Coal, and the Harlan County Coal Miners Who Blocked a Train Over Bankrupt Blackjewel’s Wage Theft

By Lambert Strether of Corrente

I want to start by recommending the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast, from Whitesburg, KY, not least because Whitesburg is in Letcher County, which is adjacent to Harlan County, where the unpaid miners blocked the train. and the podcast was on the story from the beginning. Both Rolling Stone and the New Yorker have done some good reporting on the ground. Summarizing the basics:

In July 29, coal miners in Cumberland, Kentucky began blocking a train carrying more than $1 million worth of coal to protest their former employer, Blackjewel LLC, which declared bankruptcy on July 1. According to CNN, the company wrote bad checks to 350 miners in Harlan County alone, prompting the workers to stage the protest to demand their paychecks.

(Cumberland is in storied Harlan County, site of the “Harlan County War” of 1931-1939, in which the workers finally won the right to organize). More about this century’s protest shortly. Back to the podcast: “Bonus Episode: Voices of the Harlan County Coal Blockade” was made a few days after the miners blocked the train; “Episode 111: Someone’s Goin to Hell, and Someone’s Goin to Jail” covers electoral politics, fatally skewering Amy McGrath, who Chuck Schumer recruited to run against McConnell; and “Episode 112: No One Agency Should Have All That POWER,” with scathing views of consultants and the NGO ecology — close reading of grant proposals[1]! — and out-of-state liberals (example: One of the podcasters is driving around a bunch of artists who are going to make art about Appalachia, and the artists ask her to stop by a giant pile of coal so they can collect some lumps to “make art” out of them. Mine operators take a dim view of stealing coal, so they were taking a risk of arrest that a local could not take, but they persisted). In tone the Trillbillies are something like Chapo, but in substance, modulo the banter and the giggling, a lot more rigorous. Very very dark and very very dry, and the darkness and dryness is earned. All this being a round-about way of saying that I would have to listen to this podcast for many more hours — heaven forfend there should be automagically generated transcripts by podcast providers — to really feel I have any understanding of Harlan County at all. For example, the third a in “Appalachia” is not long. Who knew?

All this said, I want to do four things to put the Harlan County Train Blockage in context. First, I’ll look at climate and the coal industry. Then I will look at the actual train blockage itself, the industrial action. Next, I’ll look at why the anarchist trans activists (really) left the protest. Finally, I’ll look at the ridiculous and exploitative Democrat Amy McGrath, who is those things even if she is raking in the bucks. Hopefully, as this story develops, these perspectives will be useful.

Climate and the Coal Industry

From 30,000 feet, far above the train tracks, coal is really bad, and we should leave it in the ground. James E. Hansen, Director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space testified, before The Iowa Utilities Board (PDF):

Q. What is the purpose of your testimony?

A. … Burning of fossil fuels, primarily coal, oil and gas, increases the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other gases and particles in the air. These gases and particles affect the Earth’s energy balance, changing both the amount of sunlight absorbed by the planet and the emission of heat (long wave or thermal radiation) to space. The net effect is a global warming that has become substantial during the past three decades.

Global warming from continued burning of more and more fossil fuels poses clear dangers for the planet and for the planet’s present and future inhabitants. Coal is the largest contributor to the human-made increase of CO2 in the air. Saving the planet and creation surely requires phase-out of coal use except where the CO2 is captured and sequestered (stored in one of several possible ways).

Q. Coal is only one of the fossil fuels. Can such a strong statement specifically against coal be justified, given still-developing understanding of climate change?

A. Yes. Coal reserves contain much more carbon than do oil and natural gas reserves, and it is impractical to capture CO2 emissions from the tailpipes of vehicles. Nor is there any prospect that Saudi Arabia, Russia, the United States and other major oil-producers will decide to leave their oil in the ground. Thus unavoidable CO2 emissions from oil and gas in the next few decades will take atmospheric CO2 amounts close to, if not beyond, the level needed to cause dangerous climate change. The only practical way to prevent CO2 levels from going far into the dangerous range, with disastrous effects for humanity and other inhabitants of the planet, is to phase out use of coal except at power plants where the CO2 is captured and sequestered.

