Over the past two months, Huntington, West Virginia has quickly emerged as a hotbed of strike activity.
Last month, the city, with a population of only 50,000, had 50 Machinists union members from Sulzer Pump and 450 Steelworkers union members from Special Metals go on strike.
Now, more than 1,000 medical workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital, members of SEIU 1199, are set to strike tomorrow at noon as the company demands cuts to workers’ union contracts despite the hospital expanding.
To prepare for the strike, the hospital has canceled all elective surgeries next week and has hired a private security firm to monitor picket line activities as the medical staff gets ready to take to the streets.
Additionally, as one of the largest hospitals in the region, they have brought in contingency staff to help staff the hospital for emergencies, and they’ve advertised temporary jobs to replace striking hospital workers with rates up to $15,000 for two weeks of work.
In 2018, the hospital expanded to become the Mountain Health Network, acquiring a nearby hospital St. Mary’s Medical for $140 million. The hospital group also recently broke ground on a $50 million expansion to Cabell Huntington Hospital and bought the naming rights to the Huntington Civic Center for $1.7 million in 2019.
“Even after purchasing other medical facilities through the region, the company is still demanding concessions,” said Sherri McKinney, director of SEIU district 1199 WV/KY/OH. “Every single item that they put on the bargaining table had a concession. They are asking workers to take wages cuts, healthcare cuts and even cuts to their holidays.”
Given past public support in Huntington for the strikes at Sulzer Pump and Special Metals, this strike is likely to garner more public support, which could lead workers to strike for as long as it takes until they get a good deal.
In early October, 50 Machinists union members went on strike at Sulzer Pump. At that plant, the strike caught the company off guard. Within two weeks, the company settled the strike. The union was also able to beat back all the concessions, protect seniority, and win wage increases.
Union leaders cited the role of community members — who organized food banks and supported events on behalf of the striking workers — as being critical to winning the strike.
“Thanks to their determination and the support of the community, we have protected some of the best careers in the area,” said Machinist District 54 President T. Dean Wright Jr. in a statement after settling the contract.
Around the same time, 450 workers, members of the Steelworkers went on strike at Special Metals. The Special Metals plant is the largest nickel alloy plant globally and is owned by Berkshire Hathway and its billionaire CEO Warren Buffet.
However, Special Metals brought in scabs, and the strike has now been stretched into its fifth week.
As for the 1,000 medical workers who plan to strike at Cabell Huntington Hospital tomorrow, things could escalate beyond Huntington, West Virginia.
“After the pandemic, you are seeing workers across the country say that they have enough,” says SEIU’s McKinney. “Workers are standing up and striking in Huntington like they are standing up all over the country.”