From the USW International President Archive (Page 2)

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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The Infrastructure Program’s Chain Reaction

The Infrastructure Program’s Chain Reaction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Solidarity Lifts Workers over Life’s Struggles

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Voting to Continue America’s Progress

Voting to Continue America’s Progress
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Al Polk will bid his wife goodbye on Oct. 11 and set out for New Hampshire with boots, gloves, heavy coat, windshield scraper and shovel in the trunk of his Chevy Impala.

As the weather grows colder over the next few weeks, the fight for America’s future will also reach a turning point. And there’s no way the 79-year-old will let brutal temperatures, ice or snowstorms impede his efforts to turn out Granite State voters for the crucial Nov. 8 election.

Polk, a Massachusetts resident and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), is among thousands of union activists across the country committed to knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and organizing rallies to support the pro-worker candidates needed to continue moving America forward the next two years.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it,” declared Polk, who served as president of his United Steelworkers (USW) local at Cleveland Twist Drill in Mansfield, Mass., for 20 years and then worked on the union staff before retiring in 2015.

Polk has volunteered for election work in New Hampshire for decades.

He’s lived in hotels for weeks at a stretch, just as he intends to do again this year. He’s endured drenching rain as well as early winter snowstorms forcing him to shovel out his car before long days of door-knocking.

He’s talked with thousands of fellow union members, securing untold votes with his respectful doorstep advocacy, and handed out thousands of flyers at USW-represented workplaces like the Manchester Water Works, New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Laconia and 3M in Tilton.

And while every election has its pivotal issues—the Democrats’ tireless work on invigorating the economy and growing the middle class proved decisive factors in 2020, for example—Polk cannot remember another time when voters in New Hampshire and throughout the country faced so stark a choice as they do this year.

“Keep the forward movement or stand still,” explained Polk, who expects to log many miles traveling around the state to highlight the string of accomplishments that pro-worker officials and their union allies racked up since President Joe Biden took office just 20 months ago.

That list of accomplishments includes the American Rescue Plan, which provided the child care assistance and other support that families needed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic while also saving the retirements of 1.3 million Americans enrolled in faltering multiemployer pension plans.

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Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government

Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government
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When a group of custodians in York County, South Carolina, learned their bosses planned to sell them out to save a few pennies, they knew exactly who to turn to for help—a fellow worker who’d walked in the very same shoes.

County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) and a former custodian himself, assured the county workers that he had their backs. Roddey ultimately helped quash the scheme to contract out the county’s janitorial services, a victory both for the custodians and the taxpayers relying on their quality work.

Electing more union members like Roddey to councils and mayoral posts will help to combat right-wing attacks on workers and hold local government accountable to the ordinary people it’s intended to serve.

“We speak for the American worker,” Roddey, a member of USW Local 1924 who works at New-Indy Containerboard, said of union members. “We speak for the middle class. The agenda is not about us if we are not at the table.”

If the county had privatized cleaning services, any small budgetary savings would have paled next to the pain inflicted on the custodians, Roddey said, noting officials out of touch with working people “don’t too quickly grasp these scenarios.”

“The perspective of the people who sign the front of the paycheck is different from the perspective of the people who sign the back of the paycheck,” said Roddey, whose colleagues on the council include three business owners. “I bring that back-of-the-paycheck perspective to everything I do.”

Attacks on working people aren’t unique to South Carolina.

After the school board in Putnam, Conn., contracted out custodial services, for example, workers lost access to their pension system even though they’d been promised no change in benefits.

In recent months, USW-represented school bus drivers in Bay City, Mich., beat back efforts to contract out their work, while union members in Los Angeles County, California, won their own fight against privatization.

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The Path Forward for Communities Like Lost Creek

The Path Forward for Communities Like Lost Creek
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Carl Asher clung to a wooden post on his porch for three hours—yelling for help in the darkness, water lapping at his neck —before risking it all.

He threw himself into the torrent below and, guided by a neighbor’s spotlight, swam several hundred feet against a punishing current to high ground. Asher and his wife, Tonya, a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who was at work at the time, lost their home, five vehicles, a camper, and their 12-year-old cat, Ebony, in historic flooding that killed 39 and obliterated parts of Eastern Kentucky in July.

Climate change rendered these communities and countless others across the country vulnerable to increasingly frequent and powerful storms.

