Posts from Tom Conway

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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Confronting the Next Crisis

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Confronting the Next Crisis
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Workers at the Sibanye-Stillwater complex in Montana mine minerals used to fight cancer, produce life-saving surgical instruments and manufacture the wind turbines and solar panels essential for the clean economy.

They touch so many facets of American life that Ed Lorash, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 11-0001, considers their work essential to national security.

Lorash knows that without strong supply chains stretching from mining to manufacturing, the nation is vulnerable, not just to a shortage of consumer goods but to any number of crises from pandemics to natural disasters that could undermine America’s safety. And only revitalizing an industrial base decimated by bad trade will eliminate the country’s dangerous dependence on foreign products and protect America’s freedom.

“It keeps your enemy at bay,” Lorash said of a robust manufacturing sector. Foreign producers can cut off supplies for economic or political reasons, he noted, or raise prices on a whim.

“I just think we really need to look at making things here,” he said. “Then, if we get a surplus, we can sell it.”

Over the past quarter century, greedy corporations closed hundreds of U.S. manufacturing facilities and offshored more than a million jobs to countries with low wages, weak labor laws and poor environmental standards.

But that wasn’t the only blow to America’s security. China and other competitor nations compounded the damage by dumping unfairly traded goods in U.S. markets, killing millions more jobs and further decimating the domestic manufacturing base.

COVID-19 threw the damage into sharp relief. Hollowed-out supply chains left the nation unable to produce the face masks, ventilators and other medical equipment essential for fighting the pandemic.

Next, shortages of semiconductors, resulting from pandemic-related manufacturing slowdowns overseas, disrupted the U.S. auto industry and decimated inventories of cars and trucks.

America once made 37 percent of the world’s computer chips, used not only in vehicles but electronics and myriad other high-tech products. Now, the U.S. accounts for only 12 percent of global production and buys much of what it needs from overseas.

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Rebuilding the Middle Class

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Rebuilding the Middle Class
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With business already strong and a national infrastructure program likely to further increase demand for its products, DuPont realized it needed a strategy to find more workers.

So it did what any sensible employer would do—turned to the union for help. DuPont approached United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12075 about the possibility of a worker recruitment campaign highlighting the availability of union jobs, which provide the benefits, security and dignity more and more Americans seek in the wake of COVID-19.

Major investments in America’s infrastructure will modernize the nation and revitalize its industrial base. But an infrastructure program is about more than rebuilding roads and bridges. It’s about creating more of those family-sustaining union jobs and rebuilding the middle class.

It’s about creating an economy that’s not only more powerful but more just.

In August, the Senate took the critical first step by passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would pave the way for long-overdue improvements in roads, water systems, school buildings, airports, communications networks, energy systems and manufacturing facilities.

Now, the House needs to pass its own version of the legislation and set the nation on a path to shared prosperity.

“We are waiting for them to finish up, so we can move on,” said Local 12075 President Kent Holsing, noting he represents hundreds of workers at DuPont, Dow and other chemical companies in the Midland, Mich., area who are ready to handle the added business that an infrastructure program would generate.

“We make lots of products that are used in building construction,” Holsing explained. “We make products that go into water-treatment plants. We make a number of products that go into cars. Investment in infrastructure is an investment in products, and investment in products is an investment in jobs.”

But DuPont needs more workers to take on those jobs. Holsing said that when company representatives asked which USW benefits it ought to highlight in recruitment efforts, he and his colleagues told them “everything from worker representation to the college scholarship program.”

The pandemic underscored the withered state of America’s manufacturing base and marked a turning point for Americans fed up with the low-wage, nonunion jobs that proliferated amid industrial decline.

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At Risk of Collapse

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

At Risk of Collapse
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So many people with COVID-19 sought treatment at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in recent months that the hospital triaged patients in a tent outside the facility and set up a makeshift ward in the main lobby.

Many workers put in 14- and 16-hour shifts to keep the Southern California facility operating during the crisis, with some comforting the dying and others volunteering to use their Spanish skills to help communicate with bereft family members over the phone.

But instead of recognizing workers who risked their lives and pushed themselves to exhaustion, the hospital compounded the strain by demanding concessions and dragging out contract negotiations for more than a year.

Around the country, hospitals continue to stretch workers to the breaking point and put the entire health care system at risk.

“The fact is that without us, the hospitals have no one,” observed Alma Garzon, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 183, which represents hundreds of workers at Providence St. Mary.

“Some of them don’t understand what we really do,” Garzon said of hospital executives. “The higher-ups are not going to come in and take care of our patients. They’re not going to get their hands dirty.”

The pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that plagued hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities long before COVID-19.

To protect their communities during the crisis, workers stepped up, put in arduous amounts of overtime and took on extra duties. Yet Garzon said that when union officials cited the need to invest in workers and take steps to boost staffing levels, management’s response was: “You signed up for this.”