(Carbon capture is a topic for another day, but suffice to say it won’t be saving the climate or helping the miners of Harlan County any time soon.)

From Hansen’s perspective, then, the decline of the coal industry (helped on its way by private equity) is a good thing. Here is a chart from the United States Energy Information Administration shows how the coal we are taking out of the ground is decreasing:

The main use case for coal, electrical power generation, is shifting to other energy sources. From the US Energy Information Administration:

Unsurprisingly, employment is way down. From the US Mine Safety and Health Administration:

Summarizing, we’re leaving coal in the ground. That should make Their Grace, The Biosphere happy (along with the private equity dudes and the CEOs scuttling away from collapsing firms with their bonuses intact). It’s not making the miners or their families or communities happy. Rightly! So now let’s turn to the protest.

How the Train Was Blocked

Stopping the train, which was loaded with about a million dollar’s worth of coal, is a splendid example of direct action. From the New Yorker:

When a woman who lives near the Cloverlick mine noticed a train being loaded with coal, she sent a message to a few miners, one of whom called [miner Jeff] Willig. “He said, ‘Hey, you wanna come up here and stand in front of this train?’ And I was, like, ‘Uh, yeah,’ ” Willig told me. “It was pretty straightforward.”

Willig and four other miners stood twenty feet in front of Blackjewel’s train. “The train was going slowly,” Willig said. The conductor inched forward a few times, then, finally, seeing that the men were not moving, stopped for good. After about two hours, the state troopers arrived, shook the miners’ hands, and asked them to step off the tracks; they were trespassing on Blackjewel property. “They were very nice,” Willig said. The miners complied, and started plotting their next move—perhaps, they thought, they could stop the train at the next crossing, farther down the tracks. The train got going, passed them by about ten feet, then stopped again and backed up. Someone had called the federal Department of Labor, which quickly intervened on the miners’ behalf, declaring that the coal sitting on the tracks was “hot goods” and would go nowhere until the company paid the miners for their labor.

Some remarks. First, it’s remarkable to see the Labor Department actually doing the right thing. How did that happen? (True, the Republicans haven’t done anything more, but declaring the train “hot goods” was the prerequisite for the protest to begin in the first place.)

Second, the workers are exercising their control over our fragile supply chain (cf. Kim Moody). If a train, why not trucks? Or aircraft? Or ships? Or warehouses?

Third, the situation is indeed “straightforward.” One the one hand, there is the train, valued at one million dollars. On the other, there are the miners, who created the value and weren’t paid for it. The physical proximity of the train and the protesters — in the midst of crisis, no less — makes that social relation crystal clear. The same relation is true on the docks, in warehouses, in airports, but less visible. Perhaps this protest will make it more visible. “Show me the money!”

Why the Trans Anarchist Activists Left

The anarchists, who were locals, showed up on day two. Rolling Stone:

Lill, 29, a transgender activist from the county adjacent to Harlan.. showed up on day two of the protest preaching a doctrine of mutual aid among working-class people…. Lill, who uses gender-neutral they/them pronouns, quit their job as a server and, along with a small crew of transgender anarchists, set about marshaling the blockade into an organized labor camp. They helped set up a camp phone line, a solar shower, and a kitchen capable of feeding dozens. The anarchists, who spent 27 days on the tracks with the miners, brought up questions the miners hadn’t yet considered: Who are you going to call if this gets you arrested? Who’s going to bail you out?

“I didn’t know who they were at first, but I kind of got used to them,” says Sarah Kelly, 43, the wife of a Blackjewel miner. “We haven’t had the support [from our church] we thought we’d have out of all of this. You don’t never know where your help is going to come from. You don’t know who’s going to be preparing your meals.”

Organizing a camp out of nothing is not easy to do, so what these anarchists did is very, very impressive. But here’s why they left. From the New Yorker:

Before I arrived, earlier in August, a group of truckers affiliated with Black Smoke Matters had visited the camp to show their support. One of the truck drivers had made some comments—about his gun collection, his wealth, and his support for neo-Nazis—that upset members of Lill’s collective….