The nation long responded to these calamities with patchwork repairs that failed to provide lasting improvements or real protection. But now, America’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is delivering the stronger, more resilient roads, broadband networks and water systems that comprehensively guard against not only floods but wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters.

The IIJA, which President Joe Biden signed in November, earmarks billions for flood prevention and mitigation projects alone. That includes shoring up dilapidated dams, strengthening coastal defenses, overhauling the stormwater systems needed to manage heavy rains, relocating drinking water lines out of flood zones and upgrading sewer systems to prevent the overflows that occur during major storms.

And the IIJA includes funds for dredging long-neglected waterways, while also allocating hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to a program that elevates homes in at-risk areas so that others will be spared what the Ashers and other Kentuckians endured this summer.

The couple, longtime residents of the small community called Lost Creek, completed a screened-in porch and a concrete driveway and added to a memory garden dedicated to their late son, Matthew, in the months before the flood.

The water rose so rapidly that night that Carl Asher dropped a box of valuables he had gathered and shimmied up the porch for safety. The flood eventually triggered a fire, which caused the second floor to collapse into the first and ended any hope of saving their home of 16 years.

“If I was there, I would not have survived. I cannot swim. I would not have made it,” said Tonya Asher, a member of USW Local 14637 who works at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare medical center in nearby Hazard, Ky., noting the current her husband battled was so strong it “literally ripped his clothes off of him. By the time he reached the neighbors, he was just shaking.”

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Making Worker Power A Constitutional Right

Making Worker Power A Constitutional Right
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Chris Frydenger’s young co-workers at the Mueller Co. performed the same work and brought the same dedication to their jobs as he did, but the manufacturer’s two-tier wage system exploited newer hires by paying them thousands less each year.

Outraged by the unfairness, Frydenger and the entire membership of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838 in Decatur, Ill., took a stand during contract negotiations a few years ago and not only beat back the inequitable pay system but won younger members catch-up raises of more than 21 percent.

That collective victory remains one of the proudest moments in Frydenger’s life. And now it’s fueling his fight to make worker power a constitutional right in his home state.

A Nov. 8 referendum will give Illinois voters the opportunity to enact a “Workers’ Rights Amendment” to the state constitution, enshrining in the state’s highest law Illinoisans’ freedom to join unions and bargain collectively for better lives while also barring future legislation that would erode worker strength.

The ballot question passed the Legislature on a bipartisan basis last year, a sign of how much the measure reflects the people’s will. As they educate more voters about the referendum, Frydenger and other activists find almost unanimous support for a measure that would give workers greater control of their destinies, beyond the clutches of CEOs, pro-corporate politicians and other anti-labor forces.

“I can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t be in support of this,” said Frydenger, grievance chair and Rapid Response coordinator for Local 7-838, who’s canvassing neighborhoods, distributing leaflets and making phone calls to make sure workers know that their very futures are on the ballot this year.

The Workers’ Rights Amendment would help future generations negotiate the family-supporting wages needed to sustain the middle class and the nation’s economy. It would safeguard Illinoisans’ right to a voice on the job, including the freedom to call out unsafe working conditions without fear of reprisal.

And it would ensure workers can band together, as Frydenger and his colleagues did, to hold employers accountable. Frydenger recalled the local’s negotiating committee tossing a pile of worker surveys on the bargaining table—all demanding elimination of the two-tier wage system—and telling management there’s no way union members would ever vote for a contract that retained it.

The constitutional amendment has deep emotional meaning to Frydenger, who observed that it would confer “sacred,” “fundamental” and “essential” status on workers’ rights at a time that more and more Americans view union membership as the path forward.

“Every time I turn on the news, I see an Amazon location or another Starbucks store voting in a union,” he said, noting a new Gallup poll this week showed that 71 percent of Americans support organized labor, the most since 1965.

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Fighting the Shadow Pandemic

Fighting the Shadow Pandemic
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Losing two co-workers to domestic violence over a three-year span left Emily Brannon and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L reeling.

But their grief, Brannon noted, also launched them on a quest to save others. They helped to negotiate paid domestic violence leave into their contract with Bridgestone-Firestone, enabling other colleagues experiencing intimate partner violence to step away, focus on getting safe and return to work when they’re able to do so.

As intimate partner violence continues to increase, the unions that protect workers on the job are also fighting to keep them safe when they go home.