“That was a big slap in the face,” said Garzon, whose members ratified a new contract Oct. 7, after about 15 months of the hospital’s stonewalling.

More and more health systems treat workers with the same kind of disdain.

That’s fueling widespread burnout and fatigue, and it’s forcing a growing number of health care workers to escalate their fights for fair treatment and patient safety.

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A Common-Sense Policy

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Common-Sense Policy
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Keli Vereb wasn’t sure how long it would take to recover from complicated neck surgery last year, but she took comfort knowing she’d be able to focus on healing without having to worry about her job.

That’s because United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2227-01 negotiated a contract with Vereb’s employer, U.S. Steel, ensuring paid leave for workers who need time to fight for their health.

Millions of other workers need the same security. But they’re out of luck because America remains the only major industrialized country without a universal paid leave program that protects workers’ livelihoods while they confront serious health and family issues.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan fills this gaping hole in the nation’s social infrastructure. It would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave so they can navigate some of life’s biggest challenges without fear of unsympathetic bosses docking their wages or even firing them for taking time off.

Congress has begun working on legislation addressing key aspects Biden’s proposal amid overwhelming public support for this common-sense policy.

“I didn’t worry about how I was going to pay the bills while I was off,” Vereb, a caster scheduler based at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works near Pittsburgh, said of the three months she relied on her union-negotiated leave last year. “My benefits continued. My pension kept accruing.”

Vereb faced an arduous recovery after the operation, one of three she’s had over the years because of injuries sustained in a fender-bender three decades ago.

“It was a whole lot of healing,” recalled Vereb, a union griever, citing the pain and the line of 25 stitches starting at the back of her head. “The first six weeks, I had my neck in a neck immobilizer. I couldn’t even get a shower on my own.”

She’s grateful that the USW fights to retain the leave program during every round of negotiations with U.S. Steel and realizes that many workers across the country are entirely subject to the whims of their bosses.

In the absence of a national paid sick and family leave program, many short-sighted and callous employers force Americans to choose between their health and their paychecks.

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Course Correction

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Course Correction
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When managers at National Steel installed hidden cameras at an Illinois mill to guard against theft, they ended up being the ones on the wrong side of the law.

The United Steelworkers (USW) reported the illicit surveillance to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and in a 2001 order that remains a major check on corporate abuses, the agency ordered an end to the secret spying.

To USW Local 1899 President Dan Simmons, that still-important case is a constant reminder of how much Americans need the NLRB to ensure justice in the workplace. So he’s pleased that after veering wildly off course during the previous administration, the agency under Joe Biden is getting back to its vital mission of enforcing labor rights.

On his first day as president in January, Biden fired the board’s general counsel, Peter Robb, a corporate pawn who used his powerful position to turn the agency against the very people it was created to help.  

With the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Biden replaced Robb with Jennifer Abruzzo, a respected labor lawyer who’s expected to bring a fair-minded approach to a role that includes overseeing NLRB field offices, prosecuting unfair labor practice charges and prioritizing cases brought to the five-member board.

Biden and Senate Democrats also put new members on the board, eliminating a pro-business majority that, during the previous four years, issued a string of decisions that eroded workers’ rights and rigged the system for employers.

“You knew what their agenda was,” Simmons, who represents about 1,800 workers at U.S. Steel and a handful of other companies in Illinois, said of Robb and the previous board. “It was not looking to protect labor or working people. It was clearly driven by corporations.”

Simmons, who played a role in fighting the illegal surveillance scheme at now-defunct National Steel, recalled that the company refused to tell the union the whereabouts of the cameras after word about the clandestine surveillance efforts leaked out. The union filed a complaint with the NLRB amid concerns that the company watched workers even while they took medications or made phone calls during breaks. 

Since helping to win that case, Simmons has relied on the agency many times while enforcing contracts and labor rights. But he said he “never would have considered” bringing important matters to the NLRB during the previous administration because he knew Robb and his right-wing cronies looked for cases they could exploit to further chip away workers’ rights. 

“We avoided them,” he said.

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Investing in American Families

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Investing in American Families
Robert P. Ford Jr. with supplies for struggling families in Akron, Ohio

Robert P. Ford Jr. went to a community football game on a cold fall night three years ago and wondered why so many high school students sat shivering in the stands without coats or socks.

When he learned their parents couldn’t afford these basic necessities, he launched a charity, Forever R Children, that now delivers food, clothes, toothbrushes and other help right to the doorsteps of struggling families in Akron, Ohio.

But goodhearted volunteers like Ford, a production worker at Goodyear and member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2L, cannot save all of the country’s vulnerable children on their own.

As America gears up for historic investments in roads and bridges that will modernize the nation and revitalize the economy, it also needs to build out the social infrastructure that will empower all citizens to share in the prosperity. President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan, now before Congress, offers opportunities to meet the needs Ford encounters daily and provide widespread support to children and their families.

“If we want people to do better, we have to help them do better,” observed Ford, who operates a food pantry and clothing closet in one middle school, runs pop-up distribution centers out of a donated trailer he takes on the road and delivers emergency supplies to families’ homes.

