Democracy and West Virginia

Great interview by Russell Mokhiber with Stephen Smith, Director of Healthy Kids and Family Coalition:

The Corporate Domination of West Virginia



West Virginia has the highest rate of obesity in the country.

The highest rate of smoking.

The highest rate of drug overdose deaths.


Corporate domination of the state.

That’s the take of Stephen Smith. He is director of the West Virginia Healthy Kids and Family Coalition.

“We didn’t do this to ourselves,” Smith told Corporate Crime Reporter in an interview last week. “We sometimes believe the stereotypes and hype that gets lobbed against us. For generations, corporations, often with the help of the federal government, have done a really good job of systematically robbing our people and our communities of our economic wealth. That had consequences. The consequences include substance abuse. And it’s not just opioids. Opioids are the latest. But we have been in a crisis of mental health and suicide for a generation or two now. Corporate control has led to the defamation of unions and worker power. It’s a pattern of abuse.”

“If anything, my experience is that West Virginians have become more resilient, more creative, in part because of what we had to suffer through. I have had the opportunity to organize in communities across the country and in my experience, West Virginia is one of the more fun and energizing places to organize because people have seen real pain and have worked to find ways to fight against it. It doesn’t mean we always win. It does mean we can win in the long run.”

What is your group doing on the obesity crisis?

“We know strategies that help address obesity,” Smith said. “The Centers for Disease Control knows about them. And we know what works at the local level. But there is a view that those strategies are only going to come from and be implemented by health professionals. In fact, we need the local knowledge and grit to get it done.”

“Every year, we bring together 500 to 550 rural community leaders from across the state, low income people, social service agencies, small business and union people, church people. And we do a conference where West Virginians trade ideas about what is working in our own backyard and what local citizens are doing around it. And then we offer mini-grants and coaching and organizing training for groups of people to take on one of the these projects locally. It could be a community garden, a walking trail, a farmers market or a youth sports program. And we see that as a stepping stone for organizing around issues as well. We find it’s a good way to approach the obesity issue. We ask –  what can we do in our own backyard that we know works but is normally the purview of some health professional? And how can we put that expertise in the hands of everyday people?”

What about public policy?

“Change the economics of obesity. Look at the cost of food over the last couple of generations. The price of food overall hasn’t changed that much. But the price of healthy food has gone up significantly. The price of unhealthy food has gone down. There are people who have learned to make lots of money off of our pain. And that includes the food we eat. It’s not rocket science to figure out if unhealthy foods are cheaper, people are going to buy them and gain weight and get sick.”

“We could make it harder for people to produce corn syrup and encourage producers to make organic foods and healthy foods less expensive. That’s the most valuable thing we could do. We can connect SNAP dollars to farmers markets. Providing double bucks programs at farmers markets. That helps a bit. But a broader effort is going to be needed if we are going to change the economics of food.”

“The other thing we can do is make the food available in schools and more healthy.”

Corporations have a lock on West Virginia. Where is the ray of hope?

“I see it all over the place. We are at a breaking point, where the defining competition in West Virginia politics is not between left and right but between the people and the establishment. Over the next years, we are going to play out the most important moment in American history for at least the last couple of decades. West Virginia and places like West Virginia are going to choose whether or not we are going to have a right populist response to the establishment or whether we are going to have an open left populist response to that pain and exploitation. I’m hoping we can have a left populist response – a response that says – let’s put the power in the hands of all of the people.”

“A poll was done last year showing that 46 percent of likely West Virginia voters would support Bernie Sanders in a run against President Trump. The success that Bernie has had in West Virginia is emblematic that we are not resigned to a nationalist approach.”

“I also see it in some of the candidates that won in yesterday’s primary. Richard Ojeda smoked his opponents. And he was by far the most anti-corporate candidate. This is a guy who ran for state Senate unapologetically against the coal industry. And he was running in Logan County in the middle of coal country. And this year, he was one of the leaders of the teachers’ strike.”

“Yesterday, he won the Democratic primary for Congress in the third Congressional district. More impressively, in the first Congressional district, there were two candidates, one was a traditional Congressional candidate – Ralph Baxter – who had all of the endorsements, including labor, and outraised his opponents. But Baxter was defeated by a candidate who favored Medicare for All. Her name is Kendra Fershee in the first district.”

“Richard Ojeda spent most of his adult life in the military. He talks about being shipped overseas and seeing the poverty and crisis faced by kids in Afghanistan and Iraq and then coming back home only to find that much of the same poverty and despair could be found in his own backyard in Logan County West Virginia. He started a nonprofit. He taught. He did ROTC at Chapmanville High School in Logan County. He thought that was good start, but not enough.”

