CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Thousands of union workers from across West Virginia descended on the state capitol Saturday to begin what they say is a fight to take back the legislature for the people of the state.
The “Mountaineer Workers Rising” rally drew a crowd estimated at nearly 7,000 including iron workers, general laborers, school teachers and coal miners. They yelled and screamed with union leaders against things like the effort to change the prevailing wage, right-to-work, coal mine safety and public charter schools.
“They say ‘we need to modify the system,'” Teamsters Union General Secretary-Treasurer Ken Hall said about prevailing wage. “I say, they want to cut your wages because that’s what they’re going to do.”
American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten criticized lawmakers for what she described as their effort to take away funding from public schools by setting up charter schools when they should be giving more funding to public schools and spending money on fixing things like the state’s transportation system.
“Instead of doing something that hurts this state why don’t they invest in road repair?” Weingarten said.
But theme of the day was clearly to energize members of organized labor to go back to their communities and register their family members and friends to vote. Speaker after speaker urged them not only to register but to vote in the 2016 election. Voter registration cards were handed out at the rally.
In a fiery speech, United Mine Workers Union President Cecil Roberts chastised union workers for not going to the polls last year.
“What is a disgrace is all we had to do is go to the polls and vote,” Roberts said.
The Cabin Creek native then called for an uprising of workers and their families to take back the statehouse.
“What I propose starting this moment, in this place, right here in West Virginia–all of these attacks across this nation on everybody that works for a living–I say, let’s start it right now, right here, let’s have, starting today, the biggest unarmed insurrection in this nation’s history,” Roberts said.
Several speakers focused on national labor issues and took time to criticize Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a likely presidential candidate, and the vote in his state’s General Assembly Friday to become a right-to-work state.
There were a handful of state lawmakers standing behind the speakers Saturday, some of them were introduced, but they did not speak to the crowd.
Republicans have the majority in the House of Delegates and state Senate for the first time since the 1930s. A bill changing the prevailing wage has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting the signature of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin. The Coal Jobs Safety Act is also pending before the governor. The bill creating public charter schools is before the House Finance Committee with less than a week to go before the end of the session. The right-to-work bill is dead for this session.