Leaders of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival will visit Charleston, West Virginia on Friday to lead a Mass Meeting with West Virginians organizing with the Campaign as part of a two-month national tour to shine a light on both the harshest poverty in the nation and the organizing taking place to fight it.
The program will feature Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II, co-chair of the new Poor People’s Campaign, and local activists including leaders of the historic nine-day strike by West Virginia’s public school employees. They will discuss how their collective demands for living wages and affordable healthcare can inspire similar movements that will build power for the poor and disenfranchised across the state. Residents from across West Virginia will discuss how they can draw on the teachers’ victory to continue the fight against poverty amidst the coal industry’s decline, access to clean water, and preservation of the social safety net.
Until the recent successful teachers’ strike, typical coverage of West Virginia has consisted mainly of stereotypical “Trump country” stories. The state’s reality, past and present, is quite a bit different. Below, Rick Wilson, director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project, gives us some important facts about West Virginia that the Campaign should know.
- #55Strong. This month, 20,000 WV teachers and 10,000 school support workers held a successful statewide nonviolent work stoppage that resulted in a 5 percent raise and improved insurance not only for themselves but for all state workers. The 55 refers to the number of counties, all of which stuck together.
- The WV teachers strike has inspired and is inspiring teachers and public employees in Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, Puerto Rico and other places. A recent picture from Kentucky showed a teacher holding a sign that read “Don’t make us go WV on you.” Many believe it could signal the reinvigoration of the national labor movement.
- 1,400 CWA workers in WV and VA just returned to work after a three-week strike over job security. The strike was an apparent victory for workers. A vote on the new contract will be held in the near future.
- The United Mine Workers has practiced “fusion” since its formation in 1890, organizing skilled and unskilled, native and foreign born and black and white miners. The UMWA gave birth to the CIO, which organized industrial unions in several sectors such as auto, steel, communications, etc. since the 1930s. Miners also took the lead in pushing for occupational safety legislation, including the recognition of black lung. It was often said that “everybody’s black in the mines.”
- At the time of (coal and rail) industrialism after the Civil War, WV was sparsely populated and also had few former slaves and free people of color. The coal companies aggressively recruited African-Americans from the deep south along with central and southern Europeans. The coal bosses called this a “judicious mix” and hoped the differences would impede union organizing. It didn’t work.
- Coal towns were totally controlled by the companies. Mine guards sometimes functioned as death squads. At times, armed struggle and mass uprisings of white and black miners occurred.
- The UMWA fought epic battles for union recognition, better wages, safety, etc. Major events were the Mine Wars, which took place in the southern West Virginia coalfields from 1912 to 1922, including the Paint Creek-Cabin Creek Strike (1912–13), the Battle of Matewan (May 1920), the Battle of the Tug (May 1920), the Miners’ March on Logan (August 1921) and the ensuing Battle of Blair Mountain. At Blair, around 10,000 miners marched on Logan County and fought a pitched battle over three days with company thugs. Companies even chartered planes to drop bombs on strikers. Eventually the Army was sent in to put down the rebellion. This was the largest workers’ uprising in US history.
- More recent historic labor struggles included the Pittston strike (1989–1990), which featured nonviolent direct action, the Ravenswood Aluminum Corporation lockout (1990–1992) and the 1990 teacher’s strike. Many current labor battles involve corporate bankruptcies in which employers try to dodge their responsibilities to retirees and their families.
- WV flipped to Republican in 2014 (the first time since 1932), largely based on the politics of coal and the Obama administration’s alleged “war on coal.” Dog whistling played a role. Republican legislators repealed prevailing wage laws and passed “right to work” legislation.
- WV did expand Medicaid in 2013 and had one of the greatest drops in the number of uninsured in the U.S. Around 170,000 people are covered by the expansion out of a population of 1.8 million.
- WV leads the nation in opioid overdoses after being aggressively targeted for marketing by drug companies. The state also ranks at or near the top for several negative health statistics, from obesity to chronic diseases.
- In 1831–1832, following Nat Turner’s slave revolt, many western residents of Virginia called for the abolition of slavery in the state. This is not to say that they were abolitionists or anti-racists, but they did feel alienated from VA’s slave owning aristocracy which controlled state government. Tensions between east and west would lead to the creation of WV by Lincoln in 1863. It seceded from the secessionists.