On Sunday, when I stopped by the camp to say goodbye, I found that Lill, Nico, and all the members of the anarchist collective had unexpectedly packed up and left. “I don’t think they’re coming back,” [miner Chris] Rowe said. The trucker had stopped by the blockade earlier that morning to check on the miners, and to speak with Rowe about the job, while Lill and Nico were out running errands. When they returned and saw this man back at camp—this time wearing a “Trump 2020” T-shirt—they asked Rowe to tell him to leave.

“He came by to say he was still supporting us,” Rowe told me. “And he helps us in the coal industry. I wasn’t going to ask him to leave.” Rowe also said that he did not remember the trucker making any offensive comments. Lill and Nico later wrote to me that there had been an agreement with the miners that the trucker would not be welcomed back. “We left camp because of overt racism,” they said. In an Instagram post, they added, “We had to leave camp because we will not enable racism or complacency to racism. But we will be dispersing the money and we are sorry to everyone who is as heartbroken about this as we are.”

(The Trillbillies describe this episode as well.) Because I don’t even know how to pronounce “Appalachia,” I’m going to refrain from interpretation. But we clearly have a problem.

The Horrid Amy McGrath

From the Courier Journal, “Kentucky miners issue a cease and desist letter to Amy McGrath for using them in a TV ad“:

Two members of the Letcher County chapter of the Black Lung Association issued a cease and desist letter to McGrath on Wednesday, saying they did not consent to having their likenesses used in the ad.

Randy Robbins and Albrow Hall thought they were participating in a documentary for the Black Lung Association, according to the letter from their lawyer, Christoper L. Thacker, whom Gov. Matt Bevin appointed to the Kentucky’s Executive Branch Ethics Commission in 2016.

The two felt the trip to see McConnell was a success, the letter said, and “deeply appreciated the warm receptions they received” from officials.

“Randy and Albrow are not partisan political activists for either party,” the letter states. “However, they are personally offended at seeing their images being used in a political attack ad that does not reflect their personal feelings or beliefs. It is simply wrong for the McGrath Campaign to use individual miners suffering from black lung disease as political pawns without their permission or consent.”

This story too is covered by the Trillbillies, with much hilarity about the moviemakers who asked a miner to remove his “Black Lung” T-shirt, and put on a flannel shirt. Because that’s what workers wear, you know. Suffice to say that I won’t be looking to McGrath for victory, let alone help, even if hash tag “Moscow Mitch” is raking in the bucks from Coastal liberals.


Since we must leave the coal in the ground, we need a “just transition” for the miners (even if the union leaders don’t like it). (And by “we need,” I guess I mean “workers must demand and take.”) Other civilized countries do this, as a Sunrise Movement activist points out:

After listening to the Trillbillies, though, I’m 100% certain of one thing: Handing the task of devising a “just transition” over to the non-profit industrial complex is a recipe for utter disaster. So avoiding that, for me, is a new litmus test for Green New Deal plans.


[1] “Energy-displaced individuals” is gold. Another aspect of the Democrat Party as an insitution is that its embedded in a dense network of NGO’s, the “non-profit industrial complex,” which spend millions on, say, doing feasibility studies for broadband, but no money on actual broadband.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      That was the conclusion I decided not to jump to (but it’s a fair one).

      What I noticed is that the “Black Smoke Matters” crew was easily able to split the camp by offering one miner a job (and whatever judgment one might make about that, all the miner have hostage to fortune…).

      1. a different chris

        They needed to, well, Stand Their Ground. They had a completely-over-the top example of somebody they feared, and that person was in this instance completely on their side.

        A lot of mutual understanding can come out of a situation like that. Their lives weren’t in danger, just their feelings. Bite your tongue a few times and what usually results is a learning experience for everybody. And that goes back “home” with the participants in that experience – suddenly the MAGA guy says, when his friends are drunkenly bashing (yes I stereotype too!!!) gays “well wait a moment, some of them aren’t really…”.