“He first ran for Congress against Nick Joe Rahall in 2014. He ran a good campaign but got beat. He came back and ran for State Senate in 2016. He was outspent ten to one in the primary against an incumbent Democrat. He won. That story made national news, because days before the primary, a man surprised him in a parking lot and beat him up.”

“He survived the attack and was elected in the Democratic primary. In a district that Trump won with more than 80 percent of the vote, Ojeda also won that general election against the Republican challenger in 2016. Then he gained some recognition for his successful maneuvering for medical cannabis legislation in his first year in the legislature. And he rose to prominence this year as the lawmaker who gave the most blood, sweat and tears during the teachers’ strike, both on the floor of the Senate and traveling around the state, meeting with teachers, communicating with them on a day to day basis.”

“He is just an old school populist. He has no qualms about naming the bad guys. He likes to say –  Follow the Money Dot Org. Go out and find who is paying their campaign donations and don’t let them get away with it. He knows who he is. He knows what side he is on. He is unapologetically pro-union and pro-labor. And it’s working. He won more than a majority of the votes in a three person primary. He has a good shot at winning the whole thing in November in an area that has been written off as an obviously Republican district.”

The primary was yesterday. Ojeda and Fershee. Any others?

“Yes. In Charleston, our state capitol, Amy Goodwin, an unapologetic progressive, soundly beat a more experienced, more conservative Democrat in the primary for Mayor of Charleston. She beat him by 66 to 34. And she did so by running a grassroots progressive campaign. She knocked on more than 5,000 doors personally. And she had a field operation that many of us helped with. She is set up to potentially turn around one of the biggest cities in the state.”

“Rich Lindsay in State Senate 8 – he beat Mark Hunt, a more conservative Democrat. Rich is a young guy and an unapologetic progressive. Bill Hamilton is a pro-union Republican. He ran and beat Robert Karnes in a Republican primary. Karnes was one of the villains of the teachers’ strike. It was a gambit for Hamilton to challenge an incumbent in a Republican primary and run a pro-union campaign. And he beat Karnes 60 to 40. That was the State’s 11th Senatorial District in Upshur County.”

Are you saying those candidates are going to be the building blocks to turn the state around?

“That will be part of it. Electoral strategies are never enough by themselves. If you rely just on electoral strategies, you are in trouble. You need the mass movement on the ground. You need slow and steady organizing in neighborhoods. And you need the electoral strategies.”

“But we are at a point where we have all three. With the organizing that many groups have done, including ours, over the last few years, plus the  movement power with the teachers’ strike, the election was a sign that we can also do the electoral strategy. You put all of those things together, and that gives me hope.”

Smith says “the question we all need to be asking right now is – who do you serve?”

“Most West Virginians are busy serving their neighbors, their friends, their church, their country, people in need. And the people in power are serving Wall Street, and Washington, D.C, and lobbyists.”

The PEIA Show in West Virginia

The PEIA smoke and mirrors show trundles on. This isn’t rocket science, folks. This is put enough money into an account to pay for people’s reeds. Any willing and competent government would have long since done so. Instead, they are stalling for time, and maximizing their show-our-deep-concern propaganda tour. Public workers, teachers in Colorado and Arizona, initially inspired by West Virginia, are already acting far beyond any pathetic “education” tour.

In Colorado, educators are moving on their own to lock in an additional $1.6 billion annually for public education: “A ballot petition is circulating that could raise significant dollars for public education. All that money would fund full-day kindergarten, pay down the budget stabilization factor and pour even more money into public education. Initiative 93 would raise the state income tax on the top 8 percent of earners; Coloradans making under $150,000 won’t be affected by the change. Depending on what income bracket the earners fall in, they could see a tax rate increase of 0.37 percent to 3.62 percent, and certain domestic and foreign corporations would also see a tax increase. Altogether, those tax dollars would raise $1.6 billion annually.”

In Arizona, educators are acting to lock in another $690 million annually to public education: “The Invest in Education Act gives Arizona voters the chance to restore investments in public schools and to ensure a dedicated funding source. The proposition is expected to raise $690 million which will be deposited into the Classroom Site Fund with 60% of the dedicated revenue directed to teacher salary increases and employment-related expenses and 40% directed to maintenance and operations of public schools… Our solution is to ask those families with incomes over $500,000 to pay more in their state income taxes. And once passed by the voters, this funding cannot be taken away by the legislature … and will apply to less than 1% of Arizona households.”

