A drawing from Harper's Weekly shows coal miners firing on Fort Anderson from a hillside (probably on the slopes of Vowell Mountain) during the Coal Creek War (1891-1892) in western Anderson County, in the U.S. state of Tennessee. (Source: Wikipedia)

Several weeks ago, I wandered into the Coal Creek Miners Museum in Rocky Top, Tennessee, where I was treated to an incredible lecture from Boomer Winfrey. A geologist, former journalist, and activist here in Appalachia, Winfrey was discussing the Coal Creek War of 1891-1892 in which miners from the local area clashed with the state militia in a series of violent armed conflicts over the use of convict labor. 

More than two dozen miners were killed, but the cost of keeping the militia in the field outweighed the state’s profits from convict leasing. Shortly thereafter, the program ended. The miners were victorious.

Not all labor organizing in rural America has been violent, but history has shown that workers are better when they stand united. Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, for example, famously organized the Delano grape strike in the late 1960s, bringing a victory to the exploited farmworkers of rural California. 

Their success demonstrates the truth behind the lyrics of “Solidarity Forever,” the old labor anthem. The union makes us strong.

It is this unyielding truth that makes the Protecting the Right to Organize – or “PRO” – Act such an exciting and important piece of legislation for rural workers. This bill, which has passed the House of Representatives but remains stalled in the Senate, is the “the most comprehensive worker empowerment legislation since the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) of 1935” according to Human Rights Watch. It would radically strengthen the hand of the working class and organized labor, evening the playing field of the 21st century economy across rural America.

That the rural workforce benefits from labor organizing remains as true in 2021 as it was in 1965 or 1891. The rural economy has not recovered since the Great Recession, despite an influx of factories and warehouses into rural areas. These corporations typically choose states with abysmal protections for labor

Still, 45.3% of our workforce is engaged in health care, social services, education, retail, or manufacturing – all sectors that are prime for unionization or the strengthening of existing unions. Of the next highest sector, agriculture, less than 1 percent of workers are unionized

But we are only as strong as our solidarity with one another. That is why the PRO Act would allow unions to override right-to-work laws. These deceptively-named laws have been passed in 27 states, hindering workers’ attempts to organize for better pay and conditions. The PRO Act would enable unions to collect dues from employees who benefit from union negotiations but refuse to pay their fair share of dues. 

While ending right-to-work is welcome, it does no good if bosses are continually allowed to interfere in union business. We saw this in Alabama with the recent Amazon unionization efforts, where an official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that the company illegally interfered in the vote to unionize. The PRO Act would prohibit employer interference and influence in union elections. 

Protecting workers from the exploitation of big corporations and bosses is at the heart of the Democrats’ labor agenda. This legislation will strengthen the National Labor Relations Board, empowering it to fine companies which retaliate against employees who organize. It would also strengthen OSHA and the Wage and Hour Division – better ensuring rural workers are paid appropriately for jobs done in safer conditions. 

The ability to organize on a level playing field, without corporate interference, is of real consequence to the well-being of our people. Non-union workers make 81 cents to every dollar a union worker makes. Unionized workers are nearly 25% more likely to have health insurance benefits. They have more job security than their nonunionized peers. They have the strength in numbers that can only come from collective bargaining. 

In an economy which favors bosses and big corporations, unions give workers a recourse to the abuses of management. The results speak for themselves; in 2018, Service Employees International Union Local 503 negotiated a 14 percent wage increase with an additional 5 percent cost-of-living increase for its members in rural Oregon.

Given the benefits for America’s working class, it is unsurprising that a majority of Americans support the PRO Act. Even West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin – a usual thorn in the side of progressive Democrats – has endorsed it

Rural America is ready to get to work, but we deserve a fair deal. Unions represent our best way to get it, and the PRO Act is the best defense of our unions in nearly 100 years. The PRO Act would be a godsend for unions, and a godsend for labor in rural America. 

Skylar Baker-Jordan is a freelance writer whose work has appeared at The Independent, Newsweek, Business Insider, and elsewhere. He currently lives in East Tennessee

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