        That’s how the world changes.

      2. Plenue

        I find it really perplexing that they did this after taking part in a substantial way. They didn’t just show up, not do much, and then virtue signal out. They helped to build the camp, putting time and energy into the cause, before leaving the first time they encountered something they didn’t like.

        That an identity politics type has a weak commitment to a material cause doesn’t surprise me. What does is that they quit after first putting in real effort.

  1. scarn

    I’m going to listen to these podcast episodes this week. Thanks so much for this overview and all the links it contains. I myself recently learned the correct pronunciation of Appalachia via Queer Appalachia’s Instagram. I would hazard a guess that there is some political overlap between QA and the anarchists who built that camp. QA has a “harm reduction unit” that seems to be going on tour this fall, handing out free narcan, fentanyl test strips, plan b, hiv tests, sharp disposal, needles, condoms, tampons, and more. There is definitely a culture of direct action and mutual aid out there that is inspiring and fascinating. The harm reduction unit is @qaharmreduction on insta, for anyone who wants to check it out.

  2. rd

    A nuance that is lost is that this trainload of coal has little to do with climate change. It is metallurgical coal used in steel production where the coal is turned into coke and then provides heat but also carbon and other trace elements necessary to make carbon steel, as well as providing structure inside the blast furnace to help manage the ore.

    Only 7% of US coal production is metallurgical and much of that comes from Appalachia. Much of the thermal coal for energy production comes from Wyoming.

    If you want to eliminate metallurgical coal, then you get to forego steel or find another carbon source to use as well as modify the manufacturing process.

    I don’t think Hillary Clinton knew this when she wanted to put Appalachian coal miners out of work.

    BTW – I support miners in this fight. Workers wages should be the single highest priority debtor in bankruptcy.

    1. JohnM

      To split some hairs, the carbon from the coal/coke serves as a reducing agent to make pig iron from iron ore. Steel is then made from pig iron by removing most of the remaining carbon by adding oxygen. In any case, it pretty much all ends up in the atmosphere as CO2.

      1. rd

        The key thing is that it is not going to be easily replaced with wind, solar, or hydro power. Steel will need to be made a different way if this coal is going to be replaced.

      2. drumlin woodchuckles

        If 7 % of the coal mined in America is metallurgical, that probably means that 7% of the carbon released from using coal in America is released from using metallurgical coal. ( Maybe even less because some of the carbon in the metallurgical coal goes into the iron to help work it up into steel.)

        So that means that the other 93% of carbon reaching the air from coal is coming from thermal coal for boiling water in steam plants. That 93% is a lot more than 7%, so that 93% is more worth worrying about. And also, steel once made can last a long time if properly maintained. We are not making the very same steel over and over and over again . . . . the way we are spinning the very same turbines over and over and over again with thermal coal in steam plants.

    2. Lambert Strether Post author

      > metallurgical

      Yes, I should have treated that as special case in the first section. However, the key point is the crystalline clarity of the social relations of production. Here, we have a train worth a million bucks full of coal the workers mined; and here, we have the workers who should be paid out of that million, and are not. The juxtaposition!

  3. KLG

    Great coverage! These miners are brave and necessary.

    Everyone should watch Harlan County USA, the astonishing documentary by Barbara Kopple. I took my bride of 37 years to a showing on an early date, but she married me anyway. The film is magnificent, and very disturbing.

    And read Night Comes to the Cumberlands by Harry Caudill. Still in print last I looked.

    Both of these essential works explain what we have done to this land and these people.

    And one other thing. I lived in Kentucky from 2000-2008. The Turtle has lifetime tenure in the US Senate…Just like Li’l Brett on the US Supreme Court.

  4. JBird4049

    The “non-profit industrial complex” is something that I have increasingly noticed in the past say 4-5 years, which seems to suck up any and all sources of money, time, and work into pseudo-charitable organizations. The American Red Cross has apparently been transmogrified into a massive grift into which donations flow for emergencies, but appears to mainly go into the increasing salaries of upper management. The American Rifle Association is another as it too has been transmogrified from anything to do with gun owners and users into a vast money vacuum to pay for the salaries of its management.

