Tom Conway Archive

Fighting Killer Dust

Fighting Killer Dust
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Silica dust at the Genesis Alkali mine in Green River, Wyo., is so thick some days that Marshal Cummings can barely see a foot in front of him.

It blankets his clothes, clogs his respirator, coats his hair, blackens his mucus and lodges deep inside him like a ticking bomb.

Exposure to silica can lead to silicosis, a scarring and stiffening of the lungs that leaves miners gasping for air, and it’s also a cause of lung cancer, kidney disease and other major ailments.

Silica robs thousands of their health every year. But now, after years of fighting, Cummings and tens of thousands of surface and underground miners across the country are on the brink of achieving true protections and holding all mining employers accountable for the first time.

President Joe Biden’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) recently proposed a rule that would force employers to significantly reduce miners’ exposure to silica dust. It would also mandate air monitoring to ensure compliance with the new standard and require corrective actions when silica levels exceed the rule.

Cummings and his co-workers encounter silica dust while mining trona—a mineral used to make soap, glass and other essential products—and it’s also in the coal they use to power the mine complex.

“Even if you wear a mask, you are coughing up black stuff, and every time you blow your nose, it’s pitch black,” said Cummings, chief steward and safety committee member for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 13214, who credits both his union and MSHA for moving the protections forward.

Silica dust, found in numerous types of rock, threatens all miners. So MSHA’s rule would cover not only Cummings, his colleagues and others in the trona industry, but workers at rock quarries and miners who produce coal, iron ore, copper, nickel, zinc and other critical materials.

MSHA wants employers to combat silica dust through a comprehensive hierarchy of controls. That includes engineering controls like ventilation and collection systems as well as administrative protections like ensuring miners have time to remove dust from their clothes, and providing workers with personal protective equipment (PPE).

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Empowering the Caregivers

Empowering the Caregivers
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The World War II veteran had no family by his side as he lay dying a few months ago, so Ella Wilverding and her union co-workers stepped into the role.

They took turns sitting vigil with the man, talking to him, holding his hand, and making him as comfortable as possible during his final days.

“We have a policy,” explained Wilverding, a certified nursing assistant (CNA) at the Oregon Veterans’ Home in Lebanon, Ore., and the president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9559. “No one dies alone.”

This is the kind of compassionate, top-quality care that ensues when responsible staffing levels empower nurses, CNAs and other nursing home workers to provide the time and attention that residents need.

Right now, states set their own staffing requirements, and some have none at all. Fortunately, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently took the first step in fixing this broken system of care by proposing minimum mandatory staffing requirements for nursing homes across the country.

CMS will take public comments for about two months before issuing a final rule—a window that enables advocates like Wilverding to shine a light on the incredible difference that robust staffing makes and to fight for standards strong enough to revolutionize an essential part of the health care system.

“I wish every facility could be like this,” Wilverding said of the Lebanon location, where she works with seven veterans on an average day shift.

Under Oregon law, each resident there receives at least 2.16 hours of CNA care every day, plus assistance and services from other staff members. Oregon’s staffing standards now rank among the strongest in the nation, but Wilverding champions further improvements, knowing that they would enable workers to provide ever-better care.

The Lebanon site consists of a dozen houses, with as many as 14 residents in each, spread among four neighborhoods on a manicured campus.

CNAs like Wilverding prepare meals, wash the dishes and handle laundry in addition to helping veterans with bathing, dressing and other tasks. If residents’ needs increase—such as when the staff mobilizes to provide around-the-clock end-of-life care, for example—the facility schedules additional workers for support.

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Fighting for a Life Outside the Mill

Fighting for a Life Outside the Mill
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She only wanted a few hours at her dying mother’s bedside.

But the woman’s bosses at Twin Rivers Paper in Madawaska, Maine, lacked all decency and forced her to the mill on overtime even though it was her day off.

About an hour and a half into the mandatory shift, the woman’s mother died. She left the mill heartbroken, exploited by an industry that continues to spurn workers’ basic need for work-life balance.

Now, workers are battling harder than ever to end this appalling mistreatment. They’re fighting back—at the bargaining table and at the state capitol—against inhumane mandatory overtime requirements that strain families to the breaking point and put lives at risk.

“It’s definitely caused a lot of heartache at the mill,” said David Hebert, financial officer and former president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 291, one of three USW locals collectively representing about 360 workers at Twin Rivers.

USW members long warned paper companies about the need to increase hiring and training to keep facilities operating safely and efficiently. Yet some employers preferred to keep working people to the bone.

Workers at Twin Rivers, for example, work a base shift of 12 hours. On top of that, to fill in the schedule, each can be drafted for an additional 12-hour shift every month regardless of whether they want the extra hours.

But it gets much worse.

Hebert and his co-workers also face the possibility of having a 12-hour shift extended with six hours of mandatory overtime, without warning or advance notice, virtually any day bosses choose.

And they’re often forced to pull multiple 18-hour days in a week, especially when winter cold and flu season exacerbates the company’s intentional understaffing. Many of these union members commute 45 minutes or more each way, meaning they get only a few hours of sleep at a time.

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The Power of a First Contract

The Power of a First Contract
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James Golden knew the crowbar wasn’t the right tool for the job, but it’s what the bosses provided when he needed to perform work on a piece of equipment at the Kumho tire plant in Macon, Ga.

The crowbar slipped from Golden’s hand and smacked him in the head. Bleeding, yet unable to find adequate help on the sparsely staffed night shift, Golden drove himself to the hospital while a supervisor agonized over whether to fill out paperwork about the injury or try to get the machine operating once more.

While the memory of that night still infuriates him, Golden takes comfort knowing that he and his 325 co-workers now have the power to protect themselves, look out for one another and hold management accountable.

Along with wage increases, better work-life balance and other wins, the workers gained a real voice on the job two weeks ago when they ratified their first contract with Kumho as members of the United Steelworkers (USW).

The contract establishes a labor-management workplace improvement committee, affording Golden and others on the front lines the means to address issues like turnover, efficiency and quality.

The agreement also mandates a joint health and safety committee, giving workers not only a say in how to properly operate and maintain equipment but a role in developing emergency plans and input into other aspects of plant safety.

