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Service Employees International Union District 1199 union workers in the service and maintenance units at Cabell Huntington Hospital begin their strike on Nov. 3, 2021, in Huntington. 

HUNTINGTON — A temporary restraining order blocking certain actions by Cabell Huntington Hospital employees on the picket line will remain in place until a full evidence hearing can be held next month.

More than 900 Service Employees International Union (SEIU) members in the service and maintenance units went on strike Nov. 3 for the first time in 23 years. Cabell County Circuit Judge Alfred Ferguson issued a temporary restraining order Nov. 10 after the hospital filed a motion for a preliminary injunction to stop some actions by the striking workers.

The sides will return to the bargaining table next week in hopes of resolving the strike.

During a Tuesday hearing before Cabell Circuit Judge Christopher D. Chiles, union attorneys said the restraining order contained overly broad language, some of which could create free speech violations and make it difficult for them to follow.

The order prohibits those on the picket line from engaging in or encouraging loud and boisterous conduct, including the use of bullhorns, air horns, loud music and honking; using burn barrels near the Lung Health Center at 13th Avenue and Elm Street; blocking, obstructing or in any way hindering the use of handicap curb cuts; picketing, patrolling or gathering within 15 feet of the corner adjacent to the Emergency Department entrance; and interfering with traffic or hindering the free use of roads and streets.

It also prevents the picket line from doing anything to prevent the hospital from the delivery of medical services to the public; trespassing on hospital property; any direct communication with patients, visitors, employees, vendors and neutral trade union members entering and exiting the hospital; picketing within 20 feet of a reserve gate used by neutral trade union workers or communicating in any way with those using the reserve gate; and use of vulgarities, obscenities or threats to intimidate hospital employees, patients, neutral trade union members and members of the general public.

Last week, the hospital said people on the picket line were not following the order. Union representatives said they were following the order as laid out by Ferguson in court and said the hospital was using scare tactics to try to intimidate workers on the strike line.

Not using air horns and spacing issues was not an issue, but problems arise with general, non-specific language in the order. The union attorney said Tuesday she has a responsibility to tell her clients what would be a violation of the protective order, but she cannot do that with the current language.

Chiles set a full evidence hearing at 9 a.m. Friday, Dec. 10, for the sides to make their arguments for what a final restraining order should contain. The hearing is expected to last at least a day. The judge encouraged the attorneys to meet in the coming days to figure out where their opinions differ and what would need to be argued at that time.

As an example of their issue with the current temporary restraining order, union attorneys said the order requires striking workers to stay 15 feet from a curb, but it does not clarify where a curb starts or ends.

The attorneys also said the restraining order bars any communication with patients, but they questioned how striking workers were expected to stop patients from talking with them. Chiles said he did not see an issue if patients initiated conversations with the workers on strike. The hospital’s attorney agreed but said it would be a violation if they discussed the strike. The union representative said any such restrictions would be a First Amendment rights violation.

The union attorney said they received calls “all day, every day” about workers on strike violating the order, and without more specific language they would be returning to court on contempt allegations several times.

A hospital attorney said their problems with the striking workers not following the order are situations that should be common sense for them not to do. As an example, he said strike activity at one point made it hard for an ambulance to turn into the hospital.

The union representative adamantly denied that happened, stating the workers on strike care for the patients and are being peaceful.

Molly Frick, director of Human Resources for Cabell Huntington Hospital, said Tuesday the hospital and SEIU will return to the bargaining table Nov. 30. Frick said the hospital hopes the union will make a serious offer when resuming negotiations.

“All we have asked from the beginning is that members of the union’s service unit start making a reasonable contribution to their health care premiums,” she said. “For more than 70 years, Cabell Huntington Hospital has provided the region’s most generous health care plan for employees and their families and covered 100% of health care premiums.”

Sherri McKinney, SEIU District 1199 organizing director, said the hospital is negatively affecting people’s lives and livelihoods.

“The false allegation that the union is not wanting to come in good faith is beyond disingenuous,” McKinney said. “We have come each time with an abundance of good faith, willing to stay until a fair agreement was reached. We cannot say the same for Cabell negotiators.”

In turn, McKinney said the hospital is acting in bad faith by making an offer less than what union members had for decades.

Frick said the hospital is seeking service employees contribute, on average, less than 5% of the total cost of providing health care to the employees and their families. McKinney said the hospital’s offer would take away 10% of wages while increasing health care costs by 30% for part-time employees and 10% for the family plan, while reducing benefits and ending health care for retirees.

Courtney Hessler is a reporter for The Herald-Dispatch, covering police and courts. Follow her on Facebook.com/CHesslerHD and via Twitter @HesslerHD.

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