Posts from Tom Conway

The Best in the World

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Best in the World
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Visitors to National Airport in Washington, D.C., have often gazed in awe at a grand, wide hall with soaring, vaulted ceilings intended to evoke the grandeur of government buildings in the nation’s capital.

Union workers at Cives Steel Co. in Winchester, Va., fabricated thousands of tons of steel for that innovative project. While they’re pleased to have contributed to the facility’s majestic appearance, they’re even prouder to know that their skilled craftsmanship produced strong, flawless steel components keeping thousands of passengers, vendors and other airport users safe every day.

As America embarks on a historic modernization of roads, bridges, water systems, airports, schools, manufacturing facilities and other infrastructure, it’s essential that the nation’s highly skilled union workers supply the raw materials and parts as well as the labor for these publicly funded projects.

Union workers will deliver infrastructure that’s safe to use and built to last. Congress just needs to ensure they have the opportunity to put those skills to use, and that means including domestic procurement requirements in legislation implementing President Joe Biden’s infrastructure program.

“If you want a good-quality product, it’s got to be made by union people. They take pride in what they do. They want to put out a good product,” said Buddy Morgan, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8360, which represents workers at the Winchester plant.

Morgan, who’s worked at Cives Steel for 42 years, and his co-workers, many of whom also have decades of experience under their belts, have already worked on many of the kinds of infrastructure projects Biden now wants to take to scale through his American Jobs Plan.

In addition to the National Airport project, which involved the production of pieces so huge that workers faced formidable challenges just maneuvering them onto trucks, members of Local 8360 fabricated tons of steel for a terminal at Philadelphia International Airport and a military aircraft hangar in Norfolk, Va.

Over the years, they’ve also manufactured steel components for schools, industrial facilities, sports complexes, hospitals and laboratories.

The structural integrity of enormous buildings—and the lives of people using them—depend on the quality of their work. That’s why welders in Morgan’s plant will stand for hours, barely moving, sweating profusely under helmets and protective clothing, to perfectly fuse steel pieces together.

“You wouldn’t believe the welds they put down and some of the pieces they put together,” Morgan said, noting the difficulty of transforming the specifications on a blueprint into components that will hold up a building. “They can look at the thing, and they do this so well, and they’ve done it for so long, that they can figure out what they need to do.”

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A Life-Saving Program

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Life-Saving Program
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When Goodyear closed its Tennessee manufacturing facility and laid off Ray Spangler about a decade ago, he moved his shell-shocked family about 330 miles so he could take a job at the company’s Gadsden, Ala., plant.

Goodyear shut that plant as well last year, after shifting most of the work to Mexico, leaving Spangler with the agonizing question of whether to relocate again.

In the end, he opted to use a federal retraining program, Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for Workers, to build a future in Gadsden.

Thousands of Americans find themselves in Spangler’s shoes each year, victims of bad trade and corporate greed, and so Democrats in the House and Senate want to strengthen the program and provide more of the resources these workers need to start over.

However, the clock is ticking. On July 1, the most recent version of TAA expired, limiting assistance for those not already in the program. Congress needs to act as quickly as possible to ensure help is available when workers need it.

“It’s life-saving,” Spangler, a former member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12L, said of the TAA program that’s covering his tuition, supplies, and other expenses while he studies electronics technology at Wallace State Community College near his home. “Other people need to have access to it.”

TAA enables workers to chart new paths forward when they lose their jobs because of bad trade.

In some cases, as with Spangler and his co-workers, corporations shift jobs and production to countries with low wages, weak labor standards and lax environmental laws. Goodyear moved work from Gadsden to a plant in San Luis Potosi, Mexico, and pays workers there just a few dollars an hour.

Other times, foreign countries illegally subsidize the production of  aluminum, electronics, paper, steel, tires and other goods, then dump the items in the U.S. at below-market prices. American manufacturers cannot compete on this uneven playing field, so U.S. workers lose their livelihoods.

TAA pays forpost-secondary education, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and other skill-building to let workers enter new fields.

Even then, starting over isn’t easy. That’s why TAA also provides income supports, case management services, job search allowances, a tax credit to help cover health care premiums and other resources that workers need to rebound from the bad hands they’re dealt.

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Connecting All of America

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Connecting All of America
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The slow, spotty internet access in rural Colorado plagued Steve Hardin for years, foiling his efforts to send emails and pay bills online, but the poor service never irritated him as much as the time it hurt his stepdaughter’s grades.

She was attending college remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic when the internet suddenly went out, causing her to miss deadlines for several assignments.

“Late is late, whether your internet is great or not,” said Hardin, noting she got docked for the delay.

