Hard Knocks Turned Alison McIntosh Collectivist

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Alison McIntosh learned early that life is a little easier with help from friends. Her first professional job reinforced that notion. And now, as a University of Pittsburgh graduate student, she is asking her co-workers to embrace collectivism.

McIntosh, who is working toward a Ph.D. in critical and cultural studies, is urging her fellow teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, and teaching fellows – 2,000 of them altogether – to vote next week to join the United Steelworkers (USW) union. “We have more power collectively. We must work together and across the board,” she told me.

Though she knew little about unions before she started talking to organizers at Pitt, her life experiences compelled her to embrace the idea that if Pitt’s fragmented bunch of graduate researchers and teachers pulled together, their joint voice would be strong enough to persuade the university to make their lives a little easier. 

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Grad Students as Steelworkers

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Grad Students as Steelworkers
University of Pittsburgh Graduate Student Kim Garrett

The moniker “steelworker” generally evokes images of hulking mill buildings, steel-toed boots, and molten metal, not ivory towers, doctoral dissertations, and university research. But next week, 2,000 graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh will vote on whether to become members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The USW has evolved since it was forged in 1942. Now its members build tires, smelt aluminum, make paper, refine oil, produce iPhone glass, serve as physicians, pharmacists and nurses, and teach university classes in the United States and Canada.

A blue collar is not required to be a USW member. All that’s necessary is a sense of belonging to a team of co-workers who believe they all benefit from banding together to jointly seek better wages and working conditions from their employer.

It’s not just the USW either. Other labor unions also have been organizing white-collar workers in record numbers. College instructors, full- and part-time, and grad student teachers and researchers have joined the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association but also the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union.

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Solidarity Against Hate

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Solidarity Against Hate
New Zealanders' hate-defying symbol

The union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), believes in unity, that “all working men and women, regardless of creed, color or nationality” are eligible for membership.

That was the guiding principle of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) when it formed in 1937.

I return to that statement in times like these, times when terrorists shoot up mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 worshipers; a synagogue in the USW’s hometown of Pittsburgh, killing 11; an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine; a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, killing six; a nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 mostly young gay people.

The USW membership eligibility statement is an assertion of inclusion. All working men and women qualify. They can all join. They can all attend local union meetings at which members call each other “brother” and “sister.” This practice creates artificial, but crucial, bonds between them. This solidarity gives the group strength when facing off against massive multinational corporations and demanding decent pay and dignified working conditions.

To erode that solidarity, some billionaire hedge fund owners and multinational CEOs work to divide workers. These wealthy .01 percenters separate people by cultivating hate. Some are the same billionaire sugar daddies of alt-right hate sites like Breitbart and more conventional hate sites like Fox News. Investigative journalist Jane Mayer wrote a book about their efforts titled, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”

This hate mongering sets work-a-day people against each other. That weakens them politically. And it contributes to false-fear provoked violence.

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The Big Cheat

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

The Big Cheat
Yale’s official motto “Light and Truth” on its Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. Prosecutors this week shone light on the truth that the rich bought admission to Ivy League schools. Photo by Getty Images

The children of working stiffs learned a brutal lesson this week as federal prosecutors criminally charged rich people with buying admission to elite universities for their less-than-stellar children.

The lesson is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how smart or talented you are, a dumb, lazy rich kid is going to beat you.

It’s crucial that everyone who is not a wealthy movie star, hedge fund executive, or corporate CEO – that is, 99 percent of all Americans – see this college admissions scandal for what it really is: a microcosm of the larger, corrupt system that works against working people, squashing their chances for advancement.

This system is the reason that rich people and corporations got massive tax breaks last year while the 99 percent got paltry ones. It’s the reason the federal minimum wage and the overtime threshold are stuck at poverty levels. It is the reason labor unions have dwindled over the past four decades.

This system is the reason we cannot have nice things. Despite all that land-of-equal-opportunity crap, the rich ensure that only they can have nice things, starting with what they can buy legally and illegally for their children and rising through what they can buy legally and illegally from politicians who make the rules that withdraw money from the pockets of working people and deposit it into the bulging bank accounts of the fabulously rich.