“It’s a new day,” Golden said, referring to the power of a first contract to level the playing field and afford workers a seat at the table. “This is the law of the land.”

Workers who want to band together for better futures often face prolonged and brutal anti-union campaigns from employers hellbent on holding them down.

Kumho, for example, committed such egregious violations of workers’ rights that an administrative law judge at one point ordered company representatives to call a plant-wide meeting and read a statement acknowledging their illegal conduct.

“Solidarity means everything,” said Golden, recalling how workers met at bars and cookouts to build the union drive and support one another during management’s attacks.

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Essential Safeguards for Oil Workers

Essential Safeguards for Oil Workers
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The grief hits Scott Campbell like a ton of bricks every time he walks into the union hall and sees the memorial to the fallen workers.

Seven members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union reported for their shifts at the former Tesoro refinery in Anacortes, Wash., on April 2, 2010, and never drove back out. They perished when a decades-old, structurally deficient piece of equipment called a heat exchanger exploded and caught fire in one of the worst industrial incidents in state history.

Campbell and other members of USW Local 12-591 pay tribute to the seven with a laser focus on safety at the refinery, currently owned by Marathon.

But now they’re seizing the chance to go even further and spare workers at other refineries the kind of loss that weighs so heavily on them. Campbell, president of Local 12-591, is helping to lead the union’s push for stronger rules aimed at revolutionizing the safety culture at all five refineries in the state.

The proposed improvements, modeled on the industry-leading advances that the USW pushed California to enact in 2017, represent the first comprehensive, statewide enhancements to “process safety management” (PSM) at Washington’s refineries in nearly 30 years. PSM refers to how workers and management use planning, training and equipment to reduce risk and respond to incidents.

“Improving process safety is something that we always want to keep working on,” explained Campbell, who will testify during upcoming public hearings on the proposed rules overhaul. “It’s not something we ever think is finished. We’re always learning, and technology is always changing.”

“We don’t want to go backward. We don’t want to get complacent,” emphasized Campbell, noting that oil companies increasingly attempt to “exploit the loopholes” in the current, outdated rules despite the deadly warnings provided by the Tesoro incident and other tragedies.

For example, Campbell said, refineries sometimes have one management representative resolve a safety concern when the safer, prudent course would be to assemble a team of experts from engineering, production and other disciplines to work through the issue.

The new PSM rules—also championed by community residents and other advocates fighting alongside the USW—would force employers to toe the line and hold management accountable. Among many other provisions, they’d require refineries to ensure the structural and mechanical integrity of equipment, make prompt repairs and give workers the authority to suspend operations when they identify hazards.

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Fighting for All Who Served

Fighting for All Who Served

Sgt. Jackie E. Garland, twice wounded during combat in Vietnam, returned home only to face even more battles that battered his spirit as well as his body.

The ex-Marine and his wife, Helen, struggled for decades to support their six children while fighting for service disability benefits that always remained a few steps out of reach.

Garland—wracked by pain from the shrapnel he took in his back and the hepatitis he contracted during surgery to repair the damage to his spine—died feeling abandoned by his country.

Spurred by that tragedy, George Walsh, Garland’s son-in-law, now finds himself on the front lines of efforts to improve support for veterans and arrest the epidemics of suicide, homelessness and alienation afflicting those who served.

Walsh, a trustee of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 10-00086, is helping to lead the union’s push for the federal Commitment to Veteran Support and Outreach (CVSO) Act. The bill would expand the ranks of county veteran service officers across the nation and provide other resources needed to connect veterans with care.

“This is a no-brainer. We send people to war. We ask them to fight for their country. We need to start taking care of them,” explained Walsh, himself a veteran of the Navy submarine service who later served in the Reserve as a Seabee. “We need to start putting our money where our mouths are and helping these veterans and their families.”

“This is really a good piece of legislation. We should have had this years ago,” added Walsh, a USW safety representative at the Merck plant in Lansdale, Pa., noting many veterans feel adrift and lose hope. “My father-in-law was that way.”

County veteran service officers are trained advocates, accredited by the federal government, who help former service members, their loved ones and caregivers “navigate the complex intergovernmental chain of veterans services and resources.”

They make veterans aware of the medical benefits as well as the education, job search, housing assistance and other services available to them. They also assist veterans in applying for these opportunities and go to bat for them if government agencies balk at approving claims or applications.

These grassroots officials leverage billions in support every year. But there’s a dire shortage of them across the country.

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Leaping onto the Infrastructure Bandwagon

Leaping onto the Infrastructure Bandwagon

John Campbell and other union activists led the fight two years ago for historic infrastructure legislation needed to modernize the nation, support millions of good-paying jobs and supercharge the economy.

They wrote tens of thousands of postcards, made countless phone calls and pounded the halls of the U.S. Capitol, ultimately securing enough votes to overcome Republican opposition and push the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) through the Democratic-led Congress. Democratic President Joe Biden swiftly signed the legislation into law.

Now, as that union victory unleashes $1.2 trillion for new roads and other hugely popular projects from coast to coast, Republicans who tried to kill the legislation want to jump on the bandwagon and take credit for the same investments they once opposed.

“Republicans are so short-sighted that they can’t see past their donors,” fumed Campbell, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), pointing out how ridiculous opponents of the infrastructure package look as money floods into their districts for high-speed broadband, lead-free drinking water and other life-changing initiatives.

“They have no shame,” Campbell said of the Republicans trying to evade responsibility for how they voted. “They have no integrity. They have no principles.”

For example, Rep. Robert B. Aderholt of Alabama last month issued a press release in which he praised a $1.6 million grant for a railroad bridge in his district and proclaimed himself “always happy to support this type of funding in Congress.”

Yet he voted against the IIJA, which expanded the very program providing the grant for the railroad bridge.

Rep. Ashley Hinson, who represents part of Campbell’s home state of Iowa, was another of the 200 House Republicans who ignored workers’ demands and voted against the IIJA.

But nothing as inconvenient as the truth was going to stop Hinson from trying to grab the limelight and take credit in a tweet when the Army Corps of Engineers announced $829 million in IIJA funding for a major project benefiting her constituents.

