Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

Warnock Stands with Working People

Warnock Stands with Working People

Michael McMullen spent years agonizing over the failing pension plan that put his golden years at risk.

He wrote numerous postcards and made countless phone calls urging Congress to step in and safeguard his future. But not until he and fellow Georgians elected Raphael Warnock to the Senate last year did the Democrats have the final vote needed to pass legislation stabilizing that plan and other multiemployer pension funds on the brink of collapse.

Warnock saved McMullen’s retirement and that of 1.3 million other Americans—then cast scores of other votes that helped to shift the nation’s trajectory from peril to progress. Now, re-electing Warnock in Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff is crucial to continuing the country’s hard-fought path forward.

“He’s for the working class, for the middle class,” summed up McMullen, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1703, which represents workers at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Cedar Springs, Ga., who are already benefiting from the pension-saving provisions of the American Rescue Plan that Warnock pushed over the goal line in March 2021.

McMullen and other union members had grown increasingly alarmed over the years about their paper industry pension plan, one of about 130 multiemployer retirement funds hurtling toward insolvency because of Wall Street recklessness, corporate bankruptcies and other factors outside workers’ control.

Some of his co-workers already delayed retirement to build up savings in case the fund went broke, while others worried about meager retirements in which they’d have to choose between buying food or prescriptions.

“They were really worried about it,” McMullen said, adding that the plan’s impending failure also portended the demise of stores and restaurants relying on retirees for business. “It would have been like a mill closing.”

Unions and their Democratic allies repeatedly attempted to save the plans, but the pro-corporate Republicans in control of the Senate blocked all efforts to safeguard the futures that many workers and retirees had spent decades building.

Warnock’s election last year—he won a seat previously held by a Republican—helped to give Democrats the razor-thin Senate majority needed to finally pass the pension legislation without a single Republican’s support.

“It took every Democratic vote. If they didn’t have that one vote, they couldn’t have passed it,” McMullen said of Warnock, recalling how the anxiety that he and others harbored about their pensions vanished in an instant.

More ...

Union Solidarity Is Driving Better Health Care

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Union Solidarity Is Driving Better Health Care
Getty Images

Alyssa Stout and her 800 co-workers banded together to keep Oroville Hospital open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, working around the clock to save countless lives.

But these union members didn’t stop there. They brought that same unwavering solidarity to the bargaining table earlier this year and won a new contract with safety enhancements and other provisions designed to leave the work force, the hospital and their Northern California community stronger than before.

Stout and her colleagues are among thousands of union health care workers nationwide who are harnessing the collective power they forged during the pandemic to dramatically improve America’s system of care.

“I feel we have more leverage now than we ever did before, just because people realize we’re needed,” said Stout, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9600 and an X-ray technologist at Oroville, recalling how union workers put their lives on the line and pulled their communities through the crisis.

“People realize, in general, now how important the health care community is,” she continued, noting local residents signed petitions, reposted the union’s social media messages and took other actions to support the workers’ recent contract negotiations. “It all kind of trickles down. People want to see us being treated well so they’re treated well. We were fighting for everyone.”

Hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities wrestled with turnover long before the pandemic, partly because they tried to save money on the backs of workers in crucial but long under-appreciated departments such as environmental services and dietary. But nurses, certified nursing assistants and other caregivers couldn’t have saved COVID-19 victims without the contributions of colleagues who sanitized rooms and prepared nutritious meals.

So workers at Oroville stood together for a contract providing significant raises to all union members, underscoring the collective effort essential to operating the hospital and ensuring patients continued access to an experienced, stable work force committed to delivering ever better care across every department.

The contract also establishes a labor-management safety committee that gives a real voice to the front-line workers who best know how to address the hazards they and their patients face every day. Union members provided management with photos documenting cluttered hallways and blocked fire exits, driving home the need for collective vigilance and worker input in a part of the country where a wildfire destroyed another hospital just a few years ago.

“Our safety has to be a priority. Otherwise, we can’t be there for the patients we care about,” observed Stout, noting the challenges of the pandemic fostered greater cohesion and tenacity that union members brought to bear at the bargaining table.

More ...

Watching Workers’ Backs on Trade

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Watching Workers’ Backs on Trade

Lamar Wilkerson and his co-workers at U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Tubular Operations help to lead the battle for America’s energy security, producing the top-quality pipe that keeps oil, natural gas and other products flowing through vast distribution networks.

But as workers at the Alabama plant labor to build out this critical infrastructure, they face an insidious threat. Foreign countries quietly dump cheap tubular goods in U.S. markets, putting their jobs and the nation’s safety at risk.

Fortunately, workers can count on pro-union officials like U.S. Reps. Frank Mrvan of Indiana and Tim Ryan of Ohio to stand with them in the fight for fair trade.

Just last week, the United Steelworkers (USW) and congressional allies won key protections for the Fairfield workers—and their counterparts at other pipe manufacturers across the country—with a U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) ruling triggering duties on unfairly traded tubular goods from Argentina, Mexico, Russia and South Korea.

“We want to keep everything American made,” explained Wilkerson, president of USW Local 1013, which represents hundreds of workers at Fairfield. “That’s what built this country. That’s what needs to continue to build this country.”

The ITC determined—based on evidence provided by the USW and others—that American workers have been “materially injured” by the unfair imports of these oil country tubular goods (OCTG). Russia and South Korea illegally subsidized the production of these items and acted, along with the other two countries, to dump these products in the United States at artificially low prices and steal market share from U.S. pipe manufacturers.

