Hundreds of workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital have been on strike for 16 days.
The union says it’s on strike because the hospital plans to cut workers’ pay by 10 percent. It notes that healthcare costs are going up, and retirees stand to lose their insurance entirely.
The collective bargaining agreement between the two parties expired at the start of the strike.
Struggles on the picket line and at the negotiation table are growing more tense by the day.
About 900 workers walked out on their jobs Nov. 3, and almost all haven’t been back since then, according to the union that represents them. District 1199 of the Service Employees International Union represents service, maintenance and even some clinical staff at the hospital.
“All they just want to do is just try to see who they can spook and intimidate to just stay indoors,” said union board member Damon Core. “We’re here and we’re staying strong. One day longer, one day stronger.”
A federal mediator is now involved, but there’s no date set on when both parties will come to the negotiation table again.
“Cabell Huntington Hospital presented a comprehensive counteroffer to the SEIU District 1199, and we are waiting for the union to respond. Cabell Huntington Hospital is prepared to resume bargaining when requested by the federal mediator,” said Molly Frick, director of human resources at Cabell Huntington Hospital Wednesday.
The strike forced the hospital to act quickly to cover its patients. On day one of the strike, the hospital brought in temporary contract workers to fill the roles of those that walked out. But the hospital continues to release statements that encourage workers to leave the picket line and come back to their jobs.
Core doesn’t see how the hospital can pay for temporary staff but not longtime union workers.
“You want to tell us that you’re having a problem with us and our healthcare. You’re paying for [temp workers] to stay in these hotels. You paid for them to be bussed up here,” Core said.
Most recently, the hospital filed for and received a restraining order against the picketers. The picket line is still going, but workers cannot stay there at all hours of the day. They also can’t use bull horns, play music, or engage with those coming in and out of the hospital.
A Cabell County Circuit Court judge said workers on strike can’t do anything that would impede the “healing process.” Since the hospital provides essential services, it has gained some protections during this dispute. Even before the court order, union nurses have been contractually obligated to stay on the job to meet patient needs.
“Patient care at the hospital has continued without interruption, patient admissions have remained high and the surgery department continues to carry a full caseload,” said Frick.
These words offer some reassurance to Huntington Mayor Steve Williams.
“The hospital will do everything that it can to make sure that they are caring for their patients. But they’re operating without their essential workers. And I’m praying that the workers and the leadership of the hospital will be able to come together and resolve their differences,” Williams said.
Other West Virginians are showing up on the side of the workers. One of those is Stephen Smith, who ran against Gov. Jim Justice in 2020 and works with the group WV Can’t Wait, which hopes to bring more progressive candidates to political offices throughout the state.
To Smith and his group, the workers are inspirational.
“What they’re doing in Huntington is sending a message that all of us, the whole rest of the state, anybody’s working for a living, that you don’t have to put up with it,” Smith said. “The company is telling you, you’re an essential worker, and you’re a hero, but stabbing you in the back, as soon as they get the chance.”
The last time union workers at the hospital went on strike was in 1998. That lasted 17 days.
The union announced it will make arguments against the restraining order Tuesday in Cabell County Circuit Court. There’s no set date for both parties to come back to the negotiation table.
Down at the picket line, Core said even more people have showed their support.
“I just can’t thank the community enough. I mean, for all the love, the cares, prayers, concerns, the food drink. That has really made me very proud. Not just to be out here on this line, but to be a citizen of Huntington,” Core said.
Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting with support from Charleston Area Medical Center and Marshall Health.