Category: From the USW International President

Going Big on Infrastructure

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Going Big on Infrastructure

Chris Sova and his co-workers at Bay County Medical Care Facility endured years of staffing shortages before COVID-19 made a grim situation even worse.

Workers sacrificed vacations and other personal time to keep the Essexville, Mich., facility operating as patients and staff members fell ill to the coronavirus and management struggled to recruit reinforcements.

Just like a road can be patched only so many times before falling apart, America’s battered health care system and other long-neglected infrastructure can no longer continue functioning with Band-Aids and stopgap fixes.

That’s why President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan not only earmarks money for crumbling highways and bridges but makes much-needed investments in school buildings, education and training, hospitals and airports, water systems, utilities, broadband, manufacturing facilities and health care services that are strained to the breaking point.  

All require attention now because they work together like cement to keep society functioning.

“If you don’t have healthy people, you don’t need roads,” remarked Sova, a licensed practical nurse, third-generation nursing home worker and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 15301-1.

The pandemic underscored America’s need both to make major investments in infrastructure and to take the sweeping, holistic approach that Biden laid out.

For example, it’s crucial to revitalize manufacturing supply chains to ensure the nation can produce sufficient supplies of face masks and other critical items, upgrade transportation systems to speedily move goods around the country, modernize school facilities to produce globally competitive citizens and build the communications networks that enable Americans to learn and work from anywhere.

And the pandemic, which so far has claimed more than 561,000 lives and infected about 31 million people in the U.S., not only showed the importance of providing affordable health insurance but creating a more robust health care system with the capacity to meet Americans’ needs.

“It’s collapsing right now,” Sova said of the nation’s health care infrastructure.

He noted that facilities and providers around the country need higher Medicaid reimbursement rates so they can recruit adequate numbers of workers, provide decent wages and benefits, combat understaffing, improve workplace safety, offer opportunities for advancement and put an end to the grueling overtime that’s dangerous both for caregivers and the people they serve.

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America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic’s Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation’s prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the “brains” of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it also will require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That’s why it’s crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

“It’s that ripple effect,” said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. “If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can’t get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.”

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturersof other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come as the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

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Ending Callous Delays

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Ending Callous Delays

Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his co-workers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

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A Historic Save

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Historic Save

The closer Doug Kamerer got to retirement, the more he feared that he’d never be able to afford it.

Kamerer steadily built up a pension during 35 years as a die setter at Etched Metal Co. in Solon, Ohio, where he and his co-workers often accepted lower raises in return for contributions their company made to a multiemployer retirement fund.

But that fund began failing years ago, and if it crashed, Kamerer knew he and his wife, Toni, would end up spending their senior years just trying to scrape by.

All of those worries evaporated Thursday when President Joe Biden signed a historic stimulus package that will not only lift America out of the COVID-19 recession but help secure the nation’s future.

Biden and congressional Democrats vowed to make working people their top priority, and they delivered on that promise with legislation that addresses the pain and uncertainty the pandemic inflicted on the entire nation.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan delivers one of the boldest, most comprehensive investments in working people since the New Deal of the 1930s, and the United Steelworkers (USW) worked alongside other labor unions to ensure Congress passed it.

And just as the New Deal both stabilized a country in crisis and fostered prosperity, the stimulus bill will strengthen America for years to come.

The package extends $300-a-week unemployment benefits and health insurance to workers laid off during the COVID-19 recession, provides $1,400 stimulus checks and tax credits to millions of struggling families, earmarks funds to help schools operate safely and allocates billions for controlling the coronavirus.

But it isn’t enough to confront current hardships. It’s also essential to head off impending threats to the nation’s progress.

That’s why the stimulus includes $86 billion to stabilize about 130 multiemployer pension funds and secure the retirements of 1.3 million workers and retirees, including Kamerer, a member of USW Local 1-243 who’s enrolled in a plan that could go broke in a decade.

“This is huge,” Kamerer, who hopes to retire in four years, said of the pension support. “It’s such good news. What a weight off my mind.”

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Keeping America Free

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Keeping America Free

Sam Phillips and Trey Maestas fought tirelessly to save TIMET’s titanium sponge plant, both to protect the jobs of about 420 co-workers and safeguard America’s future.

The decades-old facility in Henderson, Nev., was the nation’s last remaining producer of the coral-like material essential for manufacturing warplanes, munitions, satellites, civilian jetliners, ships and even joints for artificial hips.

The plant’s closing last year—despite the best efforts of Phillips and Maestas of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4856—left the nation completely dependent on foreign imports of titanium sponge and further decimated manufacturing supply chains crucial to the nation’s security.

America can only be truly free if it rebuilds these and other vital lifelines.

President Joe Biden last week signed an executive order requiring an immediate, 100-day federal review of supply chain vulnerabilities in industries like computer chips and pharmaceuticals.

