Posts from Tom Conway

America’s Tipping Point

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Tipping Point

E.J. Jenkins vividly recalls the day his mom worked a voter registration drive at a grocery store in Gary, Ind., and followed one recalcitrant young man to his car, coaxing and cajoling him until he walked back inside and added his name to the rolls.

Jenkins took her lead and grew into a dogged activist who will spend days, even weeks, texting, calling and urging even complete strangers to vote.

This kind of activism has never been more vital as Republicans in at least 43 states attempt to manipulate the political process and deny their fellow Americans a voice, putting democracy at risk.

After a huge turnout of Black voters in Georgia catapulted two Democrats to the Senate last year, Republican-led states introduced hundreds of bills and passed nearly three dozen laws aimed at either disenfranchising the poor, citizens of color and other vulnerable groups or throwing up roadblocks making it difficult for them to vote.

Only bold action in the Senate—passing legislation to preserve voting rights—can halt these attacks and ensure a government of all the people.

“It’s really the tipping point. We’re losing right now,” warned Jenkins, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014, noting the wave of voter suppression harkens to an age when the nation’s leaders first denied the ballot box to Americans based on race, gender and socioeconomic status and later used poll taxes and poll tests to turn away Black voters.

Right now, Georgia isn’t the only state where Republicans fear higher turnout of Black voters. Black citizens represent 12.5 percent of U.S. voters, up from 11.5 percent in 2000, with high percentages living in battleground states—like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—where Republicans pushed voter-suppression legislation after 2020.

Some of the new laws around the country restrict mail-in balloting and eliminate drop-off boxes, making it more difficult for people with disabilities and workers juggling multiple jobs to cast their votes. Others impose onerous voter identification requirements that disproportionately burden voters of color.

These laws, many of them facing legal challenges from civil rights groups, concentrate power in fewer hands and undercut ordinary Americans’ capacity to shape the country and their communities.

The franchise enables Americans to fight for a just tax system, equitable infrastructure, fairly funded schools and responsible policing. The ballot box paves the way to a country where every voice is heard. The greater the number of voters, the more resilient and representative democracy will be.

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Manchin Abandons West Virginia’s Working Families

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Manchin Abandons West Virginia’s Working Families

Ed Barnette long ago realized that affordable child care and paid sick leave, among other resources, would be essential to helping West Virginians build better lives and save what’s left of the middle class.

He just never expected that when America was finally on the cusp of providing these essentials, West Virginia’s Democratic senator would join pro-corporate Republicans in blocking the way.

But that’s exactly what happened. In thwarting the Build Back Better legislation, Sen. Joe Manchin turned his back on the working families whose support catapulted him to power in the first place.

“It’s almost like he forgot where his roots are,” fumed Barnette, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5668, which represents hundreds of workers at the Constellium plant in Ravenswood, W.Va. “He comes from a blue-collar state. When you say ‘West Virginia,’ the first thing you picture is a worker with a hard hat.”

“Surely, he won’t do it,” Barnette recalled saying to himself in the days before Manchin decided to withhold his vote and block the bill. “He did, and I just thought, ‘Damn it! You’re supposed to be working for us.’”

Barnette rejoiced last fall when Congress passed a historic, $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Like other states, West Virginia urgently needs improvements to its roads and bridges, schools and airports, energy systems, locks and dams, and communications networks.

But Barnette understands that the infrastructure legislation will have the biggest impact—and create the greatest number of manufacturing and construction jobs—only in conjunction with the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill.

Build Back Better would provide access to affordable child care and pave the way for more parents, especially more single parents, to enter the work force. It would ensure workers receive up to four weeks of paid family medical leave, so they could battle life’s challenges while continuing to support their families.

And it would provide universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, putting all of America’s children on the road to productive lives.

“It will do nothing but help the working people and middle class of West Virginia,” said Barnette, citing West Virginia’s high poverty rate and population loss.

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Harm to One is Harm to All

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Harm to One is Harm to All

Patrick Stock, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105, wasn’t going to let anyone stop him from supporting the United Auto Workers’ strike against Deere & Co.

When a court issued an injunction limiting the number of picketers at a Deere facility in Davenport, Iowa, Stock gathered about 30 members of his local and other unions and organized a rally along a four-lane highway within sight of the plant gate.

He and the others gave up their afternoon—and risked injury from the vehicles whizzing past—because Deere’s attack on the Auto Workers was an attack on them, too.

