Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Thirst

America’s Thirst
Domenic DeDomenico and Simon Hale

Simon and Barbara Hale dropped a small fortune on bottled water, battled rust-stained laundry and endured slimy showers before discovering the water from their well didn’t just taste, smell and feel awful but actually endangered their health.

The Vietnam veteran and his wife couldn’t afford the huge expense of connecting to the local water system, however, so about a dozen volunteers from United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12160 dug a trench, tapped the main and ran a service line into the couple’s home.

“It’s life-changing,” Barbara Hale said of the free work by the USW members, all of whom work at South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, noting she and her husband have clean, palatable water for the first time in years. “I just feel safe because we know there’s no question about what’s in it.”

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure program would deliver the same security to millions of other Americans thirsting for one of life’s basic necessities.

Among many other projects in his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, Biden proposed about $110 billion in long-overdue upgrades to the nation’s patchwork of foundering water systems. The unprecedented investment will not only make life more convenient for consumers but protect their health and build stronger communities.

“It’s definitely time for somebody to take action,” said Local 12160 President Domenic DeDomenico, a water treatment operator at the authority who heard about the Hales’ plight and mustered the crew of Steelworkers who saved the couple thousands of dollars in connection costs.

DeDomenico and his authority co-workers proudly supply about 430,000 people via 1,700 miles of pipes in 15 municipalities. They treat, test and monitor the supply around the clock, distributing, on average, more than 42 million gallons of “perfect” water every day.

Many Americans long for that high level of quality and dependability right now.

In the authority’s own service area, for example, are residents who still lack access to public mains as well as the financial resources to connect to them. “Can you do that for us?” some of the Hales’ wistful neighbors asked the volunteers.

Across the country, ramshackle and disintegrating infrastructure delivers mere dribs and drabs of the clean, safe water Americans need every day.

Some families drink foul-tasting, smelly well water, like the Hales did before a recent test revealed traces of oil and other contaminants that required an urgent switch to the public water system.

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Upskilling America

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Upskilling America
Getty Images

Nick Kessler lived paycheck to paycheck—eking life out of his bald tires, “praying to God nothing broke” at home—until he landed a union position at U.S. Steel in Granite City, Ill., three years ago.

While that job changed his life, Kessler didn’t stop there. He also took advantage of free training, provided under the United Steelworkers (USW) contract with the company, to advance to a highly skilled electrician’s role that provides even more security for his wife and young son.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan would make that kind of transformative opportunity available to all, giving millions of workers greater access to family-sustaining jobs while helping the nation rebuild the middle class.

Among many other provisions, Biden’s plan would provide access to two years of tuition-free community college and training to every American.

It’s essential that Congress now pass legislation that enacts the plan and paves the way for more Americans to obtain associate degrees, commercial driver’s licenses or professional certifications in the skilled trades and other crucial fields.

“Your education is something nobody can ever take from you,” said Kessler, a member of USW Local 1899, noting skills like his enhance his employment prospects no matter where he lives.

“The electricians and the plumbers and the carpenters and the welders are the ones that keep everything going,” he observed. “The demand for the trades is the highest that it’s been in years.”

And the demand will only grow exponentially under the American Jobs Plan, the president’s call to invest nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, including roads and bridges, locks and dams, schools and airports, manufacturing facilities, the electric grid, new energy systems and communication networks.

These long-overdue infrastructure investments, long championed by the USW, will lift America out of the COVID-19 recession, rebuild the economy and strengthen the country for the next crisis.

The nation will need pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, welders and other skilled workers not only to construct roads and refurbish buildings but to fill highly technical jobs like Kessler’s in steel mills, foundries and other plants that manufacture the materials and equipment for infrastructure projects.

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Honoring Their Memory

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Honoring Their Memory
Getty Images

The United Steelworkers (USW) Local 959 safety committee leapt into action a few years ago after discovering that more and more workers at the Goodyear plant in Fayetteville, N.C., were exposed to knife injuries on the job.

Committee members solicited workers’ input on how to address the hazard and then collaborated with the company to provide cut-resistant gloves, introduce more safely designed knives and take other steps to bring the crisis under control.

“It was our No. 1 injury at the plant,” recalled Ronald Sessoms, Local 959 safety chairman. “Now, we’ve almost eliminated it.”

