KENTUCKY: Miners Enter Sixth Week of Wildcat Strike

Photo: Miners and their families and supporters at protest camp site.

By Larisa Shepitko

It’s been over a month since the coal miners in Cumberland, Kentucky went on strike on July 29 demanding back pay and an end to abrupt lay-offs. The strike started with just a handful of men blocking the railroad where the coal train runs and has since rallied many more coal miners.

On June 28, the mining company Blackjewel issued paychecks to its miners, but three days later the company declared bankruptcy. A loan intended to cover the workers’ paychecks had been denied, leaving them with bounced checks. In many cases, workers had already began paying bills once their checks were cashed, dropping their accounts into the negative.

Truckers blocking a highway in August in solidarity with the Cumberland strike.

This sort of speculative financial maneuvering was not only risky, but it directly contradicted a Kentucky state law to make sure that wages are paid no matter the financial standing of the company. Eventually, a judge did approve a $5 million loan which was supposed to cover the unpaid wages for the coal miners, but to this day the workers say they still have not been paid and the bills are piling up. Some reported that their child support payments were going unpaid, which can result in a felony charge and prison time in Kentucky if the accrued debt reaches $2,000.

This strike is what is commonly referred to as a “wildcat strike,” meaning that it is not headed by a union. Like all modern national labor unions, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) only works to negotiate minor adjustments to the capitalists’ exploitation of the workers. These unions by design can only focus on winning small concessions from the bosses and are incapable of challenging and ending exploitation.

While the spontaneous coal miner strike in Kentucky is free of union opportunism and deceit, it is still missing revolutionary leadership. The circumstances of Blackjewel’s misconduct are a major rallying cry for striking miners, but there is a concerted effort on the part of some to keep politics out of it. “That is the main reason we have gotten as far as we’ve got now;” one miner said, “it’s because we have kept the nonsense down,” referring to political talk.

In Harlan County, where Cumberland is located, Trump won 85% of the vote in the 2016 presidential election, partly due to his promise to roll back some of the Obama administration’s tightening of regulations on coal mining. While some of the regulations have since been pulled back, renewable energy has been steadily gaining traction. Of course, the problem is not the type of energy being used but the lack of steady work in an industry that has made many mining CEOs very rich and workers impoverished, often forced to pick up the pieces of their lives when the company moves or goes bankrupt.

Last Union Mine
Harlan County has a long history of militant strikes, including the 1939 Harlin-Wallins Coal Corp. strike.

Without political power, this is the reality for the working class. Strikes, which highlight the workers’ primary role in production, are necessarily political, but without a revolutionary workers’ organization to lead them that political potential stays dormant. Unless the strike is part of the greater pursuit to conquer political power for the working class, victories are limited to crumbs from the table of the bosses.

Armed 13-month Brookside strike in Harlan County, 1973-4

As the 2020 elections looms near, many presidential hopefuls are attempting to curry favor with the working masses. Bernie Sanders has always tried to present his political brand as “Democratic Socialism,” when in reality his watered-down social democratic politics are chauvinistic and pro-imperialist. He recently voiced his support for the striking coal miners and AT&T workers at a recent convention, trafficking in the workers’ struggle while upholding the imperialist system as a whole. As a publicity stunt, he sent the miners 18 pizzas.

Sanders’s platform proposes that the US should use its “enormous wealth” to make the world a better place “for all people.” However, this “enormous wealth” is the direct result of squeezing workers like the miners in Kentucky and countless poor workers oppressed by US imperialism around the world.

US workers can never be beneficiaries of imperialism and capitalist exploitation. They are part of the international class who have a common interest in ending imperialism and capitalism. Sanders and his campaign team are not ignorant of this fact, his populism purposefully distorts reality to bamboozle the masses. No amount of pizza will be able to feed the hunger the working classes has for power.

Incendiary calls for all of our readers to support the Cumberland miners’ strike, who have continued the great Harlan County tradition of collectively resisting exploitation!