A Handshake and One Week’s Pay
When the corporate bosses show up in the changing room with a handful of envelopes, the news probably isn’t going to be good.
The regional manager, mine manager, and human resources manager walked into the room while we removed our mining belts, hard hats, and boots. They began to hand out severance packages and WARN (Ed. note — Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification) packets to each miner. The envelopes had our proper names written on them in sharpie, no nicknames. It felt disgraceful that they knew us only by our legal names and not the names we all had gone by throughout our mining career. This small gesture only confirmed our idea of the corporate suits being disconnected from the hard work we put in each shift to buy their new Escalades and BMWs.
As the packets were passed out with a handshake, the regional manager, a young man who may have been my age, just barely 30, spoke to us.
“As you all know the coal industry for Eastern Kentucky is in decline. The profit margin is no longer there and we, Arch Coal, have been losing money on these mines for quite some time. It is unfortunate, but last night was your last shift with Arch Coal of Kentucky. We have made the decision to idle all operations in this area and move our assets to a more profitable region. Some of you will receive a severance package and others will receive payment for a 40 hour week through the WARN notice. We must ask that if you do find employment before the end of your severance or WARN notice that you give us sufficient notice to stop payments when you begin working elsewhere.”
I could feel the blood rush to my head. I felt my fist clenched. I spoke up.
“Don’t give them any f***ing notice! Did they give us any notice?! No! Yea, we knew this was coming at some point, but did we see it coming today? Did we have ample time to seek employment elsewhere? No! Now there’s 750 of us out looking for work. We’re flooding the market for employment just like the natural gas industry flooded the energy market. We’ll be lucky to find a job and if we do we’ll be lucky to make minimum wage through some sh**ty contract company. Milk these bastards for all they’re worth. I know their profit margin. I’ve looked at the paper work. They were making $10 an hour for every hour each of us worked, at least for the past two months. They just want more. This is greed and we don’t owe them a g**damned thing.”
Jack the human resources manager tried to talk over me.
“Gary, this is not the place. Stop cursing or we will ask you to leave. If you can’t control your emotions we will need you to leave the property immediately.”
I raised my voice over his. I almost had my things packed up before giving my final goodbye.
“F**k you, Jack, and f**k these other suits you brought in here. I remember when you wouldn’t hire me at Cumberland River because my boss at the time wouldn’t give me a reference and I’ll remember your face when I see you out on the streets. You can all go f**k yourself.”
I walked out to my truck, a 1984 F-150 extended cab long wheelbase. The paint was faded, the starter strained to turn over the 5.0 engine. I knew they looked out of the office windows and laughed because they would still earn their six figures a year while I struggled to make my mortgage and put food on the table. So I did what any angry and immature miner would do. I backed up within inches of the Cadillac Escalade and Range Rover they arrived in, revved my engine to its redline and dumped the clutch spraying the vehicles with loose gravel and coal from the parking lot.
On the drive home my heart weighed heavy and my stomach crept into my throat. What would I do? I asked myself this question on repeat for the 45 minutes from the mine all the way to my house in Jenkins, Kentucky. I was scared to go in door and break the news to my new, beautiful girlfriend. My job affected her, her daughter, and my daughter. This was much larger than me. I walked through the door, and she greeted me as always with a hug and kiss. My body language told all.
“They let you go today, didn’t they?”
Gary Bentley is a former underground coal miner from Eastern Kentucky. Read more of “In the Black.”