CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) — On this week’s episode of Inside West Virginia Politics, host Mark Curtis and guests discuss several topics related to labor, including the 100th anniversary of Battle of Blair Mountain and the history of the fight for miners’ rights in West Virginia.
Rich Trumka and the 100 anniversary of Battle of Blair Mountain
In Segment 1, Cecil Roberts, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) President, discusses the passing of Rich Trumka, former President of the AFL-CIO. An outspoken advocate for social and economic justice, Trumka was the nation’s most straightforward voice on the critical need to ensure that all workers have a good job and the power to determine their wages and working conditions.
Roberts also talks about the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Blair Mountain, the largest labor uprising in United States history and the largest armed uprising since the American Civil War. According to Roberts, this attack was the first time that an airstrike was called within the continental borders of the United States. The attack was called by the coal companies, which dropped bombs on the marchers.
‘Give them a future’: Should get first dibs on solar and wind energy jobs?
In Segment 2, Cecil Roberts, UMWA president, said that as mining jobs decrease and solar and wind energy jobs rise, miners should be the first to get training for these jobs. He says miners are the ones who are being displaced due to these jobs. President Joe Biden said he wanted to make union jobs for those who are displaced.
“We’ve been resisting that obviously because we think we should protect the jobs we have, but if we’re going to have a policy that says coal miners lose their jobs, do what you said you were going to do, create union jobs for those who get displaced,” said Roberts.
Roberts also says current union jobs pay between $75,000 and $100,00 per year with great benefits such as healthcare, pension plan, and time off. At this time, solar and wind energy jobs offer only half of those benefits and half the pay.
“I’m hearing a lot of talk about creating these solar jobs, but I’m not hearing a talk or discussion about making them union jobs. I want to see how that works. If we’re going to displace these coal miners, give them a future,” said Roberts.
‘We’re sick of it’: Delegate talks about the importance of wearing a mask and getting vaccinated against COVID-19
In Segment 3, Delegate Mike Pushkin of Kanawha County is also the President of the American Federation of Musicians Local 136. He talks about the return of Live on the Levee over this summer and how COVID-19 is affecting future events such as sports events.
Pushkin emphasizes the importance of wearing a mask and getting vaccinated so these events can continue.
“I understand. It’s gone on for so long. We’re sick of it. We’re sick of talking about it, hearing about it, but I’m sick of being sick. I’m sick of seeing the numbers go up. I’m sick of hearing about people I know being hospitalized. We’ve got to do a better job of explaining the only way we get through it is to get shots,” said Pushkin.
As of Sunday, Sept. 5, West Virginia Governor Jim Justice had not issued another mask mandate statewide, but 26 out of 55 counties have mask mandates for schools K-12.
“I think it’s really going to take some tougher decisions from the top, from the governor’s office. The virus doesn’t recognize county boundaries. And I think it’s going to take some strong leadership and the right direction right now,” said Pushkin.
How unions saved West Virginia miners from industrial oppression
In Segment 4, Myya Helm is a research associate for the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy who helped write their annual report called “Labor, Race, and Solidarity.” Her study showed the division between Black, White and European miners — the immigrants who came in to fill the huge demand for the mining jobs.
Helms says that many miners worked in poor conditions because the mine operators wanted to make as much profit as possible. And so in the early 20th century, all workers, black, white, European immigrants, were paid extremely low wages — safety conditions were practically nonexistent, and the conditions worsened when the United Mine Workers of America tried to organize in southern West Virginia…those tactics just further pushed miners to rally against their employers, consistent abuses of authority.” said Helms.
According to the report, “Unions promised to abolish the system that held them all as workers in forced labor.” The miners actively challenged the social, economic, and political power held by coal companies. Soon, the state’s miner’s union grew as workers sought a better life for themselves and their families.