Safeguarding Democracy

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Safeguarding Democracy
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The guard shacks, razor-wire fences and gun-toting soldiers struck fear into Cynthia Overby when she traveled with an American university group behind the Iron Curtain in 1971.

Even worse was the utter despair she witnessed in people living under the weight of authoritarianism, a memory that inspired her lifelong commitment to safeguarding liberty at home.

Millions of Overby’s union siblings join her in that battle every day. Union members stand on the front lines of democracy and guard America’s freedoms with the same solidarity and collective power they wield in the workplace.

“Democracy is fragile,” observed Overby, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 7-34-2 in Granite City, Ill., noting that Russia’s attack on Ukrainian democracy reminds her of the devastation and misery wrought by other repressive regimes.

“We saw statues of Stalin,” she said of her visit to the Eastern Bloc many years ago. “We saw people living in poverty. We saw oppression, and people didn’t smile. I’ve never forgotten that. I don’t want to live that way.”

Union members and retirees like Overby are accustomed to electing union leaders, voting on contracts and having a voice on the job, and that also makes them fierce advocates for government by the people.

They circulate petitions for pro-worker candidates, then make thousands of phone calls, send out thousands of postcards and knock on countless doors to get those people elected. They turn out the vote on Election Day, often offering to drive neighbors to the polls or serving as precinct election workers to ensure efficient, convenient balloting.

There’s no denying that this advocacy protects Americans’ freedoms.

According to a recent report by the Economic Policy Institute, the higher a state’s union density, the less likely legislators have been to push through restrictive voting laws. On the other hand, the report found, more than 70% of states with low numbers of union members mounted at least one successful attack on voting rights between 2011 and 2019.

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Cross-Border Solidarity Will Forge Economic Justice

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Cross-Border Solidarity Will Forge Economic Justice
USW members at a union meeting in Lázaro Cárdenas, Mexico

What Tom O’Shei remembers most about his visit to Mexico in 2019 is the determination he glimpsed in the hundreds of Mexican workers who paraded through the port city of Lázaro Cárdenas and stopped to pray at a monument honoring a pair of murdered union activists.

Although the marchers gathered to remember the past, O’Shei knew their thoughts were also fixed on a future day when they’d win their fight for labor rights and help build a fairer economy across North America.

That day is edging closer under the 19-month-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which American labor leaders and their allies pushed over the finish line with provisions aimed at ending the exploitation of workers in all three countries.

Thousands of workers at a General Motors plant in Silao, a few hundred miles north of Lázaro Cárdenas, voted by a landslide earlier this month to join a real union and fight for decent pay and working conditions. And long-mistreated workers at auto parts manufacturer Tridonex, just across the border from Brownsville, Texas, are scheduled to vote Monday on choosing their own union.

These are vital, promising steps under the USMCA, which requires Mexico to enforce the labor rights needed to lift up workers there and, in turn, level the playing field for workers north of the border.

“I’m sure it’s going to help with other facilities going forward,” explained O’Shei, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 135L, who looks for workers at other Mexican plants to emulate the union drives at GM and Tridonex. “They’re no different than us. They want to be able to feed their families.”

“When they do well, we do well, because our work is less likely to be outsourced to a country paying its workers a decent wage,” added O’Shei, who represents hundreds of USW members at the Sumitomo plant in Tonawanda, N.Y., and twice joined USW delegations that traveled to Mexico to stand in solidarity with union supporters there.

Under the USMCA’s failed predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), employers shifted a million manufacturing jobs to Mexico to take advantage of the low wages as well as the lack of labor rights, weak safety standards and lax environmental regulation.

This race to the bottom decimated northern manufacturing communities while holding Mexican workers in poverty. Workers at the GM plant in Silao, for example, make only a few dollars an hour.

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Exploiting Young Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Exploiting Young Workers
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The newcomer to Bob Garrou’s high school wrestling program had won his first match, and was growing in confidence, when he abruptly quit the team.

It sickened Garrou to learn why. A local store summarily fired the teen when he balked at working more than the 16 hours he already put in each week, leading the dejected youth to conclude he had to give up sports so he’d be available to cater to his next employer’s every whim.

Rather than provide the decent wages and health care needed to hire adults, more and more employers prefer to line their pockets on the backs of vulnerable teenagers like the young man who left Garrou’s team.

The abuse skyrocketed as employers cut corners in the COVID-19 economy. A Walgreens in South Carolina flouted child labor laws by hiring a 12-year-old. Alabama chicken plants exploited migrant teens to keep production going. A 16-year-old boy tripped and fell 11 stories to his death after a contractor illegally put him to work on the roof of a Tennessee hotel.

