America's Backbone

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

At the start of each shift, Eric Jarvis takes a handful of anti-bacterial wipes and sanitizes the equipment he uses at the Packaging Corp. of America mill in Valdosta, Ga.

He worries about getting the coronavirus every time he leaves for work, but knows the nation depends on paper workers to produce the cardboard boxes used to ship millions of items to stores and homes each day.

Jarvis, president of USW Local 646, may not be on the front lines of the pandemic in the same way as nurses and first responders. But he and other manufacturing workers also fulfill a vital role on the nation’s production lines, ensuring that Americans still have the food, medicine, toiletries and other items crucial for everyday life.

“If we don’t make boxes, then the grocery stores don’t have groceries,” Jarvis said of the local’s 235 members. “We know our job is an essential job. You can see the pride in the workers doing their jobs out there.”

Truck drivers, bakers, transit operators, grocery store clerks, warehouse packers and manufacturing workers form the backbone of America’s economy.

They show up every day and get the job done, performing so reliably that the nation long took their work for granted. No one questioned, for example, whether stores would have toilet paper and cleaning products.

Then the pandemic struck, and surging demand for consumer goods exposed America’s dependence on the blue-collar workers who supply almost every need.

Life would grind to a halt without them.

Right now, these workers risk COVID-19 by laboring in groups at mills, factories, warehouses and stores while many other Americans do their jobs alone at home. It angers Jarvis to think that service workers put their lives on the line for the poverty-level wages common in their industry.

“I hope people never forget that,” Jarvis said.

Jarvis and his co-workers protect themselves as best they can.

Besides wiping down equipment, they stagger their starting times to reduce contact with one another. They wait in their cars and trucks before a shift instead of congregating at the time clock. Inside the mill, they remain at their work stations unless their presence elsewhere is a necessity.

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The Leadership Hoax

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Health care workers continue to put their lives on the line, caring for patients despite critical shortages of the safety gear they need to protect themselves from COVID-19.

To help, factories now churn out face shields, masks and gowns. And millions of workers stay home to slow the spread of the disease.

Americans from all walks of life stepped up to battle COVID-19.

With one glaring exception—Donald Trump.

Trump’s arrogance and failures compound a crisis that’s already damaged the economy and put thousands of Americans in early graves.

He’s a tweeter, not a leader.

Trump denied that the coronavirus was a risk until it overran the country, ignoring the warnings of intelligence agencies and public officials who tracked the threat from overseas.

Heeding those warnings would have given the nation time to get COVID-19 tests and safety gear to hospitals and doctors’ offices.

But Trump claimed he knew better than the experts. As late as Feb. 28, he called concerns about the virus a  “hoax”during a political rally in South Carolina.

News of the first American death from COVID-19 came just hours later. About 5,000 more Americans died since then. Before the virus runs its course, the toll could top 240,000.

But Trump’s rallies reveal where his priorities truly lie:  his own political skin and ratings in the polls. 

It’s one thing to adopt an optimistic tone and project an image of strength to assure the country—and the markets—that things will turn out all right.

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Homeless Vets Confront A New Enemy—COVID-19

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” rued Porter, 75, a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

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Killer Of A Cure

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The spread of COVID-19 put Americans’ lives at risk. But even as people across the country hunker down in their homes to protect themselves, they have more to fear.

Stock market swings, business closings and other COVID-19 disruptions threaten the nation’s economic well-being.

Some members of Congress want to address the fallout by lifting tariffs on imports from China and other countries, believing that giving Americans access to a flood of cheaper goods will stimulate the economy.

But what might seem like a quick cure would actually jeopardize America’s long-term health.

America’s steel and aluminum industries are still trying to bounce back from years of dumping and other illegal trade practices, from China and other nations, which caused widescale factory closures and job losses.

Removing tariffs on those products now just invites more of the cheating that led to the penalties in the first place.

Chinese goods, for example, would swamp U.S. markets at the worst possible time, as American industries—still trying to recover from the illegal trade of the past—also face the COVID-19 economic slowdown.  In the wake of increased dumping, U.S. factories would be forced to scale back or close, throwing more Americans out of work.

Members of Congress have to ask themselves: Whose side are they on?

The Chinese government subsidizes steel, aluminum and other manufacturing with cash, loans that producers don’t have to repay, and other kinds of aid. Then China dumps products in foreign markets at artificially low prices, undercutting domestic producers and costing workers their jobs.

