Sitting in a Charleston hotel room Thursday afternoon just before a planning meeting for the United Mine Workers of America’s re-creation of the march on Blair Mountain to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the largest labor uprising in U.S. history, UMWA spokesman Phil Smith was looking not back but ahead.
“It’s critical, frankly, not just for the survival of unions, but it’s critical for the survival of the middle class in this country that we pass the PRO Act,” Smith said.
Smith was among the panelists making connections between the Battle of Blair Mountain and what they argued was an urgent need to reverse the country’s decline in unions during a webinar hosted by ReImagine Appalachia, a coalition of environmental and community organizations throughout the region.
The Battle of Blair Mountain that ended 100 years ago this week pitted 7,000 to 10,000 armed coal miners trying to unionize against 3,000 State Police troopers, private security forces and other strikebreakers in Logan County. The miners were desperate to end poor living and working conditions in a police state that controlled their lives through private detectives who harassed them, currency that they could spend only at company-owned stores and deplorable working conditions.
Although the miners laid down their arms after the federal government intervened by dispatching troops and a squadron of aerial bombers, Myya Helm, summer research associate at the West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy, a nonprofit think tank, noted that the battle still looms large in the minds of Appalachian organizers as a time when workers of different races and ethnicities came together to fight for their rights and lay a foundation for increased class consciousness in the decades that followed.
Drawing from the Battle of Blair Mountain’s example, Thursday’s panelists stressed the importance of unions in reducing income inequality to increase pay and workplace safety amid stagnant working-class wages and a pandemic.
“We ended up with an economy that really doesn’t work for most people,” said Hannah Halbert, executive director of Policy Matters Ohio, a nonprofit think tank.
Stephen Herzenberg, economist at the Keystone Research Center think tank in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and co-director of the ReImagine Appalachia campaign, presented an analysis tying a decline in unions to stagnant wages.
Herzenberg showed a chart based on a Keystone Research Center analysis showing that in Pennsylvania, incomes nearly tripled from 1938 to 1974 as unions grew stronger before leveling off in the four decades that followed as unions declined.
Herzenberg attributed the union downturn in part to a rise in right-leaning think tanks and advocacy groups, Congress failing to raise the minimum wage consistent with inflation starting in the late 1960s, a deep recession in the early 1980s and “a signal for open season on unions” by President Ronald Reagan in 1981 when he fired more than 11,000 striking air traffic controllers who refused to return to work.
The PRO Act that the panelists have backed would let unions override state right-to-work laws like West Virginia’s that allow workers to opt out of a union and not pay union dues while still being covered by wage and benefit provisions of their union contract.
The measure would prohibit companies from permanently replacing workers who participate in a strike and require or coerce employees to attend employer meetings designed to discourage union membership. It would also bar employers from entering into agreements with employees under which employees waive the right to pursue or join collective or class-action litigation.
“This is our shot, folks,” Halbert said.
Senate Democrats are expected to add provisions of the PRO Act that have a budgetary component to their proposed $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package. That’s the most realistic path to final passage for any parts of the pro-labor bill given the lack of Republican support for it in the Senate, the decisions of three Democratic senators (Mark Warner of Virginia and Mark Kelly and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona) not to cosponsor it so far and vocal opposition from Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., and Sinema to weakening or eliminating the Senate’s filibuster rule, which would allow Democrats to pass the bill — which he supports — without clearing a 60-vote threshold in the upper chamber.
All three members of West Virginia’s House delegation — Reps. David McKinley, Alex Mooney and Carol Miller — voted against the PRO Act in March as it passed the lower chamber by a mostly party-line 225-206 tally.
The West Virginia Center on Budget and Policy was among the 32 in-state organizations that signed a letter addressed to Manchin Thursday urging him to support a “robust” budget resolution to build upon the bipartisan Senate infrastructure package he helped shepherd through that chamber last month.
The $3.5 trillion budget package would strengthen the nation’s social safety net through expanded Medicare, enhanced child care and housing support in addition to protections for unions.
“The budget resolution presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the lives of all West Virginians by creating a stronger, fairer economy that works for all of us — not just those who the system has helped reach the top of the economic ladder,” the groups wrote.
The think tank announced the letter soon after Manchin penned an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal calling on Congress to take a “strategic pause” on the proposed $3.5 trillion bill, citing fears about its effect on inflation and “rushing to spend trillions on new government programs.”