Huntington West Virginia on Strike
Special Metals, Warren Buffet, Appalachia, and the fight for respect.
I think it would break a lot of families. I mean they'd have to, you know, scale down on vehicles or houses or, you know, kids going to college, or things they're doing, drop out on vacations, you know, scale down on that all just to be able to afford health insurance. I don't think that's right.
- Chad Thompson, President, United Steel Workers Local 40, Huntington W. Va
A few weeks ago, Mike Elk (labor reporter at the PayDay Report) and I traveled to Huntington West Virginia where 450 steelworkers are striking for respect in the workplace at the Warren Buffet-owned Special Metals plant.
In addition to the steelworkers, 1,000 employees at Cabell Hunting Hospital went on strike the same week, joining 50 more workers already on strike at Sulzer Pump, bringing the total number of recent striking workers to 1,500 in a small Appalachian city of 46,000.
Huntington is the latest town on the front lines fighting for dignity in the workplace and the kind of society that works for everyone. Here’s the video and transcript with their story:
Video transcript with additional reading:
John Russell 00:00
What's Warren Buffett got to do with West Virginia and these folks? The world's 10th richest man owns the company where they work, Special Metals in Huntington, West Virginia, where 450 workers have been on strike since October 1. Here's Chad Thompson, President of United Steelworkers Local 40.
Chad Thompson, President, United Steel Workers, Local 40 - 00:16
Until now, they've never came after our insurance and stuff like this. We're not asking for anything, you know, outrageous, you know, what we've asked for, what we've got, or we've signed contracts for previous. We also don't want to pay $1000 or $1,100 a month for insurance either. And when we're paying $300 now. With that kind of increase, you just can't go back for that. You can't, you can't... I think it would break a lot of families. I mean they'd have to, you know, scale down on vehicles or houses or, you know, kids going to college or, you know, things they're doing, drop out on vacations, you know, scale down on that just to be able to afford health insurance. I don't think that's right.
John Russell 00:51
Special Metals is the largest factory of its kind in the world. They make the parts that keep our airplanes from falling out of the sky. It's highly skilled, very tough work.
Chad Thompson 01:00
I mean, it's dangerous. You're dealing with hot hot metal and everything big and hot, you got to pay attention. And that's where by qualified, you know, you get training and we stick to it.
John Russell 01:11
The company hired inexperienced scab workers to try and continue operation. Some quit after a couple of weeks, others left in ambulances after accidents, and at least one manager FaceTimed a striking worker about how to operate one of the machines.
Chad Thompson 01:24
You make sure the company tries to stick to, you know, if there's a break in time or training period or piece of equipment or a job, you know, we, we make sure that the guys get that training and that the guy has signed off on and understands the process so you don't get hurt, or hurt somebody else, or hurt equipment, or kill the product.
John Russell 01:40
The things made here are key parts of our economy, which is why Warren Buffett bought Special Metals parent company in 2015 for $37 billion. It's the most that the "Oracle of Omaha" has ever paid for a company. Buffett's wealth has increased 34 and a half billion dollars over the pandemic, and his company that owns Special Metals posted six and a half billion dollars in profits last quarter. But the workers who helped make his money? They're gonna feel the pinch right around Christmas time. Because while the union has offered to negotiate around the clock, Special Metals hasn't changed its hardline initial offer and hasn't scheduled a bargaining session until just days before Christmas.
Chad Thompson 02:17
This time of year's hard to be on strike, you know, especially with families people have kids and stuff. You don't go out on strike right before Christmas, you know, unless it's... unless it's needed. You know, people just don't do this on a whim or just because, like I said, they want hot tubs in a break room or some kind of shit. It's serious. It's, you know, it's justified.
John Russell 02:37
The fight for more and better isn't just happening at Special Metals. It's happening all over the country, and right down the street. 1,000 workers at Cabell Huntington Hospital went on strike November 3, bringing the recent number of striking workers here to 1,500 people. That's a lot of families for a town of 46,000 folks.
John Russell 02:55
What's going on in Huntington? Why so many people on strike?
Chad Thompson 02:59
I guess all the companies got together and decided they've were gonna, you know, not respect their employees and wanted to take everything.
John Russell 03:05
But the community is stepping up to support each other.
Chad Thompson 03:07
I mean, as you can tell, I mean, the community has been great. I mean, they, every day, there's people with their businesses bringing food in, you know, and everything from diapers, food, dog food, the whole nine yards, and they've contributed money to the striker defense fund here. So the community and businesses around here stepped up awesome. I mean, we can't, we can't thank them enough.
John Russell 03:26
Huntington is just the latest town where we are all deciding what kind of future we want. Does Warren Buffett need more money to keep presents under the tree? Probably not. But a little would go a long way for these workers.
Chad Thompson 03:39
We're not wanting to, you know, get rich, we're not going to. I mean, you don't get rich working for somebody else. Everybody knows that. But, just be fair, pay the guys what they're worth, a reasonable fair raise, don't mess with our insurance or vacation. Guys have to have time off to spend with their families and give us a safe place to work. Then we'll go up there like we always have, and we'll put the metal at the door.
In case you missed it, here are our other short videos from the Huntington picket lines:
And an update on the John Deere strike that closed with a win for workers.
Take it easy, but take it.
Great series of articles on the absolute need for organized labor representation in West Virginia, John. Keep up the great reporting!