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Rabble Rousing for Righteous Retirement

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Rallying for retiree security are, from left, Ray Scherer, who works at Etched Metals in Ohio; Mike Miller, a financial officer for USW Local Union 1-243 in Ohio; Ben Trusnik, recording secretary for Local 1-243; Joe Pickering, past president of Local 1-243, and Mark Minor, president of Local 1-243.

Standing out among the bald pates and grey hairs crowding into a Congressional hearing room Thursday morning with “Protect our Pensions” stickers will be 26-year-old Ben Trusnik.

The son, grandson and great-grandson of labor union members, Ben will travel to Washington, D.C., from his home in Bedford, Ohio, to speak for the men and women he works with at Etched Metals Co. He will join other union activists in speaking for workers who are afraid that after laboring 40 or 50 years, they won’t be able to retire because the multiemployer pension plan they depended on is nearly insolvent.

He’ll be there for the guy who retired from Etched Metals a little over two years ago whose wife has been ill for a long time. When visiting his former co-workers at the plant, this guy talks about the bills piling up from medical treatments, doctors and medications. Insurance doesn’t cover it all. “He is pretty worried,” Trusnik says, about losing his pension and with it, the ability to pay.

Actuaries project that 130 multiemployer pensions, that is plans in which several companies participate, will run out of money over the next 20 years. Even though that number is less than 10 percent of all multiemployer pension plans, their impending insolvency threatens the entire multiemployer pension warranty program of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

The PBGC is the program created by Congress in 1974 to step in when pension plans fail. Using payments from pension plans, the PBGC provides benefits to about 1.5 million people in failed multiemployer and single-employer plans. The payments pensions make to the PBGC are essentially insurance premiums. The PBGC does not receive tax dollars.

The PBGC anticipates that its multiemployer program will go bust by 2025, but that could occur sooner if several of the larger threatened multiemployer plans fail quickly. Implosion of the PBGC multiemployer guaranty program would have devastating consequences for everyone who currently receives benefits from it and for everyone whose multiemployer pension is weak. The 130 vulnerable multiemployer plans cover 1.3 million people. 

The PBGC does not pay full pensions to retirees, but something is better than zip, especially because pensions are deferred compensation. They’re earned for each hour worked. They’re not gifts like fancy engraved retirement clocks. Union workers often trade wage hikes for pension increases in contract negotiations. They sacrifice immediate gratification for the security of a good pension later. But if the PBGC’s multiemployer program fails, then the workers it covers would get virtually nothing.

When Congress created the PBGC, it made a commitment to working men and women that they would not lose their pension benefits through no fault of their own. It must stand true to that obligation now.

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Gritty Trade Negotiations

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Gritty Trade Negotiations
Robert Lighthizer by Flickr

It took grit to get this far. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer explained that to Congress yesterday.

So, he said, no one in the administration is backing down now.

They’ve managed to confront Beijing, a trade renegade, and do it with a powerful tool that previous negotiators lacked – tariffs. They launched the penalties last spring with charges on all imported steel and aluminum, then increased the pain with levies specifically on $50 billion in Chinese imports in July, followed by duties on $200 billion in Chinese imports in September.

China retaliated, particularly with tariffs on agricultural goods. Some American businesses, farmers and workers suffered. And they complained. But the tariffs brought China to the table to discuss its violations – abuses that have damaged American industries and destroyed millions of American jobs for nearly two decades.

Lighthizer told Congress yesterday he doesn’t have a deal yet, but he’s made progress. None of it would be possible, he said, without the leverage of the tariffs and the grit of the administration to stick with them through tough times.

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China: An Abusive Trade Partner

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

In this week when love relationships are celebrated and commemorated, the trade relationship between China and America should be denounced as destructive and exploitive.

China’s deliberate trade violations are draining America’s strength. Beijing is to America what Delilah was to Samson.

Top U.S. trade officials are in China this week in high-stakes negotiations to curb China’s illegal trade practices and restore American vigor. They are scheduled to meet Friday with Chinese President Xi Jinping. They’re talking tough, which is appropriate since no previous agreement and no previous penalties have even dinged China’s free-market-defying trade regime. But then, President Trump let slip earlier this week that he would consider postponing a tariff increase scheduled for March 1 if no deal is reached. Delay means nothing but additional strength shorn from America.

