Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

Going Big on Infrastructure

Going Big on Infrastructure
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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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America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Supply Chain Crisis
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Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic’s Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation’s prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the “brains” of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it also will require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That’s why it’s crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

“It’s that ripple effect,” said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. “If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can’t get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.”

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturersof other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come as the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

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Ending Callous Delays

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Ending Callous Delays
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Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his co-workers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

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A Historic Save

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Historic Save
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The closer Doug Kamerer got to retirement, the more he feared that he’d never be able to afford it.

Kamerer steadily built up a pension during 35 years as a die setter at Etched Metal Co. in Solon, Ohio, where he and his co-workers often accepted lower raises in return for contributions their company made to a multiemployer retirement fund.

But that fund began failing years ago, and if it crashed, Kamerer knew he and his wife, Toni, would end up spending their senior years just trying to scrape by.

All of those worries evaporated Thursday when President Joe Biden signed a historic stimulus package that will not only lift America out of the COVID-19 recession but help secure the nation’s future.

Biden and congressional Democrats vowed to make working people their top priority, and they delivered on that promise with legislation that addresses the pain and uncertainty the pandemic inflicted on the entire nation.

The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan delivers one of the boldest, most comprehensive investments in working people since the New Deal of the 1930s, and the United Steelworkers (USW) worked alongside other labor unions to ensure Congress passed it.

And just as the New Deal both stabilized a country in crisis and fostered prosperity, the stimulus bill will strengthen America for years to come.

The package extends $300-a-week unemployment benefits and health insurance to workers laid off during the COVID-19 recession, provides $1,400 stimulus checks and tax credits to millions of struggling families, earmarks funds to help schools operate safely and allocates billions for controlling the coronavirus.

But it isn’t enough to confront current hardships. It’s also essential to head off impending threats to the nation’s progress.

That’s why the stimulus includes $86 billion to stabilize about 130 multiemployer pension funds and secure the retirements of 1.3 million workers and retirees, including Kamerer, a member of USW Local 1-243 who’s enrolled in a plan that could go broke in a decade.

“This is huge,” Kamerer, who hopes to retire in four years, said of the pension support. “It’s such good news. What a weight off my mind.”

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Keeping America Free

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Keeping America Free
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Sam Phillips and Trey Maestas fought tirelessly to save TIMET’s titanium sponge plant, both to protect the jobs of about 420 co-workers and safeguard America’s future.

The decades-old facility in Henderson, Nev., was the nation’s last remaining producer of the coral-like material essential for manufacturing warplanes, munitions, satellites, civilian jetliners, ships and even joints for artificial hips.

The plant’s closing last year—despite the best efforts of Phillips and Maestas of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4856—left the nation completely dependent on foreign imports of titanium sponge and further decimated manufacturing supply chains crucial to the nation’s security.

America can only be truly free if it rebuilds these and other vital lifelines.

President Joe Biden last week signed an executive order requiring an immediate, 100-day federal review of supply chain vulnerabilities in industries like computer chips and pharmaceuticals.

That’s a welcome start. But it will take a much broader and long-term rebuilding commitment to overcome the damage that decades of neglect and offshoring inflicted on the country’s manufacturing base.

Over the past year, widespread shortages of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the withered state of U.S. industry.

However, the nation cannot regain industrial strength merely by ramping up the assembly of PPE, cars, refrigerators, electronic devices and the other finished products that consumers need for emergencies and everyday life. That would leave the job half done.

The country’s security also depends on patching hollowed-out supply chains and building back the capacity to produce all of the raw materials, parts and components, like titanium sponge, that go into those end products.

That means ensuring America not only makes sufficient numbers of face masks and surgical gowns but continues to produce the homopolymers that go into them.  

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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