Union contracts provide decent wages and benefits along with safe working conditions, retirement security and a means for workers to stand up for themselves.

One company’s efforts to gut a contract and trample on workers emboldens others to follow suit. That’s why workers from across the labor movement band together to protect one another.

They walk each other’s picket lines. They fire off letters of support to the local newspapers. They attend rallies and stick signs in their yards.

They also boycott offending employers and take up collections to ensure striking workers have food, diapers and other necessities.

Solidarity serves as a counterweight to corporate power and helps to preserve what’s left of the middle class.

“We see the big picture, and we support everybody,” Stock said, adding he’s certain other unions will back his members, who work at Arconic’s Davenport Works, during their next contract negotiations.

Workers throughout the country put their lives on the line and worked exhausting amounts of overtime to keep factories operating during the pandemic.

Despite those sacrifices, however, companies like Deere doubled down on greed. Even employers that made record profits during the pandemic want to further bloat their bottom lines on the backs of those who stepped up during the crisis.

That’s forced workers into a wave of strikes around the country and underscored the power of solidarity in holding employers accountable.

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Building Back OSHA

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Building Back OSHA

When Ron Brady drives through highway construction zones, he makes a point of looking for safety violations that threaten workers’ lives.

He’s seen more and more of them the past few years as employers, emboldened by the weakened state of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), grew increasingly comfortable flouting the rules.

Funding and staffing shortages engineered by the previous presidential administration hobbled OSHA and put workers in numerous industries at risk. But now, Congress is poised to pass a bill that would help revitalize the agency and provide the resources needed to protect workers in a growing economy.

Along with many other provisions helping workers and their families, the Build Back Better legislation recently approved by the House would position OSHA to respond to more work sites, investigate additional complaints and proactively address a greater number of hazards.

“They’ve been woefully understaffed for a long time,” observed Brady, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614, which represents about 1,200 workers in the chemical, construction, gaming, manufacturing and other industries in West Virginia.

“They’re very professional,” he said of OSHA inspectors. “I’ve always found them to be very well trained. I think a lot of them are frustrated. They don’t have the resources to really do the job. There simply aren’t enough of them to cover it.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fell to the lowest level in half a century, and the agency conducted fewer investigations into top hazards like chemical exposure and musculoskeletal risks, as the previous president deliberately undercut the agency to benefit corporations.

Brady maintained a close watch on his members’ safety.

But in recent years, he said, he’s seen other construction workers navigate high beams without fall protection and risk their lives in work zones lacking the proper signage. And he knows that the starving of OSHA also put workers in other industries at higher risk.

“Everybody’s cutting corners and cutting budgets and trying to do more with fewer people. It’s something that’s going to get worse and worse,” Brady said.

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The Loud and Clear Call for Medicare Expansion

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Loud and Clear Call for Medicare Expansion

Growing up, Tom Hay helped to raise hogs and crops on the family farm, never thinking to protect his ears from the din of tractors, combines and other machinery.

And while his United Steelworkers (USW) contract provided safety controls and protective measures during his decades at Titan Tire, he wasn’t surprised when hearing tests revealed his ears aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

Right now, Congress is on the cusp of helping millions of Americans like Hay live better lives. In addition to enhancing access to prekindergarten and battling climate change, among many other overdue improvements, Build Back Better legislation would expand Medicare to cover hearing aids and other auditory care for the first time.

Hay knows that just like a strong heart and powerful lungs, robust hearing is essential for seniors’ health, safety and fulfillment.

They need to hear honking horns warning them that they’ve stepped into oncoming traffic. They need to hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances that zoom up behind them in traffic. And they need to hear the alarms alerting them to fires, intruders and other dangers at home.

Yet even though about half of Americans 60 and older struggle with hearing loss—and even though voters overwhelmingly support Medicare coverage for auditory services—the nation has long relegated hearing care to the back burner.

As a result, many seniors delay getting hearing aids or forgo them altogether because of the expense, which can run to thousands of dollars. Numerous retirees shared these sorts of stories with Hay while he served as president of USW Local 164, the union representing workers at Titan Tire in Des Moines, Iowa.

“They go get a hearing test and realize they can’t hear anything,” Hay recalled. “Then, when they find out what it’s going to cost, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t know where the money is going to come from.’ They about fall over.”

Today’s hearing aids provide more help than ever before, and that’s all the more reason to get them to those in need.

They’re compact and highly sophisticated, delivering superior sound quality along with Bluetooth capability that connects users with their electronic devices. Vendors even offer remote support.

