Posts from Tom Conway

America’s Grifter-in-Chief

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Grifter-in-Chief
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Kenny Overstreet scrounges every penny—and even sells the eggs his chickens lay—to make ends meet after Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) furloughed him and hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Ala., site.

Before the COVID-19 recession struck, the 61-year-old saved a little whenever he could for the retirement he planned to take in a couple of years.

But now, he scrimps to pay monthly bills and prays PCA calls him back to work before he blows through the nest egg he spent decades building.

Millions of unemployed workers need strong, rational leadership to guide them through these perilous times. But instead of a sage and ardent champion in the White House, they’re stuck with a president whose incompetence fueled the pandemic’s spread and hastened the economy’s collapse.

Donald Trump downplayed the coronavirus until it overwhelmed the country, failed to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers and blustered as unemployment soared to the highest level since the Great Depression.

But it wasn’t enough for Trump to spectacularly fail at his job.

Trump tried to use the turmoil as cover for stealing Americans’ Social Security benefits and consigning millions of workers to retirements of grinding poverty.

What he called a stimulus program is really one of his biggest cons. He proposed deferring payroll taxes and eventually eliminating them under the guise of leaving a little more money in Americans’ paychecks.

Not only would that have provided no help to millions of unemployed workers like Overstreet, who don’t have paychecks right now, but payroll taxes are what the nation uses to fund Social Security and Medicare. Cutting them would advance the Republicans’ long-sought goal of eliminating the retirement safety net, forcing tens of millions of elderly and disabled retirees to scratch out a living on their own.

Workers love Social Security. Most happily pay into the system, considering it an investment in their future and that of their fellow Americans. Yet Republicans illogically denounce Social Security and Medicare as giveaways and repeatedly try to kill them.

That infuriates Overstreet, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9-361, who regards Social Security as a vital and hard-earned part of his retirement.

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A Thousand Cuts

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Thousand Cuts
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When Dan Hoskins tried to organize colleagues at an Oregon plant last year, vindictive managers marched him past as many workers as possible enroute to a disciplinary meeting in the human resources office.

The company wanted to create a climate of fear, Hoskins recalled, not only by threatening his job but ensuring others saw “Mr. Leader Pants getting written up.”

From trumped-up disciplinary charges to threats of layoffs and other scare tactics, corporations wage ferocious wars of intimidation to sabotage organizing campaigns and torment union supporters.

“You’re in a war zone,” explained Hoskins, who willingly shouldered the mistreatment because he understands the benefits unions bring to a workplace. “The tension is thick, and you know it’s going to be that way for months.”

Sadly, abused workers can expect no help from the Trump administration, which is busy trying to exterminate labor unions.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the urgent need for stronger workplace protections, Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ramped up a scorched-earth campaign aimed at annihilating organized labor and subjugating American workers.

The string of NLRB rulings amounts to death by a thousand cuts, each one chipping away at the long-established rights and practices enabling working people to join together to build better lives.

For example, the NLRB—run by Trump’s hand-picked corporate cronies—imposed additional, unnecessary steps to the union election procedure solely to drag out the process and give employers more time to thwart organizing efforts.

And the agency went further, empowering employers to begin withholding email addresses and other information unions need merely to contact prospective voters.

The board also ruled that employers may discipline a worker just for mentioning a union drive to a colleague during work hours. In a decision rooted in spite, rather than logic, it concluded the mere reference to an organizing effort—even an offhand remark—constituted an illegal solicitation of a colleague’s vote.

The NLRB is ostensibly responsible for protecting workers’ rights. But under Trump, it’s stacking the deck in favor of greedy corporations desperate to silence workers’ voices and bust unions at any cost.

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The Union Difference

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Union Difference
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Thrown out of work by the COVID-19 recession, hundreds of thousands of unemployed North Carolina residents now risk losing their lights and air-conditioning as well.

Because their wages failed to both cover regular expenses and let them save for emergencies, these workers had no financial cushion to soften the blow of sudden unemployment.

They simply cannot pay mounting household bills. And if North Carolina’s moratorium on electricity shutoffs expires next month, enabling utilities to terminate service for overdue customers, their plight will get that much grimmer.

Although the pandemic pushed these workers to the financial brink, it was the nation’s unjust and dysfunctional economy that left them vulnerable to disaster in the first place.

Only a revitalized labor movement can fix this system, which now works solely for the rich.

Decades of soaring income inequality rendered tens of millions of Americans just one or two missed paychecks away from financial calamity.