“As the Co-Chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus, I am committed to continuing to do everything possible to ensure that bad actors and countries that cheat know that American trade laws will be fully enforced,” Mrvan said in arguing for the duties during a hearing before the ITC in September. “We must continue to work to ensure that all American workers and the domestic pipe and tube industry are able to compete on a level playing field.”

The new duties on imports will not only rebalance the scales, giving Wilkerson and his colleagues a fair shot at competing with foreign suppliers, but also facilitate the continued safe and reliable development of domestic energy supplies.

Union members at Fairfield and other plants take great pride in making products “of the best quality,” Wilkerson said, noting workers manufacture a “line pipe” for carrying the oil or gas as well as a casing that provides additional security for distribution networks.

Some of these pipelines link production fields to refineries and chemical and petrochemical plants, while others deliver energy to customers. Because these lines traverse waterways, residential neighborhoods and other sensitive areas, the nation has strong incentive to rely on only the strongest, most dependable components.

More ...

The Infrastructure Program’s Chain Reaction

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Infrastructure Program’s Chain Reaction

Chris Frydenger and his co-workers at the Mueller Co. in Decatur, Ill., began ramping up production of valves, couplings and other products used in water and gas systems soon after President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) last year.

But the life-changing impact of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure program really struck Frydenger, grievance chair for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838, when management reached out to the union with an unprecedented proposal.

The company asked to reopen the local’s contract and negotiate an additional pay increase so it could hire and retain enough workers to meet the dramatic spike in orders. “Everybody in the union got a raise,” Frydenger recalled.

Historic improvements to America’s roads, bridges, airports, public utilities and communications networks have generated surging demand for aluminum and steel as well as raw materials like nickel and ore and the pipes, batteries, valves and other components needed for thousands of infrastructure projects.

That demand, in turn, continues to create family-sustaining jobs, put more money in workers’ pockets and lift the middle class, just as labor unions and their Democratic allies predicted when they pushed the legislation through Congress and onto Biden’s desk.

“This story needs to be told, for sure. It at least doubled our business in a short period of time,” said Frydenger, noting the local’s 408 members not only received middle-of-the-contract pay increases but continue to avail themselves of all the overtime they want.

Workers use that extra money to buy cars and appliances, remodel their houses and support local businesses, among many other purposes, helping to extend the IIJA’s reach to virtually every segment of the local economy.

“It’s had such an impact that in our new hire orientations, our general manager talks about it,” Frydenger said of the IIJA. “That’s how big an impact it’s had on sales. He gives all the credit to the infrastructure bill.”

The billions allocated for drinking water, sewer and stormwater upgrades will enable utilities across the nation to extend distribution systems, replace aging pipes, curtail runoff and address lead and other contaminants. And investments in natural gas infrastructure—as well as solar, wind and hydrogen power—will help the country build a more secure, reliable energy base.

Domestic procurement requirements in the infrastructure law will ensure these projects rely on products such as those made at the Decatur plant. What makes Frydenger happier still is knowing that his union brothers and sisters up and down the supply chain also have brighter futures because of the infrastructure push.

More ...

Solidarity Lifts Workers over Life’s Struggles

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Solidarity Lifts Workers over Life’s Struggles
Photo courtesy of Mayra Rivera

Navigating washed-out roads and piles of debris, Mayra Rivera quickly began checking on co-workers and neighbors after Hurricane Fiona battered Puerto Rico last month.

Rivera, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8198, realized she’d spend months if not years helping the island navigate a daunting cleanup and recovery process. But her immediate goal was ensuring community members had the basics:

Safe food. Clean drinking water. And, just as important, a shoulder for survivors to lean on as they began picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.

While labor unions continue their traditional fights for decent wages, affordable health care and safe working conditions, they’re also stepping up to help workers manage stress and the threats to mental health that they encounter on and off the job.

Rivera, whose local represents municipal workers in the southern coastal city of Ponce, collaborated with the USW’s Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education in recent years to deliver disaster and mental resilience training to island communities pummeled by a string of hurricanes and earthquakes.

The training includes techniques for helping families prepare physically and psychologically for disasters, such as assembling “go bags” to sustain them in case of extended evacuations. The program, adapted from resources and materials developed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Training Program, also helps to boost residents’ safety and confidence by demonstrating how to guard against contaminants, downed power lines and other hazards that hurricanes leave in their wake.

And the training showcases strategies—like providing social support, as Rivera offered in Fiona’s aftermath—to help survivors maintain the resilience essential to persevering after tragedy strikes. Rivera knows that the same solidarity that lifts up workers on the job also can help disaster survivors get through their darkest days.

“They start talking and talking and talking. They need to talk. People need to be heard,” said Rivera, recalling how eagerly residents related their experiences to her after Fiona knocked out power to the entire island, destroyed infrastructure and flattened entire communities.

Providing this kind of outlet is especially critical, she noted, to maintain hope among people who were still trying to bounce back from 5-year-old Hurricane Maria when Fiona walloped them again.

Tarps still covered thousands of homes that lost their roofs during Maria. Fiona destroyed some of the same infrastructure all over again. The wave of disasters created a looming mental health crisis that Rivera says her union is well suited to help address.

More ...

Stronger Together

Stronger Together