Other callous employers assigned teens prohibited work like operating potentially lethal machinery, climbing ladders and working as deck hands, while chains like Wendy’s and Chipotle drove youths to work ever longer hours, often past legal limits. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, some Republicans want to make it even easier for bosses to take advantage of young workers.

Garrou said he’s grateful that Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers last week vetoed a bill, passed by the GOP-controlled legislature, that would have let some employers dramatically extend working hours for 14- and 15-year-olds across the state.

Wisconsin law mandates quitting times of 7 p.m. during the school year and 9 p.m. during the summer for workers in that age group. But the Republicans’ bill—opposed by the Child Labor Coalition—would have allowed smaller businesses to work them until 11 p.m. as long as schools were closed the following day.

“They’re trying to hold these kids hostage because they don’t want to pay adults a real wage,” noted Garrou, who in addition to coaching wrestling and other youth sports is the president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 248 and safety coordinator at a Packaging Corp. of America facility in Wisconsin.

As COVID-19 raged, millions of adults quit their jobs, fed up with greedy employers who not only failed to pay decent wages but refused to provide the health care and sick leave they needed to survive the pandemic. Struggling to remain open, yet unwilling to meet adult workers’ needs, employers set their sights on teenagers.

One restaurant chain CEO who’s hired dozens of teens put it this way: “We need bodies.”

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Young Workers Rising

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Young Workers Rising
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Sarah Broad was 14 years old and just several months into her job at a McDonald’s in southwestern Canada when a customer berated her about cold fries, started swearing and threw a hamburger at her.

No matter how often she encountered that kind of cruelty there, or in jobs at Walmart or Starbucks over the next 12 years, callous managers expected her to just smile through the abuse and keep working.

But when the risk of COVID-19 made the daily outrages all the harder to bear, Broad realized that she needed to take control of her future. She and her fellow baristas at the Starbucks in Victoria, British Columbia, met for dinner one night and decided to join the growing ranks of young workers who are unionizing to build better lives and stronger communities.

Today, about 18 months after becoming members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2009, Broad and about 30 co-workers watch with pride as their peers at other Starbucks in the U.S. and Canada form their own unions.

But this generational wave of unionism transcends any one employer or industry. Increasing numbers of millennials and zoomers in the public sector, tech field, gig economy, nonprofit community, education and other sectors also view collective action as the path to a brighter future.

Amid a broken economy that’s left millions behind, these workers want decent wages and benefits, along with a voice on the job and the respect their labor earns. Too often, workers struggle to make ends meet, sometimes despite juggling two or more part-time jobs, while enduring the kinds of abuse that Broad encountered at one employer after another.

“This isn’t unskilled labor,” Broad said, referring to service workers. “They are working very hard.”

Just as Broad and her colleagues hoped, the union made a quick and crucial difference, helping the workers achieve not only wage increases but a much safer work environment.

Early in the pandemic, a manager ordered one of Broad’s co-workers to remove a face shield—saying it wasn’t company-approved personal protective equipment (PPE)—even though the barista feared passing COVID-19 to an immunocompromised roommate.

Broad said that incident infuriated other workers and helped to catalyze the union drive. In the end, they negotiated a contract that established a health and safety committee, giving them real input into PPE and other protections.

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America’s Tipping Point

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Tipping Point
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E.J. Jenkins vividly recalls the day his mom worked a voter registration drive at a grocery store in Gary, Ind., and followed one recalcitrant young man to his car, coaxing and cajoling him until he walked back inside and added his name to the rolls.

Jenkins took her lead and grew into a dogged activist who will spend days, even weeks, texting, calling and urging even complete strangers to vote.

This kind of activism has never been more vital as Republicans in at least 43 states attempt to manipulate the political process and deny their fellow Americans a voice, putting democracy at risk.

After a huge turnout of Black voters in Georgia catapulted two Democrats to the Senate last year, Republican-led states introduced hundreds of bills and passed nearly three dozen laws aimed at either disenfranchising the poor, citizens of color and other vulnerable groups or throwing up roadblocks making it difficult for them to vote.

Only bold action in the Senate—passing legislation to preserve voting rights—can halt these attacks and ensure a government of all the people.

“It’s really the tipping point. We’re losing right now,” warned Jenkins, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014, noting the wave of voter suppression harkens to an age when the nation’s leaders first denied the ballot box to Americans based on race, gender and socioeconomic status and later used poll taxes and poll tests to turn away Black voters.

Right now, Georgia isn’t the only state where Republicans fear higher turnout of Black voters. Black citizens represent 12.5 percent of U.S. voters, up from 11.5 percent in 2000, with high percentages living in battleground states—like Florida, Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania—where Republicans pushed voter-suppression legislation after 2020.

