Category: From the USW International President

Gambling with Americans’ Futures

David McCall

David McCall USW International President

Gambling with Americans’ Futures

Vikki Marshall helped to connect unemployed Arizonans with food and shelter during the Reagan-era economic crisis and sometimes found herself on the phone late at night trying to talk a desperate person out of suicide.

These experiences as a social worker and union activist in the 1980s left her keenly aware of the tenuous lives many Americans lead and turned her into a lifelong fighter for the opportunities and resources essential to building more resilient families.

But while Marshall spent decades working alongside other union members to foster economic security, Republicans in Congress did the opposite. They repeatedly attempted to gut Social Security and gamble with Americans’ futures.

It happened again last week. Extremists in the U.S. House demanded $183 million in cuts to the Social Security Administration, along with needless cuts to other vital programs and agencies, to avert a government shutdown.

Democrats defeated the right-wingers once again, preserving the programs and keeping the government running. But Marshall, a longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW), knows the GOP will continue targeting Social Security and torpedo the program if they ever have enough votes to get away with it.

“It isn’t their money to play with,” fumed Marshall, 80, now president of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 39-8 in Tucson, Ariz.

“It’s our survival. It’s ours. We earned it,” she said, noting Americans support Social Security while working and, in return, receive payments during retirement or in cases of disability. “I’m very grateful. I have a pension in addition to my Social Security. A lot of my friends and neighbors do not.”

Millions of retirees rely entirely on Social Security and would fall into poverty without it. And even though Americans overwhelmingly oppose cuts to the hugely popular program, Republicans cannot keep their hands off of it.

Over the years, they tried to privatize Social Security and bet Americans’ futures in the stock market. They plotted to increase the retirement age and hollow out benefits for people already paying into the system, potentially forcing Americans to postpone retirement, scrape by during their golden years, or work until death. Republican Sen. Mike Lee of Utah, for example, was once caught on camera saying he wanted to “phase out” Social Security and “pull it up by the roots and get rid of it.”

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Jobs Today, Jobs Tomorrow

David McCall

David McCall USW International President

Jobs Today, Jobs Tomorrow

Ryan Andreas helped his union push through legislation for a national infrastructure program two years ago, realizing that historic upgrades to America’s utilities, ports and bridges portended brighter futures for him and his co-workers at Travis Pattern and Foundry.

It turned out exactly as Andreas anticipated. He and his colleagues experienced skyrocketing demand for clamps, vacuum tubing and other products after President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) on Nov. 15, 2021, prompting the company to create hundreds more union jobs and expand production facilities.

“It’s benefited us tremendously,” said Andreas, financial secretary for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 289M, which represents nearly 500 workers at two Travis facilities and another manufacturer in Spokane, Wash. “We’ve almost had to turn away business.”

The IIJA unleashed $1.2 trillion for tens of thousands of projects nationwide. It’s upgrading transportation, communications and energy systems while building back manufacturing capacity, generating hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs and investing in the middle class.

In Washington state alone, as U.S. Rep. Rick Larsen noted, the program continues to touch all parts of the economy, creating jobs in construction as well as the “transit, trucking, aviation, rail and maritime sectors.” Andreas and his colleagues just wrapped up work on a big order supplying parts to a company serving the rail industry.

Across the country, investment in plants, mills and other manufacturing facilities doubled since the end of 2021 after increasing only negligibly in the four years before that, according to data from the U.S. Treasury Department and the White House. “The factory construction of today means manufacturing jobs for tomorrow,” Livia Shmavonian, director of Biden’s Made in America office, observed in August.

Travis Pattern and Foundry is among the companies committing to facilities and people because of the IIJA. The 101-year-old family-owned business recently completed a new building, adding 45,000 square feet of production space, and it’s now planning another multimillion-dollar addition to its 170,000-square-foot campus.

“We are always looking to hire more people,” said Andreas, noting the contract he and his fellow union members recently ratified delivers significant wage increases, cuts the time needed to reach the top of the pay scale, and provides other enhancements that will help current and future workers build better lives.

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Pathway to the Middle Class

David McCall

David McCall USW International President

Pathway to the Middle Class

Felipe Venegas wears full-body personal protective equipment—and moves carefully and methodically even on the hottest days—because he processes chemicals with the potential to ignite and explode in a heartbeat.

Venegas and his co-workers at Nouryon in La Porte, Texas, put their lives on the line to supply the nation’s need for coatings, cleaning solutions and many other essential products.

Yet the company arbitrarily axed their bonuses about a year ago even as bosses continued pocketing their own premium pay for the work force’s outstanding safety and production record.

