From Cookies to Steel: Ohio Valley Organization Goes Beyond Coal

In late December, West Virginia union members and supporters gathered in the small town of Elkview, about 20 minutes from Charleston. Dozens of linemen, coal miners, educators, plumbers and others lined the roadside outside Tudor’s Biscuit World to show their support for the fast food store’s organizing effort local.

Tudor’s has a grip on West Virginia’s imagination – it’s the state’s signature breakfast chain, where hungry travelers can choose from about 20 varieties of cookie-based breakfast sandwiches with creative names. Workers at the fast food chain’s Elkview site have been engaged in a organizing effort for months, born after years of grievances over allegations of verbal abuse, low pay and long hours.

During the rally, one of the organizers, Cynthia Nicholson, shouted along with the crowd, chanting “Rise up! To come down! Elkview is a union town! Cynthia helped lead the union effort because, she says, she had less to lose. She makes ends meet with a union pension from her recently deceased husband and had taken up the job alongside her son, Daniel, as a way to introduce some structure into her life.

Nicholson said after a few months of verbal abuse from management, backbreaking work, inconsistent schedules, low pay and stifled conversations with disgruntled co-workers, she decided her store needed to organize itself. . She contacted Local 400 of the United Food and Commercial Workers to see if she could convince her colleagues to join. Half the store showed up for a first meeting at a local Italian restaurant. Within a week, 20 of the store’s 25 employees had signed union cards.

Discontent has simmered in the small town of Tudor for years, but the combination of the COVID-19 pandemic and the perception of increased union activity has fanned the flames.

Current employee Jennifer Patton said working for $9.50 an hour, which does not include benefits, often made her feel unsafe.

“I worked with someone for three consecutive days […] who tested positive for COVID that Saturday, and they didn’t tell us at all,” Patton said.

When she went to the company’s human resources department, she said she was told she didn’t need to know when her colleagues tested positive for COVID-19.

Grievances in all sectors

Labor leaders and reporters have called the nation’s tumultuous fall a “strikewave” – ​​a season of simmering discontent in the American working class, featuring household names like Kelloggs and Nabisco. In West Virginia, the year ended in a tumultuous series of events, from strikes to labor campaigns, across Huntington, Charleston and the southern coalfields.

Although West Virginia has long been associated with coal miner strikes, recent actions have taken place in industries that represent a wider range of West Virginians from different walks of life – people who work in health care, fast food, steel and non-profit organizations.

Huntington, West Virginia has a long history as a union town. Workers at the Cabell Huntington Hospital and the specialty metals plant owned by Warren Buffett cited this background as inspiration for their fall strikes, both of which resulted in contentious contract negotiations, such as the ‘ReSource reported in November.

Workers at both companies cited safety concerns and employer-sponsored cuts to health benefits as the main reason for the walkouts.

Fran Barker operates the “pickle line” at Special Metals – a dangerous process that uses acid to treat the metal.

“What upsets me the most is just before the strike, we shut down a factory for safety reasons,” Barker said. “And things were not arranged […] so how do you expect us to work safely? »

Barker and some of her female co-workers, who call themselves the “Women of Steel”, have prepared breakfast, lunch, dinner and take-out meals for their striking co-workers. They hoped that the December negotiations would lead to a favorable outcome, but that did not happen.

Special Metals and Cabell Huntington Hospital hired highly paid temporary replacement workers during the strike. Cabell Huntington Hospital concluded negotiations in early December with a contract, and nurses have been back to work for nearly two months. Privately, some expressed frustration that the contract did not go far enough and include a reduction in benefits for retirees.

And in January, after picketing until Christmas, 75 Special Metals workers received layoff notices, effective Feb. 7.

Employer reprisals are a reality

The public is increasingly aware of labor issues, but unions still face enormous challenges.

Maxim Baru, an organizer with International Workers of the World, has spent the past few months helping to organize staff at the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, a regional nonprofit, after complaints of long hours, sleepless nights and low salaries.