While CEO and shareholder income skyrocketed over the past four decades, ordinary Americans’ wages stagnated. Even those juggling multiple jobs struggle to feed their families, leaving them unable to save for retirement or squirrel away money for emergencies.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Labor unions force corporations to provide workers with family-sustaining wages, affordable health insurance, viable retirement plans, safe working conditions and other benefits that help workers survive crises like the pandemic.

And only the growth of unions—along with a much-needed strengthening of U.S. labor rights—can restore fairness to the cruel economic system laid bare by COVID-19.

In addition to the more than 146,000 Americans killed by the coronavirus, the recession triggered by the pandemic pushed unemployment to the highest levels since the Great Depression.

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Rebuilding Nicetown

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Rebuilding Nicetown
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Rich Cucarese and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4889 tend a vegetable garden, cook meals and operate a food pantry for their neighbors in Philadelphia’s struggling Nicetown community.

Nicetown went into decline decades ago as corporations shut a string of factories, eliminating thousands of family-sustaining jobs that anchored the neighborhood. Blight festered, poverty soared, and government officials looked the other way.

Now, as much as Cucarese and his colleagues want to revitalize the community, there’s just no way they can do it on their own.

Reversing decades of decline and neglect—in Nicetown and other decimated manufacturing communities across America—will require bold, sustained action like what Joe Biden proposed in his Build Back Better manufacturing blueprint.

The Democratic presidential candidate envisions major investments in manufacturing, technology, and research and development that will create millions of middle-class jobs and revitalize hard-hit communities across the country.

Just as important, he wants to equitably distribute these new opportunities while providing the educational access and labor protections essential to ensuring that all citizens have a shot at the American dream.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which cost millions of jobs and exposed America’s struggle to produce critical goods like face masks, clearly demonstrated what residents of Nicetown have known for decades: Band-Aids and half measures aren’t enough. The nation needs sweeping, coordinated action to rebuild manufacturing capacity.

For all the damage they suffered, Nicetown and other beleaguered manufacturing communities still have potential.

Biden’s plan would unleash it.

“There are definitely people in the community who are trying everything they can to make the area viable,” said Cucarese, Local 4889’s Rapid Response coordinator and an assistant operator on the galvanizing line at U.S. Steel’s plant in Fairless Hills, about 25 miles from Nicetown. “There’s despair, but there’s also hope.”

Over the past quarter-century, America lost millions of manufacturing jobs, many because failed trade policies incentivized corporations to shift operations to countries with low wages and lax environmental regulations.

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McConnell’s Callous Indifference

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

McConnell’s Callous Indifference
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Ken Merkel started cutting expenses as soon as Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) furloughed him along with hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Ala., location amid the COVID-19 recession.

Although the Army veteran and community volunteer slashed his car insurance, quit his satellite TV service and canceled a life insurance policy, he still needs $600 in weekly federal unemployment payments to make ends meet.

But this lifeline for Merkel and more than 30 million other unemployed workers is in jeopardy because Senate Republicans refuse to extend the benefits period and pass other legislation critically needed to battle the pandemic.

Instead of safeguarding hard-working Americans who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, callous Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—the person who controls the Senate’s agenda—put them squarely in harm’s way.

The 54-year-old Merkel, for example, got his first job pumping gas when he was 12 and never stopped pushing himself. Now, as infection rates soar across the U.S. and COVID-19 threatens still more damage to the nation’s economy, the former military policeman could lose almost everything he spent a lifetime building.

The Democratic-controlled House already passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act to combat the pandemic and help millions of average Americans avert financial calamity.

The common-sense legislation would extend emergency federal unemployment benefits, due to expire next week, through January. It would provide aid to local governments struggling to maintain essential public services because of COVID-19 budget crises, deliver another round of stimulus checks to hard-pressed families and ensure that those who lose their jobs continue to receive health insurance.

The HEROES Act would finally force the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take steps to protect workers from COVID-19 on the job. And it would allocate billions of dollars for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, measures crucial for controlling the virus in hotspots like Alabama and McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.

But more than two months after the House passed the HEROES Act, it languishes in the Senate.

In refusing to bring the measure to a vote, McConnell flaunts both his disdain for average Americans and his indifference to the enormous damage that COVID-19 continues to inflict on the country each day.

He derided the HEROES Act as a “wish list” of giveaways—a windfall for people he considers freeloaders—when it’s really a responsible stopgap measure intended to save lives and sustain unemployed workers until they get back to the jobs they’re proud to do.

