Charleston Gazette-Mail. September 6, 2023.
Editorial: Jim Justice suddenly cares about labor?
Labor Day is one of those holidays that can sometimes go by without much thought in the collective consciousness of the country.
To many, it’s more a demarcation of the unofficial beginning of fall and related activities (heading back to school, the beginning of football season) than a celebration of hard-fought employee rights, such as the eight-hour workday or getting children out of factories and coal mines.
This year, though, the significance of the holiday felt more prominent.
There was certainly some immediacy bias at play. For instance, as the holiday weekend approached, UPS finalized a deal with the shipping giant’s employees and their labor union. Concern is building as some states roll back child labor laws. In West Virginia, teacher unions were weighing in on West Virginia University’s plan to slash staff and programs to combat a $45 million shortfall.
Labor rights also have come to the fore in some unexpected ways ever since the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Attempts to unionize at mega-corporations, like Amazon, have been contentious and made headlines, as have similar attempts at fast-food restaurants and coffee chains.
One way to tell a topic has increased in visibility and importance is by the number of politicians offering cheap platitudes in hopes that it will boost their standing with voters, and there was plenty of that on display over the long weekend.
There are few states with a worse labor rights record than West Virginia (see: Battle of Blair Mountain, Hawks Nest Tunnel, the Legislature enacting right-to-work laws, repealing prevailing wage, etc.). There also are few, if any, West Virginians who treat employees, contractors and vendors with more disdain than coal magnate, Republican U.S. Senate candidate and current governor Jim Justice.
Yet, on Sunday, Justice posted a carefully chosen passage from the Gospel of Matthew to social media from his senate campaign account:
“Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart; and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Yes, that’s Justice posting, the day before Labor Day, the words of Jesus, according to Matthew, about lightening the burden of the hopeless and downtrodden.
And yet, employees at Justice’s myriad coal operations frequently have to take the governor, his family and his companies to court because of disruptions in health insurance benefits. Because Justice’s companies haven’t paid the bills, workers frequently can’t get the health care or medications they require.
Meanwhile, worker and environmental conditions around companies operated by Justice are appalling. As of 2022, companies owned by Justice had racked up more than 2,300 unpaid mine safety violation citations. A federal court ordered his companies to pay for $2.5 million in environmental cleanup at sites in Tennessee. Justice’s companies are behind on payments for roughly $5.13 million owed to the Mine Safety and Health Administration.
That’s not even touching on Justice’s personal finances, the host of banks hounding him to pay back millions of dollars in loans or the number of attorneys and businesses alleging in court that they provided services for Justice and he or his companies stiffed them.
Justice was hardly the only politician extolling the virtues of hard work and a deserved rest and reward over the long weekend when their actions and the policies they support go in the opposite direction.
Justice’s opponent in the 2024 primary, Rep. Alex Mooney, R-W.Va., also posted about honoring workers, even though he seems to believe in all play and no work (unless you’re one of his staffers, in which case he’ll treat you like an unpaid personal valet and babysitter, according to just one of the multiple allegations against him in two reports handed to the House Ethics Committee).
Several other politicians who have actively sought to weaken unions and the labor force in West Virginia put out statements about how important Labor Day is or showed up for photo-ops, volunteering for a few hours at some place for likely the only time this year.
But Justice’s biblical pontification takes the cake as the biggest example of hypocrisy for this Labor Day in West Virginia. We’re sure he wouldn’t have it any other way.
Herald-Dispatch. September 2, 2023.
Editorial: Steel remains an important part of Tri-State economy
The steel industry is consolidating. That trend could have had dire consequences for this region if not for what’s happening in Huntington and in Mason County.
U.S. Steel, once one of the largest producers in the nation, is entertaining offers for a buyout. It rejected a $7.3 billion buyout proposal from Cleveland-Cliffs (the company that bought and demolished the former Armco and AK Steel Ashland works) two weeks ago. Then industrial conglomerate Esmark offered $7.8 billion. This week, U.S. Steel informed shareholders it had entered into confidentiality agreements with “numerous” third parties and was beginning to share due diligence information with potential buyers.
U.S. Steel and other older steelmakers rely on blast furnaces to produce steel. That was the case at AK Steel. Thanks to the abundance of scrap steel, modern plants tend to use electric arc furnaces. Steel Dynamics, the parent company of Steel of West Virginia, says its electric arc furnace process uses 75% less energy than the average of steel operations worldwide, and its greenhouse gas emissions are 89% lower than those of blast furnaces.
Nucor Steel West Virginia will have two electric arc furnaces at its plant near Apple Grove, about 28 miles north of downtown Huntington. Construction of the plant has begun, and it could be in operation in about two years.
In one sense, the loss of Armco (using its old historic name) and the gain of Nucor can balance each other out if we think regionally. With Nucor growing and with spinoff industries following, it could be a net gain.
And let’s not forget Steel of West Virginia, which still puts out product using the same methods as Nucor. The plant in Huntington has had several owners over the years, but that hasn’t stopped it from being an often-overlooked anchor in the local economy.
Historically, steel has played an important role in the Tri-State region economy, whether in Huntington, Ashland or Ironton. Workers crossed state lines to make steel and to use steel to make finished products such as railroad cars. Steel fed tens of thousands of families.
The loss of the Ashland works hurt, but the presence of Steel of West Virginia and the coming of Nucor show that this region remains a player in the industry despite setbacks.
The Intelligencer. September 6, 2023.
Editorial: New Law Protects Students in Class
As school districts across the state set aside funding for items such as classroom video cameras, West Virginians got a reminder of the horrific case that prompted a law to require such additions.
Kanawha County Schools and former teacher Nancy Boggs recently settled lawsuits totaling nearly $12 million in cases involving Boggs’ abuse of special education students in her classroom.
According to the Associated Press, Boggs was seen on surveillance video abusing multiple students at Holz Elementary School in Charleston, in 2021. She admitted to hitting one student with a cabinet door, pulling her hair and pulling a chair out from under her. Boggs also admitted to slamming another child’s head into a desk and slapping a third child.
As Boggs was being sentenced to 10 years in prison for her crimes, Judge Maryclaire Akers said the teacher made her “classroom into a place of … torture.”
It is difficult to believe, though we know other communities across the state have dealt with similar instances in which monsters masquerading as educators made their way into classrooms. Boggs’ case is all the more nauseating because she was dealing with special education students.
Perhaps the new law will make some headway in that regard, as state law now requires cameras in classrooms, and video footage must be kept for a full year and be regularly viewed by administrators.
There can be no leniency should those administrators spot something that must be reported.
Attorney Ben Salango, who represented three of the seven plaintiffs, called Boggs’ case “probably one of the worst abuses we’ve seen in West Virginia.”
Money won’t cover what those students and their families suffered, but it might serve as a reminder to any administrator or board thinking of sweeping under the rug similar behavior by teachers or staff.