Rebuilding Nicetown

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Rebuilding Nicetown
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Rich Cucarese and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4889 tend a vegetable garden, cook meals and operate a food pantry for their neighbors in Philadelphia’s struggling Nicetown community.

Nicetown went into decline decades ago as corporations shut a string of factories, eliminating thousands of family-sustaining jobs that anchored the neighborhood. Blight festered, poverty soared, and government officials looked the other way.

Now, as much as Cucarese and his colleagues want to revitalize the community, there’s just no way they can do it on their own.

Reversing decades of decline and neglect—in Nicetown and other decimated manufacturing communities across America—will require bold, sustained action like what Joe Biden proposed in his Build Back Better manufacturing blueprint.

The Democratic presidential candidate envisions major investments in manufacturing, technology, and research and development that will create millions of middle-class jobs and revitalize hard-hit communities across the country.

Just as important, he wants to equitably distribute these new opportunities while providing the educational access and labor protections essential to ensuring that all citizens have a shot at the American dream.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which cost millions of jobs and exposed America’s struggle to produce critical goods like face masks, clearly demonstrated what residents of Nicetown have known for decades: Band-Aids and half measures aren’t enough. The nation needs sweeping, coordinated action to rebuild manufacturing capacity.

For all the damage they suffered, Nicetown and other beleaguered manufacturing communities still have potential.

Biden’s plan would unleash it.

“There are definitely people in the community who are trying everything they can to make the area viable,” said Cucarese, Local 4889’s Rapid Response coordinator and an assistant operator on the galvanizing line at U.S. Steel’s plant in Fairless Hills, about 25 miles from Nicetown. “There’s despair, but there’s also hope.”

Over the past quarter-century, America lost millions of manufacturing jobs, many because failed trade policies incentivized corporations to shift operations to countries with low wages and lax environmental regulations.

But employers also eliminated jobs because of bankruptcies, mergers and other reasons. The loss of family-sustaining wages gutted the middle class and sent manufacturing neighborhoods into a nosedive.

After Locals 404 of Philadelphia and 4889 of Fairless Hills consolidated in a Nicetown union hall about 18 months ago, Cucarese and a few of his colleagues explored the neighborhood.

They encountered the hulking remains of old factories but also good-hearted residents battling unemployment, troubled schools, hunger and unusually high rates of chronic health problems like asthma.

Nicetown’s struggles quickly galvanized the USW members into action. Cucarese told residents, “We’re here, and we’re not just here, but we’re here to help.”

He and his colleagues planted a community garden so they could provide fresh vegetables to residents who have difficulty affording nutritious meals. They not only held food drives for their neighbors but opened a food pantry in the union hall. They rented office space to the Poor People’s Army, an anti-poverty group.

While these efforts have made a huge difference, only a sustained, coordinated investment campaign will provide the sweeping change needed to revive Nicetown and other depressed manufacturing communities.

That’s where a plan like Build Back Better can make the crucial difference.

It will not only make huge investments to stimulate the creation of manufacturing jobs but ensure that communities across the nation—especially long-neglected places—get a fair share of those jobs and the prosperity they provide.

Under Build Back Better, the nation would invest $300 billion in research, development and new technologies to fuel a reinvigorated manufacturing economy while spending another $400 billion on American-made goods.

Biden pledged to spend some of that money on the steel, aluminum and other materials needed to repair roads, bridges and other crumbling infrastructure. The funds also could be used to ramp up manufacturing capacity in pharmaceuticals, medical equipment and other critical industries so the nation never again experiences shortages of face masks and other important items like it did during the pandemic.

But new jobs themselves aren’t enough to rebuild the middle class and restore prosperity to struggling communities. Americans also need stronger labor protections to ensure they receive decent pay, good benefits and safe working conditions in return for their labor.

That’s why enacting the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which passed the House this year  but languishes in the Republican-controlled Senate, is a key component of Biden’s manufacturing strategy.

The PRO Act would make it easier for workers to form unions and impose stiff penalties on employers who illegally interfere in organizing campaigns.

Just as the demise of American manufacturing sent communities into a tailspin, empowered workers in new middle-class jobs have the potential to turn neighborhoods around.

That’s the essence of Biden’s approach.

As incomes rise, fewer residents will rely on a safety net now stretched to the breaking point.

But residents crave a voice as much as they need investment.

Cucarese found that the key to building rapport with his neighbors was to listen to their concerns and make them partners in plans for food drives and other community service projects.

To realize his goal of revitalizing manufacturing communities, Biden likewise will have to collaborate closely with residents already laboring hard to make a difference.

These “ground forces,” as Cucarese calls them, know their neighbors’ needs better than anyone and more than earned a prominent part in their communities’ rebirth.

Empowering these residents will unleash the transformative potential envisioned in Build Back Better—and show that Biden’s plan isn’t merely a promise but his bond with struggling communities.

 “If you show people that you’re being genuine,” Cucarese said, “they’ll jump in with both feet.”

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Photos of Rich Cucarese and USW members' community garden.

Posted In: From the USW International President

Union Matters

Freight can’t wait

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.

A freight train hauling lumber and nylon manufacturing chemicals derailed, caught fire and caused a 108-year-old bridge to collapse in Tempe, Ariz., this week, in the second accident on the same bridge within a month.

The bridge was damaged after the first incident, according to Union Pacific railroad that owns the rail bridge, and re-opened two days later. 

The official cause of the derailments is still under investigation, but it remains clear that the failure to modernize and maintain America’s railroad infrastructure is dangerous. 

In 2019, 499 trains that derailed were found to have defective or broken track, roadbed or structures, according to the Federal Railroad Administration’s database of safety analysis.

While railroad workers’ unions have called for increased safety improvements, rail companies have also used technology and automation as an excuse to downsize their work forces.

For example, rail companies have implemented a cost-saving measure known as Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR), which has resulted in mass layoffs and shoddy safety protocols. 

Though privately-owned railroads have spent significantly to upgrade large, Class I trains, regional Class II trains and local, short-line Class III trains that carry important goods for farmers and businesses still rely on state and local funds for improvements. 

But cash-strapped states struggle to adequately inspect new technologies and fund safety improvements, and repairing or replacing the aging track and rail bridges will require significant public investment.

A true infrastructure commitment will not only strengthen the country’s railroad networks and increase U.S. global economic competitiveness. It will also create millions of family-sustaining jobs needed to inspect, repair and manufacture new parts for mass transit systems, all while helping to prevent future disasters.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work