The corps will use the funds to construct a new 1,200-foot lock and repair other parts of an Upper Mississippi River transportation system critical not only for Midwestern farmers, miners and factory workers but for the entire nation’s economy.

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Surviving Record Heat

Surviving Record Heat
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The heat index recently soared to 111 degrees in Houston, Texas, but the real-feel temperature climbed even higher than that inside the heavy personal protective equipment (PPE) that John Hayes and his colleagues at Ecoservices wear on the job.

Sweat poured from the workers—clad in full-body hazardous materials suits, heavy gloves, splash hoods and steel-toed boots—as they sampled and processed chemicals from huge metal containers under a searing sun.

Fortunately, as members of the United Steelworkers (USW), these workers negotiated a policy requiring the chemical treatment company to provide shade, cool-down periods and other measures to protect them during sweltering days.

But unless all Americans have common-sense safeguards like these, workers across the country will continue to get sick and die during ever-worsening heat waves.

The USW, other unions and advocacy groups are calling on the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to speedily enact a national standard specifying the minimum steps all employers need to take to safeguard workers from unprecedented and deadly bouts of heat.

Because of union advocacy, OSHA already has national standards that protect workers from falls, trench collapses, asbestos exposure, infectious diseases, injuries from equipment and many other workplace hazards. It’s way past time to also protect workers from the heat waves that are growing more severe, lasting longer and claiming more lives each year.

“Heat affects everybody. It doesn’t care about age,” observed Hayes, president of USW Local 227’s Ecoservices unit, who helped to negotiate the heat-related protections for about 70 workers in treatment services, maintenance, logistics and other departments.

“There’s so many things they can come up with,” he said of OSHA officials.

The policy the union negotiated with Ecoservices requires low-cost, sensible measures like water, electrolytes, modified work schedules, tents and fans, and the authority to stop work when conditions become unhealthy and unsafe.

“If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, take your timeout,” Hayes reminds co-workers. “Don’t worry about it.”

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American Workers Demand Julie Su’s Confirmation

American Workers Demand Julie Su’s Confirmation
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It wasn’t enough for owners of lucrative Southern California car washes to cheat their workers out of wages and overtime.

They made workers pay for the towels they used to clean cars, denied them rest breaks, forced them to toil in filthy water that bred foot fungus, and even required the so-called “carwasheros” to hand-wash vehicles with skin-burning solvents.

Outraged members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 675 launched an effort to help these workers about a dozen years ago, just as the state’s new labor commissioner, Julie Su, kicked off her own battle against the state’s shadow economy.

In a one-two punch that still reverberates through the industry, the USW empowered carwasheros at the negotiating table while Su ramped up enforcement of labor laws, pursued millions in back wages and filed criminal charges against unscrupulous bosses.

Given this and other fights Su waged on behalf of ordinary people, it’s no surprise that workers across the country are demanding her confirmation as the next U.S. secretary of labor. President Joe Biden nominated Su for the Cabinet post on Feb. 28, but the Senate has yet to vote.

The labor secretary enforces workers’ rights along with federal wage, overtime and child-labor laws. The nation’s top labor cop also fights discrimination, oversees workplace safety agencies, administers pension security programs, and polices employer compliance with shutdown and layoff rules, among many other responsibilities.

To truly make a difference, however, the secretary needs the ardor for working people and impatience for change that define Su’s career.

“It’s one thing to be a policy person. It’s another to connect with people on an emotional level,” said David Campbell, secretary-treasurer of Local 675, recalling not only the skill but the passion and tenacity that Su brought to the fight for car wash workers.

The multi-million industry preyed on recent immigrants, the homeless and other vulnerable people, said Campbell, noting one “was paid with the privilege of sleeping in the car wash bathroom at night.”

“The car washes knew there was a special enforcement program going on with the labor commissioner. So that made them—at least some of them—more amenable to collective bargaining agreements,” which increased wages, improved working conditions and gave workers a voice, explained Campbell, whose local worked with several community partners on the initiative.

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A Workers’ Moment

A Workers’ Moment

Dave Smith launched a union drive many years ago that generated enthusiastic support among his co-workers, but the effort died after management hired union-busting consultants and went on the attack.

Bosses at the Minnesota electric cooperative forced his colleagues into “captive audience” meetings, where they lied about unions, threatened the workers and sowed so much fear that the group ultimately voted down a chance at a better life.

Now, thanks to legislation that Smith supported, Minnesota employers won’t be able to subject workers to that kind of bullying any longer.

Democratic Gov. Tim Walz just signed a bill that not only bans the mandatory anti-union meetings employers regularly hold to try to suppress organizing drives but enables workers to sue bosses who try to get away with holding the meetings anyway.

Even better, that measure is one of a growing number of pro-worker laws enacted around the country in recent months as workers, fed up with corporate greed and exploitative bosses, fight back against a system rigged against them.

Minnesota lawmakers also passed legislation last month that establishes paid family and medical leave for workers, expands workers’ compensation coverage and requires employers in numerous industries, including warehouses and health care facilities, to ramp up safety.

In addition, legislators pushed through a bill, which Walz promptly signed, creating a “Nursing Home Workforce Standards Board,” aimed at giving front-line caregivers a meaningful voice in resolving staffing shortages and other challenges facing long-term care facilities.

“It’s been such a long fight to get some of this,” noted Smith, now a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2660 at U.S. Steel’s Keetac Mine who helped push for the legislation. “It’s great that we were able to stick it out and get it passed. Hopefully, we can accomplish even more next year.”

In the wake of the new forward-thinking laws, Department of Labor and Industry Commissioner Nicole Blissenbach called Minnesota “the best state for workers and their families.”

This kind of progress doesn’t happen by chance.  

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Biden Protected Working People

Biden Protected Working People
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Joel Buchanan owns his home, travels, donates to charitable causes and still has more than enough money to pay his bills on time—thanks in large part to Social Security.

Along with his union pension, it means the difference between enjoying his golden years or just scraping by.

