Annual UMWA picnic goes virtual, but remains opportunity for candidates

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — The United Mine Workers of America District 17’s Labor Day picnic traditionally takes place in Racine, providing political candidates an opportunity to speak directly to union members about their platforms.

Monday’s event took a different form because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Union leaders and prospects for public office gave video messages, and the gathering in Boone County was replaced with a Facebook video.

“Just because we’re not able to do that this year doesn’t mean we still can’t love each other, we still can’t share each other’s company, and we still can’t share the greatness of West Virginia, the greatness of the United States of America, the greatness of labor in this country and the greatness of the United Mine Workers of America,” Secretary-Treasurer Levi Allen said.

While the gathering was virtual, it marked the 82nd consecutive year the union has celebrated Labor Day.

President Cecil Roberts urged union members to support workers affected by the pandemic as well as unions involving the United States Postal Service. Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has faced backlash for proposed actions to save costs by limiting services and equipment.

Ben Salango (File)

“Could you ever imagine a time in your life when somebody or a group of people are opposed to the post office?” he said.

“We need to stand in solidarity with all of our brothers and sisters who are fighting to keep their jobs, keeping themselves in their homes and keeping themselves fed,” Roberts added. “We’re better off in many ways than most.”

The union’s PAC previously announced its endorsements for the November general election, including Democratic gubernatorial candidate Ben Salango and U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.

Salango has also received endorsements from the state’s leading education unions and AFL-CIO’s West Virginia chapter.

“You need a governor who is going to put safety first, who is going to put coal miners first (and) put working families first,” Salango said, referencing Gov. Jim Justice. Coal mining companies owned by the governor and his family agreed earlier this year to pay more than $5 million to the federal government for mine safety violations.

“You need a governor that actually wants the job and not just the fancy title,” Salango added.

The union endorsed Justice during the 2016 general election cycle when Justice was a Democrat. Roberts previously told MetroNews the endorsement came as the West Virginia Coal Association supported then-Senate President Bill Cole’s Republican bid for governor.

As for Capito, she and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., received praise for their efforts in securing funding for health care and pensions last year as part of a $1.4 trillion spending package.

“We’ve known each other for many, many years. We’ve worked together on many, many issues. Most of them we disagree on, some of them we don’t,” Capito said.

U.S. Sen. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va. (File)

“We do know that when it comes to working together to do the important things — like health and pension benefits and working to keep coal miners working in this country and keep the coal mines open — we’ve been joined together.”

The union also endorsed Rep. David McKinley, R-W.Va., in his re-election bid, yet not his Republican colleagues, Reps. Alex Mooney and Carol Miller.

Manchin, who won a second full-term in 2018, stressed this year’s election as “the most important in our lifetime,” adding the approach to public service has gotten worse.

“In politics, we used to be able to agree to disagree and to do it respectfully. That is no longer the case,” he said. “The toxic rhetoric often stems from the top. It often stems right from the top from the president. We have to begin treating one another as we would like to be treated again.”

Others involved in Monday’s event included Democratic secretary of state candidate Natalie Tennant — who served as secretary of state between January 2009 and January 2017 — Democratic attorney general candidate Sam Petsonk and Fred Albert, the president of AFT-West Virginia.

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