Kentucky miners' struggle is that of many working Americans

Kentucky miners' struggle is that of many working Americans
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Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellPatient advocates launch drug pricing ad campaign Overnight Defense — Presented by Boeing — House passes resolution rebuking Trump over Syria | Sparks fly at White House meeting on Syria | Dems say Trump called Pelosi a 'third-rate politician' | Trump, Graham trade jabs War of words at the White House MORE (R-Ky.) is up for reelection in 2020 and conventional wisdom holds that he’ll breeze to victory. Kentucky is a “red state,” President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE is popular and will lead the ticket. Democrats still feel burned by the last time they got excited about a potential McConnell defeat. But a broiling labor dispute in the mountainous eastern part of the state may hold some warning signs for the senator. 

It started when Kentucky miners for Blackjewel LLC were enjoying what they thought would be a relaxing week of vacation time. Many were on beaches in Georgia and Florida when the shocking news came: Blackjewel was filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. When the miners checked their bank accounts a few days later, they found that paychecks they had cashed and were counting on to cover mortgages and car payments had been taken back from their accounts. 

Some miners told the Lexington Herald-Leader that their bank accounts are overdrawn and, in one instance, the account was frozen. Back in Kentucky, when news spread on Facebook that a train was moving coal out of their newly shuttered mine, the outraged miners took matters into their own hands and put their bodies on the tracks. That was Monday. The protest has grown to include hundreds of people from the community and around the region. 

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These folks are mad, first and foremost, at the owner of Blackjewel. But, it doesn’t take long when speaking with these men to find out they also are furious with the man they believe could step in to right this wrong: Sen. Mitch McConnell. As one miner told me: “In the Bible it says you’re either for me, or you’re against me. And Mitch McConnell’s not for me.”

Many people in Harlan County, Ky., are poor but proud. The county has a storied history of militant labor action. The miners’ protests reflect that history. These men have watched as some of their friends have been stiffed and their health benefits stolen by some coal companies that shift assets around various corporate entities. These miners feel they are not only demanding what they are owed but also demanding something better for their community from the powerful politicians representing them. On The Hill’s “Rising,” miner Collin Cornette said he expects McConnell will not intervene. “He’s not pro-coal,” Cornette said. “I don’t even think he’s pro-Kentucky.” Ouch. 

Now I suspect my progressive friends are thinking, “These people voted for Mitch and they voted for Trump, and they get what they deserve.” What I’d say is this: Don’t presume to know how and why and who people vote for. Condescending stereotypes are just as bad when they come from the left as when they come from the right. Secondly, the struggle of these men is the struggle of so many working people in this country who have no union to represent them. The minute we start picking and choosing the workers we care about is the moment we lose and allow the other side’s divide-and-conquer tactics to succeed. 

There’s something stirring in Kentucky. The teacher’s movement is still going strong there. The Republican governor, an ally of Trump, is unpopular and may lose his reelection bid this fall. McConnell isn’t exactly Mr. Popular in the state, either. He consistently polls as one of the least popular senators in the country among his constituents. In fairness, last year he was ousted from last place by former Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.). 

As for the miners, they’ve set up tents and posted signs that read: “No pay. We stay.” They say they’re not going anywhere until they get the money they’re owed. As a Democrat, I’d like to offer my Republican friends some hard-earned words of wisdom: voters don’t like to be ignored. 

Krystal Ball is the liberal co-host of “Rising,” Hill.TV’s bipartisan morning news show. She is president of The People’s House Project, which recruits Democratic candidates in Republican-held congressional districts of the Midwest and Appalachia, and a former candidate for Congress in Virginia. Follow her on Twitter @krystalball.