Even so, the Pueblo, Colo., resident refused to panic in recent weeks as right-wing Republicans in the House of Representatives attempted to extort massive spending cuts in exchange for the votes needed to raise America’s debt ceiling and avert global financial calamity.

The Republicans’ recklessness threatened tens of millions of working people. But Buchanan, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), trusted President Joe Biden to counter extremism with reason and save the day with steady-handed statesmanship.

That’s exactly what happened.

Biden, a Democrat, reached across the aisle and struck a deal with House Speaker Kevin McCarthy that protects Social Security and other lifelines while raising the debt ceiling for two years and safeguarding the world economy.

McCarthy himself credited Biden with saving Social Security and Medicare, saying he “walled off” any discussion about slashing them.

Yet Biden wasn’t finished. He worked the phones and helped to line up the bipartisan votes needed to pass the deal through both chambers, even as some members of McCarthy’s own party made clear that they’d prefer to let the nation default on its debts than give up demands to slash essential programs.

The House passed the deal last Wednesday, and the Senate followed suit Thursday. Biden noted that the legislation “protects key priorities and accomplishments.”

“He was the adult in the room. He’s done his job,” Buchanan said of Biden, who previously served as a U.S. senator for Delaware. “He’s spent much of his life in Congress. He knows how to get things done on Capitol Hill.”

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Workers Rising in the South

Workers Rising in the South
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Workers at Blue Bird Corp. in Fort Valley, Ga., launched a union drive to secure better wages, work-life balance and a voice on the job.

The company resisted them. History defied them. Geography worked against them.

But they stood together, believed in themselves and achieved an historic victory that’s reverberating throughout the South.

About 1,400 workers at the electric bus manufacturer voted overwhelmingly this month to join the United Steelworkers (USW), reflecting the rise of collective power in a part of the country where bosses and right-wing politicians long contrived to foil it.

“It’s just time for a change,” explained Rinardo Cooper, a member of USW Local 572 and a paper machine operator at Graphic Packaging in Macon, Ga.

Cooper, who assisted the workers at Blue Bird with their union drive, expects more Southerners to follow suit even if they face their own uphill battles.

Given the South’s pro-corporate environment, it’s no surprise that Georgia has one of the nation’s lowest union membership rates, 4.4 percent. North Carolina’s rate is even lower, 2.8 percent. And South Carolina’s is 1.7 percent.

Many corporations actually choose to locate in the South because the low union density enables them to pay poor wages, skimp on safety and perpetuate the system of oppression.

In a 2019 study, “The Double Standard at Work,” the AFL-CIO found that even European-based companies with good records in their home countries take advantage of workers they employ in America’s South.

They’ve “interfered with freedom of association, launched aggressive campaigns against employees’ organizing attempts and failed to bargain in good faith when workers choose union representation,” noted the report, citing, among other abuses, Volkswagen’s union-busting efforts at a Tennessee plant.

“They keep stuffing their pockets and paying pennies on the dollar,” Cooper said of companies cashing in at workers’ expense.

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A Personal Attack on Working People

A Personal Attack on Working People
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Chad Newcome confided little to his wife over the years about the failing pension fund that threatened their dreams, wanting to spare her the anxiety that haunted him day and night.

But two years ago, after congressional Democrats passed legislation saving dozens of multiemployer pension plans at risk of collapse, Newcome opened up about their brush with financial calamity and how he finally felt free to breathe.

Sadly, Republicans are imperiling the couple’s future all over again with their cruel gambit to cut spending on the backs of working people.

GOP House members last week rammed through a bill that would raise the nation’s borrowing limit and prevent America from defaulting on its debts—but only in exchange for draconian cuts that would cost 200,000 vulnerable children access to Head Start programs, end Meals on Wheels for a million struggling seniors and inexplicably ax housing support in the face of growing homelessness.

The bill would slash billions from schools serving low-income students. And it would claw back money from the 2021 American Rescue Plan, including funds allocated to save 130 or so multiemployer pension plans hurtling toward collapse because of Wall Street recklessness, corporate bankruptcies and industry consolidation, among other factors.

Multiemployer funds, including the one covering Newcome, combine contributions from two or more employers in manufacturing, trucking and other industries. Workers like Newcome, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614-1 and an electrician at Tri-County Electric in Morgantown, W.Va., paid into the funds for decades and planned their golden years around them.

These union workers played no role in the plans’ financial troubles. Yet they were the ones who stood to suffer if the funds went under, and it was their advocacy—through rallies, marches, phone calls, emails and post cards—that moved congressional Democrats to save the funds without the support of a single Republican in either the House or Senate.

“This is what we’ve been fighting for. We got the votes we needed,” a joyful Newcome told family members at the time, recalling he felt “like the weight of the world had been lifted off my shoulders.”

But harming working people is sport to pro-corporate Republicans, whose debt ceiling bill puts Newcome’s pension—and those of hundreds of thousands of other Americans—back on the chopping block.

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Building Safer Workplaces

Building Safer Workplaces

He was known to be aggressive and argumentative, the kind of patron who made others at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh branch uneasy.

But one day last year, the man walked into the building in a much darker mood, harassed a librarian and threatened to kill her.

Fortunately, library workers had joined the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2019 and built safeguards into their first contract to address dangers exactly like this.

The librarian received a temporary transfer to another building. And the library system banned the patron, ensuring he wouldn’t turn up again either to look for the person he threatened or target somebody else.

April 28 is Workers Memorial Day in America and the Day of Mourning in Canada, a time to remember those killed, injured or sickened at work. It’s also a day when union workers rededicate themselves to the fight for safer working conditions and renew their pledge to look out for one another, along with others in the workplace, leveraging all of the power that collective action provides.

“We are open to the public, which means everybody is welcome to come in, and we do our best to serve everybody,” explained David King, a steward for USW Local 9562 and a librarian in the music, film and audio department at the system’s main location in Oakland.

“We’re proud of that. We’re sincerely proud that we’re one of the few truly public spaces still left. But that does come with some of these dangers,” he added, noting that library workers face patrons who create disruptions, brawl, carry in weapons, damage property, overdose in restrooms and even stalk them.

