Southern West Virginia brings in national labor leaders on Labor Day

Source: Beckley Register-Herald

It would seem that a small park along the Big Coal River in Boone County wouldn’t serve as a national Labor Day celebration location, but with the 2018 general election right around the corner, it was just that.

Hundreds of members from District 17 of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) were drawn to John Slack Park in Racine to hear from UMWA International President Cecil Roberts along with political candidates, most notably U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin and state Sen. Richard Ojeda, who is seeking the U.S House of Representatives seat for West Virginia’s 3rd Congressional District comprised for the most part of the entirety of southern West Virginia.

Under a blistering September sun, the crowd was warmed up by performers singing labor and Appalachian songs before turning over the microphone to union leaders and political candidates.

While the mine union was central to the festivities, the state’s teaching union leadership was also on hand along with Sara Nelson, the International president for the Association of Flight Attendants, which according to its website represents over 50,000 flight attendants across 20 airlines.

Nelson told the crowd that she decided to make West Virginia her Labor Day stop in part due to the Mountain State’s labor history, quoting the famous Mother Jones, and the more modern history of this year’s teachers’ strike.

Congratulating the women of various union movements, Nelson introduced Roberts, who also took time to call female union members to the stage.

When Roberts began his speech in earnest, passers-by on Coal River Road could have been confused about whether what they were hearing from the fiery Roberts was an argument or an old-fashioned tent revival.

“I got news for the folks on the other side: This land is our land,” Roberts said, trying to fire up the audience after hearing the famous labor and protest song of that name earlier in the program.

A West Virginia native, veteran and coal miner, Roberts took a swipe at those who run large corporations.
“There ain’t never been no millionaire and no billionaire (that has) outworked somebody from a coal mine or anybody that ever worked for a living at all,” Roberts told the crowd.

Harkening back to the state’s labor struggles, most notably the mine wars, and labor’s success in building up unions across the nation, setting a healthy retirement plan for miners in the 1940s, influencing the passage of mining safety laws and the fight for the recognition of black lung, Roberts asked the crowd why God had chosen West Virginians and Appalachia for the task.
“God knows coal miners can handle it,” Roberts told the audience. “He knows we can handle it.”

While shifting from labor to politics, Roberts gave the crowd some blunt advice.

“You vote for somebody that’s not for you, you vote for somebody that won’t vote for you, that’s stupidity,” Roberts said.
After being introduced by Roberts, Manchin spent time discussing miners’ health and pension benefits.

While praising last year’s securing of health care benefits for miners, Manchin told the crowd that his attention has been turned toward securing the pensions of retired miners.

“We’re going to get that done. We’re going to get that done,” Manchin said.

Shifting paths, Manchin praised the efforts of the state’s unions in the successful teachers’ strike.

“The first time in our life we have seen school service personnel, educators, teachers, administrators come together with the parents and grandparents to say, ‘Enough is enough. We’re going to make sure our kids are going to get the proper education and the people that do it every day are going to be taken care of,'” Manchin said.

Sharing his family’s background in the mines, Manchin talked about an uncle, friends and a neighbor who were killed working in mines.

“You take that and tell me people know who we are, where we come from and all the challenges we’ve had in life,” Manchin told the audience.

Emphasizing that the congressional races in West Virginia had national implications, Manchin played to the underdog role of attempting to win the election as a member of the opposite party of a president who had carried the state by over 40 percentage points.

“The political parties don’t have all the answers, whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, they’re not always right,” Manchin told the crowd. “Pick the person that you believe in; pick the person you trust.”
Manchin then introduced Ojeda, a newcomer to national politics but a candidate who gained momentum after his support of the teachers’ strike.

“You are worthy,” Ojeda said, opening up his speech. “You are worthy. Think about that.”
Extolling the importance of the working man and woman, Ojeda urged anyone not in a union to join and anyone whose career field does not have a union to create one.

“If you don’t have a seat at the table, chances are you are on the menu,” Ojeda said.
Telling the audience of his family’s connection to mining, a grandfather who worked in the mines into his 70s and another grandfather killed in a mine collapse, along with his family’s connection to the UMWA, Ojeda thanked the audience for listening to him.

“It’s a pleasure to come here,” Ojeda said. “It’s always a pleasure to come here and find myself around people that know what it means to struggle, that know what it means to fight and that know what it means when you’re in a fight and you have to stand there with one another. This is a blessing. This endorsement means more to me than anything because this is my family.”

Ojeda told the audience that he has four uncles currently who live off miner’s pension and if elected he would work with Manchin to attempt to save those pensions because it is such a personal issue to him.

“We will get these coal miners’ pensions taken care of or we will rearrange the furniture on the House and Senate floor,” Ojeda said to the cheers of the crowd.

Written by: Matt Combs