Despite a hostile legislature, UE Local 170 members fight back, win some victories during the past year

We knew that this year would not be a good year for achieving some of the things we needed like an across the board pay raise for all state workers, pay increases based on seniority and seniority rights or meaningful improvements to our grievance system, but we could not even get items that were revenue neutral like seniority protection for job transfers. The legislature is run by a majority that is not sympathetic to the needs of working people.

Our strategy this time was defensive, trying to defend the gains we have made in the past.  At stake this time was our insurance, the Public Employee Insurance Agency, facing dramatic increases in deductibles and co-payments and our jobs from being contracted out. On that front we some victories.

UE Local 170 has been aware that PEIA co-pays and deductibles would be rising to levels that would make having family medical coverage unaffordable to most of our membership. Why is this happening?

It is happening due to the deliberate underfunding of PEIA for the past few years with the approval of the Governor’s office, where the state budgets drafted. Over the years PEIA has been a very reliable and reputable health insurance program for state workers. In fact, it was one of the nation’s best examples of a single payer health care system. The failure to properly fund PEIA had made it very difficult to keep up with the increasing hospital and pharmaceutical costs. The result has been to heap these growing expenses onto the backs of state workers year after year. This year UE Local 170 approached several members of the state legislature to inform them what was going on with PEIA and how it would impact on our members. Surprisingly, some of delegates and senators were so out of touch with the needs of working people that they had no idea what was happening. Other members of the House, including Delegates Nancy Guthrie, Mike Pushkin, Peggy Donaldson Smith and Mike Caputo worked diligently for a solution in the form of revenue to fill the budget gap. Some delegates and senators opposed raising taxes on anything. It became quite clear that failure to take action would be catastrophic to state workers and many elected officials would face a serious backlash from angry voters. Nearly one in seven West Virginia residents depends on PEIA.

It was agreed that a one dollar tax would be levied on tobacco products to provide the funds need to avoid raising deductibles and co-payments to a point that many could not afford. This solution will only cover the coming year, which means we must fight this battle again the year after. At a time when reducing the size of the state government and contracting out are the fad among those who subscribe to pro-corporate and neo-liberal practices, such as U.S. Senators Joe Manchin and Shelly Moore-Capito, Governor Earl Ray Tomblin and legislators from both parties, it has become clear the underfunding of PEIA has been deliberate. This means that insurers in the private sector want to devour what remains of our health insurance system. We must not allow this to happen.

Our second victory was preventing the sale of some of our state hospitals and nursing homes. This is especially insidious since it was a measure quietly inserted into legislative agenda. We were alerted to this by some of our friends in the legislature otherwise there is a chance this could have discussed before a legislative committee composed of members who would have approved of the measure and passed it on the House and Senate chambers for a vote.

On the chopping block were Jackie Withrow hospital/nursing care facility (Raleigh Co.), the Hopemont (Preston Co.) and Lakin (Mason Co.) nursing care facilities and the Manchin Hospital (Marion Co.). If this measure would have passed this year then Sharpe (Lewis Co.) and Mildred Mitchell-Bateman (Cabell) would be next. These state facilities provide services to the poorest segments of society and some of the most violent or special needs patients that private hospitals and nursing homes consider undesirable or who have no insurance. Hopemont, Jackie Withrow, and Lakin provide long term nursing care. Hopemont has already been hit hard by contracting out since as few as twenty regular state workers remain, all other are contract employees. Manchin Hospital provides medical care to the poorest citizens of Marion County and provides meals on wheels to many of the disabled and elderly living in the area.

UE Local 170 compelled a reading of the bill in the House chambers in effort to find out who was behind this major sell off of state property. We want to thank Delegate Peggy Donaldson Smith (Lewis Co.) and our own Nola Lilly, Chapter 4 President for their speaking on our behalf at the public hearing. Many suspected Republican hard liners aligned with the Koch brothers of Oklahoma and their American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). ALEC funds the campaigns of Democratic and Republican politicians who adopt their neo-conservative agenda for reducing the size of government, especially regulatory agencies and ALEC provides templates for legislation that can be adopted by states across the country.

To our surprise, the Republican leadership was unaware of the legislation and had not sponsored it. We learned that the privatization bill was introduced by DHHR with the full knowledge of the Democratic Governor. Specifically, a state senator who is related to the Secretary of DHHR has also collaborated against state workers. Our members mobilized to fight. We rallied support with those delegates and senators who have worked with us in the past. Members contacted workers at these facilities to spread the news. I personally made contact with a worker at Manchin. Others leafleted workers at the targeted nursing homes.

UE Staff representative, Steve Bader, and myself were joined by Chapter 5 President, Cynthia Potter and Chapter 4 President, Nola Lilly to talk to workers at Lakin on a rather warm Sunday afternoon in Winter. Leaflets were passed out and some new members signed up. A follow up meeting with some workers was held the following Monday by UE Staff representative, Gordon Simmons. The action that happened next was an idea by UE Local 170 Chief Steward, Jamie Beaton, who located a calling service at a bargain price that placed automated phone calls to members of the legislature for one day around the clock.

Can you imagine what it must be like getting that phone call at three o’clock in the morning and hearing a recorded message from President Donna Morgan?

Our efforts were successful and thanks to Delegate Smith, the legislation was amended to a study resolution that would study the impact of privatizing these facilities. In a similar measure, Delegate Nancy Guthrie has tried to get legislation passed that would mandate justification for privatization of any state operation. We wish to extend our gratitude to all of those who rallied with us in this battle. The war on workers is not over, REMAIN VIGILENT!!!

UE Local 170 Vice President Chris Wolford.