How Working America Helped Beat “Right to Work” in West Virginia the Old Fashioned Way

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As the sun sets over Beckley, West Virginia, on a cold winter evening, the temperature drops a few more degrees, moving toward the low teens as a pair of feet in boots and Yaktrax crunches snow and ice underfoot on the way to the front door. Then a gloved hand reaches up to knock on the frame.

“Who is it?”

The voice inside seems a bit bewildered. The tone implies, “Who is it that is crazy enough to be out there knocking on my door in this weather?” To be fair, it’s a good question. But it would turn out that the weather was not the only reason the woman behind the door was confused at that sound.

“It’s Working America! Fighting for good jobs and to protect West Virginia workers!”

The door opens and the woman behind it introduces herself in the third person as “Ole Sue,” proud of the fact that everyone in the neighborhood knows her by that name. She speaks with our canvasser about just why we are out knocking on doors on a night like this. The state Legislature in Charleston is considering a so-called “right to work” bill that would be an attack on West Virginia workers, union and non-union alike. More importantly, they talk about why it is important that labor remains strong in the Mountain State.

Ole Sue tells our canvasser that her husband and her daughter have both died in the past few years. Her husband died of black lung. Now she lives alone. She says we don’t have to tell her why unions are important. She takes our pen and paper in hand and writes to her state senator, Dan Hall, telling him exactly why he needs to vote no on “right to work.”

Across town at almost the exact same time, another Working America canvasser comes upon a house with a huge sign proclaiming, “My Neighbor and I are HUGE Steeler Fans!” He smiles because he’s a Steelers fan, too. (By the way, this canvasser is me.)

That small connection helps start a warm conversation at the door. But when I tell the woman why I’m really at her door—to fight against “right to work”—the conversation takes a more serious turn. She asks me why I care enough about it to be out there in the snow and the cold.

I tell her about my own father, a West Virginia coal miner much of his life, who now works on the coal barges: “I know what a union means to him and to every miner.”

I tell her the story of when that was really driven home to me. When I was younger, my dad was out of work for a while and decided to go apply at a non-union mine in Kentucky. It was far from home and hard work, but my dad is the hardest worker I’ve ever known. Even today, having just turned 60, he can work circles around me. Even his days off were filled with work—on the house, on the car, in the yard. My point is that he has never, ever shied away from hard work or a tough job.

He came back from that non-union mine in less than a week. “That place is a death trap,” he said to me. “Someone is going to die in there …”

The woman nods, and I finish my father’s sentence: “… or when they get out.”

The woman has to pause for a moment, then says: “I think it’s terrible what they are trying to do. My husband, my father-in-law, and my brother-in-law all died from black lung in the last 10 years. Our miners go through too much to put up with this stuff coming from Charleston now.” She’s clearly been through a lot as well.

Even through all of that loss, she has remained strong and dignified. She knows that this isn’t about a so-called “right to work.” It’s about right and wrong. Stripping away the progress that’s been won through the blood, sweat and tears of West Virginia’s coal miners is just plain wrong. She knows deep down that her state senator needs to know this, too, if he doesn’t already. She knows all this, but she looks at the piece of paper and isn’t sure how to say it.

“That’s why I’m here,” I say. “Just tell him what you told me. They need to be reminded of what really goes on out here. Tell him what you’ve lost and that he needs to vote no so we don’t lose even more.”

She writes a beautiful letter; one of 13 I gather that night, but among the most meaningful I’ve ever brought back. We talk some more about coal miners and Pittsburgh Steelers football. But finally it’s time to move on because I know there are more people like her who know what this is all really about and whose voices need to be heard in Charleston.

Back at Ole Sue’s, another conversation is coming to an end that both sides are a little sad to see. “Do you know who the last person to come to my door was?” she asks our canvasser, as if to make it known why she was skeptical at first. “It was the police. Got a complaint and came pounding on my door. Years ago. No one comes to the door anymore. But I’m glad you did. And thank you for being out there.”

Ole Sue wrote a beautiful letter as well, one that the canvasser will never forget.

Two women. Two beautiful stories that need telling. Two doors that haven’t been knocked on in a very long time. Two letters to a state senator who had better take their meaning to heart.

The latest reports indicate that “right to work” is dead in the West Virginia legislature, but across the country we’re waging a grassroots battle. In Missouri, we’re urging our members to call their legislators and let them know that “right to work” is wrong. In New Mexico, we’re going door to door and informing voters about the union-busting and wage-lowering that Gov. Susana Martinez and her allies are pushing in Santa Fe under the guide of “worker freedom.” And in Illinois, our members are urging their state lawmakers to push back against the agenda of Bruce Rauner, possibly the most dangerously anti-worker governor in the country.

Wherever Working America is, we are lifting up the voices of those whose doors are too often go un-knocked.

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