Labor & Unions
West Virginia has a strong history with labor. From the early 1900s Mine Wars to the explosion of mid-century industry, our state has been a leader in making sure our hard-working men and women go home with every penny and right they've earned. Despite this, union membership has declined nationally, especially in West Virginia. In 1964, we had 36.5%, now barely above 10%. Unions are a key component to the balance between labor and capital, and for too long massive companies have been able to use our labor, even from out of state, and push unions into silence through policies like "Right to Work". We aren't happy about it.
What can we do about it?
Oppose "Right to Work" and similar legislation: The term "right to work" might sound straightforward, but the bills are actually much more nefarious than you might think. They prohibit "union security agreements", or the contracts made between union laborers and employers that allow them to compel new workers to pay into union dues or other necessary fees. This creates a "free-rider" issue, where new employees benefit from the hard work of unions and their negotiations while paying nothing. Unions exist to strengthen the power of labor, and laws like this cripple their membership and leverage.
Support paid and parental leave: West Virginians support payed leave. That's the idea that when you get sick, need to care for someone, or have a child, you'll be covered. The 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides just up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, where you may keep your job, but you won't be paying the bills. Supporting federal legislation or crafting state-subsidized leave (like nine other states) is a must to protect our workforce during their most vulnerable. You can read more about PFLA and current issues with FMLA here.
Support the PRO Act and similar legislation: The PRO Act is comprised of many pro-labor solutions we could mirror on a state level. It makes it illegal for companies to harass or bully people out of union membership, through things like mandatory meetings or forcing union elections to take place on company property. It also imposes harsh financial penalties on workplaces who strip workers of these rights, instead of a slap on the wrist. It prohibits people who participate in meaningful strikes from just being fired and replaced.
Offer employees a "Right of First Refusal": A ROFR, or Right of First Refusal, is a contract that allows the subject the option to purchase something from the owner before they put it on the open market. For instance, if a tenant of a commercial building had an ROFR with the owner who was deciding to sell the building, they would have the right to purchase it first. For labor, this could mean allowing the people most familiar with a factory, workspace, or other building protection in the event of a sale. This gives workers a period of time where they could band together and purchase their own workplace before it's sold off or closed down. These "Right to Own" ideas are popular, and could be an important step towards building back industry.
West Virginia has struggled, especially in recent years, to keep up with the ever-present opioid crisis and its destructive effects. This is not a problem of the individual or some struggle of willpower, it is an attack on our communities and families that is straining our bonds. Opioids represent at least 50%, if not more, of the overdose related deaths in West Virginia. We're among the highest in the country for overdose deaths. Further, we're in the top ten states for rates of heart disease mortality, cancer mortality, low birthweights, suicide mortality, and more.
Let's fight back.
Attack the opioid crisis directly: There are a variety of realistic steps we can take to limit the access, abuse, and lethality of opioids. Firstly, education. Younger West Virginians have some of the highest rates in the country for non-medical opioid use, which cripples their ability to maintain meaningful work and relationships. Community-led education programs, from previous addicts to medical professionals, are thought to be essential tools to curbing this epidemic. This allows every member of a city or town to realize the addictive potential of opioids (many people begin using them with the assumption they won't be addicted), their dangers, and how they can help themselves or their loved ones should they need it.
Medication Assisted Treatment, or MAT, is our second proposal. Rehabilitation and familial support combined with medication like methadone or naltrexone is proven to be one of the most effective ways to help someone recover. Many might come to the conclusion that these people don't deserve the state funding, or that it's their own fault for becoming addicted, but beyond empathy there is a cost. Massive amounts of crime can be attributed to drug related activity, and further still we're losing a valuable segment of our population to this issue. It's best to invest in our communities now, to create better neighbors, than to waste money later punishing them.
Finally, reducing the overall prescription of opioids and pursuing alternative means of pain management. Nearly half of addicts say they started from prescription opioids and for legitimate concerns of pain, and our opioid prescription rate in 2017 was 81.3 per 100 people vs. the country's 58.7. Some areas in West Virginia even have more opioid prescriptions than they have people, such as in Williamson where they received 20.8 MILLION pills despite having a population of 2,900 people. This is unacceptable. Bills like SB 273 back in 2018 are shown to have some meaningful effect in reducing these prescriptions. Communicating with our medical professionals, patients, and community leaders to pursue alternative means of pain management is essential.
Expand family and medical leave: West Virginians support payed leave. That's the idea that when you get sick, need to care for someone, or have a child, you'll be covered. The 1993 federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) provides just up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave, where you may keep your job, but you won't be paying the bills. Supporting federal legislation or crafting state-subsidized leave (like nine other states) is a must to protect our workforce during their most vulnerable. You can read more about PFLA and current issues with FMLA here.
Support nurses and nursing education: We just don't have enough nurses. It's estimated 1.3 million jobs in these direct care areas will open by 2028, rapidly expanding relative to other fields. We're also one of few states that lost population back in 2019, partially due to brain-drain and flocks of younger people leaving for elsewhere. Keeping these people here and meeting the growing need for care is essential to the future of our state.
We can start that process by making sure that nurses get the pay and care they deserve. It's often overlooked, but burnout in nursing is huge, in some areas and specialties as high as 37%. We should allow nurses to manage their workplaces in lower stress ways, with the ability to take frequent breaks and have increased job security. Healthcare workers regularly suffer abuse, harassment, and disrespect as a nature of their work - even more so when specializing in mental health, disability, and addiction.
Closing the gap between men and women could also support the struggling nursing population. The perception of nursing, an invaluable and difficult profession, is that it's a woman's job. This just isn't true. While women represent the majority, male nurses are common and contribute in equally significant ways. Pushing for a social redirection of nursing, one that is more gender inclusive, and supporting men pursuing a career in nursing could help close the gap.
Division in our country and state is higher than it has ever been. Time and time again we only pass legislation along party lines, nudging 50/50 splits and "getting one over" on the other side until the pendulum swings back in four years and we repeat the process. Approval of congress is historically low, with little to no confidence in the direction of the country. Similar feelings are mirrored across our state, with youth voter participation below 50% at the best of times. Many of us feel that representatives both on the federal and state level just don't understand us. In the words of my economics professor out at WVU-P, Mr. Tamburini, we've lost statesmen and gotten politicians.
We should be statesmen.
That means reaching across the aisle: Even if we don't agree with each other, twiddling our thumbs and waiting for the perfect solution just won't cut it. Connecting with our friends and neighbors who happen to belong to a different party or ideology is important, not only because it affords us better policy, but because it often opens your mind to things you haven't considered. I actively try and place myself in conversations where I know I'll be the outsider, just so I get the opportunity to learn something. Trapping ourselves in safe-spaces and echo-chambers is a slide towards hatred and ignorance.
We're West Virginians first: What many on the national level seem to misunderstand is how politics (and anything really) functions in our slice of the country. They'll place expectations on us, like that we're guaranteed to vote for someone just because of our party, or that we care about the same things they do. They'll assume that the democrats of West Virginia are the democrats of California or New York. Wrong again. West Virginians have their own concerns, and many of the conversations on a national level don't take those into consideration and even attack us for not tagging along. My focus is always going to be fostering growth here, not taking one for the team like we've been pushed to do so many times.