When nearly 500 coal mine workers were laid off in the spring of 2016, it was the final straw that nearly broke the economic back of the Campbell County community. Having come in the middle of a downturn in the oil industry, thousands of local men and women were out of work, vacancy rates took off and sales tax revenues plummeted as people became more aware of every nickel and penny.
In response, we adopted the slogan “Gillette Strong,” as much a message to ourselves as to the outside world that this hard-working, blue-collar corner of Wyoming has a spirit stronger than any adversity.
That’s why we weren’t surprised that it only took minutes for the “Gillette Strong” logo to be posted around town and on social media after about 600 Blackjewel LLC workers at the Belle Ayr and Eagle Butte mines were suddenly locked out of their jobs July 1.
Nearly three weeks later, we’ve learned something else about the people here: There’s nothing stronger than a Gillette miner’s heart.
Those hundreds of Blackjewel workers didn’t let the shellshock freeze them for long. In less than a day, a Facebook group called “Blackjewel Employees Stand Together” was created by local workers. It’s become a vital place for them and their 1,100 brothers and sisters locked out of Blackjewel’s eastern operations to share information, potential new job opportunities and help each other through what can be a confusing mess of filing for unemployment, health insurance and all the other details that have to be taken care of right away.
Even more impressive is how empathetic our Wyoming neighbors have been for their counterparts in Kentucky, Virginia and West Virginia. Those workers have missed one more paycheck than those in Campbell County and their last paychecks issued June 28 bounced. That means for many, they deposited their checks and paid bills, only to have their banks pull the money back out of their accounts when the company couldn’t cover them.
Left with negative balances and insufficient funds fees for the bills they tried to pay, Blackjewel put those people out of work in just about the worst way possible. It would’ve been better to just stiff them on that last paycheck and not wreak havoc on their bank accounts on their way out the door.
Recognizing those 1,100 Blackjewel workers are likely hurting worse and in an immediate emergency, our own locked out miners organized collections, fundraising events and food drives to help those back east.
A few days after the lockout in a local sandwich shop, an employee was overheard talking with a friend. They were both young, probably early 20s. The employee was going on and on about how “unfair” her boss was and how she “shouldn’t have to put up with this (crap).” After about two minutes of this — it was loud enough to not be able to ignore — she finally revealed the terrible injustice done to her.
She was (GASP!) scheduled to work on her brother’s birthday!
The first thought we had was that just days earlier, nearly 600 of her neighbors had lost their jobs without warning and she thinks having to work on a family member’s birthday is out of line.
Guess we all can’t be “Gillette Strong.”