Kentucky Miners Are Blocking a Coal Train for Back Pay. We Talked to One About a Just Transition.

Sarah Lazare

(WYMT/screen shot)

On 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. Hold­ing signs that say, No pay, we stay,” the coal min­ers have been buoyed by com­mu­ni­ty sup­port, with church­es and restau­rants donat­ing food and sup­plies. They say they will stay on the tracks until they get the wages they’re owed for the work they’ve already done. While Har­lan Coun­ty stands as the site of mil­i­tant coal-min­er labor strug­gles in the 1930s and 1970s, these work­ers are non-union.

This dra­mat­ic action under­scores the need for a just tran­si­tion” — a key demand of today’s cli­mate move­ment. Devel­oped 20 to 30 years ago by envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice, labor and Indige­nous move­ments, the pro­pos­al rests on the prin­ci­ple that, as we shift away from a fos­sil fuel econ­o­my, we must ensure work­ers in those indus­tries are tak­en care of. That includes retrain­ing work­ers and pro­vid­ing new, well-pay­ing union jobs while pro­tect­ing their pen­sions and and ensur­ing they play a role in shap­ing the eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tion as we shift to a zero-emis­sions econ­o­my. This prin­ci­ple has made its way onto the nation­al stage and into the pro­posed Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion. As Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) said in Decem­ber 2018, We can use the tran­si­tion to 100 per­cent renew­able ener­gy as the vehi­cle to tru­ly deliv­er and estab­lish eco­nom­ic, social and racial jus­tice in the Unit­ed States of America.”

As the coal indus­try declines, it’s becom­ing increas­ing­ly clear that a just tran­si­tion is not a far-off goal post: Peo­ple are los­ing their jobs now. If cli­mate cam­paign­ers are seri­ous about build­ing trust with work­ers, and ensur­ing they lead a just tran­si­tion away from the fos­sil fuel econ­o­my, now is the time to engage with coal min­ers’ strug­gles to sur­vive a tran­si­tion they did not choose. Josh Hol­brook is a 36-year-old coal min­er and for­mer employ­ee of Black­jew­el, where he worked as a third-shift fore­man. He is now help­ing his fel­low work­ers block the coal train in Cum­ber­land. Cur­rent­ly liv­ing in the small town of Flem­ing-Neon, Ken­tucky, Hol­brook has been work­ing in coal mines for 18 years.

In an inter­view with In These Times, Hol­brook says that the coal min­ers are in dire need of sol­i­dar­i­ty, and he’s open to the idea of tran­si­tion­ing into a new job. But he needs proof that a just tran­si­tion is a seri­ous pro­pos­al. Bring jobs in,” he says. Mon­ey talks.”

Sarah Lazare: Can you tell me what’s hap­pen­ing right now with the protest against Blackjewel?

Josh Hol­brook: The train is still blocked. We still have min­ers on the track. They’re not mov­ing until we get paid. We are owed the last two pay­checks. The last time we got a valid pay­check was June 14. The last day I worked was July 1. I’ve been work­ing a dif­fer­ent job, but I’ve been help­ing block the tracks. I actu­al­ly preached there yes­ter­day. We had a church service.

Sarah: What do you think of the idea of a just tran­si­tion” put for­ward by cli­mate and labor activists?

Josh: I haven’t heard of a just transition.

Sarah: It’s this idea that, in order to curb cli­mate change, we need to stop extract­ing fos­sil fuels, includ­ing coal. But if we’re going to do that, we need to make sure the work­ers in those indus­tries are tak­en care of. This can mean job retrain­ing so that coal min­ers can become renew­able ener­gy work­ers. It also means pro­tect­ing the health­care and pen­sions of coal min­ers who lose their jobs.

Josh: It makes sense to me. We care about the envi­ron­ment. I think it needs to be a glob­al standard.

I’ve been in coal mines for 18 years. Where I come from, that’s all we have. I’m pro-coal. I’d also like to see some kind of infra­struc­ture come in here, like fac­to­ries. We don’t have high-pay­ing jobs. We have no fac­to­ries where I grew up.

Sol­i­dar­i­ty would be great. It would be great if a set of jobs came in. It’d be great if the nation band­ed togeth­er and helped us out right now. I’m not in as bad a shape as some peo­ple. There are a lot of hon­est, hard­work­ing men whose kids can’t buy clothes for school. It’d be great to see solidarity.

Peo­ple think we have a grudge against the envi­ron­ment because we’re coal min­ers. We love the envi­ron­ment. I’m not sure about the impact coal has on the envi­ron­ment. Can you say a bit more about that?