Because library management failed to adequately address these risks, union members stood in solidarity together and negotiated a contract that not only provides temporary transfers for endangered workers but includes notification procedures to alert workers at various branches when a patron is banned.

“That is a huge change from before we negotiated the contract,” King pointed out, noting that workers previously “had no recourse” if they were harassed. “They just had to put up with it. They just had to stay in the same location."

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Workers Breaking Barriers

Workers Breaking Barriers
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Dominick Sapien’s patient threw up during cardiac arrest several months ago, and he instinctively grabbed a suction tool to clear the man’s airway.

The device failed to turn on, so Sapien picked up another. When it also failed, he reached for a third. When that one broke apart, a quick-thinking Sapien flipped the patient on his side and, with a fellow paramedic performing CPR, manually scooped the vomit out of the man’s mouth to keep him from choking.

The need for functioning equipment and safer working conditions prompted Sapien and his colleagues at Frontier Ambulance to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in February, making them the first workers in decades to form a union in Wyoming.

They aren’t the only ones breaking barriers. Determined to secure good wages and a seat at the table, a growing number of workers are banding together and fighting back in industries and states that long attempted to silence them.

About 1,000 firefighters, paramedics, fire marshals, emergency dispatchers and mechanics in Fairfax County, Virginia, overwhelmingly voted to unionize last fall, advancing working people’s fight in a state that’s tried to divide workers and deter union membership for decades. Now, the county must bargain with public workers for the first time in about 40 years.

Workers at TCGplayer, an online trading card marketplace, last month formed the first union at an eBay-owned company in the United States, helping to pave the way for others in the notoriously anti-labor tech industry.

And undergraduate student workers at the University of Oregon just filed for a union election to combat low pay and other exploitation. They’re part of a wave of unionizing campaigns involving faculty and staff as well as undergraduate and graduate student workers at universities across the country.

“It’s a chance to change things for the better, and I think everybody really believed in that dream,” Sapien said of his own successful union drive in Wyoming, a so-called right-to-work state with relatively few union members right now.

States with right-to-work laws permit workers to receive all of the benefits of union representation without paying even a small fee for services. These laws, pushed by corporations and right-wing politicians, undermine worker solidarity and starve unions of the resources they need to bargain good contracts, pursue grievances and otherwise fight for members.

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Helping Veterans Navigate the Homefront

Helping Veterans Navigate the Homefront
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Gregory Washington joined the Marines at 18 and fought in the Gulf War, only to return—traumatized, unemployed, adrift—to an America that seemed as unfamiliar and daunting to him as the places he encountered overseas.

It took Washington years to find a family-sustaining job, secure his disability benefits and reacclimate to civilian life.

Now, he’s a leader in his local union and determined to help forge a smoother path for others who served. He and fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW) are advocating for state laws requiring employers to post official notices of the health, social and other services available to support veterans as they build new lives on the homefront.

New York enacted its version of the workplace poster law, written with USW members’ input, Jan. 1. Union members continue working to advance similar legislation in Iowa, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Texas and other states.

“At the end of the day, we want to readjust. We want to work. We want to take care of our families,” observed Washington, vice president of USW Local 13-1, which represents hundreds of workers at the Pemex oil refinery and other workplaces in southeastern Texas.

“Sometimes, nobody even talks to veterans. They get out, and that’s it,” said Washington, recalling the difficulty he had battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) while finding a way forward on his own.

Washington, who took part in the February 1991 battle that dislodged Iraqi forces from Kuwait International Airport, discovered that the hyper-vigilance, lightning-quick responsiveness and other traits that kept him alive in the Marines sometimes disconcerted people at home. He struggled to sustain friendships with non-veterans, who appreciated his service but couldn’t relate to his experiences.

And as he wrestled with how to translate his military skills into civilian employment, Washington fell into low-paying security jobs that barely enabled him to support his growing family.

Many veterans experience similar hardships. As many as 46 percent of recent veterans with combat experience struggle to readjust after discharge, and those like Washington with PTSD “are among the most likely to say their transition to civilian life was difficult,” according to Pew Research Center.

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Strained to the Breaking Point

Strained to the Breaking Point
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Among the handful of neurologically impaired patients in Judy Danella’s care one day last week were three so ill that they struggled just to swallow.

She fed each of them in turn, delivering spoonful after spoonful of pureed food, patiently nourishing them toward better health even as she herself was stretched thinner by the minute in a facility that’s chronically shorthanded.

Danella and her union co-workers at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J., wrestle every day with the understaffing crisis straining America’s health care system to the breaking point.

Health care employers across the country long refused to hire adequate numbers of nurses, certified nursing assistants, dietary workers and other essential staff, preferring to push skeleton crews to the bone and put profits over patients.

But now, the same health care workers who battled COVID-19 are fighting for the safe staffing levels needed to protect their communities on a daily basis and prevent the already-fragile care system from collapsing in the next pandemic.

U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Rep. Jan Schakowsky of Illinois just introduced legislation in Congress to establish mandatory minimum staffing levels for nurses at hospitals nationwide. But in the meantime, citing the ever-greater urgency, union workers continue advocating for similar measures on a state-by-state basis.

Danella and fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW), for example, will rally with workers from other unions at the New Jersey statehouse May 11 to demand passage of bills establishing minimum staffing levels for registered nurses in hospitals, ambulatory surgery centers and state psychiatric facilities.

“You want to give the patient the best care you can,” explained Danella, a registered nurse and president of USW Local 4-200, which represents about 1,650 registered nurses at the Robert Wood Johnson facility, a Level 1 trauma center.

The legislation, already introduced in the state Senate and General Assembly, would require one registered nurse for every four patients in an emergency department, one for every two patients in intensive care, and one for every five patients in a medical/surgical unit, among other provisions.

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Building Worker Power

Building Worker Power
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The United Steelworkers (USW) mounted tireless battles for fair trade and other lifelines that helped to keep McLouth Steel open during the 1980s, enabling Jay McMurran and thousands of other Michigan workers to raise families and build pensions amid one of the nation’s worst economic crises.

