Posts from Tom Conway

Voting to Continue America’s Progress

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Voting to Continue America’s Progress

Al Polk will bid his wife goodbye on Oct. 11 and set out for New Hampshire with boots, gloves, heavy coat, windshield scraper and shovel in the trunk of his Chevy Impala.

As the weather grows colder over the next few weeks, the fight for America’s future will also reach a turning point. And there’s no way the 79-year-old will let brutal temperatures, ice or snowstorms impede his efforts to turn out Granite State voters for the crucial Nov. 8 election.

Polk, a Massachusetts resident and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), is among thousands of union activists across the country committed to knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and organizing rallies to support the pro-worker candidates needed to continue moving America forward the next two years.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it,” declared Polk, who served as president of his United Steelworkers (USW) local at Cleveland Twist Drill in Mansfield, Mass., for 20 years and then worked on the union staff before retiring in 2015.

Polk has volunteered for election work in New Hampshire for decades.

He’s lived in hotels for weeks at a stretch, just as he intends to do again this year. He’s endured drenching rain as well as early winter snowstorms forcing him to shovel out his car before long days of door-knocking.

He’s talked with thousands of fellow union members, securing untold votes with his respectful doorstep advocacy, and handed out thousands of flyers at USW-represented workplaces like the Manchester Water Works, New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Laconia and 3M in Tilton.

And while every election has its pivotal issues—the Democrats’ tireless work on invigorating the economy and growing the middle class proved decisive factors in 2020, for example—Polk cannot remember another time when voters in New Hampshire and throughout the country faced so stark a choice as they do this year.

“Keep the forward movement or stand still,” explained Polk, who expects to log many miles traveling around the state to highlight the string of accomplishments that pro-worker officials and their union allies racked up since President Joe Biden took office just 20 months ago.

That list of accomplishments includes the American Rescue Plan, which provided the child care assistance and other support that families needed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic while also saving the retirements of 1.3 million Americans enrolled in faltering multiemployer pension plans.

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Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government

When a group of custodians in York County, South Carolina, learned their bosses planned to sell them out to save a few pennies, they knew exactly who to turn to for help—a fellow worker who’d walked in the very same shoes.

County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) and a former custodian himself, assured the county workers that he had their backs. Roddey ultimately helped quash the scheme to contract out the county’s janitorial services, a victory both for the custodians and the taxpayers relying on their quality work.

Electing more union members like Roddey to councils and mayoral posts will help to combat right-wing attacks on workers and hold local government accountable to the ordinary people it’s intended to serve.

“We speak for the American worker,” Roddey, a member of USW Local 1924 who works at New-Indy Containerboard, said of union members. “We speak for the middle class. The agenda is not about us if we are not at the table.”

If the county had privatized cleaning services, any small budgetary savings would have paled next to the pain inflicted on the custodians, Roddey said, noting officials out of touch with working people “don’t too quickly grasp these scenarios.”

“The perspective of the people who sign the front of the paycheck is different from the perspective of the people who sign the back of the paycheck,” said Roddey, whose colleagues on the council include three business owners. “I bring that back-of-the-paycheck perspective to everything I do.”

Attacks on working people aren’t unique to South Carolina.

After the school board in Putnam, Conn., contracted out custodial services, for example, workers lost access to their pension system even though they’d been promised no change in benefits.

In recent months, USW-represented school bus drivers in Bay City, Mich., beat back efforts to contract out their work, while union members in Los Angeles County, California, won their own fight against privatization.

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The Path Forward for Communities Like Lost Creek

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Path Forward for Communities Like Lost Creek

Carl Asher clung to a wooden post on his porch for three hours—yelling for help in the darkness, water lapping at his neck —before risking it all.

He threw himself into the torrent below and, guided by a neighbor’s spotlight, swam several hundred feet against a punishing current to high ground. Asher and his wife, Tonya, a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who was at work at the time, lost their home, five vehicles, a camper, and their 12-year-old cat, Ebony, in historic flooding that killed 39 and obliterated parts of Eastern Kentucky in July.

Climate change rendered these communities and countless others across the country vulnerable to increasingly frequent and powerful storms.

The nation long responded to these calamities with patchwork repairs that failed to provide lasting improvements or real protection. But now, America’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is delivering the stronger, more resilient roads, broadband networks and water systems that comprehensively guard against not only floods but wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters.