Brannon’s USW local in Des Moines, Iowa, is one of dozens in the United States and Canada with contract language providing domestic violence survivors with the resources crucial to breaking free of their abusers.

And the drive to empower survivors continues to grow. The USW just ratified contracts with two major employers in the paper sector, Domtar and Packaging Corp. of America (PCA), that extend similar protections and resources to thousands more workers at dozens of mills and box plants.

“I think it shows that we’re sensitive to the issues of our members,” explained Brannon, treasurer of Local 310L and a member of the local’s Women of Steel committee, who knew both of the members fatally shot by their abusers between 2014 and 2017. “We have a very diverse workforce and a diverse membership, and there are a variety of issues outside of work that the members may be dealing with.”

“Any time we can address a safety issue, we will. That’s one of the reasons you have a union in the first place,” added Brannon, noting the union also honors the members lost to domestic violence through a partnership with Soaring Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit in Des Moines advocating for victims of violence.

Domestic violence increased significantly with the lockdowns, economic strain and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming known as the “shadow pandemic.” In all, about 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men across the United States have experienced “severe physical violence” from intimate partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Financial security is key to helping survivors leave abusive partners and stay away from them. “There’s a lot on the line,” Brannon said, noting many survivors also have to provide for children.

Union-negotiated domestic violence leave helps to bridge this need. It provides paid or unpaid time off for court appearances, relocation, counseling and more, enabling survivors to attend to pressing obligations without expending vacation or sick days.

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Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost
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Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his co-workers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Ala., only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his work station, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent this year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

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A Bulwark for Workers

A Bulwark for Workers
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The Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., was always a part of Cindy Beshears’ life.

She attended her grandfather’s retirement party there as a child, worked two summers at the plant as a college student in the 1980s and accepted a full-time job on the production floor in 2004 after leaving a career in retail.

Goodyear devastated the community when it closed the plant two years ago after shifting hundreds of jobs to Mexico, but fortunately, the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provided Beshears and her co-workers with training and other support that helped them through some of the darkest days they’ll ever know.

While thousands of other American workers continue to be harmed by unfair trade, they’ll be denied the same lifeline unless Congress moves quickly to reestablish TAA.

The program expired June 30 because Republicans refused to join Democrats in extending it. Until Congress reinstates the program, the Labor Department cannot consider any additional petitions for TAA assistance. The United Steelworkers (USW), other unions and Democratic lawmakers such as Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are working to salvage the program, workers’ only real bulwark against the damage inflicted by globalization.

“It’s definitely worth fighting to save,” Beshears said of TAA, created in the 1970s to provide skills-building, employment services and other assistance to workers who lose jobs or wages because of bad trade.

In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled more than 107,000 workers in various industries.

“It covers tuition and books. It covers school supplies. It provided a laptop for me. If you have to travel for your classes, it will pay a mileage stipend,” explained Beshears, a former member of USW Local 12L who enrolled in TAA to obtain an associate degree in paralegal studies from Gadsden State Community College.

“It even paid for caps and gowns if we wanted to walk for graduation,” added Beshears, who completed her schooling in May, recalling the pride she felt as her former co-workers also set out on new careers in nursing, child care, welding, transportation and other fields.

“I was very concerned that these people were going to lose hope and that we were going to see a lot of bad things. I would have been one who sat there and wallowed in self-pity, thinking, ‘Oh, I put all that time in, and now I have nothing.’” Beshears said, calling TAA “as valuable mentally and emotionally” as it is educationally.

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Why Workers Are Turning to Unions

Why Workers Are Turning to Unions
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Amy Dennett long endured understaffing, low pay and indifferent bosses in her job at the American Red Cross in Asheville, N.C.

But she decided she’d had enough when management’s failure to provide basic resources forced her and her co-workers to build, jury-rig and dig into their own pockets for items needed to operate the blood donation center.

Dennett helped lead a union drive in 2020, resulting in the group’s vote to join the United Steelworkers (USW), and the 24 workers gained raises, greatly improved health care and much-needed equipment even before signing their first contract.

More and more workers like Dennett are realizing that unions fight for them every day, providing a path forward even in tumultuous times like a pandemic.

Gallup surveyed Americans on their confidence in 16 U.S. institutions ranging from the Supreme Court to television news. Over the past year, Gallup found, Americans’ confidence fell in all of them except one—organized labor.