Sarah: Unfor­tu­nate­ly, coal is a pret­ty big prob­lem. It’s one of the most pol­lut­ing fos­sil fuels out there and the biggest con­trib­u­tor to cli­mate change. One study found that, to pre­vent the worst-case cli­mate change sce­nario, 82 per­cent of coal reserves must stay in the earth. There’s not real­ly a way around the fact that, to pre­vent a cli­mate emer­gency, coal min­ing jobs would have to go away. But the idea of a just tran­si­tion is that those jobs can be replaced with new jobs, and that work­ers can be retrained. Some are call­ing for a jobs guar­an­tee, and a uni­ver­sal basic income, to make sure not a sin­gle per­son falls through the cracks.

Josh: We would love to see jobs come into our area — decent-pay­ing jobs — because this is pre­dom­i­nant­ly a coal town. That’s what it’s depend­ed on. That’s real­ly the only job you can have except Wal­mart or a fast food restau­rant. There are no well-pay­ing jobs. The min­ing indus­try is up and down, it’s like a roller coast­er. It’s not sta­ble. I moved to Alaba­ma for four years in 2012, just chas­ing the dol­lar, try­ing to keep a job in a coal mine.

I was talk­ing to some­one the oth­er day, he’s prob­a­bly my age and has been work­ing in the coal mines a sim­i­lar length of time. I said we’re prob­a­bly not going to be able to retire in the mines. You have the issue of cli­mate change, and most com­pa­nies don’t care about us in the end, all they care about is the dol­lar. It’s a real­ly bad situation.

Sarah: It’s true that the coal indus­try is already declin­ing. There are a lot of cli­mate activists out there talk­ing about sup­port­ing coal and oth­er fos­sil fuel work­ers through the tran­si­tion, whether jobs are being lost as a result of reces­sion, or meet­ing the needs of cli­mate change, or both. What could cli­mate activists do right now to show that they’re seri­ous about help­ing coal min­ers out?

Josh: It’d have to be sup­port. Help us out. Stand­ing on the tracks is one thing, but stand­ing some­where else where they’re hurt­ing even more is good too. For a month, no one said noth­ing about the issue, then we made a media fren­zy by block­ing the train and got atten­tion. Before that, we were in the dark.

Job train­ing would be great, but you could have all the train­ing in the world and if there’s not jobs here, we have to move away. With­out fac­to­ries or plants or some­thing of that nature, train­ing wouldn’t be very effective.

Cli­mate activists can get togeth­er and under­stand our strug­gles on the mat­ter. This is the only thing we got. It’s a liveli­hood. It’s how we put food in our kids’ mouths. We’re not doing it in a cor­ner try­ing to destroy the world. We’re try­ing to pro­vide for our fam­i­lies. We are hon­est, hard­work­ing peo­ple try­ing to put roofs over our heads.

Peo­ple can donate to help. We’re not ask­ing for a hand­out or noth­ing like that. But there’s chil­dren with­out food. We have a GoFundMe. Any­thing any­one could do to help. Right now, we need school sup­plies, shoes.

Sarah: What is your impres­sion of cli­mate activists?

Josh: I’m not real­ly famil­iar with what cli­mate activists believe. All I’ve seen is the, No coal, shut coal mines down.” I’m not real­ly famil­iar with what they actu­al­ly believe and what they want done.

Sarah: You men­tioned ear­li­er that a lot of coal com­pa­nies don’t care about work­ers. There’s also rea­son to think they don’t care about the envi­ron­ment. Is it pos­si­ble that coal min­ers and cli­mate activists have a com­mon enemy?

Josh: There’s some oper­a­tors I’ve worked for that actu­al­ly care for their men. You’ve got good ones out there. They’re few and far between. I wouldn’t call it an ene­my. I’m a min­is­ter of the gospel. I like to have no enemies.

Sarah: What if we used dif­fer­ent word­ing? What if we talked about the harm the com­pa­nies are doing?

Josh: The Black­jew­el CEO, Jeff Hoops, is doing a lot of harm to a lot of fam­i­lies. You got some good ones and some bad ones. I don’t think it’s their direct intent to harm the envi­ron­ment. I think they want to get rich and that’s the way they can do it.

If they want to see how coal min­ers oper­ate, they can look at the facts, how dif­fer­ent ven­dors come out and give free food to the min­ers on the tracks. Peo­ple are show­ing up and help­ing every day. At the end of the day, it’s not about whether you are pro-coal or anti-coal, it’s about whether you’re pro-man. We do this because it’s what we got­ta do. It’s how we make money.