Recognizing that other workers need the same kind of strength behind them, McMurran resolved to fight back when Republicans rammed union-gutting “right to work” (RTW) legislation through the state legislature in 2012.

He and other union supporters and their allies worked relentlessly for years to oust the corporate toadies and elect pro-worker lawmakers instead. Their long struggle culminated in victory Tuesday when new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate voted to repeal the deceptively named RTW laws, restoring workers’ full power to bargain fair contracts and safe working conditions.

Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer vowed to sign the legislation, which represents the latest in a string of victories for workers mobilizing to build strength across the country.

No one in America is ever forced to join a union, and no union wants workers to join against their will. Yet a union has a legal obligation to serve all workers in its bargaining unit.

Many states allow unions to charge non-members a small fee to help cover the costs of representation. But in some states, RTW laws pushed by corporations and anti-worker groups enable non-members to receive union services for free.

These laws intentionally divide workers, erode the solidarity that’s the foundation of union strength and starve unions of the resources needed for effective bargaining, training and other essential purposes—all to the boss’s benefit.

“‘Right to work’ is simply a union-busting scam that the Republicans dress up as ‘choice,’” observed McMurran, a longtime USW member who worked at McLouth Steel for 27 years.

“It weakens the local union,” he said. “It weakens every worker’s position when you get into collective bargaining, when you get into grievance hearings, when you get into arbitrations. The boss knows your weaknesses, and he exploits them.”

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Keep the DOL Fighting for Workers

Keep the DOL Fighting for Workers

Hundreds of Boston school bus drivers stood to lose their jobs when COVID-19 closed the city’s schools in 2020.

But instead of giving up on drivers, André François and other leaders of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8751 collaborated with with Marty Walsh, then the mayor of Boston, to not only avoid layoffs but also empower the workers to serve on the front lines of the health crisis.

Union members loaded their buses with the food usually served in school cafeterias and delivered meals to students and the elderly, helping some of the city’s most vulnerable residents through the darkest days of the pandemic.

That creative and powerful advocacy for ordinary people also defined Walsh’s tenure as U.S. secretary of labor and fueled his fight to build an economy that works for all, observed François, the Local 8751 president.

“He was fair to labor,” François said of Walsh, who just resigned his position in President Joe Biden’s Cabinet to head the National Hockey League Players’ Association. “He was understanding. You could call and talk to him about your issues. He listened.”

Walsh, who credits a union laborer’s job with lifting his immigrant father into the middle class, dedicated his life to extending similar opportunities to others.

As the first labor secretary in decades to carry a union card, he adopted the hands-on approach that François witnessed in Boston and returned the department to the worker-centered mission it lost during the previous administration.

In the process, he also helped Biden turn a pandemic-battered economy into a new era of shared prosperity.

Just a few months after joining the Biden administration, for example, Walsh helped push Congress into passing a historic infrastructure package that’s supporting millions of good union jobs. He even joined USW members at a rally in Burns Harbor, Ind., to promote the legislation.

“We have an opportunity right now to buy American and build America like never before,” Walsh, the former leader of the Boston Building and Construction Trades Council, told the gathering.

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Working Kids to Death

Working Kids to Death

Brad Greve said he and other expedition leaders repeatedly told the group of Boy Scouts to watch out for a section of stream where the water picked up speed and swept over rapids into the lake below.

But two of the boys forgot the warnings and let their canoe drift perilously close to the drop-off anyway. Realizing their mistake in the nick of time, they paddled furiously against the stiffening current and made it to the streambank rattled but safe.

That near-accident a few years ago, Greve said, underscores the vulnerability of young teens. And it fuels Greve’s anger at Republicans who want to gut child-labor laws and fill dangerous jobs with still-maturing high-schoolers, even at the risk of working them to death.

Greve vehemently opposes a proposal moving through Iowa’s Republican-controlled legislature that would allow 14-year-olds to work in industrial freezers, meatpacking plants and industrial laundry operations. The legislation also would put 15-year-olds to work on certain kinds of assembly lines and allow them to hoist up to 50 pounds.

In some cases, it even would permit young teens to work mining and construction jobs and let them use power-driven meat slicers and food choppers.

Just three years ago, a 16-year-old in Tennessee fell 11 stories to his death while working construction on a hotel roof. Another 16-year-old lost an arm that same year while cleaning a meat grinder at a Tennessee supermarket,

But these preventable tragedies mean nothing to Iowa legislators bent on helping greedy employers pad their bottom lines at kids’ expense.

“They make impulsive decisions and do things without thinking, just because they’re young. They don’t know what they don’t know,” said Greve, a Davenport, Iowa, resident and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), explaining how the legislation puts youths in harm’s way.

The legislation also would allow employers to force kids into significantly longer work days—until 9 p.m. during the school year and 11 p.m. during the summer.

These additional hours at work would rob kids of time needed for studying and for the extracurricular activities that help mold them into productive, responsible adults.

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Safeguarding Sweat Equity

Safeguarding Sweat Equity
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Mark Glyptis and dozens of other union leaders went into contract negotiations with Cleveland-Cliffs last year determined not only to win wage and benefit enhancements for their co-workers but to protect thousands of family-sustaining steel mill jobs for years to come.

The United Steelworkers (USW) negotiating team ultimately delivered a historic contract requiring the company to invest $4 billion in 13 union-represented facilities, including about $100 million at the Weirton, W.Va., mill where Glyptis and his colleagues rely on ever-more-sophisticated equipment to make precision tin plate.

Unions fight for financial commitments like these to safeguard workers’ sweat equity—the time and labor they invest in their workplaces for decades at a stretch. Capital upgrades keep employers accountable and plants viable, preserving family-sustaining jobs while also laying the groundwork for future growth.

“Steel mills are being built across the world, and we’re definitely competing on a worldwide basis,” observed Glyptis, president of USW Local 2911, noting the overseas facilities feature the “most modern technology.”

“We’re the best steelworkers in the world. We can compete. But we have to keep up with capital investments,” continued Glyptis, who helped to represent about 12,000 USW members from six states in the talks with Cleveland-Cliffs last year.

Glyptis and other Local 2911 members fought for new equipment that they need to produce “perfectly flat and flawless” tin plate for food containers.