The IIJA, which President Joe Biden signed in November, earmarks billions for flood prevention and mitigation projects alone. That includes shoring up dilapidated dams, strengthening coastal defenses, overhauling the stormwater systems needed to manage heavy rains, relocating drinking water lines out of flood zones and upgrading sewer systems to prevent the overflows that occur during major storms.

And the IIJA includes funds for dredging long-neglected waterways, while also allocating hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to a program that elevates homes in at-risk areas so that others will be spared what the Ashers and other Kentuckians endured this summer.

The couple, longtime residents of the small community called Lost Creek, completed a screened-in porch and a concrete driveway and added to a memory garden dedicated to their late son, Matthew, in the months before the flood.

The water rose so rapidly that night that Carl Asher dropped a box of valuables he had gathered and shimmied up the porch for safety. The flood eventually triggered a fire, which caused the second floor to collapse into the first and ended any hope of saving their home of 16 years.

“If I was there, I would not have survived. I cannot swim. I would not have made it,” said Tonya Asher, a member of USW Local 14637 who works at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare medical center in nearby Hazard, Ky., noting the current her husband battled was so strong it “literally ripped his clothes off of him. By the time he reached the neighbors, he was just shaking.”

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Making Worker Power A Constitutional Right

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Making Worker Power A Constitutional Right

Chris Frydenger’s young co-workers at the Mueller Co. performed the same work and brought the same dedication to their jobs as he did, but the manufacturer’s two-tier wage system exploited newer hires by paying them thousands less each year.

Outraged by the unfairness, Frydenger and the entire membership of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838 in Decatur, Ill., took a stand during contract negotiations a few years ago and not only beat back the inequitable pay system but won younger members catch-up raises of more than 21 percent.

That collective victory remains one of the proudest moments in Frydenger’s life. And now it’s fueling his fight to make worker power a constitutional right in his home state.

A Nov. 8 referendum will give Illinois voters the opportunity to enact a “Workers’ Rights Amendment” to the state constitution, enshrining in the state’s highest law Illinoisans’ freedom to join unions and bargain collectively for better lives while also barring future legislation that would erode worker strength.

The ballot question passed the Legislature on a bipartisan basis last year, a sign of how much the measure reflects the people’s will. As they educate more voters about the referendum, Frydenger and other activists find almost unanimous support for a measure that would give workers greater control of their destinies, beyond the clutches of CEOs, pro-corporate politicians and other anti-labor forces.

“I can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t be in support of this,” said Frydenger, grievance chair and Rapid Response coordinator for Local 7-838, who’s canvassing neighborhoods, distributing leaflets and making phone calls to make sure workers know that their very futures are on the ballot this year.

The Workers’ Rights Amendment would help future generations negotiate the family-supporting wages needed to sustain the middle class and the nation’s economy. It would safeguard Illinoisans’ right to a voice on the job, including the freedom to call out unsafe working conditions without fear of reprisal.

And it would ensure workers can band together, as Frydenger and his colleagues did, to hold employers accountable. Frydenger recalled the local’s negotiating committee tossing a pile of worker surveys on the bargaining table—all demanding elimination of the two-tier wage system—and telling management there’s no way union members would ever vote for a contract that retained it.

The constitutional amendment has deep emotional meaning to Frydenger, who observed that it would confer “sacred,” “fundamental” and “essential” status on workers’ rights at a time that more and more Americans view union membership as the path forward.

“Every time I turn on the news, I see an Amazon location or another Starbucks store voting in a union,” he said, noting a new Gallup poll this week showed that 71 percent of Americans support organized labor, the most since 1965.

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Fighting the Shadow Pandemic

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Fighting the Shadow Pandemic

Losing two co-workers to domestic violence over a three-year span left Emily Brannon and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L reeling.

But their grief, Brannon noted, also launched them on a quest to save others. They helped to negotiate paid domestic violence leave into their contract with Bridgestone-Firestone, enabling other colleagues experiencing intimate partner violence to step away, focus on getting safe and return to work when they’re able to do so.

As intimate partner violence continues to increase, the unions that protect workers on the job are also fighting to keep them safe when they go home.