Some of the new laws around the country restrict mail-in balloting and eliminate drop-off boxes, making it more difficult for people with disabilities and workers juggling multiple jobs to cast their votes. Others impose onerous voter identification requirements that disproportionately burden voters of color.

These laws, many of them facing legal challenges from civil rights groups, concentrate power in fewer hands and undercut ordinary Americans’ capacity to shape the country and their communities.

The franchise enables Americans to fight for a just tax system, equitable infrastructure, fairly funded schools and responsible policing. The ballot box paves the way to a country where every voice is heard. The greater the number of voters, the more resilient and representative democracy will be.

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Manchin Abandons West Virginia’s Working Families

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Manchin Abandons West Virginia’s Working Families
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Ed Barnette long ago realized that affordable child care and paid sick leave, among other resources, would be essential to helping West Virginians build better lives and save what’s left of the middle class.

He just never expected that when America was finally on the cusp of providing these essentials, West Virginia’s Democratic senator would join pro-corporate Republicans in blocking the way.

But that’s exactly what happened. In thwarting the Build Back Better legislation, Sen. Joe Manchin turned his back on the working families whose support catapulted him to power in the first place.

“It’s almost like he forgot where his roots are,” fumed Barnette, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5668, which represents hundreds of workers at the Constellium plant in Ravenswood, W.Va. “He comes from a blue-collar state. When you say ‘West Virginia,’ the first thing you picture is a worker with a hard hat.”

“Surely, he won’t do it,” Barnette recalled saying to himself in the days before Manchin decided to withhold his vote and block the bill. “He did, and I just thought, ‘Damn it! You’re supposed to be working for us.’”

Barnette rejoiced last fall when Congress passed a historic, $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Like other states, West Virginia urgently needs improvements to its roads and bridges, schools and airports, energy systems, locks and dams, and communications networks.

But Barnette understands that the infrastructure legislation will have the biggest impact—and create the greatest number of manufacturing and construction jobs—only in conjunction with the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill.

Build Back Better would provide access to affordable child care and pave the way for more parents, especially more single parents, to enter the work force. It would ensure workers receive up to four weeks of paid family medical leave, so they could battle life’s challenges while continuing to support their families.

And it would provide universal preschool for 3- and 4-year-olds, putting all of America’s children on the road to productive lives.

“It will do nothing but help the working people and middle class of West Virginia,” said Barnette, citing West Virginia’s high poverty rate and population loss.

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Harm to One is Harm to All

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Harm to One is Harm to All
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Patrick Stock, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105, wasn’t going to let anyone stop him from supporting the United Auto Workers’ strike against Deere & Co.

When a court issued an injunction limiting the number of picketers at a Deere facility in Davenport, Iowa, Stock gathered about 30 members of his local and other unions and organized a rally along a four-lane highway within sight of the plant gate.

He and the others gave up their afternoon—and risked injury from the vehicles whizzing past—because Deere’s attack on the Auto Workers was an attack on them, too.

Union contracts provide decent wages and benefits along with safe working conditions, retirement security and a means for workers to stand up for themselves.

One company’s efforts to gut a contract and trample on workers emboldens others to follow suit. That’s why workers from across the labor movement band together to protect one another.

They walk each other’s picket lines. They fire off letters of support to the local newspapers. They attend rallies and stick signs in their yards.

They also boycott offending employers and take up collections to ensure striking workers have food, diapers and other necessities.

Solidarity serves as a counterweight to corporate power and helps to preserve what’s left of the middle class.

“We see the big picture, and we support everybody,” Stock said, adding he’s certain other unions will back his members, who work at Arconic’s Davenport Works, during their next contract negotiations.

Workers throughout the country put their lives on the line and worked exhausting amounts of overtime to keep factories operating during the pandemic.

Despite those sacrifices, however, companies like Deere doubled down on greed. Even employers that made record profits during the pandemic want to further bloat their bottom lines on the backs of those who stepped up during the crisis.

That’s forced workers into a wave of strikes around the country and underscored the power of solidarity in holding employers accountable.

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Building Back OSHA

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Building Back OSHA
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When Ron Brady drives through highway construction zones, he makes a point of looking for safety violations that threaten workers’ lives.

He’s seen more and more of them the past few years as employers, emboldened by the weakened state of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), grew increasingly comfortable flouting the rules.

Funding and staffing shortages engineered by the previous presidential administration hobbled OSHA and put workers in numerous industries at risk. But now, Congress is poised to pass a bill that would help revitalize the agency and provide the resources needed to protect workers in a growing economy.

Along with many other provisions helping workers and their families, the Build Back Better legislation recently approved by the House would position OSHA to respond to more work sites, investigate additional complaints and proactively address a greater number of hazards.

“They’ve been woefully understaffed for a long time,” observed Brady, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614, which represents about 1,200 workers in the chemical, construction, gaming, manufacturing and other industries in West Virginia.

