After 15 years, Kentucky hospital workers win first contract

Members of the United Steelworkers in Jackson, Kentucky reached their first tentative agreement with Kentucky River Medical Center (KRMC). The 200 workers, including nurses, technicians, and other staff, first voted to join USW in 1998. Workers at KRMC actually voted twice for a union, but management’s stalling tactics, both legal and illegal, had previously thwarted their choice.

That the company was able to stall so long shows how current collective bargaining laws and procedures are badly stacked against workers.

“It’s outrageous that these workers had to wait 15 years for a contract because of one greedy company,” said Leo Gerard, USW president.

KRMC is owned by Community Health Systems (CHS), the nation’s largest publicly owned, for-profit health care chain, whose board chair and CEO was paid $21.5 million in 2011.

When KRMC lost the first union representation election in 1998, it never bargained seriously with the workers.

A year went by, and a KRMC employee, likely at the behest of management, filed a National Labor Relations Board petition to decertify the union.

Another elections took place, and union supporters won that one too.

In 2000 when KRMC managers continued to stall during negotiations, workers went on a six-week unfair labor practices strike.

After workers returned to work, KRMC stepped up its harassment and intimidation of union supporters, eventually firing eight of them.

All but one were returned to work with back pay after the NLRB and courts ruled that the firings were related to the workers’ union support and thus illegal.

During the 15-year period between the first vote and the current tentative agreement, KRMC was found to have committed numerous unfair labor practices, but to avoid collective bargaining ignored some of the rulings and appealed others.

USW says that a 2011 ruling by the NLRB that KRMC was in contempt for continuing to bargain in bad faith finally coaxed KRMC into reaching an agreement with the workers.

While the latest NLRB ruling may have left the company with no other options, there were other events that may also have influenced Community Health Systems (CHS), KRMC’s owner, to get this contract settled.

To enhance its market share, CHS has been rapidly expanding its acquisitions of hospitals in small- and medium-sized markets making it the largest player in the for-profit hospital business.

But union opposition has slowed down some of these acquisitions and could pose an obstacle to future deals.

For example, in 2011 CHS tried to buy two hospitals owned by Mercy Health Partners of Scranton, Pennsylvania. The deal ran into trouble when members of SEIU Healthcare PA testified that CHS had an anti-union history and troubled relationship with union workers.

They cited as examples numerous unfair labor citations at CHS hospitals in Spokane, Washington; Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; and KRMC.

CHS expansion strategy has also been damaged by charges that it has improperly and perhaps fraudulently billed the federal and state governments for Medicare and Medicaid services.

In 2011, the US Justice Department opened an investigation into improper Medicare billing. The investigation began after a whistleblower lawsuit was filed in Indiana charging a CHS hospital with improperly admitting Medicare patients for unwarranted stays in the hospital.

Similar charges were made by Tenet Healthcare, the object of a hostile CHS takeover bid, in another lawsuit. The Texas attorney general also subpoenaed billing records of the CHS hospitals in the state.

The new agreement that KRMC reached with it workers includes a an above-market pay raise and, according to USW, “strong provisions on seniority, grievances, arbitration, and contract work.”

USW District 8 director Billy Thompson praised the workers at KRMC for standing together in the face of KRMC’s protracted obstinance.

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

USW’s chief negotiator for the KRMC campaign, Randy Pidcock said that the first contract is just the beginning. “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.”