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Bernie Sanders Sent a Bunch of Pizzas to the Coal Miners Blocking a Train in Kentucky

They're protesting about millions’ worth of unpaid wages from their former employer, Blackjewel.

by Alex Lubben
Aug 19 2019, 4:57pm

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Dozens of Kentucky coal miners protesting over millions’ worth of unpaid wages received a gift of encouragement from Sen. Bernie Sanders: 18 pizzas.

The Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate called the local Pizza Hut Friday and sent a pie to the miners for each day they’ve been blocking a train full of over $1 million in coal from their former employer, Blackjewel, according to the local NBC affiliate. The demonstration started on July 29 with five men standing on railroad tracks. Three weeks later, the blockade has ballooned into an encampment with what feels like a round-the-clock tailgate.

The miners have plastered the words “No pay, we stay” on banners and other surfaces across their camp in Harlan County, Kentucky. In early July, Blackjewel filed for bankruptcy and estimated it owes $4.5 million in backpay to hundreds of workers. The miners want to make sure the proceeds from the sale of the coal shipment goes toward paying them — not other Blackjewel creditors.

State officials, like Republican Gov. Matt Bevin and Democratic Senate candidate Amy McGrath, have shown up at the camp to voice their support for the miners, but Sanders isn’t the only national politician to weigh in. On Aug. 5, President Donald Trump froze the shipment of coal using an Obama-era measure that his administration had previously derided and tried to strike down.

READ: A coal industry executive thinks God intervened to elect Trump

To the miners, the coal represents the company’s failure to deal with them in good faith. Before filing for bankruptcy, Blackjewel operated four mines in Appalachia, which employed more than a thousand workers. One afternoon in early July, those workers learned that the mine would be closing immediately, without the mandatory 60-day warning from the company.

The miners also weren’t paid for their last week on the job, and when they tried to cash their last paychecks, they bounced. Blackjewel, per Kentucky law, was supposed to post a bond to cover the workers’ last paychecks. It didn’t. The company now owes each of the miners about $4,200 for back wages and unpaid benefits, lawyers representing the miners told the New York Times.

“We done our protest peacefully, but in Harlan, Kentucky, we stand up for what we believe is right,” miner Chris Lewis, who helped start the protest, told NPR. “That's been embedded in us from childhood up. You know, coal miners is brotherhoods. And we got a whole lot hanging in the balance here that we won't back down.”

The coal miners are just one party in the ongoing bankruptcy proceedings, which have creditors wrestling over various parts of the company in federal court. While Blackjewel hasn’t paid the miners, it did pay back $52.8 million in loans to the company’s CEO before declaring bankruptcy, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Amy McGrath as a senator. She's currently running for Senate but has yet to win her campaign. The text has been updated.

Cover image: Coal miners from Blackjewel coal company pass time playing cornhole on the railroad tracks that lead to one of the company's mines on August 08, 2019 near Cumberland, Kentucky. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)