United Steelworkers win union rights at medical centre after 15 year battle

Almost 15 years after joining the United Steelworkers (USW), 200 workers at Kentucky River Medical Center (KRMC) in Jackson, Kentucky, USA have reached a tentative agreement on a contract with the hospital’s owners.

The workers voted in May of 1998 to join the Steelworkers, but union-busting tactics employed by the KRMC’s owners, Tennessee-based health care giant Community Health Systems (CHS), resulted in more than a decade of delays.

Over the years, the company refused to bargain in good faith, fired workers for union activity, brought in replacements, unilaterally changed conditions of employment, and committed numerous other infractions. Even when they lost court cases, KRMC often refused to abide by the orders and appealed the decisions.

In 2011, the hospital was found to be in contempt and ordered back to the bargaining table under one of the strictest orders in the history of the National Labor Relations Board. Almost all of the fired workers were reinstated, and the company was forced to pay nearly $750,000 in back wages.

USW International President Leo W. Gerard said the length of the KRMC workers’ struggle proves that reforms are necessary to U.S. labour law to ensure that workers get the recognition they deserve in a timely manner.

“It’s outrageous that these workers had to wait 15 years for a contract because of one greedy company,” Leo Gerard said. “We’re happy to see that this day has come, but we must work to make sure this never happens again.”

The USW reached a one-year agreement that includes strong provisions on seniority, grievance and arbitration, and contract work, as well as above-market pay increases. The workers will vote on the agreement next week.

Steelworkers District 8 Director Billy Thompson said the KRMC union members deserve credit for standing together.

“These brave workers proved that solidarity, brotherhood and sisterhood still mean something,” Thompson said.

Randy Pidcock, who served as the USW’s chief negotiator and who worked on the KRMC organizing campaign since 1998, said the KRMC workers never gave up despite years of uncertainty.

“It’s been 15 years, but our work is just beginning,” Pidcock said. “Now, we must move forward, continue to stand up and build on what we’ve accomplished.”

The USW represents 850,000 workers in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean in a variety of industries, from glassmaking, mining, paper, steel, tire and rubber to the public sector, service and health care industries and is Unite’s partner union in Workers Uniting.

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