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Everyone Benefits

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Everyone Benefits

Donneta Williams and her co-workers at the Corning plant in Wilmington, N.C., hail from different backgrounds and hold diverse views.

But just as they team up on the production floor to make top-quality products powering the internet, they banded together to push for a long-overdue infrastructure program that’s destined to lift up their community and countless others across America.

They didn’t fight alone. Williams and her colleagues were among a veritable army of Steelworkers and other activists from all over America whose unstinting advocacy helped to propel a historic infrastructure package through Congress and into the Oval Office.

Their rallies, letters, phone calls, tweets and visits to congressional offices provided the heft behind the bipartisan legislation that cleared the House last week, just as their steely resolve helped to deliver the Senate’s vote in August.

“It unified us,” Williams, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1025, said of the bill, now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature, which will invest billions in roads, bridges, seaports, locks and dams, manufacturing facilities, energy systems and communications networks.

“Everyone benefits,” she said, noting the infrastructure program will create and sustain millions of union manufacturing and construction jobs while modernizing the nation and revitalizing its manufacturing base. “It’s not about one particular party or one particular person. It’s about the nation as a whole and our future and what can be accomplished when everybody works together.”

Williams and her colleagues make optical fiber, the backbone of broadband networks, a product as fine as thread that carries voice, data and video over the information superhighway at tremendous speed. Across the nation, however, the availability of high-speed broadband remains grossly uneven, and even some of Williams’ co-workers can’t access it for their own families.

That absurdity inflamed Local 1025’s support for an infrastructure program that will deliver affordable, high-quality internet to every American’s door while also bringing urgently needed repairs to school buildings, expanding the clean economy and upgrading crumbling, congested roads in Wilmington and other cities.

Williams and her co-workers sent their representatives and senators hundreds of postcards and emails championing the infrastructure legislation. And when the USW’s multi-city “We Supply America” bus tour rolled into Wilmington in August to promote the bill, many of Williams’ co-workers donned blue-and-yellow T-shirts and turned out for a rally to show they were all in.

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Confronting the Next Crisis

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Confronting the Next Crisis

Workers at the Sibanye-Stillwater complex in Montana mine minerals used to fight cancer, produce life-saving surgical instruments and manufacture the wind turbines and solar panels essential for the clean economy.

They touch so many facets of American life that Ed Lorash, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 11-0001, considers their work essential to national security.

Lorash knows that without strong supply chains stretching from mining to manufacturing, the nation is vulnerable, not just to a shortage of consumer goods but to any number of crises from pandemics to natural disasters that could undermine America’s safety. And only revitalizing an industrial base decimated by bad trade will eliminate the country’s dangerous dependence on foreign products and protect America’s freedom.

“It keeps your enemy at bay,” Lorash said of a robust manufacturing sector. Foreign producers can cut off supplies for economic or political reasons, he noted, or raise prices on a whim.

“I just think we really need to look at making things here,” he said. “Then, if we get a surplus, we can sell it.”

Over the past quarter century, greedy corporations closed hundreds of U.S. manufacturing facilities and offshored more than a million jobs to countries with low wages, weak labor laws and poor environmental standards.

But that wasn’t the only blow to America’s security. China and other competitor nations compounded the damage by dumping unfairly traded goods in U.S. markets, killing millions more jobs and further decimating the domestic manufacturing base.

COVID-19 threw the damage into sharp relief. Hollowed-out supply chains left the nation unable to produce the face masks, ventilators and other medical equipment essential for fighting the pandemic.

Next, shortages of semiconductors, resulting from pandemic-related manufacturing slowdowns overseas, disrupted the U.S. auto industry and decimated inventories of cars and trucks.

America once made 37 percent of the world’s computer chips, used not only in vehicles but electronics and myriad other high-tech products. Now, the U.S. accounts for only 12 percent of global production and buys much of what it needs from overseas.

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Rebuilding the Middle Class

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Rebuilding the Middle Class

With business already strong and a national infrastructure program likely to further increase demand for its products, DuPont realized it needed a strategy to find more workers.

So it did what any sensible employer would do—turned to the union for help. DuPont approached United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12075 about the possibility of a worker recruitment campaign highlighting the availability of union jobs, which provide the benefits, security and dignity more and more Americans seek in the wake of COVID-19.

Major investments in America’s infrastructure will modernize the nation and revitalize its industrial base. But an infrastructure program is about more than rebuilding roads and bridges. It’s about creating more of those family-sustaining union jobs and rebuilding the middle class.

