The labor history of Appalachia’s essential workers: Previewing John Hennen’s new book

The union of hospital workers usually referred to as the 1199 sits at the intersection of three of the most important topics in US history: organized labor, health care, and civil rights. John Hennen’s A Union for Appalachian Healthcare Workers, coming November 1 from West Virginia University Press, explores the union’s history in Appalachia, a region that is generally associated with extractive industries but has seen health care grow as a share of the overall economy. We’re pleased to share an excerpt from the book’s introduction.

The West Virginia teachers’ strike in 2018 briefly focused attention on the history of labor-management conflict in the state. A cross-section of mainstream and progressive media drew a crooked line to the teachers’ rebellion from earlier battles between coal operators and miners, especially the Mine Wars of 1913–1921. This attention to a significant part of the state’s working-class history was welcome and a long time coming. Some academic and independent historians have studied and written that history for decades, but the contributions of regular working people are still too often airbrushed out of the standard narratives of American history. As I write these words, the world is grappling with how to survive the shocks of the coronavirus pandemic. The curious phrase “essential workers,” although it has been around for a while, has now become part of our daily vocabulary. It reflects an awareness, finally, that the workers who feed us, protect us, clean up after us, drive us around, deliver our stuff, teach our children, and care for the old, the sick, and the injured are not just assistant people. They are “essential.” Will our appreciation for essential workers inspire a structural realignment in America’s distribution of wealth? Or is it just a transitory thing, which soon enough will fade back into the old reality, that the more essential the work, the less the pay?

This book tells the story of how some essential workers in Appalachia built a healthcare workers’ union, usually referred to as “1199,” between 1969 and 1989. That union had a history dating back to the early 1930s, where the original New York City Local 1199 was founded by a Russian immigrant with radical ideas. His name was Leon Davis. His radicalism was defined in part because of his political affiliation. In the early 1930s, when he began organizing pharmacists and drugstore workers, he was a Communist, active in the Trade Union Unity League. But he was also radical in the greater sense, in that he believed that marginalized workers in the hospital industry—Blacks, Puerto Ricans, poor Whites, women—were human beings who should be recognized, respected, and paid a decent wage. They were pharmacists, nurses, nurse assistants, janitors, housekeepers, laundry workers, maintenance workers, cooks, and dishwashers. Davis believed these workers were entitled to a dignified and comfortable life as much as anyone else. That was a radical notion. No other unions in the 1950s, when 1199 began organizing hospital workers, wanted much to do with them.

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Untangling famine from pandemic means untangling food from capital

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Stian Rice is a food systems geographer and author of Famine in the Remaking: Food System Change and Mass Starvation in Hawaii, Madagascar, and Cambodia, new from West Virginia University Press. Here he shares perspective on the entwined crises of pandemic and famine.

As the curtains opened on 2020, famine watchers warned that 135 million people in 55 countries were experiencing acute food insecurity and an elevated risk of starvation. War in Yemen, an economic crisis in Zimbabwe, and a locust plague in East Africa were set to repeat as the defining challenges for the new year. In the words of World Food Program (WFP) executive director David Beasley, “2020 would be facing the worst humanitarian crisis since World War Two.” And then COVID-19 stole the show. Since then, quarantine and stay-at-home orders have strangled food supply chains. The collapse of oil prices has left some governments without revenue to feed their populations. Tens of millions, dependent on daily wages, face uncertainty over their next meals. School closures have deprived 368 million children of meals and snacks. And the strain is beginning to show: looting, protests, and ration line stampedes are being reported from Latin America to South Asia. Last week the WFP nearly doubled its estimate to 265 million facing acute hunger by the end of the year. Meanwhile, industrial agriculture in developed countries has become a theater of the absurd as farmers plow under crops, breeders kill off millions of surplus chickens, and dairy operations dump spoiled milk into fragile watersheds.Read More »

“If we surrender to cynicism, we abandon the allies and tools with which we can make things better”: An interview with Kevin Gannon

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Kevin Gannon will launch his book Radical Hope: A Teaching Manifesto at West Virginia University on April 1. Here we share a conversation with Gannon conducted by Jeremy Wang-Iverson of Vesto PR. [Edit: The IRL book launch has been postponed, but watch for details on a virtual event.]

Why did you decide to write this book now?

I’ve had this book in me for quite a while, to be honest. It’s the product of about 20 years of teaching in higher education, as well as my own journey as a student (in the heady days before the internet was a thing, thankfully). But in the last few years, it became less a matter of “hey, I might write something,” to “hey, I need to write something.” The manifesto had its origins in a blog post I wrote in the summer of 2016, and it resonated with enough people that I was encouraged to turn it into a book. Writing a book on hope has been . . . a journey, in these last few years, that’s for sure.

How has your experience teaching at a small, teaching-focused institution like Grand View University shaped your views on pedagogy and higher education?

So often our public conversations about higher ed are shaped by a handful of folks at elite institutions (educational or otherwise) who work with a pretty narrow subset of students, and do that work much more sporadically and infrequently than someone at a “teaching university.” Yet those of us at the schools with 4-4 (or higher) class loads, as opposed to the 1-1 or 2-2 at R1 and Ivy League schools, are by far the majority of practitioners in this space, and our experiences and perspectives are often quite different from the ill-informed caricatures we see from the scolds in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, for example. Schools like mine—small, under-resourced, access-oriented, student-focused—are where the real work of higher education often takes place, and this environment has profoundly shaped the way I look at teaching, learning, and higher ed at large. We don’t have a lot of 4.0 academic superstars applying for admission, but we do have students who come out of a variety of experiences and have overcome a lot of obstacles to join our academic community. And these are the students who push me to be a better teacher every day.Read More »

The ends we seek in higher education: An excerpt from Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope

Kevin Gannon’s Radical Hope, new in our series Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, is shipping now when ordered from our website. Here we share an excerpt from the book, which Gannon will launch officially at West Virginia University on April 1.

In August 2017, the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, saw a range of white supremacist, alt-right, and neo-Nazi groups converge on the town, ostensibly to protest the removal of Confederate monuments. The rally’s true purpose, however, was racist fear-mongering and violence. The night before the rally, a throng of white men carrying tiki torches and shouting such slogans as “Jews will not replace us” wound its way through the University of Virginia’s grounds. The rally itself was marked by dozens of attacks instigated by the alt-right and white nationalist groups, including the severe beating of an African American man in a nearby parking garage as well as the death of one counterprotester (and injury of several more) when a white supremacist sped his car through a crowd of antiracist demonstrators. One of the most emblematic images from this orgy of hate and violence was a close-up photograph of a rank of the tiki-torch marchers, in the center of which walked a young man wearing a polo shirt with the logo of the white nationalist group “Identity Europa,” face contorted in anger while screaming whatever slogan the marchers happened to be proclaiming at that moment. Social media users quickly identified him as a current student at the University of Nevada–Reno. Within days, other college students at the rally were identified on social media, including the president of Washington State University’s College Republicans. In the immediate aftermath of Charlottesville, these institutions struggled mightily with both the backlash against these students and fallout within their campus communities. Lost in the immediate hubbub over whether those students would be allowed to graduate or if they could even be safely enrolled in classes with students of color, however, was any reckoning with the fundamental question at issue here: are these the ends we seek in higher education? To put it bluntly, is it possible for a learner to both successfully move through the academic and intellectual spaces of a college or university and march in support of violent white nationalism?

And if it’s possible, should it be?Read More »