    As with American corporations, there seems to be vampires running around looking for companies and organizations to infect, take over, and either kill and dismember like Toys R Us or to strip of the actual money costing functionality so that all the income can go into salaries, benefits, and big offices as has been done with the Red Cross. The parallels with real life parasites is disturbing. With the Red Cross I think of a parasitic castrator of crabs. The link goes to Wikipedia, but I have a disturbing book or two on parasites. I keep thinking more and more of American institutions as like those parasites. Although I can also think of infections like anthrax.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      > The “non-profit industrial complex” is something that I have increasingly noticed in the past say 4-5 years

      Listening to the podcasters pick apart those grant applications is absolutely mind-blowing (and they have written grants themselves, being NGO-adjacent). Just a gigantic grift.

      1. kael

        I noticed that you didn’t mention Tarence Ray’s (One of the Trillbillies) article in the current Baffler, covering the nature of non-profit grifting in the region. It may be helpful for some of the NC readers that have trouble with audio. Here it is: Hollowed Out

  5. Barbara

    Thank you so much for this lively description of what has been going in in coal country. It brings home the reality of a situation that doesn’t touch many of us directly. It also brings back to my mind the intelligence and heart of the working class in general, but especially of those whose labor is both physical and dangerous. I am of the generation that moved from the working class to the middle class as a result of the new deal. And as I was reading, I began to hear voices from the past, from my grandparents’ generation – all solid working class. And realize how much I missed them and their earthy intelligence.

    But I want to comment on something you wrote as an aside:

    heaven forfend there should be automagically generated transcripts by podcast providers

    I am assuming that your complaint had to do with the fact that you could read a transcripts faster than the time it takes to listen – and that you could quote, as I did, with ^C and paste with ^V, rather than having reconstruct what you heard.

    I have the same complaint but mine is because I am severely hearing impaired. Most people assume, because I am old, that my hearing loss is age-related. I am often told by middle age people, “I wish my Dad/Mom were like you. They refuse to wear their hearing aids.” If I had lost my hearing post-age 60, I probably wouldn’t be wearing my hearing aids either. What I’ve found about my equal-agers is that at the time of their hearing loss they were also having vision problems, their hair was turning gray or falling out, their blood=pressure and cholesterol are up. With hearing-loss they just give up. I became hearing impaired at 36. I was working on Wall St., not a hospitable place then for women; I had two elementary school age children. I could not roll up the carpet and give up on life.

    Podcasts and videos have become ubiquitous. Many of them put up with very little explanation. It is particularly troubling when the subjects are such things as the economy or the political scene. 25% of people over 60 are hearing impaired. I don’t know what the % is for blind or seriously vision impaired.

    I prefer transcript over closed captions. If you are trying to read closed captions, you are not watching the video. And it’s time consuming. I can read a transcript in a fraction of the time it takes to read closed captions. After reading a transcript, I can go and watch the video for facial expressions and body language, if that is important to the understanding.

    The problem here is that people forget that the hearing and visually impaired are citizens too. You can’t keep older people out of the loop and then complain about their “stuck” opinions.

    1. sharonsj

      I have problems with podcasts too. I have tinnitus and I found if the speakers talk rapidly or talk over each other I have difficulty following them. Since I am a speed reader, I much prefer reading to listening.

      1. kael

        Many of us would love our favorite audio to come with transcripts, but that’s too expensive for most of the non-corporate audio news, interviews, and podcasts that I find important.

        That said, there is some adaptive technology that can help built in to the podcast-listening program (“app” for you kids) I use that allows the user to speed up or slow down the playback while keeping the pitch of the voices the same. I use Podcast Addict on an Android phone, but I think this function is widespread.

        Also I’ve been a Trillbilly Worker’s Party Patreon supporter for about a year. They are important. Like NC, but very different.

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