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More Billionaire Presidential Candidates: A Bitter Pill

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

More Billionaire Presidential Candidates: A Bitter Pill
Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and soda tax sponsor Michael Bloomberg, both billionaires, prescribe political bitter pills to force down the throats of the 99 percent.

Billionaires are pretty damn sure they know what’s best for you. No more taxes on the rich and none of that Medicare-for-all is what’s best for you, according to two billionaires toying with seeking the presidency.

Or, maybe, that’s what’s best for them.

One of those billionaires, former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, called Medicare-for-all un-American. Actually, the only thing that makes Medicare-for-all un-American is the fact America is the only First World country that fails to provide universal health insurance.

Schultz and Michael Bloomberg, the other billionaire who thinks he should be president, revealed themselves as out-of-touch, private-jet-riding, multi-mansion-owning, gold-leaf-latte-sippers by condemning lawmakers who have proposed raising taxes on the nation’s most obscenely rich.

Bloomberg said, for example, “We need a healthy economy and we shouldn’t be embarrassed about our system.”

No? It’s not embarrassing that 40 percent of Americans don’t have $400 for an emergency expense? It’s not humiliating that in the richest country in the world federal workers couldn’t afford their insulin during the government shutdown because their low pay forces them to live paycheck to paycheck? It causes no discomfort that 5 million Americans are stuck in part-time jobs when they need 40 hours? Or that so many more are trapped in precarious or contract work without security or benefits, when they need, you know, security and benefits? It’s not shameful that the number of Americans without health insurance increased by 3.2 million in the first year of billionaire Donald Trump’s presidency?

Well, the Americans who are demeaned and degraded by our system, the D.C. cafeteria workers who make so little they live in cars, the people who can only dream of affording a $5 Schultz latte don’t need or want billionaires telling them how to run their lives or how to fix the system that has rendered so many so desperate. They’ve got their own ideas.

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When Federal Workers Were Locked Out, Where Were those Right to Work Groups?

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Thousands of federal employees protested at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C., this week, holding aloft empty plates during 33 minutes of silence – one minute for each day of the government shutdown. Some plates carried the message, “Will work for pay.”

Unions representing the 800,000 federal workers who were either locked out or forced to work without pay organized the demonstration. It was supported by the federation of labor unions, the AFL-CIO, and many other unions including the Teamsters, Unite Here and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Since the day in December that President Trump shut down the government, the unions representing government workers, including the American Federation of Government Employees, the National Federation of Federal Employees and the Professional Aviation Safety Specialists, supported their members by organizing public protests across the country, establishing food banks, and filing lawsuits to reopen government.

These are the organizations – unions – that reactionary far-right groups have spent the last seven months urging workers to quit. “Get out now that you can,” the right wingers calling themselves right-to-work patrons told public sector employees in YouTube videos, Facebook ads, Tweets, telephone calls and door-to-door solicitations. They spent millions trying to kill the unions that buttressed laid off federal workers. So where were those right-to-work groups during the shutdown? Where was the National Right to Work (RTW) Foundation when hundreds of thousands of federal workers were locked out of their jobs and really wanted the right to work – with pay?

Nobody’s heard a peep from them.

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The Indignity of Work Without Pay

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

In the midst of the longest government shutdown in history, U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown this week launched a “Dignity of Work” listening tour.

The Democratic senator who just won reelection by nearly seven points in the red state of Ohio explained the concept to reporters: “Dignity of work means hard work should pay off for everyone, no matter who you are or what kind of work you do. . . dignity of work is a value that unites us all.

Well, maybe not everyone. Forty percent of conservative Republicans view the government shutdown as inconsequential. That is, 40 percent of conservative Republicans believe that furloughing 380,000 federal workers and giving them no idea when they might see another paycheck is no problem. That is, 40 percent of conservative Republicans say that ordering another 420,000 federal employees to work without pay is nothing. Forty percent of conservative Republicans say that the farmers and students and potential homebuyers who can’t get loans because of the shutdown are no big deal; the restaurants and shops suffering because their usual government employee customers aren’t showing up are meaningless; the thousands of government contract workers laid off with no hope of recouping lost paychecks are trivial collateral damage.

That repudiates the dignity of work. It disrespects government workers and the services they perform for Americans. It also disrespects the workers routinely helped by government employees, from farmers to factory laborers, who now are denied the government services they need.

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