Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost
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Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his co-workers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Ala., only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his work station, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent this year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

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A Bulwark for Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Bulwark for Workers
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The Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., was always a part of Cindy Beshears’ life.

She attended her grandfather’s retirement party there as a child, worked two summers at the plant as a college student in the 1980s and accepted a full-time job on the production floor in 2004 after leaving a career in retail.

Goodyear devastated the community when it closed the plant two years ago after shifting hundreds of jobs to Mexico, but fortunately, the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provided Beshears and her co-workers with training and other support that helped them through some of the darkest days they’ll ever know.

While thousands of other American workers continue to be harmed by unfair trade, they’ll be denied the same lifeline unless Congress moves quickly to reestablish TAA.

The program expired June 30 because Republicans refused to join Democrats in extending it. Until Congress reinstates the program, the Labor Department cannot consider any additional petitions for TAA assistance. The United Steelworkers (USW), other unions and Democratic lawmakers such as Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are working to salvage the program, workers’ only real bulwark against the damage inflicted by globalization.

“It’s definitely worth fighting to save,” Beshears said of TAA, created in the 1970s to provide skills-building, employment services and other assistance to workers who lose jobs or wages because of bad trade.

In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled more than 107,000 workers in various industries.

“It covers tuition and books. It covers school supplies. It provided a laptop for me. If you have to travel for your classes, it will pay a mileage stipend,” explained Beshears, a former member of USW Local 12L who enrolled in TAA to obtain an associate degree in paralegal studies from Gadsden State Community College.

“It even paid for caps and gowns if we wanted to walk for graduation,” added Beshears, who completed her schooling in May, recalling the pride she felt as her former co-workers also set out on new careers in nursing, child care, welding, transportation and other fields.

“I was very concerned that these people were going to lose hope and that we were going to see a lot of bad things. I would have been one who sat there and wallowed in self-pity, thinking, ‘Oh, I put all that time in, and now I have nothing.’” Beshears said, calling TAA “as valuable mentally and emotionally” as it is educationally.

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Why Workers Are Turning to Unions

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Why Workers Are Turning to Unions
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Amy Dennett long endured understaffing, low pay and indifferent bosses in her job at the American Red Cross in Asheville, N.C.

But she decided she’d had enough when management’s failure to provide basic resources forced her and her co-workers to build, jury-rig and dig into their own pockets for items needed to operate the blood donation center.

Dennett helped lead a union drive in 2020, resulting in the group’s vote to join the United Steelworkers (USW), and the 24 workers gained raises, greatly improved health care and much-needed equipment even before signing their first contract.

More and more workers like Dennett are realizing that unions fight for them every day, providing a path forward even in tumultuous times like a pandemic.

Gallup surveyed Americans on their confidence in 16 U.S. institutions ranging from the Supreme Court to television news. Over the past year, Gallup found, Americans’ confidence fell in all of them except one—organized labor.

“That doesn’t surprise me. We’re supposed to have faith in our elected officials and other leaders. But it’s a lot easier for a worker to have faith in the guy standing next to them than a guy in some other place you’ve never met who’s supposed to represent you,” Dennett said of the findings, noting that unions helped workers during the pandemic while many of the 16 institutions failed or exploited them.

With the help of a lone Democrat, for example, the Republicans in Congress killed legislation that would have expanded struggling families’ access to education, health care and child care.

Some banks socked borrowers with illegal late fees and charges despite their enrollment in a pandemic program temporarily pausing mortgage payments, compounding the homeowners’ hardships.

Corporations jacked up prices on food and other essentials, raking in ever-higher profits on the backs of working Americans. And tech companies like Amazon and Apple tried to beat back workers’ fights for better wages and working conditions.

In stark contrast to all of this, unions stepped up during the pandemic because their members needed them more than ever. They not only empowered workers to secure the personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and affordable health care they needed to safeguard their families but continued winning the raises and benefits essential for years to come.

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Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job
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A worker at the International Paper mill in Prattville, Ala., was performing routine maintenance on a paper-making machine a couple of weeks ago when he discovered liquid in a place it didn’t belong.

He stopped work and reported the hazard, triggering an inspection that revealed a punctured condensate line leaking water that was hotter than 140 degrees and would have scalded the worker or fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Instead of causing a serious health and safety risk, the leak was repaired without incident.

“We fixed the issue,” recalled Chad Baker, a USW Local 1458 trustee and safety representative. “It took about 30 minutes, and we continued on with our work, and nobody got hurt.”

Unions empower workers to help build safer workplaces and ensure they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisal.

No one knows the dangers of a job better than the people facing them every day. That’s why the USW’s contract with International Paper gives workers “stop-work authority”—the power to halt a job when they identify a threat and resume work after their concerns have been adequately addressed.

“We find smaller issues like that a lot,” Baker said, referring to the leaky condensate line. “Most of the time, they’re handled in a very efficient manner.”

Workers forming unions at Amazon and Starbucks, among other companies, want better wages and benefits. But they’re also fighting for the workplace protections union workers enjoy every day.

Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per every 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record, according to an analysis of data the company provided to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Driving for Amazon is also perilous. About 20 percent of drivers suffered injuries last year, up 40 percent from 2020, with many of these workers reporting that they felt pressured to take unnecessary risks, like forgoing seat belts and skipping breaks, to meet the company’s relentless delivery schedules.

Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon and other companies pull every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

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Gouging Americans out of House and Home

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Gouging Americans out of House and Home
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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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