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“They’re Not Moving Until We Get Paid”

Josh Holbrook

Harlan County miners are blocking trains full of coal until they get their back pay. One miner explains what's at stake and whether miners like him would support the "just transition" proposed in the Green New Deal.

Coal trains sit in a rail yard in 2014 in Pikeville, Kentucky. Luke Sharrett / Getty Images

Interview by
Sarah Lazare

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 twenty to thirty 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 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-NY) 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 thirty-six-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 eighteen 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.”

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


SL

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

JH

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.

SL

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

JH

I haven’t heard of a just transition.

SL

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 health care and pensions of coal miners who lose their jobs.

JH

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 eighteen 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?

SL

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.

JH

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.

SL

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?

JH

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.

SL

What is your impression of climate activists?

JH

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.

SL

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?

JH

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.

SL

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

JH

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.

SL

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

JH

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.

SL

Are you getting support from your community?

JH

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 ten minutes away.

SL

Have you ever been a labor activist before?

JH

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.”

SL

What do you think about labor unions?

JH

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.

SL

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?

JH

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 camaraderie and solidarity with the men you work with. You’re together ten, twelve 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.