Band of Brothers and Sisters

A very special event Thursday at the Morgantown Marriott at Waterfront Place, took place.

In fact, you could call it an international event, a presidential inauguration, a non-political rally, a who’s who of labor leaders, a tribute to women, a civil rights gathering, a rockin’ country music concert, a convention on family values and a church revival that would make any evangelist proud — all rolled into one.

That’s what happens when the membership of the United Mine Workers of America comes together for its inauguration of officers, including the president of the UMWA, Cecil Roberts.

With over 600 union “brothers and sisters” in attendance, as well as many family members of UMWA officers from across the United States and Canada — yes, it is an international union — the bond that connected those in attendance, as well as the thousands of union members on the job across North America, is a spirit of mutual trust, respect and commitment to a common cause.

It’s no wonder that AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, who also got his start in the UMWA, was present and spoke at Thursday’s event.

This is not the “wildcat strikers” and union protestors fighting against armed company “thugs” of the 1920s-1960s. No, this is a union dedicated to non-violent civil disobedience as taught by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. UMWA members have learned to win the good fight for justice, worker safety, fair wages and benefits — not through violence, but through perseverance.

Make no mistake: There is plenty of fight in these union members. But their strength comes in their shared values and their willingness to stand up for others, even those who are not members of the union.

Surprisingly, today’s UMWA has found that reaching across the political aisle can have very positive results when people put aside their differences for the common good.

Certainly, the UMWA has endorsed Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., for re-election because of his decades of championing issues important to coal miners, such as black lung benefits, retiree pensions and health care and coal mine safety.

But in what was surely a historic occasion, Republican Congressman David McKinley took center stage to a standing ovation for his tireless efforts to overturn Obama administration rules and regulations that were part of the “War on Coal.”

If that was’t impressive enough, the UMWA Constitution requires that at least one member of the union’s senior leadership team be an African-American. James Gibbs, who hails from southwestern Virginia, was sworn in for another term as an international at-large vice president.

But the UMWA didn’t stop there. Starting with this year’s union elections, at least one member of the senior leadership team must be a woman. As a result, during the inauguration of officers, Tanya James, a member of Local 9909 at Loveridge Mine in Marion County, was sworn in as an international auditor/teller.

In addition, the UMWA has pledged to fight for equal pay for equal work for women and require safe workplaces where women are afforded the same rights and respect as their union male counterparts.

Talk about promoting diversity. The UMWA has led the way in promoting equal rights for all.

The chief evangelist of the UMWA is none other than Roberts, a sixth-generation coal miner from Cabin Creek. He was re-elected to another five-year term, having already served 23 years as president, making his tenure in that post the second longest in the history of the UMWA. Roberts also serves as a vice president of the AFL-CIO.

A Vietnam veteran, Roberts also makes it a priority to honor and recognize the sacrifices that our nation’s veterans have made so our families and our communities can enjoy the liberties and freedoms that we all take for granted.

Although overall union membership in the United States has fallen to a low of 10.7 percent, compared to 20.1 percent in 1983, you have to credit unions like the UMWA for fighting for better wages and benefits, as well as safe work conditions — all of which has enabled much of the middle class in America to enjoy the standard of living that we do.