Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

The Jobs Americans Need

The Jobs Americans Need
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Keith Aubrey’s construction job forced him to work long stretches without a day off, even in rain and lightning, all for a measly paycheck and health benefits so lousy he could barely afford to see a doctor.

After getting laid off during the pandemic last year, Aubrey resolved to seize control of his destiny and landed a union manufacturing position that changed his life.

COVID-19 showed Americans that it’s no longer enough to scrape by on jobs that just barely pay the household bills. They need family-sustaining wages that will cover child care costs, health care providing high-quality coverage in emergencies and other essential benefits that unions routinely deliver for their members.

As the nation emerges from the pandemic, more and more workers find themselves at the same turning point that Aubrey did.

They’re fed up with callous, exploitative employers who recklessly exposed them to a deadly virus, denied them the flexibility they needed to care for ill loved ones and laid them off at the drop of a hat. Now, they’re pursuing jobs with the union difference.

After just a few months at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Ky., where he’s represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9423, Aubrey glimpses the union’s impact on “overtime, safety, the whole nine yards.”

“Benefits were a big thing for me,” said Aubrey, whose previous bosses went the “cheapest route” on medical insurance, saddled him with skyrocketing rates and failed to take adequate COVID-19 safeguards.

Now, in addition to quality health care, the union makes sure he has paid sick leave, safety programs addressing workplace hazards, and COVID-19 protections.

Among the many other benefits his union representation affords, Aubrey especially appreciates the new balance in his life. The USW contract prohibits burdensome overtime, whereas Aubrey’s construction job forced him to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“You can work anytime you like, but they can’t take your life away from you,” he said of his role at Century.

Even before COVID-19, polling showed that tens of millions of workers desired union jobs not only for the higher wages and better benefits but because of labor’s fight against harassment, favoritism and discrimination.

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Ending the Race to the Bottom

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Ending the Race to the Bottom
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Chris Reisinger and his co-workers recently added a third daily shift at the Metal Technologies Inc. (MTI) Northern Foundry because surging vehicle sales boosted demand for the tow hooks, steering components and other auto parts they produce.

Yet Reisinger knows that jobs at the Hibbing, Minn., facility will always hang by a thread—even in really good times—as long as his employer has the option to shift production to poorly paid Mexican workers.

Americans can protect their own livelihoods by ensuring their Mexican counterparts have unfettered, unconditional use of new labor reforms intended to lift them out of poverty and stop employers from exploiting them.

To protect workers on both sides of the border, America’s labor community and the U.S. trade representative last week filed the first-ever complaints under the 10-month-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), demanding action against two plants that suppressed Mexican workers’ right to unionize.

Swift, significant punishment of these kinds of offenses through the USMCA’s innovative “rapid response” enforcement procedures would deliver a major boost to Mexican workers’ efforts to form real unions for the first time. And those unions, in turn, would help Mexican workers negotiate better wages, eliminate employers’ incentive to move jobs out of the U.S. and end a corporate race to the bottom that’s harmed millions in both countries.

Not only has Reisinger seen a steady stream of U.S. automakers and suppliers send work to Mexico over the years, but his own employer opened a location there about three years ago. Reisinger, who represents about 50 Northern Foundry workers as president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 21B, doesn’t want to see the company open a second just to take further advantage of low wages there.

He’s counting on the USMCA to help keep that from happening.

“It’s just frustrating to see work going away from American workers,” said Reisinger, noting MTI could have expanded the Northern Foundry or its other U.S. locations rather than open the Mexico facility.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the previous trade deal in place for 25 years, U.S. corporations relocated about a million good-paying manufacturing jobs south of the border to exploit the abysmal wages, weak labor laws and lack of environmental safeguards.

These companies made huge profits at the expense of powerless Mexican workers while devastating U.S. manufacturing communities, gutting the nation’s industrial capacity and decimating the middle class.

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America’s Thirst

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

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
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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
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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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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