Entering a second week of picketing at ARH facilities in eastern Kentucky and West Virginia, some union members sat, huddled up in lawn chairs underneath layers of clothing. Others stood, holding up signs declaring “Unfair Labor Practices” or simply saying “Scabs Go Home.“ The cold may have set in during the past weekend, but the lines held.
On one side sits a company that has temporarily lost 60 percent of its workforce, but continues to operate healthcare facilities at nine locations in two states. On the other side are 2,800 United Steel Workers, holding on to what they say they deserve, calling into question a contract proposal they say is concessionary at best.
“We are not on strike because we want to be, we are on strike because we were left with no choice,” said Dwayne Herald, local President of the Hazard chapter of the United Steel Workers (USW) union. “But the morale is high and the people are holding strong.”
Negotiations for a new employee contract between the USW and Appalachian Regional Healthcare broke down on March 31, just before the previous contract expired. Officials with the USW described the offered contract as unacceptable, while a statement on ARH's website called the company's proposal a "fair contract that provides market competitive wages and benefits."
Both ARH and the USW began negotiations anew Wednesday and Thursday with officials on both sides optimistic that an agreement could be reached. After Thursday's negotiation, no agreement had been reached, and the pickets kept to their lines.
According to Herald, the ball is in ARH's corner as to when new negotiations can begin. “ARH has to pick up this thing called a telephone and call federal mediation and tell them that they’re ready to meet and they’ll contact us.
“We're not standing out here because we don’t want to negotiate, we’re not negotiating because the company has never called us back,” he added. “We’ll meet any time, anywhere.”
As of press time, no new time table for negotiations has been announced. ARH spokesperson Candace Elkins noted that officials with ARH are awaiting a call from a federal mediator as to when an appropriate time to begin new negotiations will be. According to a statement on the ARH website, the company will continue to negotiate in hopes of ending the strike. “ARH believes in the process of collective bargaining, and it is our sincere desire to give the process every opportunity for success. Negotiations between ARH and the USW continue and we are hopeful that a resolution can be reached to resolve the issues and to end the strike,” the statement says.
A major and repeated point of emphasis for USW members in Hazard has been the proposed healthcare plan. "ARH in essence, is locking us into a health insurance plan that will force us to use ARH only, if they provide the service," Herald said. "No matter the status of the physician, his workload, what have you. And the people in Lexington, the corporate people, they have a Cadillac plan. They can go anywhere in the world and receive healthcare at 90 percent."
But according to the aforementioned website statement, the proposed healthcare plan is financially sound for the company’s employees. “ARH is proposing an enhanced health benefit that has financial incentives for our employees to use our facilities,” it says.
Other points of contention with the proposed contract have been with wages, pension plans, and seniority among others, officials have said in the past week. The statement on ARH’s website goes on to say that the company’s plan offers a proposed wage increase, and there is no intention to eliminate or alter pension benefits to current employees.
In the meantime, USW members on the picket lines have been receiving support from several local businesses. John Hansen, Perry County's former Commonwealth’s Attorney and current Hazard attorney, said he has been supporting the picket lines in Hazard out of respect. "I grew up in southern West Virginia, and that is definitely UMWA strike territory," he said. "And so you come to Hazard and respect the union tremendously, and certainly, I've always been for the underdog.
"It would be nice if the strike could be avoided somehow and they could come to a happy medium. My heart goes out to them."
King's Pizza owner and Perry County School Board member Chester Jones, more commonly known as “The Pizza Man,” delivered boxes of pizza to the picket lines Monday from other local businesses, and noted that the union members apparently have a good reason to strike from what he has seen and read. "Basically, they have good reasons to strike from what I've seen," Jones said. "And we're supporting them 100 percent."
Presently, there are no accurate estimations as to when the strike will end, but several USW members and ARH employees in Hazard say they'll be on the picket line as long as it takes. But in the meantime, union members are staying on the lines and out of work, waiting to see if their strike is worth the effort and a new contract can be agreed upon. "Hopefully we'll come to some kind of agreement and get this settled," said ARH employee and USW member Brenda Lovins as she stood on the picket line in Hazard Monday. "We'll just have to wait and see."