Op-ed: A Bill of Rights for West Virginia workers

In deep red West Virginia can a Democrat win the governorship in 2020? The Republican Party line is no, the Democratic Party line is yes. Of course.

The truth — from a partisan Democrat — is that it is unlikely that we will retake the governorship in 2020.

However, it was also unlikely that Donald Trump would be elected President. It was unlikely that Bernie Sanders would win every county in West Virginia in the 2016 Democratic Presidential primary. But both things happened. Both were more unlikely than a Democrat beating Jim Justice this year.

I could — but I won’t — point out reasons for Justice’s vulnerability, even in our relatively #MAGA-friendly state. What I would like to do instead is point out what kind of a campaign, platform and candidate it will take to beat him.

Democrats have several declared candidates for governor as of this writing, three that could be considered “major” contenders. I know all three and respect each of them. Of the three frontrunners, two serve in elective office now. State Sen. Ron Stollings is a physician who returned to his hometown in the coalfields of West Virginia. He does good work there and in the State Senate. Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango has shown leadership in bringing new businesses and tourism to the area and recently spearheaded a successful effort to establish the state’s first paid parental leave policy for county employees.

Impressive as these candidates are, there is one candidate who has run a race that is unique in my 45 years of experience of political activism in Democratic politics in West Virginia. That candidate is Stephen Smith and the West Virginia Can’t Wait campaign. This campaign has built its approach and platform from input received at over a hundred meetings all over the State. The campaign is also broader than just the governor’s race and includes over sixty candidates for local, state and federal offices that have taken the “West Virginia Can’t Wait” pledge: 1. No corporate PAC money, 2. never cross a picket line, 3. never hide from a debate and 4. fight with the Good Old Boys and not with each other. These are stands everyone can support, but few entrenched politicians do.

As an employment lawyer who has spent over thirty years representing West Virginia workers, however, the most impressive part of the West Virginia Can’t Wait campaign is its Workers Bill of Rights. It is no exaggeration to say that, if adopted, this program would radically improve the quality of the lives of workers in this state.

Every voter should go and look at the Workers Bill of Rights for themselves. It can be found at https://tinyurl.com/wve3z2a.

Just to pick three items from this comprehensive program Smith proposes he seeks to 1. Raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for all employees, 2. Pass an excess compensation tax where large corporations are charged a tax based on the ratio of their lowest paid employee to their highest paid employee and 3. protect nurses, Certified Nursing Assistants (CNAs) and patients by passing safe staffing regulations and ending mandated overtime (except for emergencies). The rest of the Workers Bill of Rights is as impressive.

Could such a worker-centered platform and people-powered campaign win in West Virginia in the age of Trump? I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. But it might. And if it does it would send a clarion call across the nation and prove once again that our State motto — montani semper liberi — is more than just a Latin phrase: West Virginians are always free. Free to choose a better future for ourselves and for our children.


Walt Auvil runs the Employment Law Center, PLLC, in Parkersburg.