It was one more kick in the gut for Venegas and his colleagues, who voted in February to unionize and join the growing numbers of Americans who are harnessing collective power to build better lives. Now, they’re in the process of bargaining their first contract.

Union election petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board soared in the wake of the pandemic as workers in manufacturing, energy, retail and many other industries organized to level the playing field and win their fair share. Workers at thousands of workplaces, including the Nouryon complex in La Porte, Texas, began forming unions this year alone.

“I just felt we had to do something different,” recalled Venegas, a production operator at Nouryon for 15 years who led several dozen co-workers in their successful drive to become members of the United Steelworkers (USW). “We didn’t see a future. We’re finding it harder to stay in the middle class.”

Workers at Nouryon faced the same quandary as millions of other struggling Americans. Instead of moving ahead, they kept falling further behind without a union, Venegas said, citing paltry wage increases, a lackluster retirement plan and other mistreatment at Nouryon, a multibillion-dollar global company that’s co-owned by the Carlyle Group, one of the biggest investment firms in the world.

Nouryon posts whopping revenue on workers’ backs, and the Carlyle Group’s founders appear on Forbes’ real-time list of billionaires. Meanwhile, Venegas and others at the La Porte plant struggle to pay for their families’ medical care.

“It’s horrible,” Venegas said of the company’s health care plan, which requires hefty premium contributions and deductibles even though the physical nature of the job takes a heavy toll on workers’ bodies. “You have to pay 100 percent before you reach your deductible. My deductible is like $5,000.”

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Putting an End to Divide and Conquer

David McCall

David McCall USW International President

Putting an End to Divide and Conquer

The single mother, determined to provide the best for her family, poured heart and soul into her job at the Cooper Tire plant in Texarkana, Ark.

Yet, Kerry Halter recalled, the woman made thousands of dollars less every year than co-workers performing the very same job. Even worse, under the plant’s two-tier wage system—paying lower rates to more recently hired workers—she’d never catch up.

Fortunately, Halter and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 752L drew a line in the sand during contract negotiations four years ago and forced the company to eliminate the capricious pay system, ensuring all workers at the plant began receiving equal pay for equal work.

Those USW members represented the leading edge of a movement now sweeping the country. In one industry after another, fed-up workers are fighting back against the two-tier systems that employers use to cheat and divide them.

In addition to wages, some employers use two-tier systems to give more recently hired workers lower-quality health care or retirement benefits than other workers or to impose unequal compensation systems on people performing the same work in different locations.

“Greedy corporations and CEOs like to see how much money they can save on the backs of their workers,” said Halter, the Local 752L president. “At some point in time, you just have to say enough is enough, and we’re going to stand up and fight for fair wages and benefits.”

Under Cooper Tire’s system, workers who joined the Texarkana plant beginning in 2009 made only 85 percent of what co-workers hired before them did.

That disparity quickly trapped more and more workers in a cycle of exploitation that cost them thousands of dollars in wages every year while also limiting their vacation pay and other benefits. More veteran workers, meanwhile, disliked making more money than co-workers doing the same jobs right next to them.

“It shouldn’t be about your hire date,” said Halter, noting his 1,500 union members—newer and more veteran workers alike—collectively decided to make evening the scales a priority in 2019 contract talks.

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Fighting Killer Dust

Fighting Killer Dust

Silica dust at the Genesis Alkali mine in Green River, Wyo., is so thick some days that Marshal Cummings can barely see a foot in front of him.

It blankets his clothes, clogs his respirator, coats his hair, blackens his mucus and lodges deep inside him like a ticking bomb.

Exposure to silica can lead to silicosis, a scarring and stiffening of the lungs that leaves miners gasping for air, and it’s also a cause of lung cancer, kidney disease and other major ailments.

Silica robs thousands of their health every year. But now, after years of fighting, Cummings and tens of thousands of surface and underground miners across the country are on the brink of achieving true protections and holding all mining employers accountable for the first time.

President Joe Biden’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently proposed a rule that would force employers to significantly reduce miners’ exposure to silica dust. It would also mandate air monitoring to ensure compliance with the new standard and require corrective actions when silica levels exceed the rule.

Cummings and his co-workers encounter silica dust while mining trona—a mineral used to make soap, glass and other essential products—and it’s also in the coal they use to power the mine complex.

“Even if you wear a mask, you are coughing up black stuff, and every time you blow your nose, it’s pitch black,” said Cummings, chief steward and safety committee member for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13214, who credits both his union and MSHA for moving the protections forward.