It isn’t enough to mark Workers Memorial Day on April 28 by grieving for the thousands of Americans who lost their lives on the job over the past year. Only a renewed, unrelenting commitment to workplace safety will properly honor their memory and ensure none died in vain.

That’s especially true in light of COVID-19, which pushed the death toll higher than usual and endangered workers like never before. The pandemic underscored the need for constant vigilance against threats as well as the importance of giving workers a meaningful voice in combating them.

No one knows the hazards and risks better than the people facing them every day. A strong union contract helped to entrench that philosophy at Fayetteville, where worker input not only led to the reduction of knife-related injuries but resulted in better ventilation, the elimination of certain hazardous chemicals once used at the plant and even adjustments to a machine that helped to avert a head-injury risk.

“Our job is not to sit behind a desk,” Sessoms said of his USW committee representatives, all of them former production workers who now perform union health, safety and environment (HSE) responsibilities under the contract with Goodyear. “We want to be very accessible.”

He and the other USW safety representatives walk the sprawling complex to look for hazards, evaluate hazard controls and confer with 96 “safety coaches”—full-time production workers who volunteer as union safety liaisons in the plant’s many departments.

However, committee members realize that plant-wide safety really hinges on leveraging the eyes, ears and expertise of all 2,000 USW members there, and that’s why they stop on the shop floor to communicate with workers about their concerns.

Target Zero, an injury-prevention program that the USW and Goodyear negotiated more than a decade ago, provides another way to raise red flags.

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Protecting the Caregivers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Protecting the Caregivers
USW members rally for violence-prevention bill in 2019. USW photo.

The patient intended to commit suicide and knew the worker making his bed at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, Minn., stood in the way.

So he crept up behind the caregiver, grabbed the cord to the call bell and began choking her with it.

Only chance saved her, recalled Tuan Vu, a longtime hospital worker who was on duty in another part of the facility that day, noting the woman’s colleagues rushed to the rescue after the struggle inadvertently activated the call bell.

The U.S. House just passed a bipartisan bill, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, to curtail the rising epidemic of assaults on doctors, nurses, certified nursing assistants, case managers and others on the front lines of care.

The legislation, now before the Senate, requires hospitals, clinics, medical office buildings and other facilities to develop violence-prevention plans that cover the unique needs of each workplace.

For example, Vu said, a plan requiring that only specially trained behavioral health workers care for suicidal patients would have been one possible way to avert the near-strangulation of his co-worker a few years ago. She was assigned to the patient’s room that day even though she wasn’t a mental health specialist.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would enforce the violence-prevention act  and intervene if workers experience retaliation for reporting safety lapses.

“Having this type of legislation would put our safety at the forefront,” explained Vu, a behavioral health technician at Essentia and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9460, which represents thousands of workers at more than a dozen northern Minnesota medical facilities. “It’s not something people should be desensitized to.”

“I’m a big guy. I’m not so worried about myself,” said Vu, who’s had racial epithets hurled at him and endured bites, kicks, punches and inappropriate touches over the years. “But I worry about some of my co-workers.”

Health care professionals are five times more likely to encounter violence on the job than other Americans. The crisis has festered for years. Workers face assaults from patients with substance abuse, dementia or cognitive issues, and they’re attacked by patients’ stressed-out family members.

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Going Big on Infrastructure

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Going Big on Infrastructure
Getty Images

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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Union Matters

Weathering the Storm

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

Columbia, Mo., faces a perilous winter because COVID-19 budget losses forced layoffs of snow-fighting workers and could even prompt the city to cut back on road salt.

The pandemic drastically reduced tax revenue, leaving local and state governments across America to slash budgets for public works departments and other essential services.

Unless the Republican-controlled Senate finally passes a stimulus bill providing billions in local and state aid, many communities will be forced to fight treacherous weather with smaller workforces and fewer resources than usual, ultimately putting the public at risk.

A stimulus bill--such as the one the House already passed--would not only help Columbia and other beleaguered cities keep road crews on the job but also enable them to maintain essential cold weather infrastructure like storage facilities and drainage systems.

And leading economists agree that relief to cities and states would fuel America’s economic comeback and help ensure the nation’s future health.

As millions of Americans brace for a dark winter, federal support for local governments will be essential to helping the country weather COVID-19 and other storms.

Stronger Together

Stronger Together