In the Ohio Valley, the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing labor shortage have encouraged workers to join what many say is a national and growing wave of labor actions.
Workers across industries, in steel, health care, nonprofits and food service, have joined in calling for increased health benefits and safety measures on the job, saying contract negotiations have yielded unsatisfying results.
Union organizers say this is a significant moment, even for a region with a long history of industrial unionism.
In Huntington, West Virginia, hospital workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital and steel workers at Special Metals are on strike. In Elkview, West Virginia, staff of locally beloved fast food chain Tudor’s Biscuit World are unionizing. Meanwhile, leadership of the nonprofit organization Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition recently elected to fold the organization rather than sign a union contract with its staff.
Two Walkouts in Huntington
Hundreds of steelworkers employed at the Special Metals alloy plant in Huntington have been on strike since October 1, 2021.
Down the road from the plant at the United Steelworkers Local 40 union hall, tables are overflowing with food donations in a show of support from the Huntington community and other USW locals in the region.
Amid packs of canned beans and loaves of bread sits Chad Thompson, the local’s president and a mechanic at the plant.
Thompson said 450 employees decided to strike after plant management proposed slashing employee benefits and raising healthcare premiums. The company also reduced the training required for certain temporarily assigned jobs at the plant, throwing people into dangerous work without necessary preparation, Thompson said.
“I know, membership nationwide was dropped in unions or whatever,” Thompson said. “But it seems to me that, you know, the communities now are taking notice that, you know, people’s had enough.”
Thompson said the workers at Local 40 aren’t alone in being fed up and ready to walk out — in fact, they are sharing their wealth of donations with another union about 10 minutes away, whose hundreds of members are currently hard at work picketing Cabell Huntington Hospital.
Hospital workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital, who are members of SEIU Local 1199, are camped out at the facility’s every entrance to protest another, similar benefits cut.
Cabell acquired another hospital, St. Mary’s Medical Center, in 2014, a consolidation which many hospital workers point to as the beginning of an extended period of wage stagnation and increased workload.
Union organizer Sherri McKinney said COVID-19 has been a breaking point for members, many of whom are now going into the holidays without knowing whether they’ll be able to put food on the table.
“The pandemic opened a lot of eyes for health care workers,” McKinney said. “I just think it’s important for people to know that these are hard decisions and workers would not do this if it wasn’t a necessary evil.”
New Unions Meet Opposition from Employers
While established unions push for higher wages, other nascent unionization efforts are bubbling to the surface.
UFCW organizer Alan Hanson says workers at the Elkview location of beloved West Virginia breakfast chain Tudor’s Biscuit World reached out to him in early November.
Hanson said 80% of the store signed up for the union, but management at Tudor’s did not voluntarily recognize it. That led workers to contact the National Labor Review Board for formal recognition. Workers hope for a store-wide union vote in December.
Another effort at the regional environmental nonprofit Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition resulted in the organization’s collapse, after leadership fired two staff members for involvement in the effort. The NLRB ruled these firings illegal, but rather than re-hire, leadership elected to dissolve the nonprofit.
“Remember, it is our right to join a union and management cannot retaliate against us in any way for exercising our rights,” said the Elkview Tudor’s workers in a release. “As long as we stay united there is nothing management can do to us.”
Negotiations at both Special Metals and Cabell Huntington Hospital will continue in mid-December. Strikers say they are prepared to dig in for the winter.