As a labor federation of more than 75,000 West Virginia union members, represented across 575 affiliated locals, we at the AFL-CIO know more than anyone how critical it is to uphold COVID-19 precautions to ensure safety on the job.
However, the West Virginia Legislature is taking advantage of COVID-19 restrictions to pull the shades on visibility and access from citizens, news media and political opponents.
Ahead of the 2021 legislative session, we held out hope that the House of Delegates would offer virtual participation, as the Senate has on occasion. We crossed our fingers that after the House changed a longstanding rule requiring committee chairs to provide a timely public hearing for a bill upon request, leaving it now up to the discretion of certain leadership that this discretion would be honored.
And we hoped in good faith that House leadership would provide video streaming from its East Wing Government Organization Committee Room — which should be fully equipped to stream video — instead of its unintelligible audio stream.
Let’s be clear: We are not insisting legislative leadership open their doors and violate COVID-19-related safety standards. There are plenty of ways for the public to safely and successfully participate, in person and virtually, in the legislative session.
Unfortunately, none of this has happened. We are witnessing the harmful ramifications of this behavior in real time. In the past two weeks alone, a rapid succession of harmful, anti-worker bills has been rushed through the Legislature. These bills will reduce the quality of public education and many other licensed occupations, attack the front-line workers who have kept us safe and fed this past year, shield corporations that put their employees at risk and erode the freedom of West Virginia’s workers to join together to form strong unions, if we choose to.
Meanwhile, the hundreds of thousands of constituents these bills will affect have had virtually no say in the legislative process. Our lawmakers have abandoned what’s plainly stated in our state constitution, that “the right of the people to assemble in a peaceable manner, to consult for the common good, to instruct their representatives, or to apply for redress of grievances, shall be held inviolate.”
This is unacceptable.
That’s why, on Feb. 24, the West Virginia AFL-CIO sent a letter to Gov. Jim Justice, Senate President Craig Blair, R-Berkeley, and House Speaker Roger Hanshaw, R-Clay, demanding accountability and outlining why West Virginians deserve a transparent legislative process.
We have respectfully requested that the Senate and House comply with West Virginia Code 6-9A-2 and 3, which requires the chambers to make their committee meetings open to the public with options to participate with reasonable notice. In the letter, we pointed out how there is nothing in Justice’s COVID-19 executive orders that would allow for the suspension of these requirements.
Remote access has been an issue from the moment the COVID-19 pandemic began, and the options have greatly improved over time. As we approach the one-year anniversary of the coronavirus upending our lives seemingly overnight, we should not be kept in the dark while our elected officials make decisions that will affect all West Virginians.
Public debate is essential to a functioning democracy. Policy disagreements are normal in a free country. But when lawmakers retreat behind closed doors to legislate under the cover of darkness, they deny us the opportunity for public debate.
It’s clear who these lawmakers are looking out for when legislation being voted on will benefit out-of-state corporations at the expense of working families. West Virginians deserve transparent, honest and responsible legislating from their elected officials.
We sincerely hope Blair and Hanshaw will heed our letter. If they need assistance with implementing remote technology, we have highly skilled, licensed electricians and communications technicians among our membership who would be happy to help.
We deserve a transparent legislative process. It’s time to make that happen.