With huge disparities in internet access across America, building out the information superhighway will be as essential as modernizing roads and bridges as the nation strives to rebound from the pandemic, grow a more powerful economy and forge a brighter future for all.

The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden’s comprehensive infrastructure program, calls for investing $100 billion in affordable, high-speed broadband for Americans who cannot afford internet access, live in areas without service or, like Hardin, struggle with low-quality, hit-or-miss connections.

These investments would support American workers—including those making optical fiber, the key component of broadband—at the same time they eliminate the nation’s vast digital divide.

The pandemic, which forced many workers to perform their jobs remotely and students to study online, showed that reliable internet service isn’t merely a convenience but a necessity.

Too often, however, the quality of service depends on where a person lives. An interactive map recently published by the U.S. Commerce Department shows that people in more affluent areas enjoy high-speed internet, while those in rural, poor and tribal communities struggle with low-quality service, if they get service at all.

“We’d love to have better internet—something affordable,” said Hardin, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14482, which represents workers at the LafargeHolcim cement plant in Florence, Colo.

“It’s pretty pitiful,” he said of the current access that a telephone company provides to his home and beef ranch about 30 miles from the cement plant. “You can’t do pictures. You can’t download them or send them. FaceTime is non-existent. We’ve lost internet service for three or four days at a time.”

The internet has the power to tie the nation together, re-energize the economy and open the doors of education, employment, health and civic participation to all.

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Investing in American Prosperity

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Investing in American Prosperity
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Eager to capitalize on opportunities in the dynamic renewable energy field, the manufacturing company Rotek secured incentives, hired additional workers and successfully launched production of the huge metal rings that keep wind turbines spinning.

But the boom quickly faded. The Aurora, Ohio, plant struggled to compete with unfairly traded, foreign-made products and ended up eliminating many of the jobs it created just a couple of years before.

Ensuring future prosperity will require not only stimulating a manufacturing resurgence but also stabilizing long-term markets for domestically produced goods and raw materials.

Fortunately, President Joe Biden’s American Jobs Plan provides an unprecedented opportunity to do exactly that.

The plan calls for historic investments in American infrastructure, including roads and bridges, schools and airports, locks and dams, water-treatment systems, communications networks, the electric grid and renewable energy projects, like the wind farms that workers at Rotek strived to supply.

These upgrades would modernize the country and strengthen it for the next crisis while putting millions to work. Biden intends to create and sustain manufacturing jobs by ensuring the nation uses American steel, aluminum, glass, rubber and other raw products—as well as domestically produced components like bearings, pipes, cement and electronics—in infrastructure projects and other initiatives that use taxpayer money.

Last week, he issued new guidance requiring dozens of federal agencies to work with the administration’s new Made in America Office to increase their purchases of U.S. supplies and reduce the occasions when they seek waivers allowing them to procure items outside of the country. The guidance covers the Transportation and Energy departments as well as other Cabinet-level agencies that will play pivotal roles in infrastructure investment.

“It will help us and everybody else tremendously,” said Marcus Graves Jr., president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8565, recalling the devastation he and other workers at Rotek felt when energy companies began buying cheap, low-quality turbine rings overseas.

American workers like Graves possess the expertise, grit and dedication necessary to build the nation’s future.

The USW launched its “We Supply America” campaign to highlight the products that highly skilled union members already make for infrastructure projects and underscore the importance of undertaking publicly funded improvements with U.S. labor, materials and products.

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The Jobs Americans Need

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Jobs Americans Need
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Keith Aubrey’s construction job forced him to work long stretches without a day off, even in rain and lightning, all for a measly paycheck and health benefits so lousy he could barely afford to see a doctor.

After getting laid off during the pandemic last year, Aubrey resolved to seize control of his destiny and landed a union manufacturing position that changed his life.

COVID-19 showed Americans that it’s no longer enough to scrape by on jobs that just barely pay the household bills. They need family-sustaining wages that will cover child care costs, health care providing high-quality coverage in emergencies and other essential benefits that unions routinely deliver for their members.

As the nation emerges from the pandemic, more and more workers find themselves at the same turning point that Aubrey did.

They’re fed up with callous, exploitative employers who recklessly exposed them to a deadly virus, denied them the flexibility they needed to care for ill loved ones and laid them off at the drop of a hat. Now, they’re pursuing jobs with the union difference.

After just a few months at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Ky., where he’s represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9423, Aubrey glimpses the union’s impact on “overtime, safety, the whole nine yards.”

“Benefits were a big thing for me,” said Aubrey, whose previous bosses went the “cheapest route” on medical insurance, saddled him with skyrocketing rates and failed to take adequate COVID-19 safeguards.