“Just because there’s a new sense of momentum doesn’t mean it’s totally more advantageous,” Baru said. “Many employers still have huge financial and political advantages over their employees.”

The OVEC board retaliated by firing two employees, according to former organizer Brendan Muckian-Bates.

“I think that’s one of the things that frustrates me the most about all of this is that we couldn’t even lay out a way forward for OVEC,” Muckian-Bates said.

The employees filed four unfair labor practice lawsuits to recover their wages. In November, the company’s board dissolved the organization instead of recognizing the union. The National Labor Relations Board is now trying to get the company to pay back wages for the two dismissed employees. A judge froze the assets of the association.

Baru said organizing nonprofits and other industries has been difficult, and many workplaces require a different approach than the old-school shop floor.

“If we respond to this demand by continuing to do some sort of one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter organizing campaign, we’re going to disappoint a lot of people,” Baru said. “The unionization process can sometimes be very long.

At Tudor, workers see high turnover as a major challenge to the organizing effort. Although 80% of the store initially signed union cards, many of the signatories no longer work in the store, leaving them with a much smaller majority.

Cynthia Nicholson and Jennifer Patton, two of Tudor’s Biscuit World unionists, were suspended in January in what they say was a union bust.

Tudor’s Biscuit World did not voluntarily recognize its employees’ new union with UFCW 400, so Nicholson and his colleagues filed for election with the National Labor Relations Board. Employees sent in their ballots in December. The NLRB will announce the results on January 25.

If Elkview Tudor workers win the election, they will be one of the first unionized fast food restaurants in the United States – after Burgerville in Portland, Oregon, which signed its contract in November.

Meanwhile, a bill in Congress could have a ripple effect on the lives of workers throughout the Ohio Valley. The Protection of the Right to Organize Act, elements of which are contained in the Building Back Better Act, would protect workers from employer interference in union efforts, provide legal protection against employer, etc. But the measure is still stalled in the US Senate.

A movement that reflects the region

Popular perception of labor activity in central Appalachia tends to associate picket lines with coal miners. But Dr. Jessie Wilkerson, a historian at West Virginia University, says that doesn’t recognize the full picture of the region’s labor history.

For example, around the time of the 1973 Brookside strike in Harlan, Ky. – made famous by movies like Harlan County, USA, and nicknames like “Bloody Harlan” – there was a strike at Pike County hospitals, and the workers were mostly women.

“These workers who were on strike often went to each other’s picket lines,” Wilkerson said. “But this is just one of those that are commemorated and written into Appalachian labor history.”

According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, West Virginia had the highest concentration of fast food workers in the United States in 2020. There are 54,780 West Virginians working in the restaurant industry.

Healthcare workers also have a high share of representation in the Ohio Valley, especially in rural areas, as a rare service that cannot be outsourced. The region’s healthcare workforce is mostly made up of women, especially in lower-ranking jobs.

Working conditions are also different these days compared to the mid-20th century – fewer workshops, more job-hopping, gig work and short-term contracts. Wilkerson compared it to the 1930s era before the New Deal, a time when precarious work was more common than during the post-war boom, and workers had to organize across racial lines. and ethnicities, and across industries, to win.

“One thing the pandemic has done is pay more attention to the experiences of precarious workers,” Wilkerson said.

And this labor story is an inspiration to the employees of Elkview Tudor’s Biscuit World.

Daniel Nicholson, a former steam fitter and current Tudor worker, said unionizing is educational, not just for his co-workers, but for others like them. Even if they don’t win their union, he said they’re paving the way for others who might want to try.

“We reminded people that, you know, West Virginia was one of the cradles of organized labor in the 1920s,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson said he thinks of how coal company owners used to threaten unionized mine workers with violence. When asked if he thought companies would really threaten the lives of their workers these days, he shrugged and laughed. Maybe not today, he said.

“But you give someone an inch and they take a mile,” Nicholson said.

The company did not respond to a request for comment from Ohio Valley ReSource. A Tudor representative told the West Virginia Gazette-Mail in November that the company already protects its workers and does not believe a union is necessary.

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