You can’t miss it on the side of the highway.
It’s an encampment of pop up tents congregated on and around railway tracks, tucked away in a narrow valley near Cumberland, Kentucky. A cornhole game lies in the middle of the tracks, ready for people to use to pass the time.
What you can’t see from the highway is a mine and a train full of coal that is blocked by the encampment that sits in the middle of the tracks.
Coal miners, current and former, with family and other supporters, are there with one demand: The pay they say they are owed after their employer, Blackjewel, declared bankruptcy on July 1.
They are in a legal limbo – they were never technically laid off by Blackjewel, they say, which complicates their situations.
“Some of these guys have family members who are sick. They don’t have healthcare. They can’t get their unemployment just because it was cut out of their checks but it was never paid in,” Cumberland Mayor Charles Raleigh told CNN. “Their 401Ks are deadlocked because they haven’t technically quit. They haven’t been laid off. Then you’ve got child support that, you know, it’s been cut out of these guys’ checks, never got paid in, so now some of them are getting warrants. And it’s just not right.”
Roughly 350 miners from Harlan County alone are caught in the payment showdown after their paychecks bounced in July. One of their attorneys, Joe Childers, said he estimates Blackjewel owes its 1,700 miners approximately $5 million total in back pay, or about $3,000 per miner.
The miners here feel that some of that money is being held in the coal in the back of the train they are blocking from leaving the mine. Raleigh said the coal is believed to be worth more than $1 million.
The cluster of tents has been there for five days, enduring rain and hot temperatures brought by a glaring sun. Supporters from local churches and even the owner of a nearby Chinese restaurant have come by to bring food and supplies to the miners.
But the miners say that one notable voice has been absent among their support.
“We’re struggling,” Brandon Pearson said. “And I hope and I pray that Donald Trump can see my message and hear my voice. I’m just one of many voices crying out, saying we need help we need something and we need him here.”
‘That shouldn’t happen to people’
Pearson, 27, who has worked in multiple mines in coal country and has worked with Blackjewel for the past two years. Like the other miners protesting on the tracks, he looked to coal for a promising career to give his wife and two-year-old daughter a better life.
With his employer going under, he fears his new 30-year mortgage on his home is in jeopardy.
“If it wasn’t for people giving me money, you know just out of the kindness of heart, just coming up and saying ‘here, this is for you,’ I don’t know what I’d do,” Pearson said as he sat with his daughter near a dying fire next to the tracks. “I’d be in a really hard position. Makes me proud, being from a small town, because, you know, everybody’s family. And if it wasn’t for that I’d probably have to foreclose on something right now. But its just prolonging the process.”
For others, concerns turn to medical costs. Raleigh was never a miner – honoring his mother’s request to avoid the mines after his father, his namesake, died in a mining accident when he was a child. But Raleigh’s son, who went on to become a Blackjewel miner, has a child who has leukemia and is undergoing chemotherapy. Raleigh says that his son’s family has lost their health insurance as a part of the ongoing battle with Blackjewel. The struggle to deal with health costs during this time goes far beyond his own family, Raleigh said.
“I mean we have two guys that during this had been off to have surgeries because they had cancer,” Raleigh said. “And while they were actually in the hospital, they found out the mines is closing, their insurance is no good. It’s disgusting. That shouldn’t happen to people.”
It’s not as easy as just finding a new job for these miners, Raleigh said.
“Three-hundred-some men can’t just run to the next mine that is open and get a job,” he said. “And they can’t go from the pay scale that they have right now to working at a fast food restaurant or a department store. Even those jobs, in local area, they’re not there.”
The coal industry is the part of the fabric of the region. Harlan County was the site of bloody gunfights between miners and coal company guards in the 1930s. Multiple memorials dot the valley in remembrance of miners who died on the job. One memorial lists coal mining deaths as far back as the 1940s. Becoming a miner is part of the heritage of this region, Raleigh said.
“This is what they’ve done,” he said. “This is what their fathers have done. This is what their grandfathers have done. They have no other option.”
‘I feel like we’re not appreciated anymore’
For now, the miners must watch and wait. A bankruptcy hearing is scheduled Monday for Blackjewel in Charleston, West Virginia, that could give some more insight into the fate of the miners. But in the meantime, some said they feel forgotten in this current situation.
“I feel like we’re not appreciated anymore,” Pearson said. “We live in a part of the world you don’t really hear a lot about. You know, we’re labels. You know, uneducated or just foolish, but we’re not. We’re smart, God-fearing people. Our voices have been heard.”
Looming ahead is another event where their voices will be heard – the 2020 election. In this region, which largely voted for Trump, they don’t blame him for this current crisis and even credit him with spurring economic development in the area. But they are disheartened that he has not acknowledged or tried to help them with their current plight. Others encouraged the President to come visit them.
“A tweet would be great,” Pearson said. “You know a lot of us country folks, we don’t tweet. We like to see some more face-to-face. And I know he’s an extremely busy man, and I know this is a small thing going on when you’re the most powerful man in the world. But man, if he could show up. You’re talking about filling a void, you’re talking about making some people feel special. Maybe if he could just come here and get a bird’s eye view of what’s really going on, he could change a lot of people’s lives. He really could.”