Huntington residents met to discuss the importance of workers’ unions and other working-class issues with West Virginia senate member and retired United States Army officer Richard Ojeda, Wednesday, Oct. 3 in Marshall University’s Memorial Student Center.
Ojeda said the model American today is the workingman or woman who wakes up, gets dressed, goes to work to feed the family and pays their fair share in taxes.
“When that person stops, everything falls apart,” he said. “I want all workers to know you are worthy no matter what your job is.”
Ojeda is running for a seat in the United States House of Representatives in West Virginia’s District 3. Earlier this year, Ojeda won the democratic primary in West Virginia, gaining more votes than the four leading republican candidates combined.
Ojeda said since becoming a right to work state, West Virginia government officials have done everything in their power to kill unions, putting workers across the state in danger of losing benefits and protections. He said if unions disappear, the world, the US and the state will all be changed drastically for the worse.
“When unions are gone, workers will have no representation at all,” Ojeda said. “If we lose unions, decent paying jobs will begin to see less income, and workers will be powerless to make changes.”
Service Employees International Union District 1199 represents nearly 7,000 healthcare workers in Kentucky and West Virginia, including workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital.
Workers at St. Mary’s Medical Center in Huntington, the second largest medical center in the tri-state area, currently have no union representation.
Amber Schlief has worked in the housekeeping department of St. Mary’s for six years, and she said her favorite thing about her job is making her patients smile.
“I really love making them smile,” Schlief said. “It’s just who I am, and anyone who has ever worked with me knows that. But when we’re running shorthand, I can’t make anyone smile.”
With a current shortage of employees, all she has time to do is clean rooms, mop floors, then get out of the patient’s way, Schlief said.
“We have been told that we’re overstaffed,” she said. “But we’re running short on workers every day.”
Schlief said she fears what will happen if even more workers at local hospitals and health care centers begin to lose their jobs, and the result of that would be local healthcare centers becoming even more unsafe than they already are.
She said she fears what could happen would devastating for both workers and patients.
“It seems like officials don’t care about our patients,” Schlief said. “It’s like they’re just another number on a paycheck.”
Schlief said she is worried Huntington hospitals are currently suffering from a lack of compassion. She said she doesn’t even have time at work to stop to ask patients how their days went or if they are feeling okay.
“I am scared,” Schlief said. “I have a 9-year-old kid who depends on me, and I don’t know what to do anymore.”
Tammy Hicks has worked in St. Mary’s housekeeping for 13 years, and she said she believes the health center is substantially different today than it used to be.
“We have workers here who work one or two extra jobs just to get by, and that’s not right,” Hicks said. “We’re not trying to be greedy, we just want to earn a living wage.”
Hicks said if hospital workers were taken care of better and given more appropriate benefits and protections, it would allow them to take care of their patients more completely.
Bonnie Maynard, a worker at Cabell Huntington Hospital, said she is an example of one of thousands of tri-state healthcare workers who have benefited from union representation.
“I was fired from Cabell Huntington Hospital, but my union, SEIU 1199, fought for me and won my job back because my firing was an honest mistake,” Maynard said.
Maynard said for nine months she was anxious, fearful and worried about the direction of her life before being rehired as if nothing ever happened.
“We need our sister facility, St. Mary’s, to become a part of SEIU 1199, because we want what’s best for our children and grandchildren,” she said.
Maynard said Huntington’s two major hospitals should combine their forces to give workers a living wage, better benefits and a respected voice.
“But it’s going to take everyone’s help to make that happen,” Maynard said.
Ojeda said officials and citizens must hold medical centers accountable to fight for better pay, benefits and protections for their workers.
“I don’t care to say it, I whole-heartedly support unions, and I will until the day I die,” Ojeda said.
Practically every benefit and protection appreciated by workers today resulted from unions fighting for that change, he said.
Ojeda talked about the possibility of a workers’ strike similar to the teachers’ strikes throughout the nation inspired by West Virginia service workers that recently made national news.
“We’re told it’s illegal for certain workers to strike,” Ojeda said. “But the teachers went on strike, and they won better lives for hundreds of thousands of workers and families.”
Ojeda said hospitals in Huntington must come together to hold leadership accountable to treat their workers fairly.
“I’m not entirely sure what the answer is right now, but I know we have to come up with that answer,” he said.
He said voters should focus on electing representatives who will fight for their needs and values, regardless of party affiliations.
“Do not support any candidate not fighting unapologetically and whole-heartedly on behalf of the working-class,” Ojeda said.
Douglas Harding can be contacted at [email protected]