Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers

Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers

The young man in Cleveland Clinic Akron General’s behavioral crisis intervention unit hadn’t communicated much during his hospitalization, but he showed no signs of violence until Brian Eckley tried to draw his blood early one morning.

The patient stood up, sat back down, rose again and then punched Eckley, a state-tested nurse aide and senior technician, in the left jaw.

Keeping his cool despite the pain, Eckley dodged more punches as he held the needle and tourniquet out of the patient’s reach, banged on the treatment room windows and called for help.

Attacks on health care workers have reached epidemic levels across the country, exacerbating turnover, turning caregivers into patients and further fraying systems of care already worn thin by COVID-19. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, twice passed by the House and just reintroduced in the Senate, would require employers to implement the safeguards needed to help keep Eckley and millions of his peers safe on the job.

The legislation—supported by numerous labor unions, trade groups and other stakeholders—would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop a standard requiring health care providers to implement safety plans for clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other treatment facilities.

The bill calls for facilities to consider measures such as alarm systems, physical barriers and strategic staffing, including having workers in hazardous situations operate in teams. To ensure the plans are as comprehensive and effective as possible, facilities would have to devise them with the input of workers on the front lines and address the specific hazards in each work area or unit.

“Having a safety officer on the unit 24/7 would be a wonderful first step,” observed Eckley, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014L, who had calmed down his combative patient by the time a security guard in another part of the hospital complex arrived at the behavioral health unit.

“They just don’t have what we need to do the job safely,” he said of health care employers around the country. “They do the bare minimum, and it’s more reactive than proactive.”

Even before COVID-19, health care workers faced five times more violence on the job than their counterparts in most other professions. Incidents skyrocketed during the pandemic as the crisis exacted a heavy toll on Americans’ emotional health and patients, relatives and community members grew frustrated with staffing shortages at medical facilities.

The violence is now so pervasive that many health care workers are victimized over and over again. Eckley, for example, has been punched repeatedly, stabbed with a pen, and bitten by an HIV-positive patient who disliked the meal he was served. He’s also witnessed numerous attacks on co-workers and once watched a patient batter a door to get to a jar of candy on the other side.

More ...

Restoring America’s Manufacturing Might

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Restoring America’s Manufacturing Might

Montrell Steib recalls the young electrician rattling off his expertise in the latest technology and systems, hoping to make a good impression during his job interview at Atlantic Alumina in Gramercy, La.

But a supervisor took the wind out of the worker’s sails, saying he’d be working on old and temperamental equipment at the nation’s last remaining alumina refinery and that keeping the aging facility operating with Band-Aids would be a far cry from what he expected.

Steib, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5702, relates that story to underscore the feeble state of U.S. supply chains and the need to equip America’s workers with the tools and resources needed to compete globally.

Although both the Senate and House each passed long-overdue legislation to overhaul the nation’s manufacturing base, only the House’s version, the America COMPETES Act, provides billions in direct investments essential to preserving critical industrial infrastructure like the Gramercy refinery.

“This is it. This is all we have,” said Steib, one of about 270 USW members who work there, noting that losing the facility would make America entirely dependent on other nations for the alumina essential to the automotive, health care, consumer goods and numerous other industries.

The long decline of American manufacturing constitutes a national security threat that recent shortages of face masks and semiconductors threw into sharp relief. America lags behind other countries not only in the production of these goods but in the manufacturing of aluminum and steel, commercial shipbuilding and the mining of essential minerals.

“Together, a U.S. business climate that has favored short-term shareholder earnings (versus long-term capital investment), deindustrialization, and an abstract, radical vision of ‘free trade,’ without fair trade enforcement, have severely damaged America’s ability to arm itself today and in the future,” the Defense Department warned in a report last year.

The America COMPETES Act would provide loans and grants for upgrading manufacturing facilities so that workers like Steib no longer have to scrounge parts or cannibalize some machines to keep others running. The investments also would enable employers to expand production, which Local 5702 members see an urgent need to do.