Silica dust, found in numerous types of rock, threatens all miners. So MSHA’s rule would cover not only Cummings, his colleagues and others in the trona industry, but workers at rock quarries and miners who produce coal, iron ore, copper, nickel, zinc and other critical materials.

MSHA wants employers to combat silica dust through a comprehensive hierarchy of controls. That includes engineering controls like ventilation and collection systems as well as administrative protections like ensuring miners have time to remove dust from their clothes, and providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE).

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Empowering the Caregivers

Empowering the Caregivers

The World War II veteran had no family by his side as he lay dying a few months ago, so Ella Wilverding and her union co-workers stepped into the role.

They took turns sitting vigil with the man, talking to him, holding his hand, and making him as comfortable as possible during his final days.

“We have a policy,” explained Wilverding, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at the Oregon Veterans’ Home in Lebanon, Ore., and the president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9559. “No one dies alone.”

This is the kind of compassionate, top-quality care that ensues when responsible staffing levels empower nurses, CNAs and other nursing home workers to provide the time and attention that residents need.

Right now, states set their own staffing requirements, and some have none at all. Fortunately, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently took the first step in fixing this broken system of care by proposing minimum mandatory staffing requirements for nursing homes across the country.

CMS will take public comments for about two months before issuing a final rule—a window that enables advocates like Wilverding to shine a light on the incredible difference that robust staffing makes and to fight for standards strong enough to revolutionize an essential part of the health care system.

“I wish every facility could be like this,” Wilverding said of the Lebanon location, where she works with seven veterans on an average day shift.

Under Oregon law, each resident there receives at least 2.16 hours of CNA care every day, plus assistance and services from other staff members. Oregon’s staffing standards now rank among the strongest in the nation, but Wilverding champions further improvements, knowing that they would enable workers to provide ever-better care.

The Lebanon site consists of a dozen houses, with as many as 14 residents in each, spread among four neighborhoods on a manicured campus.

CNAs like Wilverding prepare meals, wash the dishes and handle laundry in addition to helping veterans with bathing, dressing and other tasks. If residents’ needs increase—such as when the staff mobilizes to provide around-the-clock end-of-life care, for example—the facility schedules additional workers for support.

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Fighting for a Life Outside the Mill

Fighting for a Life Outside the Mill

She only wanted a few hours at her dying mother’s bedside.

But the woman’s bosses at Twin Rivers Paper in Madawaska, Maine, lacked all decency and forced her to the mill on overtime even though it was her day off.

About an hour and a half into the mandatory shift, the woman’s mother died. She left the mill heartbroken, exploited by an industry that continues to spurn workers’ basic need for work-life balance.

Now, workers are battling harder than ever to end this appalling mistreatment. They’re fighting back—at the bargaining table and at the state capitol—against inhumane mandatory overtime requirements that strain families to the breaking point and put lives at risk.

“It’s definitely caused a lot of heartache at the mill,” said David Hebert, financial officer and former president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 291, one of three USW locals collectively representing about 360 workers at Twin Rivers.

USW members long warned paper companies about the need to increase hiring and training to keep facilities operating safely and efficiently. Yet some employers preferred to keep working people to the bone.

Workers at Twin Rivers, for example, work a base shift of 12 hours. On top of that, to fill in the schedule, each can be drafted for an additional 12-hour shift every month regardless of whether they want the extra hours.

But it gets much worse.

Hebert and his co-workers also face the possibility of having a 12-hour shift extended with six hours of mandatory overtime, without warning or advance notice, virtually any day bosses choose.

And they’re often forced to pull multiple 18-hour days in a week, especially when winter cold and flu season exacerbates the company’s intentional understaffing. Many of these union members commute 45 minutes or more each way, meaning they get only a few hours of sleep at a time.

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The Power of a First Contract

The Power of a First Contract

James Golden knew the crowbar wasn’t the right tool for the job, but it’s what the bosses provided when he needed to perform work on a piece of equipment at the Kumho tire plant in Macon, Ga.

The crowbar slipped from Golden’s hand and smacked him in the head. Bleeding, yet unable to find adequate help on the sparsely staffed night shift, Golden drove himself to the hospital while a supervisor agonized over whether to fill out paperwork about the injury or try to get the machine operating once more.

While the memory of that night still infuriates him, Golden takes comfort knowing that he and his 325 co-workers now have the power to protect themselves, look out for one another and hold management accountable.

Along with wage increases, better work-life balance and other wins, the workers gained a real voice on the job two weeks ago when they ratified their first contract with Kumho as members of the United Steelworkers (USW).

The contract establishes a labor-management workplace improvement committee, affording Golden and others on the front lines the means to address issues like turnover, efficiency and quality.

