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Jackson tells Fairmont workers that they "must never give up"

by Torie McCloy


The Rev. Jesse Jackson brought a message of hope, faith and dignity to hundreds in Fairmont Sunday morning despite what he says are destitute conditions that exist in much of Appalachia.

Putting his foot up on the balcony of the Marion County Courthouse and his elbow on his knee, he looked down to the 170 workers still employed at the Philips Lighting plant and the hundreds more permanently laid off.

He told them change started with votes.

"When America takes a change for the better, it doesn't start in the White House or the U.S. House of Representatives," Jackson said. "It starts in your house and mine. Appalachia has the power to help itself."

He said each vote cast this November made a difference as people take a stand against the issues that plague them. He said he wants Americans to put the issues that concern them in the public eye and in the political platforms.

"The media wants to talk about sex. Politicians want to talk about each other. We want to talk about welfare, jobs and education," Jackson said to the applause of the crowd.

The Fairmont rally was part of the Rainbow Coalition's eight-day tour called "Close the Gap, Leave No One Behind." The tour is traveling through four poverty-stricken Appalachian states that Jackson said "have been left behind during the past decade of economic growth and prosperity."

Jackson, who is unsure if he will again campaign for president in the 2000 election, credited coal miners, steel workers and other industrial workers for making the U.S. the industrial giant it is today. Such workers, like those at Philips Lighting, should reap rewards instead of job instability, he said.

"These workers must never give up," he said. "They must make sure their dignity is not negotiable."

"Corporations should have profits," Jackson continued. "Workers should have security."

Jackson, along with United Mine Workers of America President Cecil Roberts, IUE International Union President Ed Fire and IUE Local 627 President John Carr, said the issue of job security is not just a Philips Lighting fight, but a West Virginia and an American fight.

Roberts said addressing the real problems in rural America is a goal of the Rainbow Coalition's tour.

"We're trying to shine the light on the problems with American workers and American families," Roberts said, citing healthcare, poverty and black lung disease.

"If you work for a living, you ought not to be living in poverty," Roberts continued. "People in Fairmont are just as good and important as the rich on Wall Street. This is not about black and white. This is about wrong and right. People are standing here because they want to keep their jobs. It's an effort that crosses political parties and differences."

Del. Paul Prunty, D-Marion, said he believed Jackson would take the plight of the Philips workers to the national scene.

Prunty, a long-time employee of Philip's, has seen 1,300 jobs dwindle to only 170 in the last 15 years. With the company's contract running out in March 1999, the state lawmaker said the future isn't looking good. He's glad to see Jackson helping Appalachian workers.

"It sends a message to companies that there is concern for long-term employees," Prunty said.

Working at the facility that continues to reduce the payroll isn't easy.

"It's been like an axe hanging over our heads," Prunty said.

Paula Arbogast, a 34-year employee at the plant on Speedway Ave., is still working but expects to be in the next group to be laid off. She's just waiting her turn.

Sandra Main got "the axe" a year and a half ago after working at the plant for 31 years. Unable to find work, she is back in school for retraining.

"It's terrible to go back to school after 33 years," she said. "Everything's changed."

The loss of hundreds of jobs has morale down, said state Sen. Roman Prezioso Jr., D-Marion. Jackson's message of hope and faith is what the community needs to reunite and keep fighting the "job hemorrhage," Prezioso said.

Rose Kann, a 35-year employee at Philip's who is still bringing home a paycheck, answered Jackson's plea to vote by registering while Jackson was still talking.

"He's here to help us," she said. "I feel like I need to do something for him."

Some, however, still don't have faith in the local job market despite messages from Jackson telling workers to "hold their heads high."

Janet Lemley, a former Philip's worker, said she didn't believe that she would get her job back or that others wouldn't lose theirs.

"There's nothing we can do," she said.

Jackson said faith and hope is the only solution.

"If we have the faith, God has the power."