Rebuilding America: USW Members Working to Replace Vital Cog in Nation’s Infrastructure and Supply Chain

Tony Nock has been working on construction sites for nearly 35 years and has, in his words, done “a little bit of everything” in that time. What he and his fellow Local 4-318 members are doing now, he says, is one of the most rewarding projects of which he’s ever been a part.

“We need to rebuild America,” Nock said. “It’s good to know that what we build is going to be here for a long time.”

Nock and about 170 other USW members are in the middle of a three-year project to replace a vital cog in the nation’s infrastructure and supply chain – the Point-No-Point Bridge, a railroad bridge that spans the Passaic River between Kearny, N.J., and Newark, N.J., just down the road from Newark Liberty International Airport, the 17th-busiest cargo airport in the nation.

A Critical Link

The bridge is a major link in the transportation network between cities along the East Coast and into the Midwest and carries about 7,000 freight rail cars per day. Because railroads move more cargo than any other form of transportation, the bridge is one of the most important spans in the country.

“It’s a critical link, not only for this region, but for the whole United States,” said project engineer Rick McCall of Conrail, the transportation company that owns the bridge. “This bridge will drive commerce for future generations of Americans.”

The current bridge, built in 1901, is simply nearing the end of its useful life, USW members say. It is still in operation while workers construct its replacement just a matter of yards away. 

The time it takes to operate the current swing-open span, and the time it takes to make repairs on the aging structure, can cause delays both on rail lines and for traffic on the river below.

The contract to replace the span belongs to George Harms Construction Company Inc., which maintains a 100 percent union work force and traces its relationship with the USW to the early 1970s.

In that time, USW members constructed roads and bridges, replaced water mains and done countless other jobs to upgrade the backbone of the United States.

“Our people are our biggest asset. They do every aspect of what we need them to do,” said company CEO and President Rob Harms. “The relationship has never wavered.”

‘The American Dream’

It’s a relationship that provided good jobs for USW members for generations, while those same members contribute to strengthening the nation by keeping its supply chains and transportation systems moving.

“I’ve never had to worry about keeping the lights on or feeding my family,” said Nock, who purchased a home and put his children through college thanks to his USW-negotiated wages and benefits. “That’s the American dream.”

At the same time, the company has had a reliable and skilled work force to lean on to complete its many complex construction projects on time and on budget.

Nock said that in his 34 years, he doesn’t recall a project finishing behind schedule, or the company using materials that weren’t produced domestically.

“We know what we’re doing. We know how to get the job done,” he said. “American steel is made the way it should be.”

Local 4-318 President John Seckrettar said he was proud of his local’s strong relationship with their employer.

“I couldn’t be prouder of the fact this company is 100 percent Steelworkers, using domestically sourced materials and prioritizing safety,” Seckrettar said. “This is a great story of the USW's role in the rebuilding of the infrastructure of America.”

Multi-Skilled Workers

Nock and the other USW members who work for Harms are all multi-skilled, filling whatever roles they need to in order to move their projects forward.

“We do whatever needs to be done on a particular day,” said Tom Kelly, saying that the variety of work is one of the things he likes best about his job. “I believe I am 110 percent the best at what I do, and that’s the attitude that I want everyone around me to have.”

Kelly said that the role he and other USW members are playing in rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure gives him a sense of pride and accomplishment.

“It makes you proud to live here and proud to put a stamp on the USA,” Kelly said.

The pride extends beyond Local 4-318 to the entire USW, said District 4 Director Dave Wasiura. 

“The members of Local 4-318 perform essential work,” Wasiura said. “Like so many members of this great union, they are a vital part of supplying America with our critical needs and making sure that the work we do supports families and communities.”

Years-Long Projects

Like the Point-No-Point Bridge, which is scheduled for completion in 2025, the projects that Local 4-318 members work on often take two to three years to complete. While the projects are large and often daunting, they provide members with the stability of knowing that they’ll be reporting to the same work site for months at a time.

Nock, Kelly and other members say their work fills them with a sense of accomplishment when they finish, especially when they realize that the work they do will be there for their grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

“Seeing the end result – there’s no feeling like it,” said 14-year member Luis Santiago. “I’m very proud of our work.”

Safety First

Members of Harms management and Local 4-318 agreed that the most critical aspect of that work is making sure every task – both large and small – is completed safely.

For worker Brian Burns, that commitment is the most important benefit of his USW membership.

“You want to be able to leave here and go home to your family the same way you came here,” Burns said. “If Harms is building it, that means it’s going to get done right.”

Rebuilding the nation for future generations, he said, and making sure that economic supply chains can flow freely, means “everything.”

USW members are rebuilding the United States “one bridge at a time, one roadway at a time,” Burns said.

“You have to put out a product that can stand above the rest,” he said. “That’s what we do.”

The Union Difference

While they are assembling top-of-the-line bridges, roads, railroads and other transportation cogs, USW members say, they never forget the union’s role in making sure that their jobs are the kind that can support families and communities.

For Marie-Eve Sylvain, that union difference was apparent as soon as she started as a laborer with Harms six years ago as a single mother looking for a better life for herself and her son.

“It was scary,” Sylvain said. “This job was a life-changer for me.”

She said that she learns something new every day on the job, and that she is consistently amazed at the skills and accomplishments of her USW siblings.

“I’m doing things now that I had never imagined I would do in my life,” Sylvain said.

USW ‘Family’

For Nock, the strong relationship that the USW enjoys with Harms is what makes the union difference so apparent, and what makes his job one worth holding onto for more than three decades.

“Being a Steelworker,” he said, “means I am part of a family.”

For CEO Harms, that feeling of family extends beyond the union. Early in his career at the company, he was a USW member and, during the periodic economic downturns that have slowed the construction industry over the years, he has made sure there was always work for USW members to do.

“The work is nonstop,” Kelly said, noting that the only time he could recall members being off the job for more than a few days, the layoff was the result of extreme winter weather.

As it approaches the 65th anniversary of its founding, Harms said he hopes that his company can continue to provide meaningful work for USW members for generations to come.

“It’s a great history,” he said. “It’s the American economy at its best.”

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