An Epidemic of Insecurity

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,200 points in a single day this week because of the coronavirus’ impact on global trade, leaving many Americans sick with worry.

It’s not just a rapidly spreading, mysterious disease that made Americans feel vulnerable. The Dow’s freefall erased millions of dollars from retirement accounts and exposed another kind of epidemic—retirement insecurity.

There once was a time when the combination of company pension plans, Social Security and personal savings could carry retirees through their golden years.

No longer. Most companies eliminated defined-benefit plans providing a reliable income stream and implemented 401(k) plans that leave workers at the mercy of stock market volatility, like the kind that rattled investors this week and crushed workers in 2008.

Today, Americans have so much angst about the future that about 29 percent of baby boomers, 36 percent of Gen Xers and 77 percent of millennials fear they’ll never be able to retire or will have to work past normal retirement age.

Americans work hard so they can provide for their families and enjoy retirement. But no matter how carefully they plan, their retirements depend on factors beyond their control.

Patricia Cotton, a home health aide in Maryland, lost half of her $150,000 investment nest egg in the 2008 recession and retired 12 years later than planned.

In all, Americans lost about $2.4 trillion in retirement earnings during the second half of 2008, and the average household lost a thirdof its net worth.

Cotton was one of many who experienced losses so severe that they had to work longer than intended. The memory of the 2008 recession still gives Americans retirement jitters, and stock market drops like the ones this week compound the fear.

Before 401(k) plans dominated the retirement landscape, companies provided defined-benefit pensions. Workers earned specific—defined—amounts based on their wages and years of service. When workers retired, the employer provided those amounts no matter how the stock market fared.

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Killing The Watchdog

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Pipe fitter Jody Gooch and welders Sedrick Stallworth and William Rolls Jr. stood just feet away when a tank exploded at the Packaging Corp. of America pulp and paper mill in DeRidder, La. The blast killed the contract workers, injured seven others and hurtled the 80-foot tank six stories into the air.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) concluded that welding sparks likely ignited turpentine vapors that built up inside the tank, and the agency released a comprehensive incident report and safety video to protect workers at other mills.

The CSB regularly issues guidance like this so companies that use dangerous chemicals in the production process learn from their mistakes. But Donald Trump, who refuses to admit his own failures, can’t grasp the importance of learning from anyone else’s, either. Instead of supporting the safety watchdog, Trump wants to kill it.

He allocated no funding for the CSB four years in a row.  As board members’ terms expired, Trump failed to replace them. The five-person board is down to just one member, whose term expires in August.

Trump likes to call himself a champion for workers.

But more workers will die if he abolishes the CSB. The people who live near these plants will be at increased risk as well because explosions, leaks and toxic emissions often inflict widespread damage on nearby communities.

Many Americans probably never heard of the CSB. But they’re safer because of it.

Congress created the 22-year-old agency to conduct independent investigations of industrial chemical disasters. Congress considered the work so important that it shielded the agency from outside interference.

The CSB doesn’t answer to any agency or official in the executive branch. This autonomy enables it to scrutinize not only the companies involved in disasters but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal entities regulating these industries.

The CSB issues no fines or citations. It makes no regulations. Its mission is safety education.

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Gambling Away American Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Fortune-seekers feed the slots and wager on horses at a Chester, Pa., casino where thousands of shipbuilders once forged the commercial cargo vessels that transported America’s goods to the world. The old Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. closed in 1989, unable to compete with foreign producers highly subsidized by their governments.

Other shipbuilders suffered a similar fate, and today, America produces virtually no oceangoing commercial vessels at all. The industry’s demise puts American exports at the mercy of foreign shipping and deprives the armed forces of ships they sometimes need to transport troops and supplies into combat.

Without U.S. shipbuilding, America is not safe.

America once led the world in commercial shipbuilding, but the federal government quit supporting the industry in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan decided to let the industry sink or swim.

It sank.