“That doesn’t surprise me. We’re supposed to have faith in our elected officials and other leaders. But it’s a lot easier for a worker to have faith in the guy standing next to them than a guy in some other place you’ve never met who’s supposed to represent you,” Dennett said of the findings, noting that unions helped workers during the pandemic while many of the 16 institutions failed or exploited them.

With the help of a lone Democrat, for example, the Republicans in Congress killed legislation that would have expanded struggling families’ access to education, health care and child care.

Some banks socked borrowers with illegal late fees and charges despite their enrollment in a pandemic program temporarily pausing mortgage payments, compounding the homeowners’ hardships.

Corporations jacked up prices on food and other essentials, raking in ever-higher profits on the backs of working Americans. And tech companies like Amazon and Apple tried to beat back workers’ fights for better wages and working conditions.

In stark contrast to all of this, unions stepped up during the pandemic because their members needed them more than ever. They not only empowered workers to secure the personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and affordable health care they needed to safeguard their families but continued winning the raises and benefits essential for years to come.

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Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job

Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job
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A worker at the International Paper mill in Prattville, Ala., was performing routine maintenance on a paper-making machine a couple of weeks ago when he discovered liquid in a place it didn’t belong.

He stopped work and reported the hazard, triggering an inspection that revealed a punctured condensate line leaking water that was hotter than 140 degrees and would have scalded the worker or fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Instead of causing a serious health and safety risk, the leak was repaired without incident.

“We fixed the issue,” recalled Chad Baker, a USW Local 1458 trustee and safety representative. “It took about 30 minutes, and we continued on with our work, and nobody got hurt.”

Unions empower workers to help build safer workplaces and ensure they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisal.

No one knows the dangers of a job better than the people facing them every day. That’s why the USW’s contract with International Paper gives workers “stop-work authority”—the power to halt a job when they identify a threat and resume work after their concerns have been adequately addressed.

“We find smaller issues like that a lot,” Baker said, referring to the leaky condensate line. “Most of the time, they’re handled in a very efficient manner.”

Workers forming unions at Amazon and Starbucks, among other companies, want better wages and benefits. But they’re also fighting for the workplace protections union workers enjoy every day.

Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per every 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record, according to an analysis of data the company provided to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Driving for Amazon is also perilous. About 20 percent of drivers suffered injuries last year, up 40 percent from 2020, with many of these workers reporting that they felt pressured to take unnecessary risks, like forgoing seat belts and skipping breaks, to meet the company’s relentless delivery schedules.

Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon and other companies pull every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

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Gouging Americans out of House and Home

Gouging Americans out of House and Home
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Bill Boone eats very little meat and avoids expensive gourmet foods altogether.

Yet Boone’s grocery bill still tops $280 a week at a Kroger in Benton, Ark., thanks to profiteering on a scale the 92-year-old says he has never witnessed before.

Corporations may try to blame the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for astronomical price increases, but that’s merely a cover story for shameless price-gouging that’s left millions of Americans struggling to survive.

“Big money people are the trouble,” summed up Boone, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who recently saw the price of his favorite coffee double.

“It’s all these brands,” Boone, who worked at Reynolds and Alcoa, said of the rampant price hikes. “It’s all the basic things people have in their homes, like salt and pepper. I feel badly for these families with three and four kids.”

As struggling Americans burn through their savings and scrimp on meals to make ends meet, companies that jacked up prices on everything from cereal to toiletries post ever-higher profits.

While parents take second jobs and even hire out their children as movers and gardeners to make extra money, CEOs brag about the exploitation that’s enabling them to pad their own pockets and shower shareholders with dividends.

“A little bit of inflation is always good in our business,” declared Rodney McMullen, CEO of Kroger, which raised prices on customers like Boone before raking in $1.5 billion in operating profits for the first quarter this year.

Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of diapers and other essentials, plans to raise prices throughout the year even though it’s forecasting higher profits. “The consumer is resilient,” said Andre Schulten, the company’s chief financial officer, blithely dismissing the pain he’s inflicting.

Not even President Joe Biden’s public shaming of oil companies was enough to curb their unprecedented profit-mongering. They still refuse to increase production, even as the average cost of a gallon of gas hovers around $5 and truckers like Boone’s son-in-law spend hundreds of dollars to fill up their rigs.

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Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers

Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers
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The young man in Cleveland Clinic Akron General’s behavioral crisis intervention unit hadn’t communicated much during his hospitalization, but he showed no signs of violence until Brian Eckley tried to draw his blood early one morning.