“Everything we can make is already sold,” Steib observed of current market conditions. “I wish we could open up more alumina facilities in the U.S.”

More ...

Taxing Billionaires the Right Way

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Taxing Billionaires the Right Way

The single mom appeared at the church in Davenport, Iowa, where Vera Kelly volunteered and asked for some food to share with her children.

But not just any food, Kelly recalled, noting the woman only wanted items she could keep in the car where the family lived and cook on the charcoal grill that served as their kitchen.

Civic-minded activists like Kelly do all they can to assist the less fortunate and lift up their communities. But only fixing America’s broken tax system, as President Joe Biden has proposed, will force the super-rich to pay their fair share and curb the rampant economic inequality that’s turned the nation into a land of haves and have-nots.

“They have the money. We don’t have it,” Kelly, a member of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 11-4 and the vice president of the Davenport NAACP, said of America’s billionaires. “Some of them got it by hook or by crook, and we worked honestly.”

“If you’re a billionaire, you’re never going to go broke,” added Kelly, who supports Biden’s plan calling for the wealthiest citizens to finally begin paying what they’ve long owed. “They can live off the interest on their money.”

The 77-year-old Kelly, who spends Saturday mornings distributing boxes of cereal, sugar, frozen chicken and other items at a local food pantry, worked 32 years at the former Alcoa plant, now operated by Arconic, near her home. Her husband, B.W. Kelly, who died in November 2020, worked at Deere & Co. for 33 years.

The two paid taxes on every dime they ever earned, considering it not only a duty but a privilege to support America’s social programs as well as essentials like infrastructure funding, medical research and the national defense.

But instead of holding up their end like the Kellys, America’s richest citizens let the rest of the country carry them. A rigged system lets billionaires exploit tax-avoidance tricks unavailable to the masses. The uber-rich shirk their obligations to society and freeload off of everyone else while squandering ever-growing sums on jets, mega-yachts, spaceships and even private islands.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Kelly said, referring to the income inequality that’s been growing for decades. “That’s the way that happens.”

“They look down on people,” she said of billionaires. “They think they’re entitled.”

More ...

On the Front Lines of Nuclear Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

On the Front Lines of Nuclear Safety

Jim Key’s blood ran cold a few years ago as he listened to a former worker at Chernobyl recount the explosion, fires and panic that swept through the power plant as the world’s worst nuclear disaster unfolded in April 1986.

The most wrenching part of the speaker’s conference presentation came when he saluted co-workers and first responders who fell sick and died in the weeks, months and years after exposure to the intensely radioactive environment.

The memory of that talk came flooding back to Key as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed new risks at Chernobyl and underscored the heroic work of nuclear industry workers across the globe.

These workers normally operate behind the scenes in each country, outside the view of a public barely conscious of how much it relies on them to keep their communities safe.

That’s by design, explained Key, president of the United Steelworkers (USW) Atomic Energy Workers Council and former vice president at large of USW Local 8-550, noting the high level of confidentiality involved in the work.

“We just have always gone about it quietly. No fanfare, no ticker-tape parade,” he said, noting many of the USW members involved in this work have security clearances and cannot talk about their specific roles.

USW members at Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio, continue to decontaminate and decommission gaseous diffusion plants built in the 1950s to produce enriched uranium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program and power plants. Other USW members work on remediating the former plutonium production facility in Hanford, Wash., established during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project.

“These plants have provided a tremendous service to our nation, and the people who worked in them have been termed Cold War patriots,” explained Key, adding that USW members at these sites today still perform a dangerous duty breaking down contaminated plant components, shipping them out and undertaking many other kinds of clean-up work.

These workers—along with their USW siblings at other nuclear sites in Idaho, New Mexico and Tennessee—receive extensive training to detect radioactivity, operate sensitive equipment and ensure the integrity of work sites while keeping themselves as safe as possible. The USW’s Tony Mazzocchi Center even volunteered to train a new generation of radiation control technicians who work on the front lines of safety at sites like Paducah and Portsmouth.

More ...

Stronger Together

Stronger Together