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USMCA: Enforcement or Bust

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

USMCA: Enforcement or Bust
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When thugs gunned down Oscar Ontiveros Martínez in May, they did more than silence a promising figure in Mexico’s beleaguered labor movement.

The 29-year-old’s killing sent a warning to anyone still thinking about organizing the mine where Ontiveros once helped to lead a strike.

And Ontiveros’ fate showed that labor activism remains a deadly undertaking in Mexico even though the new North American trade deal theoretically ushered in the first real legal protections for workers there.

Only strict enforcement of the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which took effect July 1, will end violence against union activists and give the Mexican people true freedom to organize for better working conditions.

Until then, no matter how lofty the rights enshrined in the USMCA, corporations will continue to exploit workers on both sides of the border.

The United Steelworkers (USW) and other labor unions vehemently opposed the USMCA’s predecessor, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

NAFTA enabled U.S. manufacturers to shift about one million manufacturing jobs to Mexican plants paying workers just a few dollars an hour. When U.S. and Canadian corporations launched operations in Mexico, they did so intending to reap huge profits through the systematic oppression of poorly paid workers like Ontiveros and his colleagues at the Media Luna Mine, which is owned by Torex Gold Resources of Canada.

Mexican workers who tried to organize and improve their lives faced severe repercussions from corporations, their corrupt government cronies and employer-controlled protection unions.

Ontiveros was the fourth organizer of the Media Luna strike to be gunned down in three years. A fifth colleague, Oscar Hernández Romero, disappeared in October. The murders remain unsolved, and no trace of Hernández has been found.

The USW and other labor unions long fought for a new trade deal that ended the servitude of Mexican workers and created a more level playing field for their American counterparts. And in January, thanks to the hard work and support of labor unions and their Democratic allies, Congress passed the USMCA with the pivotal labor protections America’s unions demanded.

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America’s Ostrich President

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Dallas skyrocketed this week, Lou Luckhardt worried about his colleagues and the public they serve.

Luckhardt, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9487, needs disposable coveralls, coronavirus testing and other aid to protect the hundreds of city and county workers who perform essential public services.

With local treasuries already stretched to the breaking point, he believes it’s now up to the federal government to step in and provide resources to help slow the virus’ spread.

But instead of lending the assistance that public servants across the country urgently need, Donald Trump offers a monumental failure of leadership. Burying his head in the sand, Trump’s big plan involves wishing the virus away while leaving Americans, including Dallas’ dedicated government workers, in ever mounting peril.

“For me personally, there’s a certain fear of what might happen to my family and myself,” said Luckhardt, a probation officer who has seen both co-workers and clients stricken by COVID-19.

“It’s on your mind all the time,” he explained. “You can’t escape it.”

Dallas workers first experienced shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) when the pandemic struck in late winter—and some items remain in short supply.

But in recent weeks, the state’s easing of lockdown restrictions and spiraling infection rates also created new challenges that Dallas and other communities will have difficulty addressing on their own because of budget shortfalls caused by the COVID-19 recession.

For example, Dallas workers want coronavirus tests to make sure they neither spread the virus to co-workers or the public nor bring it home to loved ones.

And government facilities—especially smaller and older buildings scattered throughout the metropolitan area—require renovations to ensure the social distancing crucial to controlling the virus.

With local budgets decimated by the crisis—the city of Dallas already furloughed hundreds of workers—only an infusion of federal money can pay for these and other measures that public servants need to protect themselves and the people they serve.

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Pirates of the Pandemic

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

COVID-19 killed at least 115,000 Americans, infected more than two million others and sent the nation’s unemployment rate soaring to the highest level since the Great Depression.

But the pandemic hasn’t been hard on everyone. For some, it’s been an opportunity to fill their coffers.

The crisis made Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, for example, already the world’s wealthiest person, a whole lot richer. His fortune increased a whopping $36.2 billion in a mere 11 weeks as shoppers flocked to the online retailer to buy supplies.

And Bezos wasn’t alone.

As his company fulfilled an avalanche of orders with warehouse workers who risked their lives in unsafe conditions, other 1-percenters and corporations siphoned off billions in stimulus funds—money that working Americans devastated by the COVID-19 recession need to survive.

Instead of sharing ordinary Americans’ pain, these pirates of the pandemic exploited it. Their plundering worsened the income inequality that already threatened America as much as any disease and leaves the nation even more vulnerable in the next storm.

In March, Donald Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act, which provided cash payments of $1,200 to about 150 million households needing help with day-to-day expenses.