Now, in addition to quality health care, the union makes sure he has paid sick leave, safety programs addressing workplace hazards, and COVID-19 protections.

Among the many other benefits his union representation affords, Aubrey especially appreciates the new balance in his life. The USW contract prohibits burdensome overtime, whereas Aubrey’s construction job forced him to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.

“You can work anytime you like, but they can’t take your life away from you,” he said of his role at Century.

Even before COVID-19, polling showed that tens of millions of workers desired union jobs not only for the higher wages and better benefits but because of labor’s fight against harassment, favoritism and discrimination.

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Ending the Race to the Bottom

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Ending the Race to the Bottom
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Chris Reisinger and his co-workers recently added a third daily shift at the Metal Technologies Inc. (MTI) Northern Foundry because surging vehicle sales boosted demand for the tow hooks, steering components and other auto parts they produce.

Yet Reisinger knows that jobs at the Hibbing, Minn., facility will always hang by a thread—even in really good times—as long as his employer has the option to shift production to poorly paid Mexican workers.

Americans can protect their own livelihoods by ensuring their Mexican counterparts have unfettered, unconditional use of new labor reforms intended to lift them out of poverty and stop employers from exploiting them.

To protect workers on both sides of the border, America’s labor community and the U.S. trade representative last week filed the first-ever complaints under the 10-month-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), demanding action against two plants that suppressed Mexican workers’ right to unionize.

Swift, significant punishment of these kinds of offenses through the USMCA’s innovative “rapid response” enforcement procedures would deliver a major boost to Mexican workers’ efforts to form real unions for the first time. And those unions, in turn, would help Mexican workers negotiate better wages, eliminate employers’ incentive to move jobs out of the U.S. and end a corporate race to the bottom that’s harmed millions in both countries.

Not only has Reisinger seen a steady stream of U.S. automakers and suppliers send work to Mexico over the years, but his own employer opened a location there about three years ago. Reisinger, who represents about 50 Northern Foundry workers as president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 21B, doesn’t want to see the company open a second just to take further advantage of low wages there.

He’s counting on the USMCA to help keep that from happening.

“It’s just frustrating to see work going away from American workers,” said Reisinger, noting MTI could have expanded the Northern Foundry or its other U.S. locations rather than open the Mexico facility.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the previous trade deal in place for 25 years, U.S. corporations relocated about a million good-paying manufacturing jobs south of the border to exploit the abysmal wages, weak labor laws and lack of environmental safeguards.

These companies made huge profits at the expense of powerless Mexican workers while devastating U.S. manufacturing communities, gutting the nation’s industrial capacity and decimating the middle class.

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America’s Thirst

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Thirst
Domenic DeDomenico and Simon Hale

Simon and Barbara Hale dropped a small fortune on bottled water, battled rust-stained laundry and endured slimy showers before discovering the water from their well didn’t just taste, smell and feel awful but actually endangered their health.

The Vietnam veteran and his wife couldn’t afford the huge expense of connecting to the local water system, however, so about a dozen volunteers from United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12160 dug a trench, tapped the main and ran a service line into the couple’s home.

“It’s life-changing,” Barbara Hale said of the free work by the USW members, all of whom work at South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority, noting she and her husband have clean, palatable water for the first time in years. “I just feel safe because we know there’s no question about what’s in it.”

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure program would deliver the same security to millions of other Americans thirsting for one of life’s basic necessities.

Among many other projects in his $2 trillion American Jobs Plan, Biden proposed about $110 billion in long-overdue upgrades to the nation’s patchwork of foundering water systems. The unprecedented investment will not only make life more convenient for consumers but protect their health and build stronger communities.

“It’s definitely time for somebody to take action,” said Local 12160 President Domenic DeDomenico, a water treatment operator at the authority who heard about the Hales’ plight and mustered the crew of Steelworkers who saved the couple thousands of dollars in connection costs.

DeDomenico and his authority co-workers proudly supply about 430,000 people via 1,700 miles of pipes in 15 municipalities. They treat, test and monitor the supply around the clock, distributing, on average, more than 42 million gallons of “perfect” water every day.

Many Americans long for that high level of quality and dependability right now.

In the authority’s own service area, for example, are residents who still lack access to public mains as well as the financial resources to connect to them. “Can you do that for us?” some of the Hales’ wistful neighbors asked the volunteers.

Across the country, ramshackle and disintegrating infrastructure delivers mere dribs and drabs of the clean, safe water Americans need every day.

Some families drink foul-tasting, smelly well water, like the Hales did before a recent test revealed traces of oil and other contaminants that required an urgent switch to the public water system.

