Yes, labor is a political football, among other things, as the current president made big promises to so many in our country who feel disenfranchised, without jobs and the means to support their families. His solid victory was, in part, in coal mining areas where the easily-mined coal seams are depleted, and lands that have suffered from strip mining and mountain-top removal of coal are often not reclaimed.
The president promises deregulation as the solution to the unemployment in these areas, but deregulation not only gives management the permission to wink at safety regulations but also to slash wages and ignore the devastation of the earth.
The harsh reality is that the coal-fired furnaces of the past have been and are being replaced by new systems that are more cost effective and environmentally friendly. International Harvester and the United States Steel Corporation realized the lack of profitability and withdrew from the communities of Benham and Lynch, Ky. , in the 1960s. An example of the impact of change is the drastic decline of population of coal-producing areas such as Harlan County, Ky. — from 75,275 in 1940 to 27,703 in 2015.
Men and women who understand the decline of an area they love often realize when that time comes that they must uproot the family and move on. It is a painful decision to leave extended family, life-long friends, schools and churches. The society that formed each of these persons will always be an important part of who and what they are. Reality indicates, however, that leaving is the best option, much better than living on welfare and becoming a part of multi-generational poverty.
The question becomes the following: Move? To where?
There are manufacturing jobs elsewhere, and the pay is low, nothing like what the coal miners were making at one time. And few of these companies are unionized with advocates for the employees in the form of union stewards ready to go to war with management to preserve the basic rights of employees.
For years now, not a single ton of union coal has been mined in Harlan County, Ky. This is a county that was a part of the union wars of the 1930s when even the children of coal miners knew the name of UMWA leader, John L. Lewis, and could identify his photo, maybe even easier than the photo of George Washington.
A friend of mine who has spent the past 30 years in CWA (Communication Workers of America) and has served as steward, vice president, secretary/treasurer and president of her local union is troubled by the steep decline in union membership and wants my readers to know that without U.S. unions, we would have no Social Security, OSHA, Medicare, overtime pay, breaks and lunch times. We would have no child labor laws. And she recognizes that without a vociferous pro-labor voice in this country, much of what we consider the rights of America workers would simply not be.
She remembers her early days in the workforce as a union employee when she was disciplined and almost terminated for serious illnesses that required hospital stays. “The only people fighting for me and helping me were union members. I became involved in the union and learned about how much blood and sacrifice was involved for me to have the benefits I had. Workers’ rights and civil rights go hand-in-hand. People died for these rights, and prior to unions, we were simply indentured servants.”
A rational, intelligent person, my friend concedes, as do I, that there are problems in unions as there are in any organization. One is “the right to work” laws and open shops in which employees are allowed to reap “all the amenities without paying for them.” She indicates the reality of corporations which have talented lawyers working for them. Without the pooling of resources by union members, the working class would not have the expertise it needs to go up against corporations. She knows that some union members run for office for their own benefit without working for the benefit of their brothers and sisters as they “eat their own” or fight among themselves.
My friend wisely states that “Management needs to understand that most people want to work hard and do a good job. Workers would like to have a voice in the workplace because if the company is doing well, then so are we. Naturally, people thrive when they feel they are heard and have some control over their destiny. When we work well with a company, we prosper. Otherwise, we perish together.”
Back to political promises. It is disgraceful, unethical, fraudulent to garner votes by promising jobs with no intention of delivering.
There have been solutions in the past. If we have the will – and the political clout- we can create solutions for the unemployed or underemployed in Harlan County and in other places throughout the U.S. Solutions are out there, and as a proponent of the strong role community colleges play in the nation, I believe this is an important place to start as colleges collaborate with the federal government, state government, businesses/industries/corporations, and communities to address the issues. We could begin with targeting our crumbling infrastructure as one example of an initial focus.
Vivian Blevins is a consultant for the Training Solutions Group Inc. who teaches courses in writing and literature for major telecom company employees. Reach her at (937) 778-3815 or firstname.lastname@example.org.