Jobs, health care and dignity in a battleground state

BECKLEY, W.Va. – John and Betty Shumate opened their Beckley home to an out-of-town visitor. Rev. Jesse Jackson took his seat on the Shumates’ front porch as 100 neighbors streamed in for autographs, homemade pie and talk of the issues of the day.

John Shumate, 83 and a member of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) Local 7086, worked the Armco mines for 41 years until Black Lung, a disease caused by breathing coal dust, struck him down.

“I was as healthy as a bull until one day I started spitting up blood,” Shumate said.

In 1969, Shumate was one of thousands of miners who stormed the state capitol in Charleston, sitting in there until Black Lung was recognized as a disease and the coal operators forced to pay for its treatment. Rank-and-file miners like Shumate, their families and a handful of doctors organized and led the Black Lung movement. Along with the Coal Act, the Black Lung benefits that Shumate fought for saved his life and his home.

“I would have been dead without my union,” he said, a warm smile lighting up his face. “Paying all those bills would have put me out on the streets.”

Betty Shumate was able to bake her famous pies and biscuits on her stove, host Jackson under her roof and invite her neighbors onto her porch for stories and laughter because of victories based on hope, not fear and unity, not religious zealotry. Betty and John share their life together in dignity, not because they stepped on someone else, but because they joined with their neighbors to fight for health care.

Labor leaders were traveling with Jackson the first week of June on a bus through Appalachia to stir up grassroots righteous indignation and try to inspire confidence in the future.

In 2000, West Virginia miners split over the presidential candidates, helping George W. Bush become the first Republican nonincumbent to carry the state since 1928.

There is no doubt that this is a “battleground” state. A traveler starts picking up West Virginia radio stations just outside of Pittsburgh. Most have callers who talk about “baby killers” and the damnation of gays and lesbians. It is a constant drumbeat.

Timber and coal trucks hauling out the state’s magnificent wealth explains the environmental degradation of the formerly lush hillsides. A case is now before the state Supreme Court charging coal and timber companies with breaking the law, a violation that left 3,500 families homeless in the floods of 2001. Large-scale strip mining, mountaintop removal and logging destroyed the natural protection, which made flooding worse, they are arguing. Just this month, 24 southern counties were declared disaster areas because of more flooding.

Jackson and the labor leaders on the caravan, including UMWA President Cecil Roberts, are appealing directly to workers to change the government’s priorities in November.

“It is the beginnings of a crusade,” declared Roberts after a singing, clapping, foot-stomping rally in Charleston, a stop on the caravan before Beckley.

Bush supporters won’t get away with offering up “a flag, a prayer cloth and a gun” to voters, said Jackson.

“This is the election of my lifetime,” added state AFL-CIO President Jim Bowen, who is stepping down after 49 years in labor leadership. But Bowen plans to remain in politics.

“On Nov. 3 we need to all be Donald Trump and tell George W. Bush, ‘You’re fired,’” Bowen thundered.

The case against the Bush administration policies is compelling. Instead of U.S.-made steel and U.S.-mined coal leaving the country by the boatload, it is family jobs that are being zapped overseas.

This leaves broken communities and frustration in the wake, like the stunned families in Weirton, W.Va., where the mill just closed and the bus caravan stopped.

Instead of public money being invested in health care for all residents, it is stuffed into the pockets of Halliburton and other companies associated with Bush cronies. Instead of the taxpayers enjoying lower gasoline and heating prices, their hard-earned dollars are going to subsidize Wal-Mart, now West Virginia’s largest private employer.

Instead of having the finest education system in the world, many West Virginia children spend two hours on a bus getting to crumbling schools staffed by underpaid teachers.

“Something is wrong with this system and we need to change it,” Bowen told the crowd.

Delbert Underwood drove up from Beckley to the Charleston rally. For 25 years he mined coal and before that he worked for LTV in Cleveland, Ohio. Now he is a maintenance man for the Country Inn motel.

“It’s criminal what Bush is doing. Shipping jobs – yes, coal miner jobs – shutting down mines leaving families to fend for themselves with nothing but a war to look forward to,” Underwood said.

“When you get to Beckley tomorrow, look and see if you see younger people. Go into town. Boarded up businesses, people scraping by any way they can,” he said. “There’s malls, Wal-Mart, but you’re not going to raise a family on that. November can’t get here soon enough. Bush is destroying this country.”

Augusta Thomas, representing the Kentucky AFL-CIO and a retired Veterans Administration nurse and member of the American Federation of Government Employees, described the impact of the Bush administration cutting $900 million out of the VA budget.

“This administration is a trail of broken promises to our servicemen and women. They are closing a 26-building complex in Brecksville, Ohio, that serves long-term mentally ill veterans,” she said.

When the facility closes 600 people will lose their jobs. “Where are these men and women who laid their life on the line for our country to go?” Thomas asked.

“At one time veterans’ prescriptions were free. Then they went to $2 and Bush just raised it to $15,” she said. “There’s something very, very wrong here.”

Solidarity and unity are key to victory in November, but a vision, a program to create family-wage jobs, protect dignity on the job with unions and provide health care for every resident can build a movement, a crusade.

The UMWA’s Roberts called for a powerful movement comparable to joining the civil rights movement of the 1960s to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), which led the massive organizing drives of the 1930s.

“Some people ask why a labor leader who is white is touring with a civil rights leader who is Black. God said we are all made in God’s image. We are all precious in his sight!”

Jobs were on the mind of the Miners union president.

“George Bush is misunderstood,” Roberts said. “He promised millions of jobs and he delivered – I just misunderstood. He created millions of jobs in China, Colombia, Mexico and Iraq. I just thought they were going to be here. I misunderstood!”

“There are just three issues in this election. First oppose discrimination,” Roberts said. “Then, there is no such thing as ‘free trade’ – there is fair trade, but there is no free trade. Finally, we need national, single-payer health care for all God’s children in America. We should be marching and keep marching and marching.”

Jackson called for workers to go on a “low CARB” diet – “Give up Cheney, give up Ashcroft, give up Rumsfeld and give up Bush!”

With the audience on its feet, The Carpenter Ants band playing the civil rights anthem, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around,” workers responded with their own demonstration.

The room was electrified, sizzling with the demand for justice and a new government in Washington. Volunteers signed up to door-knock, register voters and talk with their co-workers and neighbors.

Jackson and Roberts vowed to return for the biggest Labor Day in southern West Virginia’s history – a promise they renewed the next day to enthusiastic Beckley workers and their families.

It didn’t take the West Virginia Republican Party a New York minute to respond. The next morning, following the Charleston rally and while chairs for the Beckley rally were being set up, they had a commercial on television attacking Jackson and Roberts as “unpatriotic.”

This is a battleground state. It may be June but the campaign is in October mode. Money is scarce, but the people are up and at ’em. Thirty-five years ago, a rank-and-file movement with little money and no media challenged the state government and the coal operators – and won.

It was a movement that swept up a young John Shumate because it was the right thing and the only thing to do. Giving health care benefits to miners afflicted with Black Lung was the right thing to do and West Virginians did it.

Today’s story is just beginning but it is a story of justice and working-class courage.

Denise Winebrenner Edwards is a member of the Editorial Board of the People’s Weekly World. She can be reached at DWinebr696@aol.com.