Based on members’ input, other local unions—supplying the military, highway contractors, aerospace and numerous other industries—went into negotiations with their own requirements for upgrades.

Members overwhelmingly ratified a new, four-year contract last fall. The vote reflected their satisfaction with the $4 billion in investments—to be allocated among the 13 worksites—as much as it did the 20 percent raises and benefit enhancements the agreement provides.

“You can have the best health care in the country or in the world, but if you can’t compete because of technological deficiencies, you’re going to be an also-ran,” Glyptis pointed out. “Maintaining a competitive facility is just as important.”

“It all goes into a decision about whether this is a fair contract. It would be difficult to have a contract passed if it didn’t have a commitment to capital investments attached,” he said, adding that the company continues hiring many younger workers who see the upgrades as crucial to raising families and putting down roots.

Unions also negotiate capital investments to protect workers from companies that might otherwise abandon plants on a whim or run them to failure while wringing out every last penny in profit.

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Knowledge and Power

Knowledge and Power
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Families from miles around lined up outside the United Steelworkers (USW) hall in Tonawanda, N.Y., a few years ago, eager for a share of the 30,000 books, from biographies to sci-fi thrillers, that Tom O’Shei and other union members handed out for free.

The hugely popular giveaway was a logical undertaking for a civic-minded union that recognized a local need and understood that sharing knowledge would help build a stronger community from the grassroots up.

But while union members like O’Shei continue to harness the power of the written word to unify and bolster their hometowns, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis opted to weaponize books in an attempt to divide and dominate.

Under the right-wing Republican’s censorship, classroom libraries remain off limits to students until state-trained watchdogs vet the books to ensure they conform to DeSantis’ politics of hate.

Local school boards across Florida ostensibly have the final word on approving or banning instructional materials, but they know that taking a responsible and inclusive approach means incurring the vindictive DeSantis’ wrath.

Adding insult to injury, teachers face criminal prosecution, thousands of dollars in fines and five years in prison for giving children access to unapproved titles. A conviction under this draconian policy also threatens a teacher’s career and voting rights.

“To me, it’s almost like trying to exercise mind control,” O’Shei, president of Local 135L, said of DeSantis’ efforts to police libraries and indoctrinate students. “Anybody who wants to ban books doesn’t have your best interest at heart.”

“When I see something like that, I would encourage kids to go to the community library and find out what they don’t want you to read,” said O’Shei.

Local 135L, which represents hundreds of workers at the Sumitomo plant in Tonawanda, considers community building an essential part of USW membership.

“We have to be good members of the community because we’re lucky enough to have a good living because of the union,” O’Shei tells new workers at the tire plant. “We want to make the community around us a better place to live, too.”

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The Threat of Supreme Injustice

The Threat of Supreme Injustice

Joe Oliveira and his co-workers relied greatly on donations of food and gift cards after going on an unfair labor practice strike against multibillion-dollar specialty steelmaker ATI in 2021.

They cut household expenses to the bone, burned through their savings despite the public’s generous support of their cause, and held fundraisers to help one another cover mortgages and car payments during 3½ months on the picket line.

As much as the strike tested workers, however, it pressured ATI even more and ultimately enabled Oliveira and more than 1,300 other members of the United Steelworkers (USW) to secure long-overdue raises and stave off the company’s attempt to gut benefits.

Corporations so fear this kind of worker power that they’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rig the scales and help them kill future strikes before they even begin.

Glacier Northwest, a company in the state of Washington, sued the International Brotherhood of Teamsters seeking compensation for ready-mix concrete that went to waste amid a weeklong drivers’ strike in 2017.

The Washington Supreme Court threw out the case, but Glacier Northwest appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, betting a right-wing majority that’s already proven its animosity toward unions will seize the opportunity to kick working people once again.

Corporations anticipate that a ruling in favor of Glacier Northwest will encourage a frenzy of similarly frivolous claims against unions nationwide, bleeding precious resources and eviscerating workers’ right to strike.

The justices held arguments on the case Jan. 10 but it’s not known when the court will rule.

“That’s our greatest strength,” said Oliveira, vice president of USW Local 1357 in New Bedford, Mass., pointing out that the right to strike helped working people over many decades win not only fair wages but retirement security, safer working conditions and fairness on the job.

“It’s rotten when it comes to that point,” he said. “It’s very hard on families. It’s not any fun. But I think it’s probably the greatest weapon we have in our arsenal.”

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A Sacred Pact with Working Families

A Sacred Pact with Working Families
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Cliff Carlton was the 10th of 11 children and one of three still living at home when his father, a coal miner, died unexpectedly at 67.

Only his dad’s Social Security benefits, along with vegetables from the family’s small farm in southwestern Virginia, kept the household afloat during the lean years that followed.

That battle for survival made Carlton a lifelong champion of Social Security and a tireless opponent of the Republicans in Congress who keep trying to kill this lifeline for the middle class.

“It’s not a gift. It’s money that we’re due,” explained Carlton, vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 8-UR2 and president of the Virginia Alliance for Retired Americans.

“We put money into it. We deserve it back,” continued Carlton, 70, a retired tire manufacturing worker and longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who’s attended rallies and lobbied Congress on behalf of Social Security for 30 years.

Republicans long hoped to privatize Social Security, preferring to gamble Americans’ futures on the stock market rather than force the wealthy to pay their fair share of the taxes needed to sustain the program. Fortunately, congressional Democrats, union members and other Americans torpedoed these schemes.

But now there’s a new threat. To secure enough votes to become speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy toadied to extremist Republicans whose demands for radical budget cuts once again put Social Security and Medicare at risk.

Pro-corporate Republicans openly plot to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, moves that would force millions of Americans to work longer and delay their retirements. Some Republicans even want to gut the current funding formula, slashing payments to Americans with other income, regardless of how much they pay into the program.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare warns that this kind of con, called means-testing, would end Social Security as Americans know it and take benefits even from those with “very modest incomes.”