“They’re very professional,” he said of OSHA inspectors. “I’ve always found them to be very well trained. I think a lot of them are frustrated. They don’t have the resources to really do the job. There simply aren’t enough of them to cover it.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fell to the lowest level in half a century, and the agency conducted fewer investigations into top hazards like chemical exposure and musculoskeletal risks, as the previous president deliberately undercut the agency to benefit corporations.

Brady maintained a close watch on his members’ safety.

But in recent years, he said, he’s seen other construction workers navigate high beams without fall protection and risk their lives in work zones lacking the proper signage. And he knows that the starving of OSHA also put workers in other industries at higher risk.

“Everybody’s cutting corners and cutting budgets and trying to do more with fewer people. It’s something that’s going to get worse and worse,” Brady said.

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The Loud and Clear Call for Medicare Expansion

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Loud and Clear Call for Medicare Expansion
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Growing up, Tom Hay helped to raise hogs and crops on the family farm, never thinking to protect his ears from the din of tractors, combines and other machinery.

And while his United Steelworkers (USW) contract provided safety controls and protective measures during his decades at Titan Tire, he wasn’t surprised when hearing tests revealed his ears aren’t as sharp as they used to be.

Right now, Congress is on the cusp of helping millions of Americans like Hay live better lives. In addition to enhancing access to prekindergarten and battling climate change, among many other overdue improvements, Build Back Better legislation would expand Medicare to cover hearing aids and other auditory care for the first time.

Hay knows that just like a strong heart and powerful lungs, robust hearing is essential for seniors’ health, safety and fulfillment.

They need to hear honking horns warning them that they’ve stepped into oncoming traffic. They need to hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances that zoom up behind them in traffic. And they need to hear the alarms alerting them to fires, intruders and other dangers at home.

Yet even though about half of Americans 60 and older struggle with hearing loss—and even though voters overwhelmingly support Medicare coverage for auditory services—the nation has long relegated hearing care to the back burner.

As a result, many seniors delay getting hearing aids or forgo them altogether because of the expense, which can run to thousands of dollars. Numerous retirees shared these sorts of stories with Hay while he served as president of USW Local 164, the union representing workers at Titan Tire in Des Moines, Iowa.

“They go get a hearing test and realize they can’t hear anything,” Hay recalled. “Then, when they find out what it’s going to cost, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I don’t know where the money is going to come from.’ They about fall over.”

Today’s hearing aids provide more help than ever before, and that’s all the more reason to get them to those in need.

They’re compact and highly sophisticated, delivering superior sound quality along with Bluetooth capability that connects users with their electronic devices. Vendors even offer remote support.

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Everyone Benefits

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Everyone Benefits
"We Supply America" bus tour

Donneta Williams and her co-workers at the Corning plant in Wilmington, N.C., hail from different backgrounds and hold diverse views.

But just as they team up on the production floor to make top-quality products powering the internet, they banded together to push for a long-overdue infrastructure program that’s destined to lift up their community and countless others across America.

They didn’t fight alone. Williams and her colleagues were among a veritable army of Steelworkers and other activists from all over America whose unstinting advocacy helped to propel a historic infrastructure package through Congress and into the Oval Office.

Their rallies, letters, phone calls, tweets and visits to congressional offices provided the heft behind the bipartisan legislation that cleared the House last week, just as their steely resolve helped to deliver the Senate’s vote in August.

“It unified us,” Williams, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1025, said of the bill, now awaiting President Joe Biden’s signature, which will invest billions in roads, bridges, seaports, locks and dams, manufacturing facilities, energy systems and communications networks.

“Everyone benefits,” she said, noting the infrastructure program will create and sustain millions of union manufacturing and construction jobs while modernizing the nation and revitalizing its manufacturing base. “It’s not about one particular party or one particular person. It’s about the nation as a whole and our future and what can be accomplished when everybody works together.”

Williams and her colleagues make optical fiber, the backbone of broadband networks, a product as fine as thread that carries voice, data and video over the information superhighway at tremendous speed. Across the nation, however, the availability of high-speed broadband remains grossly uneven, and even some of Williams’ co-workers can’t access it for their own families.

That absurdity inflamed Local 1025’s support for an infrastructure program that will deliver affordable, high-quality internet to every American’s door while also bringing urgently needed repairs to school buildings, expanding the clean economy and upgrading crumbling, congested roads in Wilmington and other cities.

Williams and her co-workers sent their representatives and senators hundreds of postcards and emails championing the infrastructure legislation. And when the USW’s multi-city “We Supply America” bus tour rolled into Wilmington in August to promote the bill, many of Williams’ co-workers donned blue-and-yellow T-shirts and turned out for a rally to show they were all in.

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