Militant Coal Miners Occupy Kentucky Railroad Over Unpaid Wages

On Monday afternoon, workers in Pikeville, Kentucky halted a 120-car train carrying their employer’s coal. Some workers say they’re owed $3,000.
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

Kentucky coal miners are protesting unpaid wages by occupying railroad tracks for the second time in the past year.

On Monday, Quest Energy workers heard that their employer planned to haul coal from one of its mines in Eastern Kentucky, and quickly organized to block and stop the 120-car freight train.

Roughly 12 workers and their families gathered around a campfire by the tracks on Monday night, and told a reporter at the Lexington Herald Leader that they would not leave until the company gives them 3 weeks of unpaid wages.


Miners say that roughly 50 workers are owed between $2,000 and $3,000 each—and haven’t been paid since December 27—despite working daily, sometimes on 17-hour shifts, according to the Herald Leader.

“If they had paid us on our pay days, we wouldn’t be here blocking the train,” one of the coal miners, Kenny Collins, told local reporters on Monday night. “But as far as we’re concerned, that coal belongs to us. We mined it out, and they didn’t pay for it.”

Some miners told local reporters that they were behind on rent, while others had their electricity turned off and could not afford their children’s extracurricular activities.

“Our power was cut off this morning and they said if it was paid within the hour, they wouldn’t shut it off, and our mother-in-law helped us pay it,” said Collins. “I should have been paying [for the power] because I worked every day.”

Quest Energy, a subsidiary of the coal giant American Resources Corporation, did not respond to Motherboard’s request for comment, but said in a statement provided to the Herald Leader that it owes some miners for eight days of work and others for one day, and that none of them worked 17-hour shifts.

In October, the coal company Blackjewel agreed to pay 1,100 coal miners $5.1 million in back wages, after they blocked a coal train in Harlan County, Kentucky, for two months in protest of unpaid wages. That protest drew national attention and support from labor activists and politicians, including senators Bernie Sanders and Mitch McConnell.

The train blockades arrive during a wave of labor strikes that has spread across the country, which some experts argue originated out of the former union strongholds of Appalachia. In 2018, roughly half a million workers walked off the job—more than in any year since 1986, and up from 25,000 in 2017. Experts expect that the number of workers engaging in strike activity was similar last year.