“If you lose something, you don’t ever get it back,” observed Carlton, who fears that Republican toying with Social Security will break seniors already living on the margins amid skyrocketing medical costs and mounting bills stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Building the Essential Supply Chain

Building the Essential Supply Chain
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Matt Thomas was driving Interstate 75 through the Detroit area about two years ago when he caught his first glimpse of “dead” cars—the partially manufactured vehicles marooned on sprawling factory lots amid the shortage of microchips needed for the autos’ safety, entertainment and GPS systems.

The sight sickened Thomas not only because his own set of wheels was getting along in years but because he recognized that he and other union workers stand ready to meet America’s growing demand for ever-more-sophisticated chips.

Federal legislation enacted in August is finally empowering workers for this crucial role. The CHIPS and Science Act, which unions and their Democratic allies pushed through Congress, invests billions to ramp up semiconductor manufacturing across the country and build out the supply chains providing essential materials, parts and components to chip makers.

That will end America’s dangerous over-reliance on foreign chip producers, whose pandemic-related production disruptions and inability to meet surging demand continue to stymie production of new vehicles. Strengthening the nation’s semiconductor industry also will ensure a more reliable supply of the chips needed for many other kinds of consumer goods, along with communications networks, energy systems and the military equipment essential for national security.

The legislation already sparked dozens of manufacturing projects with the potential to create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs all along supply chains.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have these made domestically. There’s no reason why we should have to depend on someone else for production,” said Thomas, a steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12075-24, noting he and his co-workers look for the legislation to boost demand for products like the semiconductor resin they make at a DuPont plant in Midland, Mich.

Manufacturers continually strive to add brainpower to electronic devices, and the advanced packaging resin produced by Local 12075-24 members helps to accomplish this goal. Information on and among chips speeds “up and down, back and forth” with the resin, known as Cyclotene, explained Thomas.

These and other supply chain links are so critical to a robust semiconductor industry that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer chose a USW-represented glass plant in Canton, N.Y., as a backdrop for promoting the CHIPS and Science Act shortly after President Joe Biden signed the legislation in August.

“It’s incredibly important what our plant does,” said Anthony Badlam, president of USW Local 1026, whose members at the Corning facility make specialty glass that’s used as lenses in machines that imprint information on chips.

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Living Proof

Living Proof
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James Boutcher seized control of his future several years ago when foreign dumping cost him his entry-level position amid a series of job cuts at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Ky.

He enrolled in the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, went back to school to become an electrician and graduated with high-demand skills affording lasting protection in an evolving economy.

Now, on the heels of yet another wave of layoffs at Century Aluminum, Boutcher wants Republicans in Congress to join Democrats in quickly reestablishing TAA so hundreds of other workers have the same opportunity he did to start over.

Century Aluminum began idling the smelter in June, citing rising energy costs sparked by Russia’s war on Ukraine. TAA expired at the very same time amid the lack of Republican support, leaving about 500 members of USW Local 9423 at the Hawesville plant—and a growing number of other Americans harmed by globalization—to fend for themselves.

“It needs to be there,” Boutcher said of TAA, which Congress created decades ago to assist workers who lose their livelihoods because of the adverse effects of world trade. “If anyone has any doubts, I’m living proof.”

The importance of the program only continues to grow because of the war in Ukraine, foreign competitors’ efforts to subvert fair trade laws and other factors outside workers’ control. In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled 107,000 additional workers, up 12 percent from 2020, with many of the new participants living in states like Texas, Nebraska and Wisconsin where Republicans so far refuse to support the program.

TAA covered tuition, books, mileage, supplies and other expenses for displaced workers who opted to go to college or trade school so they could upskill, as Boutcher did, or change career paths.

The program provided case management, career counseling and job search services. And it provided relocation assistance to workers who had to move for new employment and temporary wage support to eligible workers whose new jobs paid less than their previous ones.

“I was not out a penny,” said Boutcher, recalling how a counselor at Owensboro Community and Technical College regularly reviewed his grades to ensure his compliance with TAA requirements and keep him on the path to graduation.

The program bought tools he needed for hands-on learning and enabled him to take extra classes so that, on top of his associate degree focusing on industrial electricity, he graduated with knowledge of residential and commercial work.

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Investing in Workers’ Rights

Investing in Workers’ Rights
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Some workers began delaying doctor’s appointments and others started delving deeply into their pockets for care when Tecnocap illegally slashed health benefits at its Glen Dale, W.Va., manufacturing plant last year.

One worker even put thousands of dollars of chemotherapy charges on credit cards to save his wife’s life.

Lisa Wilds, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 152M, assured her colleagues that the company would be held accountable for the harm it inflicted on them. And just as she anticipated, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge issued a ruling in August that ordered Tecnocap to reinstate the old health plan and reimburse workers, with interest, for all expenses they incurred because of the company’s wrongdoing.

When employers like Tecnocap break the law, workers rely on the NLRB to enforce their rights. But a funding crisis imperils that mission at a time more and more Americans need the agency’s protection.

The NLRB hasn’t had an increase in its $274 million annual budget since the 2014 fiscal year, even though its workload skyrocketed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Union organizing drives, overseen by the NLRB, increased 53 percent over the past year as workers in manufacturing, e-commerce, health care and numerous other industries banded together for the higher wages, affordable health care, paid sick leave and other advantages that only collective action can deliver.

Employers doubled down on misconduct amid this wave of worker empowerment, with unfair labor practice charges—the complaints workers file when companies violate their rights—increasing 19 percent during the same 12-month period.

Fortunately, the NLRB stepped in to save the jobs of workers illegally fired for union activity, force companies to bargain in good faith and prohibit employers from spying on and demeaning workers.

“There is no way to put into words the value and importance of the NLRB,” explained Wilds, who stands to recoup about $7,000 herself after the agency ordered Tecnocap to reimburse the workers for medical bills.

This was just one of numerous times she and her co-workers turned to the NLRB for help over the years. In 2018, for example, Tecnocap illegally locked out workers for nine days, refusing to let them work, in an effort to break the union during contract negotiations.

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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.

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Union Solidarity Is Driving Better Health Care

Union Solidarity Is Driving Better Health Care
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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.

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Watching Workers’ Backs on Trade

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.

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