If time is circular and everything old is new again, then we might see more working people take to the picket line, just as they did in the 1970s and 1980s.
It’s hard to blame them, considering how things have changed for working people in the past 20 to 30 years. When the concept of job security is a joke, when more money goes to people who move money around and less to people who do the actual work, and when you can’t get ahead no matter how hard you work, something has to give.
As of this writing, the Huntington area has two strikes underway. One is at Cabell Huntington Hospital, where more than 900 members of Service Employees International Union District 1199 members in the service and maintenance units went on strike Tuesday.
The other is at Special Metals. Members of United Steelworkers 40 have been on strike since their contract expired at the end of September. News of progress on negotiations for a new contract has been hard to come by as neither side wants to talk. Herald-Dispatch business reporter Fred Pace tries daily to get some idea of what’s happening, but when neither side wants to talk, there’s not much we can publish.
These strikes remind me of the old days when strikes were common in this region. Back in 1978 when I joined The Herald-Dispatch news staff, we had a story every Monday letting readers know the latest on work stoppages from Piketon, Ohio, to Pikeville, Kentucky, to Hurricane and Point Pleasant, West Virginia. We had lots of material to work with.
I covered several strikes in my reporting days from 1978 to 2004. Each was different, but they had several things in common. The most important thing was to present an evenly balanced story, even when one side wouldn’t talk.
In 1989 or thereabouts, the United Mine Workers of America had a big strike. The newspaper sent three reporters out to cover that one. Tim Massey went to eastern Kentucky, Dave Peyton went to southern West Virginia and I went to a mine in southern Ohio. That was the only strike I covered in which I interviewed a worker as she was changing into her softball uniform.
Later in that strike I was sent to Mingo County, West Virginia, where tempers were rising at the Hampden Coal Company. As soon as I got to the picket line, I was told I was not welcome. That morning, a Charleston newspaper published a big photo on Page 1 of pickets throwing rocks or something at a truck leaving the mine. It didn’t matter that I was from a different newspaper. I was from an industry that had wronged them. One picket calmly told me I wouldn’t want to be there in an hour or so when something was going to happen. I took the hint.
In 1998, I was on the last Friday of a two-week vacation when an editor called and asked if I could come in and help cover a strike that had begun at Cabell Huntington Hospital.
And here we are again, with strikes once more art of the mix in labor-management relations.
It’s not just here. As of this writing, more than 10,000 John Deere workers at 12 facilities in Iowa, Illinois and Kansas who make tractors and other equipment are on strike, having turned down a 10% pay increase the company offered.
Are strikes back? My guess is that they are. Unions have been on the decline and need something to prove they are still relevant. And if the people who are on strike get what they want or at least what they need, we will see more. You can push people only so far before they push back.