Brandon’s Labor Day Remarks in Matewan

I want to share my thoughts and reflections on Labor Day.

I think it’s a very important and special day. It’s meant to be a long weekend of rest and spending time with family, but I think it’s important to stop and reflect on all the workers who have given us the communities we have and the lives that we have lived.

I also want to take a moment and reflect on our organization. The idea for Coalfield Development was born right here in Ming County. It was in the summer of 2010. I was the youth director for a Presbyterian Church in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. We would do mission trips to various places around the country. The last trip we led was to Williamsson, WV. We were doing home repair for an elderly homeowner named Mary. We were painting, fixing the flooring and roof patching. As we were working on miss Mary’s house, these two young men approached us and asked us if we had work available. It was July and swampy hot. You all know how the coalfields get in July. I still remember it like it was yesterday.

They didn’t have their shirts on and were sweating and smoking. They had tool belts strung over their shoulders. I explained to them that we were merely volunteers, and they went on their way. It could not have been more than a two-minute interaction. But something about those two minutes stayed with me. And it bothered me. It made me angry. I would wake up at night thinking about these two young guys because it symbolized what is happening in southern West Virginia. Our economy had gotten so bad. People with the money had pulled out and our towns were in decay. We literally had young people wandering the streets trying to find a couple hours of cash work. That was their hope for a career. That didn’t feel right, and it didn’t feel ok. I didn’t know exactly what to do about it, but I wanted to do something about it.

And that was the seed that was planted in what would become Coalfield Development.

It’s about creating opportunities and building a new, just economy with healthy communities so we don’t have to have young people wandering the streets hoping to find a couple of bucks.

It’s important to be here in Mingo County. It reminds me of the dignity of work. I’m so proud of the work everyone down here does to rebuild communities, grow local food, and make sustainable properties. You are building a new Appalachian economy with your own hands.

So, walk tall with pride in your own dignity with what you do because it is making a huge difference.

And yet, we are a part of Appalachian history. So, on Labor Day there really is no better place we could possibly be than right there in Matewan.

I do want to add that it’s not just enough to fight to get things done, we must fight to keep it.

Just look at the extraordinary accomplishments’ unions have created for this nation; 40-hour work weeks, overtime, safe working conditions, eliminated child labor, benefits packages, retirement, life insurance, workers compensation. All these benefits for workers didn’t exist only a couple of generations ago. All these things we take for granted as rights used to not exist. Hundreds of people a year would die in the workplace. People would go bankrupt before the end of their career before we had a social security and pension system.

Sadly, those rights can slip away.

We must know our history. If we do not know our history, then things can be taken away from us and we must start all over again.

So, we celebrate the role of unions in this country and there is no better place to celebrate than here in Matewan.

We talk about courage, creativity, and community a lot here at Coalfield.

Our history has been marked with valiant efforts. One of those was to watch miners’ band together, from different colors and backgrounds, to stand up and fight for these rights and privileges.

Today, there is also tremendous courage right here in this room. The courage to recover, learn, grow, develop new skill sets, to be different, to try new business concepts. That is why, at Coalfield Development, our mission statement starts with courage.

We are building this new economy so it will take a lot of creativity. When you drive into a coal town, it can feel like it is falling into the ground but there are still assets here. We must look at what others might say is a liability, like a building falling in, and believe in it. We can support the buildings and the people and realize it is our future as an asset.

That is what is happening here in this building today.

And we do all these things in the community. What makes this country great is not one political leader from one party or another. It is not a president, governor, or CEO. It’s us, the people being good community members. Getting up, going to work, doing our part, contributing and being kind, being good neighbors, loving our families and contributing the best we can. If all of us do that every single day, that is what makes our country great.

We are responsible for our communities, and we must live up to that. It’s a beautiful thing. It comes with honor and dignity to be a citizen among the communities we live in. We must take care of one another with honesty and ethics. And yes, we should hold our leaders to the same standards we hold ourselves to. But don’t put all your hope in politicians, big leaders, and CEOs.

Put your hope and faith in yourself, family, and your neighbors.

I believe, in time, this will lead people to understand our full potential, power, and purpose.

Our theme this year has been listening. Our theme last year was history. Those two things tie together nicely. In 2021, our theme was healing. It’s not just who heal and understand our history, it is the whole community who needs to be listened to, who understands opportunities, and who needs to heal.

Let’s talk about our economy.

Unemployment measures the percentage of people who are not employed but want to be or are actively trying to be employed. Labor force participation rate is the number or percentage of the people in a place that are active in the workforce. Right now, West Virginia has one of the lowest labor force participation rates in the country. Now some of that is for good reason; if you’re a child or elderly or severely disabled, then you should not be in the workforce. We have a responsibility in society to value all those folks and take care of them.

Right now, in Mingo County the labor force participation rate is 25%.

That means only 1 in 4 in the county are active in the workforce. If there were a better economy and a better support system or if Coalfield could double or triple, there could be better opportunities.

The truth is, everyone deserves to be listened to even if you are a person who has challenges or are of working age but not in the workforce. We need to have conversations and ask why folks are not in the workforce. And we must do a better job, as a community, to provide opportunities for all people to thrive and flourish. For example, we have transportation barriers. If someone’s car breaks down and they live in a rural area where the job is an hour or an hour and a half away, that is a big problem. Childcare is another issue. One of the big reasons why our labor force participation rate is low is because of lack of childcare. Our rate of women working is low because the number of childcare services we provide is low.

We should have more choices as workers and people, not less choices.

And another very important issue is we have folks on the road to recovery. Sometimes we must meet with parole officers, so we need that flexibility in our work week. We need to listen to our people.

When conversations about our 25% labor participation rate occur, we often hear about how people are just lazy, and nobody wants to work because nobody cares anymore. Does anyone really believe that? Are we that down on ourselves? Surely, there is more nuance to this. Surely, we believe in our neighbors as human beings, as people that want to have the dignity and honor of good work.

So, we need to do a better job in our communities through unions, nonprofits, policy, and other mechanisms to make it possible for more people to get in the workforce and bring that number up.

Finally, it was one year ago when we announced we were the winners of the Build Back Better Regional Challenge. That is currently in motion. All the groups combined have trained more than 200 workers in new skillsets, and we’ve helped provide services to more than 20 new businesses. And this is only going to grow. We have only just begun this effort.

Thank you to everyone here. You are an inspiration. You are part of this story. You are writing the next chapter.

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