Yet that was peanuts compared to the “millionaires’ giveaway” that Senate Republicans snuck into the legislation. Buried in the bill was language giving 43,000 of the nation’s richest people an average tax break of $1.6 million each.

This corporate charity allows real estate developers, hedge fund owners and other financiers to use business losses from past years—losses that have nothing to do with COVID-19 and exist largely on paper—to reap huge refunds.

Millionaires and billionaires, some of whom rode out the pandemic in the comfort of yachts and secluded island retreats, need no relief. But they’ll gladly loot the public treasury at the expense of Americans who kept government offices open, worked in factories or did other essential work before losing their jobs in the economic downturn.

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Protecting Public Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Steve Scarpa began fishing anti-bacterial wipes, socks and even T-shirts out of the sewers in Groton, Conn.

Scarpa, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9411 and a member of the city’s wastewater treatment crew, said residents went into “mad hysteria cleaning mode” and simply flushed potentially contaminated objects down the toilet.

And so Scarpa and his co-workers risked COVID-19 themselves to remove items that kept jamming the sewer pumps crucial to the wastewater system’s operation.

While millions of Americans did their jobs remotely during the pandemic, public servants turned out in force every day to repair roads, collect trash, operate water systems and keep communities functioning.

They had America’s back. Now, the nation must have theirs as well.

Public workers will face additional exposure to COVID-19 as the lockdown ends and Americans return to government buildings, streets, parks and beaches in growing numbers.

Cities and counties have an obligation to provide personal protective equipment (PPE), enforce social distancing in public offices and implement other measures to protect road crews, water department personnel and code enforcement officers.

But it isn’t only the government’s responsibility to help public workers navigate the health risks that constitute the new normal.

Everyone has a role to play.

Residents can do their part by wearing masks when water department workers show up at the door to repair broken meters and by staying out of government buildings when they’re sick.

They can safeguard the health of crews repairing sidewalks, mowing parks and cleaning storm drains just by staying at least six feet away from work areas.

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America’s True Patriots

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

When demonstrations erupted across the country after George Floyd’s death at the hands of police officers, Donald Trump portrayed the protesters as America’s enemies.

Trump called them “thugs,” “lowlifes” and “losers.” He threatened to unleash America’s military on them and fled to a White House bunker while demonstrators gathered in Lafayette Square.

But the protesters posed no threat.

They’re the nation’s true patriots.

For more than 200 years, ordinary Americans have taken to the streets to oppose injustice and improve their lives. That foundational right has been the basis for real change in the nation.

Americans marched for women’s right to vote. They boycotted buses for civil rights. And they walked picket lines for decent wages and safe working conditions.

These activists wanted a better America, one that actually realized its ideals of equal justice and ensured life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Some sacrificed their bodies for the cause, just like the protesters in Washington did when Trump’s flunky of an attorney general ordered heavily armed federal police in riot gear to attack the peaceful rally in Lafayette Square.

Without the right to protest, there can be no democracy.

Injustice does not cure itself, and protesting can be the only way of seizing the attention of a government that refuses to heed citizens’ pleas for action.

For far too long, America’s Black communities demanded relief from police brutality.

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Union Matters

Failing Bridges Hold Public Hostage

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

The Seattle Department of Transportation (SDOT) gave the public just a few hours’ notice before closing a major bridge in March, citing significant safety concerns.

The West Seattle Bridge functioned as an essential component of  the city’s local and regional transportation network, carrying 125,000 travelers a day while serving Seattle’s critical maritime and freight industries. Closing it was a huge blow to the city and its citizens. 

Yet neither Seattle’s struggle with bridge maintenance nor the inconvenience now facing the city’s motorists is unusual. Decades of neglect left bridges across the country crumbling or near collapse, requiring a massive investment to keep traffic flowing safely.

When they opened it in 1984, officials predicted the West Seattle Bridge would last 75 years.

But in 2013, cracks started appearing in the center span’s box girders, the main horizontal support beams below the roadway. These cracks spread 2 feet in a little more than two weeks, prompting the bridge’s closure.

And it’s still at risk of falling.  

The city set up an emergency alert system so those in the “fall zone” could be quickly evacuated if the bridge deteriorates to the point of collapse.

More than one-third of U.S. bridges similarly need repair work or replacement, a reminder of America’s urgent need to invest in long-ignored infrastructure.

Fixing or replacing America’s bridges wouldn’t just keep Americans moving. It would also provide millions of family-supporting jobs for steel and cement workers, while also boosting the building trades and other industries.

With bridges across the country close to failure and millions unemployed, America needs a major infrastructure campaign now more than ever.

 

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work