- Shortly before statehood, Harpers Ferry was the site of John Brown’s raid. Brown wrote this about the area:
These mountains are the basis of my plan … God has given the strength of the hills to freedom; they were placed here for emancipation of the negro race; they are full of natural forts, where one man for defense will be equal to one hundred for attack; they are full also of good hiding-places, where large numbers of brave men could be concealed, baffle and elude pursuit for a long time.
- Harpers Ferry also played a role in the founding of the NAACP. In August 1906, W.E.B. DuBois led Niagara Movement members on a barefoot pilgrimage to the engine house where Brown was captured. He said, “and here on the scene of John Brown’s martyrdom we reconsecrated ourselves, our honor, our property, to the final emancipation of the race which John Brown died to make free.”
- The area that became WV was the birthplace of Martin Delaney. After statehood, Booker T. Washington and Carter G. Woodson came to WV and began their education, Washington in Malden and Woodson at Douglass High School in Huntington, where he later served as principal. Woodson later was academic dean at West Virginia Collegiate Institute, now WV State University (an HBCU) several years before writing The Miseducation of the Negro.
- J.R. Clifford (1848–1933), a free person of color from what became WV, served in the Union army and became WV’s first African-American attorney. In 1898, he became one of the first attorneys to successfully challenge inequality in education, arguing that “‘discrimination against people because of color alone as to privileges, immunities and equal protection of the law is unconstitutional.”
- Although African-Americans could always vote in WV, schools and some other institutions were segregated (although trains were not). When the US Supreme Court issued its school desegregation ruling, then-Governor William Marland (former member of the UMWA), said “the decision of the Supreme Court is the law of the land and we shall abide by it.” (Marland also advocated the radical idea of taxing coal; he was hounded and eventually driven out by coal bosses and wound up as a taxi driver in Chicago.)
Recent Victories and the Lay of the Land
- Over the last five years, under both Democratic and Republican control, a statewide coalition against child poverty has won around 25 policy and legislative victories, including Medicaid expansion, raising the minimum wage, prison reform, re-entry, juvenile justice, the creation of an Office of Minority Affairs, tax and budget issues, etc.
- While WV is one of the whitest states, it is also at or near the bottom in categories like poverty, unemployment and median family incomes. Much of the state is owned and controlled by absentee corporations such as coal and gas companies. Traditional industries like steel have declined with globalization. Automation in the mines vastly reduced the number of working miners.
- The folk song John Henry, about an African-American railroad worker in WV, sums up much state history: living labor versus the dead labor of machines.
- Coal is a complicated issue. For many people it’s a part of our heritage. Although undertaxed, it has supplied much of state and local budgets and its decline has resulted in budget cuts, school layoffs and less spending on public education.
- Many out of state activists have an overly simple view of coalfield realities. As a result of that and of declining union membership, coal companies are often able to drive a wedge between environmentalists and coal communities, with disastrous political results. Coal companies are able to portray themselves as defenders of mining communities. People are open to the idea of the need for economic diversity and transition as long as the needs of coal communities aren’t neglected.
- It would be hard to overstate the hardships in WV’s coal counties and in areas that once had strong manufacturing industries.
- Parts of the state are several years into an expansion of horizontal natural gas drilling. This has resulted in a great deal of economic activity but not much in the way of stable permanent jobs for local workers.
- Politically, many West Virginians are open to an economically populist message. Religion is big here and people may be culturally conservative. Many people are proud to come from military families. The state is in the top five in percentage of veteran residents.
Rick Wilson is director of the American Friends Service Committee WV Economic Justice Project. A native and lifelong resident of West Virginia, he holds BA and MA degrees from Marshall University and has taught sociology for Marshall and WVU Tech. He is a columnist for the Charleston Gazette-Mail, a co-host for The Front Porch, a weekly radio program/podcast from WV Public Broadcasting, and publishes a blog called The Goat Rope. (Yes, he has goats.)
If you’re in West Virginia, join the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival tomorrow for our Mass Meeting at 6:30 PM EST at Teamsters Local #175 Hall, 267 Staunton Ave, SW Charleston, WV 25303. Or watch the livestream online this Friday at 7 PM EST on the Campaign’s Facebook page.