CHARLESTON, W.Va. – A grassroots group on Thursday recalled the centennial of a deadly fight to organize West Virginia coal miners in urging Sen. Joe Manchin to support higher wages and better voting protections.
Members of the Poor People’s Campaign invoked the Battle of Blair Mountain after traveling by motorcade from Madison in Boone County to the state Capitol in Charleston. A century ago, the fight for miners' rights ended in surrender to federal troops though their struggle has lived on as a rallying cry for workers' rights in West Virginia.
Group members have repeatedly pressed the influential moderate Democratic senator and called for a diverse coalition of working people to apply pressure on Manchin, who has opposed a $15 federal minimum wage and a bill known as the For the People Act.
The bill has been touted as the answer of Democrats to a state level-GOP push to enact voting restrictions following the 2020 election. It passed the House in March, but has bogged down in the Senate. Manchin ultimately declared he couldn’t vote for it because it lacked bipartisan support.
The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign, has held several rallies this year in West Virginia to bring focus on Manchin, this time drawing comparisons to the Battle of Blair Mountain.
In late August 1921, a police chief sympathetic to miners who wanted to improve their lives was fatally shot. That spurred thousands of miners to embark on a march, leading to the 12-day battle in which 16 men lost their lives.
“The bottom line is, 100 years ago, black and white miners were fighting against two things," Barber said. "They were fighting against the bosses that were controlling the politics, and being paid in scrip. And they got tired of it.
“Today Manchin is blocking people from getting their due. And he’s blocking voting rights, which is allowing the elite to control who get elected. It’s all wrong. And that’s why 100 years later, we would be dishonoring them if we weren’t standing up for this.”
Manchin said in a statement later Thursday that “every American and West Virginian deserves to make a living wage. We cannot allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.”
Instead of a $15 minimum wage, he has proposed an $11 minimum wage indexed to the cost of living, which he said “would ensure no one working 40 hours a week is living below the poverty guidelines while also removing Congress from the constant battle to raise the minimum wage year after year.”
Manchin said a bipartisan group of senators also continues to discuss voting rights legislation that will ensure "accessible, fair and secure elections across the United States for years to come. Pushing through legislation of this significance on a partisan basis may garner political points but will inevitably only increase the political polarization of America.”
"I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to reach a reasonable agreement on an $11 federal minimum wage that protects working Americans without burdening our small businesses and on voting rights legislation that protects the right to vote for every American.”
The West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan is planning multiple events to remember the centennial of the Battle of Blair Mountain over the Labor Day weekend.