CHARLESTON, WV. – Thousands on Saturday packed the gold-domed capitol here, built during the Great Depression, to launch what Cecil Roberts, president of the Miners, called an “insurrection.”
The 7,000 demonstrators, who were protesting the national wave of wage and safety cuts and anti-union assaults, were led by the West Virginia AFL-CIO and joined by national labor leaders.
The demonstration was in response to anti-worker measures being rammed through the state’s legislature by its Republican majority.
The abolishment of prevailing wage guidelines in public contracts, the evasion of licensing standards in trades, the regression of mine safety legislation to pre-1932 standards, the privatization of public schools (to drop pension, bargaining rights, and health care obligations to teachers), and the threatened revocation of union security standards-an attack on the rights of employees to collectively bargain over wages and conditions-headline what AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka called “the most serious attacks on the working and living standards of the American people in my lifetime.” And these are only part of the full list of attacks launched by the Republicans.
It was only one day after one of the sharpest and cruelest winter climate spikes in years, and a foot of snow. But what a day! The sun poured down like honey and temperatures warmed to the balmy 40’s. Union members and families from pipefitters, laborers, roofers, carpenters, and machinists to state, county, municipal and federal workers, iron workers, miners, defense, nursing and health care workers, teachers, service workers, gas workers, oil and chemical workers and food and commercial workers all descended on Charleston in busses and vans and carpools from across the state. And getting from here to there in West Virginia — ranging from hilly to mountainous — is not a trivial matter! The crowd swelled beyond all expectations.
Perhaps only a biblical verse could capture the profound outrage of the energized crowd at the billionaire- sponsored wave of anti-worker legislation being rammed through the WV legislature by the new billionaire-backed Republican leadership.
Jesus said, “Ye are the salt of the earth … Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid.“ Matthew 5:13-16.
The theme music blasting from huge speakers included: “Which Side Are You On,” “Street-Fighting Man,” and “What’s going on?” plus live clips of Pete Seeger leading can’t help but sing along versions of Solidarity Forever and Union Maid. The mood, and the talk was rebellion and the need for unity of all workers, especially on higher wages, education, and fighting safety cuts. Labor’s enemies may call it just talk. But I heard true grit and “presente!” in the voices and saw a determination in expressions of support, I had not seen in years.
West Virginia AFL-CIO President Kenny Perdue opened the rally recognizing the folks who put it together. A man normally reserved and careful in public speech, Perdue reflected the excitement in his opening words: “O my Lord, look at all the people!”.
He reminded the crowd that elections have consequences. He pointed out that some union members did not vote and that some who did vote, voted the wrong way. He said that the intentions of the Republicans were now clear, however, and that people should put aside secondary issues that distract their attention while their security and wages are taken away.
National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen Garcia charmed the crowd with a poetic and graphic depiction of a typical teacher’s workday, which contrasted sharply with educational ignorance, incompetence-and worse-evident in right-wing efforts to cut funding for public education. She offered an alternative vision for our children:
“We must measure what matters and put students’ needs at the center of the system once again…We know what is at stake, and it is why we are educators. It is why we are fearless and why we will not be silent.”
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, roused the crowd after iterating the attacks on public education and its consequent tragedies for working families and communities. Leaders of the Steelworkers, Food and Commercial Workers and health care workers all recounted similar tales, and lessons.
The building trades and miners are in the direct line of attack. Loss of prevailing wage guidelines will tempt local governments to contract public construction works to large multinational corporations, paying unlicensed, underpaid, and out-of-state people to build substandard projects funded by community taxpayers. Those taxpayers’ revenue base is thus undermined, by this self-defeating strategy as the local trades jobs, and thus “middle class” aspirations for the community, are lost.
Mine-safety will be rolled back to 1932 standards. That’s when the United Mine Workers of America came into its strength, bearing a working-class culture of scars and heroism, and a brotherhood as deep as the mountains under which they labor. The UMWA members were out in force.
The closing remarks of the rally were delivered by UMWA president Cecil Roberts, a legendary orator and a preacher of hard rock soul. If ever there were any doubts about Roberts’ personal and emotional connection with his members, and his commitment to faithfully represent them, they were eliminated by those watching him welcome, thank and embrace every member who made the trip before taking the microphone. He recalled the memory of Mother Jones in the 1912 Paint-Creek, Cabin-Creek strike, and her famous speech to strikers:
“The whole machinery of this capitalism is rotten to the core. This meeting tonight indicates a milestone of progress of the miners and workers of the State of West Virginia. I will be with you, and the Baldwin guards will go. You will not be serfs, you will march, march, march on from milestone to milestone of human freedom, you will rise like men in the new day and slavery will get its death blow. It has got to die. Good night. (Applause)”
He recalled the armed battle at Blair Mountain in 1921 — the largest positive insurrection in U.S. history. He prophesied that no less than “another massive insurrection” will be required to turn back the billionaire attacks.
“But we will prevail-because we are the salt of the earth and we are rising,” declared Roberts.
Photo West Virginia Workers, Facebook