I hate the stereo­type that we don’t like the envi­ron­ment. We love the out­doors. Where we live is some of the most beau­ti­ful ter­ri­to­ry in the Unit­ed States. I’m sure cli­mate activists think some­one is against them, they think we’re doing an injus­tice. We don’t put peo­ple down over what they do for their livelihood.

Sarah: Have you heard of Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez or the Green New Deal?

Josh: No.

If these politi­cians who talk about cli­mate change are against coal, they need to come to these coal places and tell peo­ple and bring jobs in. If we had jobs to go to, espe­cial­ly work­ing in a fac­to­ry or some­thing. Coal is one of the most dan­ger­ous jobs there are, and def­i­nite­ly one of the most bru­tal. I’ve seen peo­ple lose their lives and lose limbs, and all they’re try­ing to do is pro­vide for their family.

Come to where we live, come to a small town and tell peo­ple how it’s affect­ing the envi­ron­ment and how we can change it. If stop­ping coal min­ing is how we can change it, then bring jobs in. Mon­ey talks. There’s so much unused prop­er­ty here, unused real estate, prime for putting in fac­to­ries, auto plants, any­thing. It’d be great if some­one want­ed to do some­thing like that, put their mon­ey where their mouth is. Bring jobs in. We have noth­ing here. With­out coal, there’s noth­ing here.

It’s got­ta start some­where. Got­ta start some­time. We can talk about it, but if we don’t put action with it, it’s just a thought — it’s just words.

Sarah: Are you get­ting sup­port from your community?

Josh: Com­mu­ni­ty is help­ing, rolling through. Church­es are get­ting togeth­er, try­ing to buy school clothes for peo­ple. Most min­ers haven’t had a valid pay­check. The com­mu­ni­ty is real­ly help­ing and sup­port­ing the coal min­ers, it’s com­ing togeth­er. I found anoth­er min­ing job in Pike Coun­ty, an hour and 10 min­utes away.

Sarah: Have you ever been a labor activist before?

Josh: I just con­sid­er myself some­one who likes to tell the truth. We start­ed block­ing the train last Mon­day. There were some peo­ple sup­port­ing from day one. Once we start­ed block­ing the train, that’s when the big sup­port came in. That’s when peo­ple took notice. There were peo­ple here who were try­ing to help us. There are about 150 peo­ple in my town employed by the company.

We mined the coal, and com­pa­ny says they don’t have mon­ey to oper­ate. But they’re sell­ing the coal. And they can’t pay us?

I see us block­ing the trains until we get paid. I’m sure when we get paid, we’ll let it go. But like the signs say, No pay, we stay.”

What do you think about labor unions?

We’re non-union. I haven’t worked in a union mine, and I don’t know a lot about it. I couldn’t comment.

Sarah: What would you think if there were a just tran­si­tion that meant you would get new train­ing and be able to switch jobs into a dif­fer­ent field, for the pur­pos­es of address­ing the cli­mate cri­sis? Assum­ing there was fol­low-through, and a sim­i­lar­ly-pay­ing job was wait­ing for you, how would you feel?

Josh: I would be sad to leave. When you mine coal, it’s a lifestyle. I know it’s a cliché, but it gets in your blood. You’ve got such com­radery and sol­i­dar­i­ty with the men you work with. You’re togeth­er 10, 12 hours a day. You’re miles under a moun­tain. It’s dark. Every move you make, you do it to help your broth­er out. It’s a good envi­ron­ment. It’s a good work­place. It’s mud­dy, it’s dark, some­times it’s mis­er­able. But it’s an hon­est way to make your money.

I’d be sad. But if I could find a job mak­ing good mon­ey, at the end of the day, it’s about mak­ing enough mon­ey to sur­vive, and mak­ing enough mon­ey for your children.

I grew up poor. We didn’t have a lot. My dad was a coal min­er, but he got hurt when I was young. After that, my mom worked at Wal­mart. We didn’t have much. I went to school and saw kids wear­ing nice things. Their dad­dies were coal min­ers. So that’s what I want­ed to be — a coal miner.

You can hear more from Josh Hol­brook on the pod­cast Work­ing Peo­ple, host­ed by Max­imil­lian Alvarez.

Sarah Lazare is web edi­tor at In These Times. She comes from a back­ground in inde­pen­dent jour­nal­ism for pub­li­ca­tions includ­ing The Inter­cept, The Nation, and Tom Dis­patch. She tweets at @sarahlazare.

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