The agreement also mandates a joint health and safety committee, giving workers not only a say in how to properly operate and maintain equipment but a role in developing emergency plans and input into other aspects of plant safety.

“It’s a new day,” Golden said, referring to the power of a first contract to level the playing field and afford workers a seat at the table. “This is the law of the land.”

Workers who want to band together for better futures often face prolonged and brutal anti-union campaigns from employers hellbent on holding them down.

Kumho, for example, committed such egregious violations of workers’ rights that an administrative law judge at one point ordered company representatives to call a plant-wide meeting and read a statement acknowledging their illegal conduct.

“Solidarity means everything,” said Golden, recalling how workers met at bars and cookouts to build the union drive and support one another during management’s attacks.

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Essential Safeguards for Oil Workers

Essential Safeguards for Oil Workers

The grief hits Scott Campbell like a ton of bricks every time he walks into the union hall and sees the memorial to the fallen workers.

Seven members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union reported for their shifts at the former Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on April 2, 2010, and never drove back out. They perished when a decades-old, structurally deficient piece of equipment called a heat exchanger exploded and caught fire in one of the worst industrial incidents in state history.

Campbell and other members of USW Local 12-591 pay tribute to the seven with a laser focus on safety at the refinery, currently owned by Marathon.

But now they’re seizing the chance to go even further and spare workers at other refineries the kind of loss that weighs so heavily on them. Campbell, president of Local 12-591, is helping to lead the union’s push for stronger rules aimed at revolutionizing the safety culture at all five refineries in the state.

The proposed improvements, modeled on the industry-leading advances that the USW pushed California to enact in 2017, represent the first comprehensive, statewide enhancements to “process safety management” (PSM) at Washington’s refineries in nearly 30 years. PSM refers to how workers and management use planning, training and equipment to reduce risk and respond to incidents.

“Improving process safety is something that we always want to keep working on,” explained Campbell, who will testify during upcoming public hearings on the proposed rules overhaul. “It’s not something we ever think is finished. We’re always learning, and technology is always changing.”

“We don’t want to go backward. We don’t want to get complacent,” emphasized Campbell, noting that oil companies increasingly attempt to “exploit the loopholes” in the current, outdated rules despite the deadly warnings provided by the Tesoro incident and other tragedies.

For example, Campbell said, refineries sometimes have one management representative resolve a safety concern when the safer, prudent course would be to assemble a team of experts from engineering, production and other disciplines to work through the issue.

The new PSM rules—also championed by community residents and other advocates fighting alongside the USW—would force employers to toe the line and hold management accountable. Among many other provisions, they’d require refineries to ensure the structural and mechanical integrity of equipment, make prompt repairs and give workers the authority to suspend operations when they identify hazards.

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Fighting for All Who Served

Fighting for All Who Served

Sgt. Jackie E. Garland, twice wounded during combat in Vietnam, returned home only to face even more battles that battered his spirit as well as his body.

The ex-Marine and his wife, Helen, struggled for decades to support their six children while fighting for service disability benefits that always remained a few steps out of reach.

Garland—wracked by pain from the shrapnel he took in his back and the hepatitis he contracted during surgery to repair the damage to his spine—died feeling abandoned by his country.

Spurred by that tragedy, George Walsh, Garland’s son-in-law, now finds himself on the front lines of efforts to improve support for veterans and arrest the epidemics of suicide, homelessness and alienation afflicting those who served.

Walsh, a trustee of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 10-00086, is helping to lead the union’s push for the federal Commitment to Veteran Support and Outreach (CVSO) Act. The bill would expand the ranks of county veteran service officers across the nation and provide other resources needed to connect veterans with care.

“This is a no-brainer. We send people to war. We ask them to fight for their country. We need to start taking care of them,” explained Walsh, himself a veteran of the Navy submarine service who later served in the Reserve as a Seabee. “We need to start putting our money where our mouths are and helping these veterans and their families.”

“This is really a good piece of legislation. We should have had this years ago,” added Walsh, a USW safety representative at the Merck plant in Lansdale, Pa., noting many veterans feel adrift and lose hope. “My father-in-law was that way.”

County veteran service officers are trained advocates, accredited by the federal government, who help former service members, their loved ones and caregivers “navigate the complex intergovernmental chain of veterans services and resources.”

They make veterans aware of the medical benefits as well as the education, job search, housing assistance and other services available to them. They also assist veterans in applying for these opportunities and go to bat for them if government agencies balk at approving claims or applications.

These grassroots officials leverage billions in support every year. But there’s a dire shortage of them across the country.

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