That’s a welcome start. But it will take a much broader and long-term rebuilding commitment to overcome the damage that decades of neglect and offshoring inflicted on the country’s manufacturing base.

Over the past year, widespread shortages of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the withered state of U.S. industry.

However, the nation cannot regain industrial strength merely by ramping up the assembly of PPE, cars, refrigerators, electronic devices and the other finished products that consumers need for emergencies and everyday life. That would leave the job half done.

The country’s security also depends on patching hollowed-out supply chains and building back the capacity to produce all of the raw materials, parts and components, like titanium sponge, that go into those end products.

That means ensuring America not only makes sufficient numbers of face masks and surgical gowns but continues to produce the homopolymers that go into them.  

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‘There’s No Excuse for This’

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

‘There’s No Excuse for This’

Patricia McDonald layered on sweaters, socks and mittens and huddled under blankets for 15 hours as the temperature in her Duncanville, Texas, home plunged to 42 degrees last week.

Well after the water in her kitchen froze, McDonald decided she’d had enough and braved a hair-raising ride over snow-covered, ice-slicked roads to get to her daughter’s house several miles away.

The Dallas County probation officer was safe and warm there. However, McDonald couldn’t establish the computer connection she needed to check in with colleagues, and she worried about clients who had had fewer resources than she did for surviving the state’s massive power failure.

This isn’t merely a Texas problem. Failing infrastructure—from pothole-scarred roads and run-down bridges to aging utility lines and dilapidated water systems—poses just as big a threat to the rest of the country.

Without a bold rebuilding campaign, Americans will continue to risk their well-being and livelihoods as the nation collapses around them.

McDonald, financial secretary for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9487, which represents hundreds of city and county workers in Dallas, grew increasingly angry knowing that it took just several inches of snow and frigid temperatures to knock out the Texas power grid and paralyze the state.

Some Texans, confronted with days-long power outages, slept in idling motor coaches that officials turned into makeshift warming centers or drove around seeking hotel rooms that still had light and heat.

Others hunkered down at home, melting snow to flush toilets after frozen pipes burst or heating rooms with generators and charcoal grills despite the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. A handful of people froze to death, including an 11-year-old boy found lifeless in his bed.

But even as McDonald and other Texans waited for power to be restored, police and firefighters in Philadelphia used rafts to rescue at least 11 people trapped by a torrent of water after a 48-inch main ruptured in the city’s Nicetown neighborhood.

About two weeks ago, a utility worker in Oldsmar, Fla., averted disaster when he noticed that a hacker had taken over his computer and increased the amount of lye in the drinking water supply to dangerous levels. The security breach provided a chilling reminder that financially struggling water systems not only contend with lead-tainted pipes and failing dams but vulnerable computer systems that also require urgent improvements.

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The Union Bond

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Union Bond

Dave Dell Isola, the son and grandson of union members, grew up grateful for the family-sustaining wages and benefits that organized labor won for working people.

But he never fully grasped the might of solidarity until he and his wife, Barbara, and their two sons lost everything in an apartment fire. Dell Isola’s brothers and sisters in the United Steelworkers (USW) rushed to the couple’s side with financial assistance and other support to help them through the tragedy.

“They had me in tears,” recalled Dell Isola, now vice president of USW Local 12012, which represents hundreds of natural gas and propane industry workers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The union bond is so powerful that corporate interests and their allies across the country desperately want to smash it.

Twenty-seven states already have falsely named right-to-work (RTW) laws on the books, and advocates of these union-busting measures now hope to enact them in New Hampshire and Montana.

In addition, corporations and their allies want to make another effort to ram the legislation through in Missouri, even though angry voters there rejected it by a landslide just a few years ago. And Republican lawmakers in Tennessee want to enshrine their anti-worker law in the state constitution, just to make it more difficult for wiser heads to repeal the legislation one day.

Working people only win fair wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions when they stand together. Solidarity also gives union members the grit to survive battles like the months-long lockout that Dell Isola and his co-workers at National Grid in Massachusetts endured during their successful fight for a fair contract.

Corporations want to rig the scales in their favor. They push RTW laws so they can divide workers—tear at the union bond—and exploit them more easily.

These laws allow workers to opt out of supporting unions while still reaping the benefits. Unions remain legally bound to represent workers regardless of whether they pay dues.

And just as corporations want, that erodes union activism and starves locals like Dell Isola’s of the resources they need to bargain with strength, enforce contracts, build solidarity and survive labor disputes.

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Building Better Lives

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Building Better Lives

When workers at Orchid Orthopedic Solutions tried to form a union, the company quickly brought in five full-time union-busters to torment them day and night.

The hired guns saturated the Bridgeport, Mich., plant with anti-union messages, publicly belittled organizers, harangued workers on the shop floor and asked them how they’d feed their families if the plant closed.

