FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
September 2, 2021
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Mine Workers and Advocacy Groups Call for Stronger Worker Protections on the 100th Anniversary of the Largest Labor Conflict in US History
Speakers from the United Mine Workers of America joined members of the ReImagine Appalachia coalition, West Virginia Center for Budget and Policy, Policy Matters Ohio, and Keystone Research Center to reflect on the lessons today’s organizers can take from workers in the 20th Century who organized across racial lines in West Virginia. The Zoom panel was part of the Centennial commemoration of the Battle of Blair Mountain known as Blair 100.
“The original Blair Mountain March and Battle demonstrated just what measures workers will resort to when they believe their lives and their children’s futures are at stake. In many respects, American working families are approaching such a juncture again today,” said Phil Smith, Director of Government Affairs for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). “Real income growth has stagnated for decades. The gap between the very wealthy and the rest of us grows by the day. Workers’ rights on the job are ignored, and the exploitation our grandfathers fought against at Blair Mountain is creeping back into workplaces all over the country.”
Smith also spoke to the ongoing strike at the Warrior Met Coal mine in Brookwood, AL, where 1,100 coal miners have been on strike against Warrior Met since April 1. “The only real solution – from a legislative perspective – is the passage of the PRO Act, which will restore the right to organize, restore the right to strike without fear of being permanently replaced, and restore some semblance of balance and strength between workers and owners,” noted Smith.
“Since the march on Blair Mountain, we have seen in the New Deal that strong unions and collective bargaining lead to higher wages and safer working conditions. We have then seen big corporations’ fight unions in the economy, the courts, and public policy to restore an economy that works for only the 1%.” said Stephen Herzenberg of the Keystone Research Center (KRC). “The good news: workers and unions are organizing again across racial lines to transform today’s poverty wages into family-supporting jobs through the power of collective bargaining.”
KRC’s State of Working Pennsylvania report released yesterday reviews recent and 100-year trends in inequality and unionization, highlights the role of miners in catalyzing the New Deal, and calls on lawmakers to give U.S. workers real rights to unionize again by passing the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.
“West Virginia’s workers and unions have long shaped American labor history through their strength, endurance, and resilience. They have exerted a broad influence on daily political, economic, and cultural life throughout the country,” noted Myya Helm, Research Associate at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy. “Strengthening the labor movement means remembering the past. This includes telling the stories of free Black laborers, the Coal Wars, American steel strikes, the Civil Rights Movement, victims of black lung, West Virginia’s statewide teacher walkouts, and so much more.”
A recent report from the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, coauthored by Helm, examined the economic transition that took place in West Virginia in recent decades as inequality grew, wage growth stagnated, and job quality declined. The report tracks the influence of labor unions on worker quality of life in the state. Also read Helm’s ReImagine Appalachia blog drawing out the implications of the Battle of Blair Mountain for today.
“Coal and production jobs were not always considered good jobs, just as many service jobs are belittled today. Collective action and union representation turned these jobs into the kind of jobs that people could work and build a life and community. As we commemorate the efforts of all those who struggled at Blair Mountain, at Matewan, in Harlan, and those struggling today in Alabama, we look forward to a time when all workers truly have the freedom to form a union and all work is treated with the dignity it deserves,” stated Hannah Halbert, Executive Director of Policy Matters Ohio.
Halbert cited a recent Policy Matters Ohio report that found that before the pandemic, six of the ten most common occupations in Ohio paid so little a family of three would need assistance just to afford the basics. Burdens to workers noted in the report included low wages, safety practices that put people at risk, and lack of control over scheduling that makes stability next to impossible.
Speakers discussed how, in order to improve working conditions and wages for workers today, union organizing today needs to scale and include an increasing diversity of Americans, including women and people of color. Recommendations for policymakers included enacting the PRO Act, also known as the Richard L. Trumka Protect the Right (PRO) Organize Act, and attaching strong labor standards to the distribution of federal infrastructure dollars.
The ReImagine Appalachia Coalition envisions an Appalachia where everyone is paid enough to support themselves and their family, future generations can put down roots, and all people have clean air to breathe and water to drink. Their policy blueprint outlines these values and a recent jobs study has shown that enacting the Reimagine Appalachia blueprint could create nearly half a million jobs in Pennsylvania and Ohio alone. Nearly 100 diverse organizations have now endorsed the ReImagine Appalachia blueprint.
Learn more about ReImagine Appalachia Research here.