in the country, said Ned Pillersdorf, one of the lawyers representing the miners.

Blackjewel was two years old and owned mines in four states, employing over 1,000 miners in central Appalachia, when it filed for bankruptcy in July.

Miners learned in the middle of an afternoon shift that Blackjewel was shutting down immediately and putting everyone out of work. The company did not file a mandatory 60-day advance warning and did not post a bond, required by Kentucky law, to cover payroll.

Workers did not receive pay for their last week on the job. Paychecks for two previous weeks bounced.

Hundreds of miners overdrew their bank accounts and faced looming mortgage and car payments and medication costs. 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.

On July 29, a train carrying a million dollars’ worth of coal — that had already been sold — began rolling out of Blackjewel’s Cloverlick No. 3 mine in Harlan County to be transported to the buyer. Five quick-thinking miners set up the blockade. The protest swelled over the coming months and drew national attention.

The Department of Labor intervened in August, asking the bankruptcy judge to block the train, which eventually led to this week’s settlements.

The department did not immediately respond to requests for comment on Thursday evening.

Mr. Pillersdorf said it was rare for workers to receive so much money out of a bankruptcy proceeding, while creditors also jockey for money.

Joe Childers, another lawyer representing some of the miners, said that the back pay still did not resolve all of the miners’ claims. He said it did not include vacation time, retirement contributions, health savings account payments and other types of compensation.

Still, he called the settlements a “step in the right direction.”

The workers have not yet received their checks. But Mr. Willig said that when he did, most of the money would go toward car and mortgage payments.

He said the whole episode had turned him away from coal mining. Mr. Willig hopes to get a job working for a railroad or in fiber optics.

“I’m 40,” he said. “My body has taken a toll from hard labor for most of my life. I kind of want to get something that’s not real hard anymore.”

Campbell Robertson contributed reporting.