Ford, recently named a USW Cares Jefferson Awards recipient for his philanthropic efforts, noted that fellow members of Local 2L also contribute money, supplies and time to Forever R Children. Together, thanks to a USW contract that enables these workers to support their own families while reaching out to others, they’ve helped many of the city’s disadvantaged residents survive.

Yet life for Akron’s kids gets ever grimmer.

Decades of corporate greed and the loss of union manufacturing jobs in Akron and other cities broke the middle class and trapped millions of Americans in poverty.

Now, many parents juggle multiple part-time jobs that pay low wages, labor in temporary positions providing no security or benefits, or even log overtime at full-time jobs without making enough money to meet their expenses. The pandemic just exacerbated the crisis.

“Am I going to pay these bills or am I going to get groceries?” Ford said of the predicament facing many families. “They’re having, right now, to choose.”

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Supplying America

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Supplying America
"We Supply America" bus tour

New, ornate streetlights add charm and ambience to Knoxville, Tenn., even as they help the city dramatically slash energy consumption and save millions of taxpayer dollars each year.

These high-tech lights last for years, require almost zero maintenance and provide better illumination than the old models, leading one grateful official to say they “raised the bar and changed the game” for a city seeking a brighter future.

The United Steelworkers (USW) launched a weeklong bus tour Sunday to call for historic investments in America’s infrastructure and to underscore the importance of using union-made materials and products, like the lights Knoxville installed, for these much-needed rebuilding projects.

The multi-state event, part of the union’s “We Supply America” campaign, included a stop at Holophane’s plant in Newark, Ohio. There’s where members of USW Locals 525T, 4T and 105T manufacture lighting products that not only illuminate Knoxville and other cities but help to preserve vital supply chains across the economy.

“We pretty much light the world,” said Local 525T President Steve Bishoff, noting he and his co-workers also supply state highway departments, shipping terminals, sewer authorities, energy facilities and military installations, along with numerous industries in the U.S. and overseas. “All the glass is made right here.”

Bishoff strongly supports President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, which would modernize the country and supercharge the economy with long-overdue investments in roads, water systems, communications networks and other infrastructure. He views the Senate’s bipartisan passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill last week as an important step in achieving this progress and wants the House to quickly get to work on its own legislation.

However, he knows that these bold investments will deliver the maximum benefits for America’s economy and security only if union workers lead the way.

An infrastructure program with domestic procurement requirements “would bring more jobs here,” Bishoff said, noting upgrades to bridges, school buildings and other facilities would dramatically increase demand for Holophane’s products.

An influx of new workers would help the greater Newark community, he added, noting the USW’s contract provides good wages and benefits that enable his co-workers to lead middle-class lives and support local businesses.

He also has other important reasons for insisting that union workers drive the infrastructure upgrades.

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Keeping Storms at Bay

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Keeping Storms at Bay
Hurricane Harvey flood damage

After Hurricane Harvey swamped Texas, Chad Sullivan spent five straight days rescuing flood victims from their attics and rooftops and rushing sick, elderly residents, some long overdue for dialysis, to an overwhelmed hospital.

The volunteer firefighter still chokes up at the memory of navigating a personnel carrier through streets that Harvey turned into a debris-filled lake, pulling the stranded and sodden aboard while fielding calls the 911 center relayed to him from terror-stricken residents still waiting for help.

“It was call after call after call. They didn’t know what to do,” said Sullivan, a unit president with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 227 who works at the Albemarle specialty chemicals plant near Houston.

Four years after Harvey caused billions in damage and killed about 100, Sullivan knows exactly what the nation needs to do to avert future calamities like this: Commit to a national infrastructure program that strengthens coastal barriers and toughens America’s roads, bridges, utilities and buildings against the more frequent and stronger storms associated with climate change.

President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan, now before Congress, not only calls for much-needed investments in transportation systems, utilities, schools and other facilities, but makes the increased resilience of infrastructure a central part of the building program.

“If the funds are allocated properly, this could go a long way,” said Sullivan, a lieutenant in the Southeast Volunteer Fire Department, who fears what will happen if the nation fails to act now.

In addition to the death and destruction, hurricanes exact other tolls. They close schools and universities, pose environmental hazards and halt the operations of factories, triggering disruptions that ripple across the economy.

And the storms keep coming. Last year’s season produced about 30 named storms, including Hurricanes Hanna and Laura, which struck parts of Texas.

More resilient infrastructure means measures like stronger home and school construction, relocation of utility lines underground to protect them from wind and water damage, increased use of microgrids to ensure power stays on in some areas even if it goes out in others, and building coastal barrier systems to deflect the storm surges that accompany hurricanes.

Sullivan also cited the need for an expanded highway network to speed up the evacuation of residents during weather emergencies and better drainage systems, especially in unincorporated areas like his 5-square-mile community just outside of Houston.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together