As the U.S. curtailed assistance, intended to ensure an adequate supply of commercial vessels to back up the military, other countries—especially China, Japan and South Korea—pumped even more money into their shipbuilding industries. Companies like Sun went out of business or scaled back operations as foreign competitors undercut U.S. shipbuilders’ prices and captured the world market.

In 1975, U.S. shipbuilders sold 77 big commercial vessels. Between 1987 and 1992, they sold eight.

As dozens of yards closed, America’s shipbuilding capacity ebbed away. Facilities rotted.

Sun’s site remained a sprawling ghost town until Harrah’s opened there about 15 years ago. It put slot machines in the gutted fabricating shop and built a bridge over a wet dock.

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Facing Retirement With Fear

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Glen Heck spent 28 years sweating in a Campti, La., paper mill that he likes to say was “hotter than nine kinds of hell.”

But now, Heck’s sacrifice may have been for nothing because his multiemployer pension plan is one of about 150 nationwide set to go broke. If that happens, the 78-year-old Heck will have to find a cheaper, lower-quality health plan and keep the beef herd he’s itching to sell.

The Democratic-controlled House passed—with bipartisan support—a commonsense plan to save Heck’s pension and those of another 1.3 million workers, retirees and widows. But Republican leaders in the Senate refuse to consider it.

In the meantime, the futures of workers and retirees like Heck hang in the balance. Many face retirement with fear instead of anticipation.

Multiemployer pension plans like Heck’s include workers from two or more companies in industries such as transportation, entertainment, construction and paper. Employers make contributions for workers as part of their compensation. Heck and others often give up wage increases or other benefits to fund those plans.

Many of the 1,400 plans nationwide are still healthy. But through no fault of workers or retirees, about 150 are struggling.

Recessions in 2001 and 2008 cut the plans’ investment earnings, and some corporations used bankruptcies to evade pension obligations. Deregulation forced less-competitive companies out of business, straining the plans’ resources.

Now, they owe more money to beneficiaries than they have coming in, and they’re at risk of collapsing. The PACE Industry Union-Management Pension Fund (PIUMPF)—Heck’s plan—is one of them. According to recent projections, the fund will be insolvent in as few as 10 years.

Under the bill passed by the House, the Butch Lewis Act, the Treasury Department would loan money to troubled plans. The plans would use the money to meet their obligations to retirees, and they would repay the loans over 30 years.

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Silencing Corporate Bullies

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

John Tate felt betrayed when Materion unilaterally cut retirement and vacation benefits at its Elmore, Ohio, plant. He’d devoted 10 years to the company and believed that it owed him and his co-workers a modicum of respect.

So Tate turned to the protections that unions provide and helped lead an organizing campaign with the United Steelworkers (USW). Despite widespread enthusiasm at the outset, the effort ultimately failed after Materion forced workers into mandatory company meetings where union-busting consultants bullied and threatened them.

A bill due for a vote next week in the U.S. House—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings and other abusive tactics that corporations regularly use to thwart union drives. Making it easier for grassroots activists like Tate to organize will help rebuild a middle class decimated by corporate greed and curb the runaway income equality that imperils American democracy.

Labor organizers emphasize solidarity—strength through collective action—while union-busters deliberately sow discord and prey on workers’ fears for their individual livelihoods.

Tate noticed that difference when Materion, a producer of beryllium-based metals, brought in the hired-gun “union-avoidance” consultants and forced about 440 workers to attend multiple anti-union meetings. The consultants belittled workers—even questioned their intelligence for wanting to join a union—during meetings that lasted two to four hours.

“It was rough to watch,” Tate said.

The consultants told their hostage audiences that companies struggle once workers organize. They warned that Materion might never agree to a contract and that the company had the option of hiring permanent replacements for workers who strike. When workers made positive comments about unions, the consultants bullied them into silence.