It’s about creating an economy that’s not only more powerful but more just.

In August, the Senate took the critical first step by passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would pave the way for long-overdue improvements in roads, water systems, school buildings, airports, communications networks, energy systems and manufacturing facilities.

Now, the House needs to pass its own version of the legislation and set the nation on a path to shared prosperity.

“We are waiting for them to finish up, so we can move on,” said Local 12075 President Kent Holsing, noting he represents hundreds of workers at DuPont, Dow and other chemical companies in the Midland, Mich., area who are ready to handle the added business that an infrastructure program would generate.

“We make lots of products that are used in building construction,” Holsing explained. “We make products that go into water-treatment plants. We make a number of products that go into cars. Investment in infrastructure is an investment in products, and investment in products is an investment in jobs.”

But DuPont needs more workers to take on those jobs. Holsing said that when company representatives asked which USW benefits it ought to highlight in recruitment efforts, he and his colleagues told them “everything from worker representation to the college scholarship program.”

The pandemic underscored the withered state of America’s manufacturing base and marked a turning point for Americans fed up with the low-wage, nonunion jobs that proliferated amid industrial decline.

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At Risk of Collapse

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

At Risk of Collapse

So many people with COVID-19 sought treatment at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in recent months that the hospital triaged patients in a tent outside the facility and set up a makeshift ward in the main lobby.

Many workers put in 14- and 16-hour shifts to keep the Southern California facility operating during the crisis, with some comforting the dying and others volunteering to use their Spanish skills to help communicate with bereft family members over the phone.

But instead of recognizing workers who risked their lives and pushed themselves to exhaustion, the hospital compounded the strain by demanding concessions and dragging out contract negotiations for more than a year.

Around the country, hospitals continue to stretch workers to the breaking point and put the entire health care system at risk.

“The fact is that without us, the hospitals have no one,” observed Alma Garzon, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 183, which represents hundreds of workers at Providence St. Mary.

“Some of them don’t understand what we really do,” Garzon said of hospital executives. “The higher-ups are not going to come in and take care of our patients. They’re not going to get their hands dirty.”

The pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that plagued hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities long before COVID-19.

To protect their communities during the crisis, workers stepped up, put in arduous amounts of overtime and took on extra duties. Yet Garzon said that when union officials cited the need to invest in workers and take steps to boost staffing levels, management’s response was: “You signed up for this.”

“That was a big slap in the face,” said Garzon, whose members ratified a new contract Oct. 7, after about 15 months of the hospital’s stonewalling.

More and more health systems treat workers with the same kind of disdain.

That’s fueling widespread burnout and fatigue, and it’s forcing a growing number of health care workers to escalate their fights for fair treatment and patient safety.

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A Common-Sense Policy

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Common-Sense Policy

Keli Vereb wasn’t sure how long it would take to recover from complicated neck surgery last year, but she took comfort knowing she’d be able to focus on healing without having to worry about her job.

That’s because United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2227-01 negotiated a contract with Vereb’s employer, U.S. Steel, ensuring paid leave for workers who need time to fight for their health.

Millions of other workers need the same security. But they’re out of luck because America remains the only major industrialized country without a universal paid leave program that protects workers’ livelihoods while they confront serious health and family issues.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan fills this gaping hole in the nation’s social infrastructure. It would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave so they can navigate some of life’s biggest challenges without fear of unsympathetic bosses docking their wages or even firing them for taking time off.

Congress has begun working on legislation addressing key aspects Biden’s proposal amid overwhelming public support for this common-sense policy.

“I didn’t worry about how I was going to pay the bills while I was off,” Vereb, a caster scheduler based at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works near Pittsburgh, said of the three months she relied on her union-negotiated leave last year. “My benefits continued. My pension kept accruing.”

Vereb faced an arduous recovery after the operation, one of three she’s had over the years because of injuries sustained in a fender-bender three decades ago.

“It was a whole lot of healing,” recalled Vereb, a union griever, citing the pain and the line of 25 stitches starting at the back of her head. “The first six weeks, I had my neck in a neck immobilizer. I couldn’t even get a shower on my own.”

She’s grateful that the USW fights to retain the leave program during every round of negotiations with U.S. Steel and realizes that many workers across the country are entirely subject to the whims of their bosses.

In the absence of a national paid sick and family leave program, many short-sighted and callous employers force Americans to choose between their health and their paychecks.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together