Posts from Tom Conway

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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Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

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.

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Outsourcing Children’s Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Outsourcing Children’s Safety

Early in the school year, a kindergartner on Joni Meyer’s school bus got motion sickness and threw up all over himself—and his brother, his cousin and his laptop.

Meyer pulled over, soothed the anguished child, cleaned everybody up as best she could and then drove the bus to school.

Over 34 years, Meyer has served as chauffeur, counselor, confidant, nurse and guardian angel to countless children like these in Bay City, Mich. She’s skillfully navigated a 35-foot, 14-ton bus over serpentine roads and through treacherous winter storms, safely delivering what she calls “our precious cargo” to schools and football games. Now, in gratitude for Meyer’s dedication, officials in the Bay City Public Schools intend to kick her to the curb.

The school district recently notified Meyer and her 25 co-workers, represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7380, of plans to eliminate their jobs and outsource transportation to a for-profit company. By continuing down this road, they’ll join the ranks of short-sighted employers who auction off crucial services to the lowest bidders, potentially saving a few bucks but gambling on safety.

Out-of-town drivers will never know Bay City’s rural roads or care about the community’s 8,150 students like Meyer and her co-workers, some of whom log upwards of 150 miles during work days that—because of split shifts—begin at 5 a.m. and end 12 hours later.

“I really enjoy my job. I enjoy my children. They’re sort of like extended family to us,” said Meyer, Local 7380’s unit president and the district’s second-most-senior driver, who wonders where a private contractor would even find replacements.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts around the country have struggled to recruit and retain drivers. Because of the shortage, some districts closed schools or cut service while others called in the National Guard for help, put teachers behind the wheel or paid parents to transport their own kids. So far this year, bus companies contracted by one Maryland school district missed more than 3,000 trips, leaving hundreds of students and parents in the lurch.

Bay City already has the dedicated, reliable work force that other school districts crave. Teachers, elected officials, other community leaders and parents are rallying around the drivers, demanding the school district keep them on the job and avert the potential nightmare contracting out would bring.

“It’s terribly sad and unfortunate and quite disappointing because it’s going to rock these kids’ boats. Some of these kids come from homes that aren’t really stable. This is one stable thing they have in their lives,” Kristin McDonell, a Bay City parent, said of district drivers. “I trust these drivers. They’re part of our backbone. It means a lot to them to be contributing to their community in this way.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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Uniting for Ukraine

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Uniting for Ukraine

Terry Bohuslawsky spoke Ukrainian before he ever learned English, attended Ukrainian schools in Cleveland and, along with his classmates, looked forward each year to decorating the elaborate Easter eggs known as pysanky.

Bohuslawsky, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine, continued to honor his heritage in adulthood. He worked with others to preserve the culture at home while contributing to hospitals, churches and other causes in Ukraine to help the people there rebuild after communism.

Now, in the face of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Bohuslawsky knows that Ukraine’s future depends on a bond much more powerful than the one he and his friends have with their ethnic homeland. It will take the solidarity of working people around the world to help save the Ukrainians and deter future aggression.

“It’s like being in the union,” observed Bohuslawsky, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 979 and an electrician at the Cleveland-Cliffs steel mill that stands near the city’s original Ukrainian settlement. “We all fight for the same reasons. We all fight for what we deserve.”

Since Putin’s unprovoked attack, working people around the world rallied around Ukraine.

The global union IndustriAll began soliciting donations for immediate help and Ukrainians’ long-term needs. Trade unions in Poland, Slovakia and several other countries sent members and trucks to the Ukrainian border to pick up refugees. USW members in Canada donated to Red Cross relief efforts as well as to overseas unions that are aiding war victims, while labor leaders across America called for public pension funds to divest assets related to Putin’s regime.

“It kind of gives you goosebumps,” Bohuslawsky said of the worldwide resistance to Putin.

“We have to fight now,” he explained. “They’re attacking us today, but they’ll be after someone else tomorrow.”

Energy embargoes represent the biggest development yet in this remarkable mobilization of international citizens and unparalleled movement to weaponize shared sacrifice in the fight against tyranny.

The USW, whose 30,000 oil workers account for about two-thirds of America’s oil refining capacity, took a critical step Monday when it not only demanded that the U.S. halt imports of Russian crude but vowed to oppose “with every lever available to us” the processing of Russian-sourced oil on American soil. Cutting off Russian oil deprives Putin of money he needs to continue the destruction of Ukraine.

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Safeguarding Democracy

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Safeguarding Democracy

The guard shacks, razor-wire fences and gun-toting soldiers struck fear into Cynthia Overby when she traveled with an American university group behind the Iron Curtain in 1971.

Even worse was the utter despair she witnessed in people living under the weight of authoritarianism, a memory that inspired her lifelong commitment to safeguarding liberty at home.

Millions of Overby’s union siblings join her in that battle every day. Union members stand on the front lines of democracy and guard America’s freedoms with the same solidarity and collective power they wield in the workplace.

“Democracy is fragile,” observed Overby, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 7-34-2 in Granite City, Ill., noting that Russia’s attack on Ukrainian democracy reminds her of the devastation and misery wrought by other repressive regimes.