 “You could just feel the entire room deflate,” said Tate, who works in research and development at the plant. “They presented a worst-case scenario and then tried to pass it off as ‘this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

The union-busting efforts included a rare visit to the plant by Materion CEO Jugal K. Vijayvargiya. “‘It’s going to get better,’” Tate recalled him telling the workers. “‘We know we have problems. We’re going to fix them.’”

Organizers launched the campaign with strong support and worked hard to educate co-workers about the benefits of unions. Tate said the first few months were “beyond successful.”

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Failing Workers On Trade

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “great negotiator” and author of “The Art of the Deal,” promised to use his bargaining skills to help the American worker.

Trump vowed to rewrite trade deals, stanch the offshoring of U.S. jobs and reinvigorate American manufacturing.

His behavior tells a different story. Both of the trade deals he produced so far—the original United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the “phase one” agreement with China—failed American workers.

Bad trade cost millions of American jobs. Trump’s brand of deal-making won’t bring them back.

Make no mistake, Trump inherited real trade problems. For more than 20 years, politicians of both parties failed to fix a broken system.

Corporations exploited trade agreements to shift family-sustaining manufacturing jobs to Mexico, China and other countries that pay workers low wages and deny them the protection of labor unions. They made boatloads of money offshoring jobs, but in the process, they robbed U.S. workers of their livelihoods and hollowed out countless American communities, decimating their tax bases and exposing them to epidemics of crime and opioids.

Cheating compounded the job losses. China subsidizes its industries, manipulates its currency and then floods global marketswith cheaply priced goods, severely damaging U.S. manufacturing in steel, aluminum, paper, furniture, glass and other products. 

“Work just started to dwindle,” recalled Bill Curtis,who eventually lost his cloth-cutting job at a Lenoir, N.C., furniture factory swept under by cheap Chinese imports.

Trump made fair trade—and standing up to cheaters—a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.

He railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which empowered corporations to shift more than one million manufacturing jobs to Mexico. He excoriated China for illegal trading practices that siphoned off more than three million American jobs, and he vowed to stop the bleeding.

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Dying of Despair

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Maria Fernandes was a good-hearted American with a family, ambitions and a rock-solid work ethic.

She also juggled three part-time jobs to make ends meet and grabbed much-needed sleep in her SUV between shifts. She left the engine running during one of those naps, and when a gas container she kept in the SUV somehow overturned, the fumes and carbon monoxide killed her.

While her death might appear to be an accident, the poverty-level wages that kept Fernandes working all hours of the day and night are the deliberate choice of corporations that make billions of dollars exploiting the labor of average Americans. Corporate greed turned America into a nation of haves and have-nots.

And more and more often, economic despair kills the have-nots.

U.S. life expectancy dropped three years in a row, America’s suicide rate is at a record high, millions struggle with opioid addictions, and workers with multiple part-time jobs battle hopelessness. None of this occurred by chance. Diseases of despair soared as corporations sold out the American worker for higher profits.

CEO pay soared 940 percent over the past 40 years as middle-class workers’ pay stagnated. Corporations shifted family-sustaining manufacturing jobs to low-wage Mexico, hollowing out entire communities. They gutted retiree health care and shifted more health care costs to workers.

CEOs and business groups schemed with their Republican cronies in government to crush the labor unions that fight to get workers decent pay, fair benefits and safe working conditions. As union membership declined from more than 30 percent of American workers to about 11 percent, the bottom fell out of the middle class. Income inequality skyrocketed.

Fernandes held down minimum-wage jobs at three different Dunkin’ Donuts shops in New Jersey. She napped in her car because she had no time to go home to sleep and traveled with a filled gas can so she’d never be late because of an empty tank.

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OSHA's Inertia

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Within two months of starting work at an Amazon warehouse in Eastvale, Calif., Candice Dixon ruined her back.

Dixon had to bend, lift and strain at a feverish pace to meet Amazon’s demand that she scan and stow one item every 11 seconds. If she didn’t keep up, she’d be fired. But the grueling quotas left her with bulging discs and other problems so severe that she now struggles to walk.