The patient stood up, sat back down, rose again and then punched Eckley, a state-tested nurse aide and senior technician, in the left jaw.

Keeping his cool despite the pain, Eckley dodged more punches as he held the needle and tourniquet out of the patient’s reach, banged on the treatment room windows and called for help.

Attacks on health care workers have reached epidemic levels across the country, exacerbating turnover, turning caregivers into patients and further fraying systems of care already worn thin by COVID-19. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, twice passed by the House and just reintroduced in the Senate, would require employers to implement the safeguards needed to help keep Eckley and millions of his peers safe on the job.

The legislation—supported by numerous labor unions, trade groups and other stakeholders—would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop a standard requiring health care providers to implement safety plans for clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other treatment facilities.

The bill calls for facilities to consider measures such as alarm systems, physical barriers and strategic staffing, including having workers in hazardous situations operate in teams. To ensure the plans are as comprehensive and effective as possible, facilities would have to devise them with the input of workers on the front lines and address the specific hazards in each work area or unit.

“Having a safety officer on the unit 24/7 would be a wonderful first step,” observed Eckley, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014L, who had calmed down his combative patient by the time a security guard in another part of the hospital complex arrived at the behavioral health unit.

“They just don’t have what we need to do the job safely,” he said of health care employers around the country. “They do the bare minimum, and it’s more reactive than proactive.”

Even before COVID-19, health care workers faced five times more violence on the job than their counterparts in most other professions. Incidents skyrocketed during the pandemic as the crisis exacted a heavy toll on Americans’ emotional health and patients, relatives and community members grew frustrated with staffing shortages at medical facilities.

The violence is now so pervasive that many health care workers are victimized over and over again. Eckley, for example, has been punched repeatedly, stabbed with a pen, and bitten by an HIV-positive patient who disliked the meal he was served. He’s also witnessed numerous attacks on co-workers and once watched a patient batter a door to get to a jar of candy on the other side.

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Outsourcing Children’s Safety

Outsourcing Children’s Safety
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Early in the school year, a kindergartner on Joni Meyer’s school bus got motion sickness and threw up all over himself—and his brother, his cousin and his laptop.

Meyer pulled over, soothed the anguished child, cleaned everybody up as best she could and then drove the bus to school.

Over 34 years, Meyer has served as chauffeur, counselor, confidant, nurse and guardian angel to countless children like these in Bay City, Mich. She’s skillfully navigated a 35-foot, 14-ton bus over serpentine roads and through treacherous winter storms, safely delivering what she calls “our precious cargo” to schools and football games. Now, in gratitude for Meyer’s dedication, officials in the Bay City Public Schools intend to kick her to the curb.

The school district recently notified Meyer and her 25 co-workers, represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7380, of plans to eliminate their jobs and outsource transportation to a for-profit company. By continuing down this road, they’ll join the ranks of short-sighted employers who auction off crucial services to the lowest bidders, potentially saving a few bucks but gambling on safety.

Out-of-town drivers will never know Bay City’s rural roads or care about the community’s 8,150 students like Meyer and her co-workers, some of whom log upwards of 150 miles during work days that—because of split shifts—begin at 5 a.m. and end 12 hours later.

“I really enjoy my job. I enjoy my children. They’re sort of like extended family to us,” said Meyer, Local 7380’s unit president and the district’s second-most-senior driver, who wonders where a private contractor would even find replacements.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts around the country have struggled to recruit and retain drivers. Because of the shortage, some districts closed schools or cut service while others called in the National Guard for help, put teachers behind the wheel or paid parents to transport their own kids. So far this year, bus companies contracted by one Maryland school district missed more than 3,000 trips, leaving hundreds of students and parents in the lurch.

Bay City already has the dedicated, reliable work force that other school districts crave. Teachers, elected officials, other community leaders and parents are rallying around the drivers, demanding the school district keep them on the job and avert the potential nightmare contracting out would bring.

“It’s terribly sad and unfortunate and quite disappointing because it’s going to rock these kids’ boats. Some of these kids come from homes that aren’t really stable. This is one stable thing they have in their lives,” Kristin McDonell, a Bay City parent, said of district drivers. “I trust these drivers. They’re part of our backbone. It means a lot to them to be contributing to their community in this way.”

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