From 2001 to 2018, America lost 3.7 million jobs—2.8 million of them in manufacturing—because of the trade imbalance with China. That imbalance was driven largely by unfair competition. The uneven playing field also dragged down wages and benefits for Americans who managed to continue to work.

Unleashing a flood of Chinese goods on U.S. markets now would put America in the same position again, only worse because American factories and workers are still grappling with the unprecedented effects of COVID-19.

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A Prescription for Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

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An Epidemic of Insecurity

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,200 points in a single day this week because of the coronavirus’ impact on global trade, leaving many Americans sick with worry.

It’s not just a rapidly spreading, mysterious disease that made Americans feel vulnerable. The Dow’s freefall erased millions of dollars from retirement accounts and exposed another kind of epidemic—retirement insecurity.

There once was a time when the combination of company pension plans, Social Security and personal savings could carry retirees through their golden years.

No longer. Most companies eliminated defined-benefit plans providing a reliable income stream and implemented 401(k) plans that leave workers at the mercy of stock market volatility, like the kind that rattled investors this week and crushed workers in 2008.

Today, Americans have so much angst about the future that about 29 percent of baby boomers, 36 percent of Gen Xers and 77 percent of millennials fear they’ll never be able to retire or will have to work past normal retirement age.

Americans work hard so they can provide for their families and enjoy retirement. But no matter how carefully they plan, their retirements depend on factors beyond their control.

Patricia Cotton, a home health aide in Maryland, lost half of her $150,000 investment nest egg in the 2008 recession and retired 12 years later than planned.

In all, Americans lost about $2.4 trillion in retirement earnings during the second half of 2008, and the average household lost a thirdof its net worth.

Cotton was one of many who experienced losses so severe that they had to work longer than intended. The memory of the 2008 recession still gives Americans retirement jitters, and stock market drops like the ones this week compound the fear.

Before 401(k) plans dominated the retirement landscape, companies provided defined-benefit pensions. Workers earned specific—defined—amounts based on their wages and years of service. When workers retired, the employer provided those amounts no matter how the stock market fared.

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Killing The Watchdog

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Pipe fitter Jody Gooch and welders Sedrick Stallworth and William Rolls Jr. stood just feet away when a tank exploded at the Packaging Corp. of America pulp and paper mill in DeRidder, La. The blast killed the contract workers, injured seven others and hurtled the 80-foot tank six stories into the air.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) concluded that welding sparks likely ignited turpentine vapors that built up inside the tank, and the agency released a comprehensive incident report and safety video to protect workers at other mills.

The CSB regularly issues guidance like this so companies that use dangerous chemicals in the production process learn from their mistakes. But Donald Trump, who refuses to admit his own failures, can’t grasp the importance of learning from anyone else’s, either. Instead of supporting the safety watchdog, Trump wants to kill it.

He allocated no funding for the CSB four years in a row.  As board members’ terms expired, Trump failed to replace them. The five-person board is down to just one member, whose term expires in August.

Trump likes to call himself a champion for workers.

But more workers will die if he abolishes the CSB. The people who live near these plants will be at increased risk as well because explosions, leaks and toxic emissions often inflict widespread damage on nearby communities.

Many Americans probably never heard of the CSB. But they’re safer because of it.

Congress created the 22-year-old agency to conduct independent investigations of industrial chemical disasters. Congress considered the work so important that it shielded the agency from outside interference.

The CSB doesn’t answer to any agency or official in the executive branch. This autonomy enables it to scrutinize not only the companies involved in disasters but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal entities regulating these industries.

The CSB issues no fines or citations. It makes no regulations. Its mission is safety education.

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Gambling Away American Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Fortune-seekers feed the slots and wager on horses at a Chester, Pa., casino where thousands of shipbuilders once forged the commercial cargo vessels that transported America’s goods to the world. The old Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. closed in 1989, unable to compete with foreign producers highly subsidized by their governments.

Other shipbuilders suffered a similar fate, and today, America produces virtually no oceangoing commercial vessels at all. The industry’s demise puts American exports at the mercy of foreign shipping and deprives the armed forces of ships they sometimes need to transport troops and supplies into combat.

Without U.S. shipbuilding, America is not safe.

America once led the world in commercial shipbuilding, but the federal government quit supporting the industry in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan decided to let the industry sink or swim.