Injury rates at Amazon warehouses across the country are so high that 13 members of Congress last summer called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate the retailer’s working conditions. But OSHA—the agency responsible for ensuring that Americans have safe workplaces—has abandoned the workers it’s charged with protecting.

Under President Donald Trump, OSHA’s enforcement activities plummeted to new lows even as worker deaths soared to the highest level in more than a decade. This didn’t happen by accident. Corporations like Amazon want a neutered OSHA. Cutting corners on safety and working people to the bone means CEOs and shareholders make more money.

They have a willing partner in the Trump administration. OSHA’s inertia is the deliberate decision of appointees who serve corporations, not people, and put healthy profits before healthy workers.

Since 2017, Trump’s OSHA averaged only 32,610 worksite inspections a year, thousands fewer than during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. The agency has the fewest inspectors in 40 years, even though it’s responsible for ensuring the safety of more workers.

OSHA hasn’t even had a top director since Trump took office. But the lower-level political appointees there dragged their feet in hiring new inspectors to compensate for retirements and other vacancies. They didn’t hire a single inspector in 2017. These departures depleted the agency of critical expertise and hamstrung remaining inspectors who want to do their jobs.

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America's Do-Nothing Senate

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Patients have punched Marketa Anderson. They’ve kicked and head-butted her. They’ve slammed her into walls. 

One threw a shoe, hitting her. Then he threw a chair at her—and missed.

Health care workers like Anderson, president of United Steelworkers Local 9349 in Chisholm, Minn., are assaulted by patients all of the time. The Democratic-controlled House recognized the need for action and passed a bill requiring employers in the health care and social service fields to implement violence-prevention plans.

But the Republican-controlled Senate has ignored this bill, along with about 400 others the House passed this year. When these legislators refuse to legislate, they’re telling the American people that they couldn’t care less about urgent issues like workplace safety, failing pension plans or fair wages. They’ll gladly imperil workers and retirees.

That’s because Senate Republicans have sold their souls to corporations and the one percent. Working Americans aren’t their concern.

When the House passes bills, Senate Republicans—with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the helm—simply ignore them. They can’t be bothered to debate the legislation. They fail to hold hearings or votes.

They refuse to pick up the phone and try to work out a compromise with House leaders. They just let the bills languish. Doing nothing is their strategy for stymying House Democrats’ efforts to help working Americans.

House Democrats tried to shame Senate Republicans. They called the Senate a “legislative graveyard” and displayed fake tombstones representing important bills the Senate ignored to death.

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Building Freedom

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Pride wells up in Erica M. Brinson when she thinks about her work helping to build aircraft carriers and submarines at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

Those ships and subs defend America’s shores and much of the free world. The men and women serving on them trust that every screw, every weld, will hold up under the most punishing conditions that weather or war can unleash.

“We have a lot of people’s lives in our hands,” Brinson, a member of United Steelworkers Local 8888 who works in the shipyard’s tool rooms, explained.

Brinson and more than 9,700 other USW members at the sprawling shipyard do patriotic work. The same is true of members of USW Locals 1165 and 9462, who work at ArcelorMittal plants in Coatesville and Conshohocken, Pa., that make armor plate for Navy ships and other products for the military.

And it’s true of USW members at other plants across the country that supply materials and parts to the military.

Every day, these workers contribute their skills, knowledge and strong-as-steel work ethic to the nation’s defense. The Navy is only as formidable as the fleet it operates, and USW members at Newport News deliver the highest-performing carriers and subs on the planet.

“It’s up to us to provide the Navy with what it needs to keep us safe,” said Brinson, who has worked at the shipyard for 12 years. “They’re fighting for us.”

On Saturday, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, USW members joined military leaders, elected officials and thousands of guests in christening the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the future USS John F. Kennedy.

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