In West Virginia, the official PEIA task force trundles on. All those suits and ties pretending not to know what to do! Plenty of other people know what to do. And in Arizona and Colorado, so far, they are the ones now moving to get it done. Meanwhile in the WV, the officials go on tour, put on a show, handout pittance raises.

Public Educators Strike Back

Very impressive, and badly needed; every state should initiate something like it, ballot initiative for $1.6 billion annually for public education in Colorado, tax on the haves: Colorado goes all West Virginia, and then some.

Progressive for West Virginia

Paula Jean Swearengin. Candidate for US Senate. Vote for Paula Jean Swearengin or vote for the same old death by a million cuts. If you are going to vote for death, please stay home. Do everyone a favor.

Why Did the WV School Workers Strike Not Achieve More in the Near Term?

This is an important question that many people are asking but no one is directly and specifically answering. Unlike in a traditional strike, the striking school workers lost no pay, because each county school system closed the schools, as on snow days, with the intent of making them up in June. Plus, the teachers raised over $300,000 in 2 weeks with various fundraising efforts to help cover various extra strike expenses. So, the teachers could have held out much longer. Unfortunately, the teachers misjudged how big and how specific their demands and the solutions to their demands needed to be, and this weakness was seen immediately and constantly attacked by the corporate state officials, including the corporate media.

Consequently, when the officials (including union officials) rushed to end the strike with very marginal measures of appeasement (minor salary raise and an insurance task force, mainly), the teachers had no clear idea what could be further gained upon continuing the strike. I go into more detail on this at “Next Steps from the West Virginia School Workers’ Strike. Not difficult to anticipate: I did so at “WV Public School Workers’ Demands Need To Go Up.”

These issues need to be addressed prior to strikes, however, not on the fly, which would be extremely difficult or impossible in the great flux of things. The strike was limited but good as far as it went. The demands ultimately weren’t focused well enough and the organizing seemed to have sort of tapered off too much to be able to sustain things much beyond where they went.

Yes, the PEIA public workers insurance could certainly be “fixed” overnight, if the political will were there, and in the sense that plenty of money is available in the state to restore benefits to what they once were, including going forward. But public pressure was neither strong enough nor well-focused enough to force it. Can it get there via the promised task force? I think it would probably take another strike, one even more well organized, and more imaginative of possible solutions.

Marijuana legalization money should definitely be one of those possible contributing solutions proposed. But mainly: reinstating the temporary severance tax on coal and gas ($125 million annually, more than was doled out with the 5 percent salary raise), and increasing the severance tax otherwise, and rolling the rainy day fund and possibly the state pensions (as the state of Pennsylvania has been considering) into the creation of a state bank, a public bank, like the State Bank of North Dakota (and perhaps somewhat the State Investment Council of South Dakota) which helps greatly to cut financial costs and increase local, state, and community investments and revenues, and on and on.

The political will needs to be found, creatively, determinedly, and with great ongoing organization. The vital public banking movement is on a roll nationally, including in nearby states. West Virginia should join in, rather than go the other way, the wrong way, but it will require striking public workers who go in with big enough demands in the first place and the detailed fiscal solutions (mainly various sorts of corporate taxation) – of which there are many – that don’t split the working class. Because the workers failed to come up with or emphasize these focused and detailed demands for specific gains as well as for specific solutions to bring about these gains this time, the corporate state officials immediately recognized this great weakness and pounced, and the strikers could not recover.

Ultimately, the only thing that will truly “fix” PEIA insurance for WV public workers is when it is thrown into the trash and replaced with national, universal, single payer (free) health care; that is, vastly improved Medicare for all. Short of that, the only thing that the state of WV can do to “fix” PEIA (that is, restore to earlier benefit levels) is to find major new revenue sources to pay for the restoration of good benefits. In WV, that can only come from additional severance taxes on coal and gas and other corporate taxes and otherwise taxing wealth. Now, how on earth is that going to happen, since wealth funds the election campaigns?

Only a new massive strike, probably a general strike, with specific revenue sourcing demands could generate the force necessary, the public pressure to achieve it. In other words, public school workers and all state workers will need to be even much better organized and even more effective in striking than they were this time. 

In Canada, decades ago, unions demanded free, universal, single payer health care for the whole country, everyone, not just for themselves. That’s how that country made that huge advance. WV workers should broaden their demands to cover and include more people, while also pushing for demands strictly particular to their own groups. The workers need to set the terms of debate very precisely, otherwise, they will always be given a pitiful limited offer that they will find themselves trapped into accepting. That is exactly what happened this time, and that is exactly why the WV workers strike did not achieve more in the near term. The money to achieve much more was there and remains there, the public support also, but the workers failed to adequately demand it, and they were mercilessly attacked for showing this weakness.

