West Virginia to test Democratic Party support among workers

Officially, the balloting tomorrow in West Virginia is a Democratic Party presidential primary. In reality, it will be a measure of whether or not the Dems can retain the support of working people, especially coal miners and former coal miners who have been economically hard hit.

If the turnout is good, it will indicate that workers will stick with the Democrats in the general election. If not, it could mean that workers in West Virginia will support Donald Trump, just as their counterparts in Kentucky recently voted for far right winger Matt Bevin for governor.

Much of the burden of keeping the workers in the Democratic fold has fallen to Bernie Sanders, who is expected to win the primary but whose chances of winning the nomination are all but mathematically impossible.

Sanders is waging a campaign on two fronts: While working to ensure a large turnout in West Virginia, he’s throwing everything he has into trying to ensure that the Democratic Party will, in fact, embrace the economic interests of workers who are suffering through hard times.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton, who is just 165 delegates shy of clinching the nomination, has fallen victim to a smear campaign by Donald Trump, the presumptive (and presumptuous) Republican Party nominee.

Trump has successfully undermined Hillary’s West Virginia campaign by repeatedly quoting out of context a comment she made on CNN in March that “we’re going to put a lot of coal miners and coal companies out of business.” She made this statement to explain why residents living in coal country will need special assistance if national measures to switch from coal to environmentally sustainable fuels are put in place.

Trump’s attacks have been so effective that, according to the New York Times, they have “turned Mrs. Clinton’s campaign events into an Appalachian apology tour.”

Clinton has faced protesters at many of her rallies. She almost always says “I’m here because I want you to know whether people vote for me or not, whether they yell at me or not, it’s not going to affect what I will do for them.”

Polls show that an alarming number of miners and former miners have switched from the Democratic to the Republican Party so that they can vote for Trump.

He began vigorously campaigning in West Virginia before the Republican National Committee anointed him their standard bearer. He has won support in the poorest areas of the state by boasting to miners that as President, he will make “it great to be a miner again.”

He says “You’re going to be working your asses off, again.”

Trump is offering no plans to back up his boasts.

West Virginia has a poverty rate of more than 18 percent, one of the highest rates in the U.S.

In some counties, such as McDowell, some 35 percent of the residents live in poverty.

Sanders’ solutions to poverty

At a rally in McDowell, Sanders offered specific solutions to wiping out poverty there and across America.

“In the United States today, the wealthiest country in the history of the world, 47 million Americans are living in poverty,” he said. “Almost 22 percent of American children are poor and we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any major country on earth.”

“Here’s what we need to do:

“1. Rebuild our country’s crumbling infrastructure. A $1 trillion investment in our infrastructure will create at least 13 million jobs all over America – jobs that cannot be outsourced.

“2. We must rewrite our disastrous trade policies that enable corporate America to shut down plans in places like West Virginia and move them to Mexico, China, and other low-wage countries.

“3. We can create 1 million jobs for disadvantaged youths through legislation I introduced with Rep. John Conyers of Michigan.

“4. We need to increase the wages of at least 53 million American workers by raising the minimum wage from a starvation wage of $7.25 an hour to $15 an hour.

“5. At a time when women workers earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns, we need to sign the Paycheck Fairness Act into law. Equal pay for equal work.

“6. We need to make health care a right for every man, woman, and child through a Medicare for All single-payer system.

“7. We need to treat drug addiction like a mental health issue, not a criminal issue.

“8. We need to ensure every worker in this country has at least 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, two weeks of paid vacation, and one week of paid sick days.

“9. We need to impose a tax on Wall Street to make public colleges and universities tuition free while substantially reducing student debt.

“10. At a time when half of older workers have no retirement savings, we’re not going to cut Social Security, we’re going to expand it so people can retire with dignity and respect.”

Polls show that Sanders’ programs resonate with white workers without a college degree. According to the New York Times, “Mr. Sanders won white voters without a college degree by a double-digit margin in Connecticut, as he did in Maryland, Wisconsin, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Illinois, Oklahoma, Indiana, Vermont and Michigan. He probably did so in Rhode Island as well (no exit polls were conducted there).”

Polls predict that Sanders will win among workers in West Virginia.

The question is: Can the Democratic Party retain the votes of these workers after the Democratic National Convention in July?

A lot rests on what will end up in the Democratic Party platform.

In an interview on NPR, Sanders said, “What my campaign is about, is making it clear that the Democratic Party must be on the side of working people and low-income people.

“The Democratic Party must make a stand,” Sanders continued, “and the stand is that you cannot be on the side of Wall Street. You cannot be on the side of that pharmaceutical industry – which, by the way, charges our people the highest prices in the world for prescription drugs – you gotta make a stand. And the stand we gotta make is the stand with the people in McDowell County, West Virginia, and poor people and working people all over this country.”

Sanders has pledged to lead a floor fight at the Democratic National Convention if the party does not produce a progressive platform.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, Sanders sent a letter to Democratic National Committee Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, saying, “If we are to have a unified party in the fall, no matter who wins the nomination, we cannot have a Democratic National Convention in which the views of millions of people who participated in the Democratic nominating process are unrepresented.”

Photo: Bernie Sanders has campaigned in some of the poorest counties in West Virginia. Here his supporters in Morgantown posed for a picture.  |  Morgantown for Bernie Facebook page


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.