The months of endless bullying took their toll, as the company intended, and workers voted against forming the union just to bring the harassment to an end.

“Fear was their main tactic,” recalled Duane Forbes, one of the workers, noting the union-busters not only threatened the future of the plant but warned the company would eliminate his colleagues’ jobs and health care during a labor dispute. “Fear is the hardest thing to overcome.”

Legislation now before Congress would ensure that corporations never trample workers’ rights like this again.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, introduced on Thursday, will free Americans to build better lives and curtail the scorched-earth campaigns that employers wage to keep unions out at any cost.

The PRO Act, backed by President Joe Biden and pro-worker majorities in the House and the Senate, will impose stiff financial penalties on companies that retaliate against organizers and require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to fast-track legal proceedings for workers suspended or fired for union activism. It also empowers workers to file their own civil lawsuits against employers that violate their labor rights.

The legislation will bar employers from permanently replacing workers during labor disputes, eliminating a threat that companies like Orchid Orthopedic often use to thwart organizing campaigns.

And the PRO Act will empower the NLRB to force corporations into bargaining with workers if they interfere in union drives. That means an end to the mandatory town-hall meetings that employers regularly use to disparage organized labor and hector workers into voting against unions.

Orchid Orthopedic’s union-busters forced Forbes and his colleagues into hour-long browbeating sessions once or twice a week for months—and that was on top of the daily, one-on-one bullying the workers endured on the production floor.

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Empowering America’s Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Empowering America’s Workers

Time and again over the past few years, as he fought to protect his co-workers at Bobcat’s North Dakota plant, William Wilkinson faced two obstacles.

One was the company. The other was a federal government that, instead of fulfilling its duty to safeguard workers, helped management exploit them.

Within hours of taking office on Jan. 20, however, President Joe Biden began to level the playing field and harness the strength of working people to tackle the huge challenges confronting the country.

Biden understands that only with a healthy, empowered workforce can America end the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the economy.

So in one of his first official acts, Biden fired Peter Robb, the union-busting corporate lawyer who wormed his way into the general counsel’s job at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and then used his power to turn the agency against the people it was created to protect.

Robb, who directed agency field offices and set policy, thwarted organizing drives and advocated stripping workers of long-standing union protections. He determined employers had no obligation to bargain with unions seeking COVID-19 protections and even sided with employers who fired workers for voicing coronavirus safety concerns.

“Board charges used to scare the company. Now, they mean nothing,” said Wilkinson, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 560, who sensed Robb’s anti-worker animus rigging the scales in numerous cases that he filed on behalf of his members.

“No matter what, your case is dead before you get there,” Wilkinson said, recalling one dispute in which the NLRB refused to make Bobcat turn over financial data the union needed to assess a health insurance hike. “It’s Bizarro World. They have no interest in wrongdoing or whatever problem brought you there.”

Righting the NLRB will involve not only selecting a new, capable general counsel but, in a change from the former administration, installing board members committed to upholding labor law.

Biden’s housecleaning will ensure the agency returns to its mission of protecting labor rights, such as ensuring that the growing number of Americans who want to join unions—including employees of Amazon, Google and transportation services—can do so without harassment or retaliation.

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Seizing the Moment

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Seizing the Moment

When COVID-19 forced the 66-bed Maryhill Manor into lockdown, a resolute Veronica Dixon and her colleagues realized they had to make a choice: band together or fall apart.

So they put in longer hours, shouldered extra duties and leaned on each other to keep the Niagara, Wis., nursing facility operating as the coronavirus swept through, sickening dozens of residents and staff members.

What saved Maryhill Manor also offers hope for a country convulsed by storms. Only by working together can Americans end the pandemic, create a more equitable society and build a just economic system.

Dixon, a cook at the nursing home and the financial secretary of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 3168, noted that COVID-19 exacerbated the inequality that mires millions in poverty and tears at the nation’s social fabric.

“How can you not come together and try to work it out?” she asked.

“The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer,” observed Dixon, who’s seen more people in Niagara struggle since a local paper mill shut down, eliminating hundreds of family-sustaining jobs, more than a decade ago. “There has to be something in between so people can live a decent life and not worry about how to pay their bills.”

So many Americans see the nation at a crossroads that they came together in record numbers to elect Joe Biden, charting a course for healing and progress.

Then, in runoff elections for U.S. Senate this month, Georgia voters propelled the nation yet another step along the path of change by electing Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, inclusive candidates committed to progress.

“You can’t lie about the numbers,” Dixon said of the historic election results. “People want change.”

But it isn’t enough for Americans to band together at the ballot box. It’s just as important to rally behind the initiatives that build a fairer country, just as the solidarity of union workers yielded the 40-hour work week, decent benefits and workplace safety in previous decades.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together