Next Steps from the West Virginia School Workers’ Strike

Lessons of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strikeis a very strong article at the World Socialist Website, though its practical use would be enhanced by a few additions and qualifications.

The article omits one of the very crucial factors that caused the school workers to “acquiesce” to the state’s desperate, and successful, gambit to end the strike: the workers lack of specific demands for ending the strike. The workers demanded a “fix” – far too vague – for PEIA health insurance. This left the state free to decide what a “fix” would be (a merciless one year fee hike freeze – the fees are already painful – and a task force creation – an empty promise).

The school workers might well have demanded additionally several thousand dollars per year of salary increase not for one year but every year for the next five years or more, but they failed to be as specific, detailed and focused as they need to be. The workers didn’t make demands for workplace and salary gains big enough or specific enough, let alone detail any demands for the exact solutions, funding mechanisms (specific corporate taxes), available and necessary. Fiscal demands necessitate fiscal solutions as part of those demands to prevent the state from dividing various worker funds to conquer all workers, all the while sparing corporate, One Percent funds. This failure of the workers to insist on specific and sizable worker-detailed gains along with worker-friendly solutions basically gutted the ability of the workers to clearly understand what they would be voting for if they would vote to extend the strike.

With their far too-limited and far too-vague initial and ongoing demands, the workers ultimately left themselves nothing clear and specific to vote for. And the corporate state (and union) officials attacked that weakness. And as those weaknesses were attacked relentlessly, including by the corporate media, the workers were unable to adjust into any clear or strong defensive let alone proactive position. The World Socialist Website article misses this crucial analysis regarding the importance of effective demands in time-limited actions such as strikes.

And while “Lessons of the West Virginia Teachers’ Strike” seems to me generally well observed, it badly undercuts itself at the end where it asserts that “The critical question, not only for teachers, but all sections of the working class, is the building of a socialist leadership, which will encourage the independent organization and initiative of the workers.” In a sense, this gets the situation precisely backwards and largely contradicts everything the article previously analyzed and put forth. Good, effective leadership is important but this can only arise, in any sustainable sense, if the workers themselves collectively, mutually, grow and cohere into healthy, knowledgeable, and self-directing groups. Only then can any effective leadership (ideological or otherwise) appear to become prominent, and only because the workers are doing all of the growing and the work – the physical, intellectual, emotional, and social growth and work – in the struggle for social change.

The widespread flowering of social media has made any notion of “the building” of a “leadership … of the workers” less and less useful or needed, or even possible, which is a very fortunate social development. It has been shown time and again that workers have to grow and build themselves in groups. Any overarching leadership or leaders that workers come up with (must very much … come up with) are important but should be almost an indistinguishable part of the groups and the growth and building they have already achieved.

Possibly the best thing to come out of the WV workers strike is the utter lack of any real, distinct, prominent individual leaders. Leadership, though limited, was clear and present and remains; distinct leaders, not so much. Good prominent leaders can make a difference, but their roles seem historically always fleeting (that is, non-sustainable) and in any case of limited use and effectiveness.

What will matter going forward is what happens in the various types of groups, by the groups, of the groups, for the groups and by and for the public in general. Any leaders should be almost an afterthought, for a wide variety of reasons, though much group leadership must continue to come to be, as an inherent, inescapable part of the growth of the groups, small groups and larger groupings.

What is needed beyond the organic growth of worker groups is for those groups to increasingly reach out and be reached out to by other public groups, for those groups to grow and come together to form larger healthy and strong public organisms that can restructure and renew the life of the public and vastly improve living conditions for all.

The State Lies for the One Percent

The state of West Virginia continues to lie to the public school workers and to the public in general. Where did the money come from to end the public school workers strike? The state said for months that no money was available. It was a lie. The state constantly lies about money on behalf of the One Percent who fund their election campaigns. All states lie to benefit their One Percent campaign donors and against the public.

The state can easily afford these marginal payouts of 5 percent to the public school employees and other state workers, and in fact the state can easily afford much more than that. Simply reinstating the temporary severance tax would have more than covered the 5 percent raises, with an additional $25 million left over. Yes, the state could have easily afforded even more than a 10 percent pay raise. The officials have simply been lying all along when claiming otherwise. They are professionals at it. Professional liars. The school workers finally pushed forcefully back a bit against some of the lies. Many more lies remain to be pushed back against and are to be increasingly overcome.