It sank.

As the U.S. curtailed assistance, intended to ensure an adequate supply of commercial vessels to back up the military, other countries—especially China, Japan and South Korea—pumped even more money into their shipbuilding industries. Companies like Sun went out of business or scaled back operations as foreign competitors undercut U.S. shipbuilders’ prices and captured the world market.

In 1975, U.S. shipbuilders sold 77 big commercial vessels. Between 1987 and 1992, they sold eight.

As dozens of yards closed, America’s shipbuilding capacity ebbed away. Facilities rotted.

Sun’s site remained a sprawling ghost town until Harrah’s opened there about 15 years ago. It put slot machines in the gutted fabricating shop and built a bridge over a wet dock.

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Facing Retirement With Fear

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Glen Heck spent 28 years sweating in a Campti, La., paper mill that he likes to say was “hotter than nine kinds of hell.”

But now, Heck’s sacrifice may have been for nothing because his multiemployer pension plan is one of about 150 nationwide set to go broke. If that happens, the 78-year-old Heck will have to find a cheaper, lower-quality health plan and keep the beef herd he’s itching to sell.

The Democratic-controlled House passed—with bipartisan support—a commonsense plan to save Heck’s pension and those of another 1.3 million workers, retirees and widows. But Republican leaders in the Senate refuse to consider it.

In the meantime, the futures of workers and retirees like Heck hang in the balance. Many face retirement with fear instead of anticipation.

Multiemployer pension plans like Heck’s include workers from two or more companies in industries such as transportation, entertainment, construction and paper. Employers make contributions for workers as part of their compensation. Heck and others often give up wage increases or other benefits to fund those plans.

Many of the 1,400 plans nationwide are still healthy. But through no fault of workers or retirees, about 150 are struggling.

Recessions in 2001 and 2008 cut the plans’ investment earnings, and some corporations used bankruptcies to evade pension obligations. Deregulation forced less-competitive companies out of business, straining the plans’ resources.

Now, they owe more money to beneficiaries than they have coming in, and they’re at risk of collapsing. The PACE Industry Union-Management Pension Fund (PIUMPF)—Heck’s plan—is one of them. According to recent projections, the fund will be insolvent in as few as 10 years.

Under the bill passed by the House, the Butch Lewis Act, the Treasury Department would loan money to troubled plans. The plans would use the money to meet their obligations to retirees, and they would repay the loans over 30 years.

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Silencing Corporate Bullies

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

John Tate felt betrayed when Materion unilaterally cut retirement and vacation benefits at its Elmore, Ohio, plant. He’d devoted 10 years to the company and believed that it owed him and his co-workers a modicum of respect.

So Tate turned to the protections that unions provide and helped lead an organizing campaign with the United Steelworkers (USW). Despite widespread enthusiasm at the outset, the effort ultimately failed after Materion forced workers into mandatory company meetings where union-busting consultants bullied and threatened them.

A bill due for a vote next week in the U.S. House—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings and other abusive tactics that corporations regularly use to thwart union drives. Making it easier for grassroots activists like Tate to organize will help rebuild a middle class decimated by corporate greed and curb the runaway income equality that imperils American democracy.

Labor organizers emphasize solidarity—strength through collective action—while union-busters deliberately sow discord and prey on workers’ fears for their individual livelihoods.

Tate noticed that difference when Materion, a producer of beryllium-based metals, brought in the hired-gun “union-avoidance” consultants and forced about 440 workers to attend multiple anti-union meetings. The consultants belittled workers—even questioned their intelligence for wanting to join a union—during meetings that lasted two to four hours.

“It was rough to watch,” Tate said.

The consultants told their hostage audiences that companies struggle once workers organize. They warned that Materion might never agree to a contract and that the company had the option of hiring permanent replacements for workers who strike. When workers made positive comments about unions, the consultants bullied them into silence.

 “You could just feel the entire room deflate,” said Tate, who works in research and development at the plant. “They presented a worst-case scenario and then tried to pass it off as ‘this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

The union-busting efforts included a rare visit to the plant by Materion CEO Jugal K. Vijayvargiya. “‘It’s going to get better,’” Tate recalled him telling the workers. “‘We know we have problems. We’re going to fix them.’”

Organizers launched the campaign with strong support and worked hard to educate co-workers about the benefits of unions. Tate said the first few months were “beyond successful.”

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