Brannon’s USW local in Des Moines, Iowa, is one of dozens in the United States and Canada with contract language providing domestic violence survivors with the resources crucial to breaking free of their abusers.

And the drive to empower survivors continues to grow. The USW just ratified contracts with two major employers in the paper sector, Domtar and Packaging Corp. of America (PCA), that extend similar protections and resources to thousands more workers at dozens of mills and box plants.

“I think it shows that we’re sensitive to the issues of our members,” explained Brannon, treasurer of Local 310L and a member of the local’s Women of Steel committee, who knew both of the members fatally shot by their abusers between 2014 and 2017. “We have a very diverse workforce and a diverse membership, and there are a variety of issues outside of work that the members may be dealing with.”

“Any time we can address a safety issue, we will. That’s one of the reasons you have a union in the first place,” added Brannon, noting the union also honors the members lost to domestic violence through a partnership with Soaring Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit in Des Moines advocating for victims of violence.

Domestic violence increased significantly with the lockdowns, economic strain and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming known as the “shadow pandemic.” In all, about 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men across the United States have experienced “severe physical violence” from intimate partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Financial security is key to helping survivors leave abusive partners and stay away from them. “There’s a lot on the line,” Brannon said, noting many survivors also have to provide for children.

Union-negotiated domestic violence leave helps to bridge this need. It provides paid or unpaid time off for court appearances, relocation, counseling and more, enabling survivors to attend to pressing obligations without expending vacation or sick days.

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Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost

Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his co-workers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Ala., only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his work station, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent this year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

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A Bulwark for Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Bulwark for Workers

The Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., was always a part of Cindy Beshears’ life.

She attended her grandfather’s retirement party there as a child, worked two summers at the plant as a college student in the 1980s and accepted a full-time job on the production floor in 2004 after leaving a career in retail.

Goodyear devastated the community when it closed the plant two years ago after shifting hundreds of jobs to Mexico, but fortunately, the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provided Beshears and her co-workers with training and other support that helped them through some of the darkest days they’ll ever know.

While thousands of other American workers continue to be harmed by unfair trade, they’ll be denied the same lifeline unless Congress moves quickly to reestablish TAA.

The program expired June 30 because Republicans refused to join Democrats in extending it. Until Congress reinstates the program, the Labor Department cannot consider any additional petitions for TAA assistance. The United Steelworkers (USW), other unions and Democratic lawmakers such as Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are working to salvage the program, workers’ only real bulwark against the damage inflicted by globalization.

“It’s definitely worth fighting to save,” Beshears said of TAA, created in the 1970s to provide skills-building, employment services and other assistance to workers who lose jobs or wages because of bad trade.

In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled more than 107,000 workers in various industries.

“It covers tuition and books. It covers school supplies. It provided a laptop for me. If you have to travel for your classes, it will pay a mileage stipend,” explained Beshears, a former member of USW Local 12L who enrolled in TAA to obtain an associate degree in paralegal studies from Gadsden State Community College.

“It even paid for caps and gowns if we wanted to walk for graduation,” added Beshears, who completed her schooling in May, recalling the pride she felt as her former co-workers also set out on new careers in nursing, child care, welding, transportation and other fields.

“I was very concerned that these people were going to lose hope and that we were going to see a lot of bad things. I would have been one who sat there and wallowed in self-pity, thinking, ‘Oh, I put all that time in, and now I have nothing.’” Beshears said, calling TAA “as valuable mentally and emotionally” as it is educationally.

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Why Workers Are Turning to Unions

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Why Workers Are Turning to Unions

Amy Dennett long endured understaffing, low pay and indifferent bosses in her job at the American Red Cross in Asheville, N.C.

But she decided she’d had enough when management’s failure to provide basic resources forced her and her co-workers to build, jury-rig and dig into their own pockets for items needed to operate the blood donation center.

Dennett helped lead a union drive in 2020, resulting in the group’s vote to join the United Steelworkers (USW), and the 24 workers gained raises, greatly improved health care and much-needed equipment even before signing their first contract.

More and more workers like Dennett are realizing that unions fight for them every day, providing a path forward even in tumultuous times like a pandemic.

Gallup surveyed Americans on their confidence in 16 U.S. institutions ranging from the Supreme Court to television news. Over the past year, Gallup found, Americans’ confidence fell in all of them except one—organized labor.