“We saw statues of Stalin,” she said of her visit to the Eastern Bloc many years ago. “We saw people living in poverty. We saw oppression, and people didn’t smile. I’ve never forgotten that. I don’t want to live that way.”

Union members and retirees like Overby are accustomed to electing union leaders, voting on contracts and having a voice on the job, and that also makes them fierce advocates for government by the people.

They circulate petitions for pro-worker candidates, then make thousands of phone calls, send out thousands of postcards and knock on countless doors to get those people elected. They turn out the vote on Election Day, often offering to drive neighbors to the polls or serving as precinct election workers to ensure efficient, convenient balloting.

There’s no denying that this advocacy protects Americans’ freedoms.

According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, the higher a state’s union density, the less likely legislators have been to push through restrictive voting laws. On the other hand, the report found, more than 70% of states with low numbers of union members mounted at least one successful attack on voting rights between 2011 and 2019.

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Cross-Border Solidarity Will Forge Economic Justice

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Cross-Border Solidarity Will Forge Economic Justice

What Tom O’Shei remembers most about his visit to Mexico in 2019 is the determination he glimpsed in the hundreds of Mexican workers who paraded through the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas and stopped to pray at a monument honoring a pair of murdered union activists.

Although the marchers gathered to remember the past, O’Shei knew their thoughts were also fixed on a future day when they’d win their fight for labor rights and help build a fairer economy across North America.

That day is edging closer under the 19-month-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which American labor leaders and their allies pushed over the finish line with provisions aimed at ending the exploitation of workers in all three countries.

Thousands of workers at a General Motors plant in Silao, a few hundred miles north of Lázaro Cárdenas, voted by a landslide earlier this month to join a real union and fight for decent pay and working conditions. And long-mistreated workers at auto parts manufacturer Tridonex, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas, are scheduled to vote Monday on choosing their own union.

These are vital, promising steps under the USMCA, which requires Mexico to enforce the labor rights needed to lift up workers there and, in turn, level the playing field for workers north of the border.

“I’m sure it’s going to help with other facilities going forward,” explained O’Shei, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 135L, who looks for workers at other Mexican plants to emulate the union drives at GM and Tridonex. “They’re no different than us. They want to be able to feed their families.”

“When they do well, we do well, because our work is less likely to be outsourced to a country paying its workers a decent wage,” added O’Shei, who represents hundreds of USW members at the Sumitomo plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., and twice joined USW delegations that traveled to Mexico to stand in solidarity with union supporters there.

Under the USMCA’s failed predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), employers shifted a million manufacturing jobs to Mexico to take advantage of the low wages as well as the lack of labor rights, weak safety standards and lax environmental regulation.

This race to the bottom decimated northern manufacturing communities while holding Mexican workers in poverty. Workers at the GM plant in Silao, for example, make only a few dollars an hour.

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Exploiting Young Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Exploiting Young Workers

The newcomer to Bob Garrou’s high school wrestling program had won his first match, and was growing in confidence, when he abruptly quit the team.

It sickened Garrou to learn why. A local store summarily fired the teen when he balked at working more than the 16 hours he already put in each week, leading the dejected youth to conclude he had to give up sports so he’d be available to cater to his next employer’s every whim.

Rather than provide the decent wages and health care needed to hire adults, more and more employers prefer to line their pockets on the backs of vulnerable teenagers like the young man who left Garrou’s team.

The abuse skyrocketed as employers cut corners in the COVID-19 economy. A Walgreens in South Carolina flouted child labor laws by hiring a 12-year-old. Alabama chicken plants exploited migrant teens to keep production going. A 16-year-old boy tripped and fell 11 stories to his death after a contractor illegally put him to work on the roof of a Tennessee hotel.

Other callous employers assigned teens prohibited work like operating potentially lethal machinery, climbing ladders and working as deck hands, while chains like Wendy’s and Chipotle drove youths to work ever longer hours, often past legal limits. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, some Republicans want to make it even easier for bosses to take advantage of young workers.

Garrou said he’s grateful that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers last week vetoed a bill, passed by the GOP-controlled legislature, that would have let some employers dramatically extend working hours for 14- and 15-year-olds across the state.

Wisconsin law mandates quitting times of 7 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. during the summer for workers in that age group. But the Republicans’ bill—opposed by the Child Labor Coalition—would have allowed smaller businesses to work them until 11 p.m. as long as schools were closed the following day.

“They’re trying to hold these kids hostage because they don’t want to pay adults a real wage,” noted Garrou, who in addition to coaching wrestling and other youth sports is the president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 248 and safety coordinator at a Packaging Corp. of America facility in Wisconsin.

As COVID-19 raged, millions of adults quit their jobs, fed up with greedy employers who not only failed to pay decent wages but refused to provide the health care and sick leave they needed to survive the pandemic. Struggling to remain open, yet unwilling to meet adult workers’ needs, employers set their sights on teenagers.

One restaurant chain CEO who’s hired dozens of teens put it this way: “We need bodies.”

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together