“That doesn’t surprise me. We’re supposed to have faith in our elected officials and other leaders. But it’s a lot easier for a worker to have faith in the guy standing next to them than a guy in some other place you’ve never met who’s supposed to represent you,” Dennett said of the findings, noting that unions helped workers during the pandemic while many of the 16 institutions failed or exploited them.

With the help of a lone Democrat, for example, the Republicans in Congress killed legislation that would have expanded struggling families’ access to education, health care and child care.

Some banks socked borrowers with illegal late fees and charges despite their enrollment in a pandemic program temporarily pausing mortgage payments, compounding the homeowners’ hardships.

Corporations jacked up prices on food and other essentials, raking in ever-higher profits on the backs of working Americans. And tech companies like Amazon and Apple tried to beat back workers’ fights for better wages and working conditions.

In stark contrast to all of this, unions stepped up during the pandemic because their members needed them more than ever. They not only empowered workers to secure the personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and affordable health care they needed to safeguard their families but continued winning the raises and benefits essential for years to come.

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Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job

A worker at the International Paper mill in Prattville, Ala., was performing routine maintenance on a paper-making machine a couple of weeks ago when he discovered liquid in a place it didn’t belong.

He stopped work and reported the hazard, triggering an inspection that revealed a punctured condensate line leaking water that was hotter than 140 degrees and would have scalded the worker or fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Instead of causing a serious health and safety risk, the leak was repaired without incident.

“We fixed the issue,” recalled Chad Baker, a USW Local 1458 trustee and safety representative. “It took about 30 minutes, and we continued on with our work, and nobody got hurt.”

Unions empower workers to help build safer workplaces and ensure they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisal.

No one knows the dangers of a job better than the people facing them every day. That’s why the USW’s contract with International Paper gives workers “stop-work authority”—the power to halt a job when they identify a threat and resume work after their concerns have been adequately addressed.

“We find smaller issues like that a lot,” Baker said, referring to the leaky condensate line. “Most of the time, they’re handled in a very efficient manner.”

Workers forming unions at Amazon and Starbucks, among other companies, want better wages and benefits. But they’re also fighting for the workplace protections union workers enjoy every day.

Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per every 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record, according to an analysis of data the company provided to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Driving for Amazon is also perilous. About 20 percent of drivers suffered injuries last year, up 40 percent from 2020, with many of these workers reporting that they felt pressured to take unnecessary risks, like forgoing seat belts and skipping breaks, to meet the company’s relentless delivery schedules.

Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon and other companies pull every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

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Gouging Americans out of House and Home

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Gouging Americans out of House and Home

Bill Boone eats very little meat and avoids expensive gourmet foods altogether.

Yet Boone’s grocery bill still tops $280 a week at a Kroger in Benton, Ark., thanks to profiteering on a scale the 92-year-old says he has never witnessed before.

Corporations may try to blame the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for astronomical price increases, but that’s merely a cover story for shameless price-gouging that’s left millions of Americans struggling to survive.

“Big money people are the trouble,” summed up Boone, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who recently saw the price of his favorite coffee double.

“It’s all these brands,” Boone, who worked at Reynolds and Alcoa, said of the rampant price hikes. “It’s all the basic things people have in their homes, like salt and pepper. I feel badly for these families with three and four kids.”

As struggling Americans burn through their savings and scrimp on meals to make ends meet, companies that jacked up prices on everything from cereal to toiletries post ever-higher profits.

While parents take second jobs and even hire out their children as movers and gardeners to make extra money, CEOs brag about the exploitation that’s enabling them to pad their own pockets and shower shareholders with dividends.

“A little bit of inflation is always good in our business,” declared Rodney McMullen, CEO of Kroger, which raised prices on customers like Boone before raking in $1.5 billion in operating profits for the first quarter this year.

Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of diapers and other essentials, plans to raise prices throughout the year even though it’s forecasting higher profits. “The consumer is resilient,” said Andre Schulten, the company’s chief financial officer, blithely dismissing the pain he’s inflicting.

Not even President Joe Biden’s public shaming of oil companies was enough to curb their unprecedented profit-mongering. They still refuse to increase production, even as the average cost of a gallon of gas hovers around $5 and truckers like Boone’s son-in-law spend hundreds of dollars to fill up their rigs.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together