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Upskilling America

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Upskilling America
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Nick Kessler lived paycheck to paycheck—eking life out of his bald tires, “praying to God nothing broke” at home—until he landed a union position at U.S. Steel in Granite City, Ill., three years ago.

While that job changed his life, Kessler didn’t stop there. He also took advantage of free training, provided under the United Steelworkers (USW) contract with the company, to advance to a highly skilled electrician’s role that provides even more security for his wife and young son.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan would make that kind of transformative opportunity available to all, giving millions of workers greater access to family-sustaining jobs while helping the nation rebuild the middle class.

Among many other provisions, Biden’s plan would provide access to two years of tuition-free community college and training to every American.

It’s essential that Congress now pass legislation that enacts the plan and paves the way for more Americans to obtain associate degrees, commercial driver’s licenses or professional certifications in the skilled trades and other crucial fields.

“Your education is something nobody can ever take from you,” said Kessler, a member of USW Local 1899, noting skills like his enhance his employment prospects no matter where he lives.

“The electricians and the plumbers and the carpenters and the welders are the ones that keep everything going,” he observed. “The demand for the trades is the highest that it’s been in years.”

And the demand will only grow exponentially under the American Jobs Plan, the president’s call to invest nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, including roads and bridges, locks and dams, schools and airports, manufacturing facilities, the electric grid, new energy systems and communication networks.

These long-overdue infrastructure investments, long championed by the USW, will lift America out of the COVID-19 recession, rebuild the economy and strengthen the country for the next crisis.

The nation will need pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, welders and other skilled workers not only to construct roads and refurbish buildings but to fill highly technical jobs like Kessler’s in steel mills, foundries and other plants that manufacture the materials and equipment for infrastructure projects.

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Honoring Their Memory

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Honoring Their Memory
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The United Steelworkers (USW) Local 959 safety committee leapt into action a few years ago after discovering that more and more workers at the Goodyear plant in Fayetteville, N.C., were exposed to knife injuries on the job.

Committee members solicited workers’ input on how to address the hazard and then collaborated with the company to provide cut-resistant gloves, introduce more safely designed knives and take other steps to bring the crisis under control.

“It was our No. 1 injury at the plant,” recalled Ronald Sessoms, Local 959 safety chairman. “Now, we’ve almost eliminated it.”

It isn’t enough to mark Workers Memorial Day on April 28 by grieving for the thousands of Americans who lost their lives on the job over the past year. Only a renewed, unrelenting commitment to workplace safety will properly honor their memory and ensure none died in vain.

That’s especially true in light of COVID-19, which pushed the death toll higher than usual and endangered workers like never before. The pandemic underscored the need for constant vigilance against threats as well as the importance of giving workers a meaningful voice in combating them.

No one knows the hazards and risks better than the people facing them every day. A strong union contract helped to entrench that philosophy at Fayetteville, where worker input not only led to the reduction of knife-related injuries but resulted in better ventilation, the elimination of certain hazardous chemicals once used at the plant and even adjustments to a machine that helped to avert a head-injury risk.

“Our job is not to sit behind a desk,” Sessoms said of his USW committee representatives, all of them former production workers who now perform union health, safety and environment (HSE) responsibilities under the contract with Goodyear. “We want to be very accessible.”

He and the other USW safety representatives walk the sprawling complex to look for hazards, evaluate hazard controls and confer with 96 “safety coaches”—full-time production workers who volunteer as union safety liaisons in the plant’s many departments.

However, committee members realize that plant-wide safety really hinges on leveraging the eyes, ears and expertise of all 2,000 USW members there, and that’s why they stop on the shop floor to communicate with workers about their concerns.

Target Zero, an injury-prevention program that the USW and Goodyear negotiated more than a decade ago, provides another way to raise red flags.

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Protecting the Caregivers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Protecting the Caregivers
USW members rally for violence-prevention bill in 2019. USW photo.

The patient intended to commit suicide and knew the worker making his bed at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center in Duluth, Minn., stood in the way.

So he crept up behind the caregiver, grabbed the cord to the call bell and began choking her with it.

Only chance saved her, recalled Tuan Vu, a longtime hospital worker who was on duty in another part of the facility that day, noting the woman’s colleagues rushed to the rescue after the struggle inadvertently activated the call bell.

The U.S. House just passed a bipartisan bill, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, to curtail the rising epidemic of assaults on doctors, nurses, certified nursing assistants, case managers and others on the front lines of care.

The legislation, now before the Senate, requires hospitals, clinics, medical office buildings and other facilities to develop violence-prevention plans that cover the unique needs of each workplace.

For example, Vu said, a plan requiring that only specially trained behavioral health workers care for suicidal patients would have been one possible way to avert the near-strangulation of his co-worker a few years ago. She was assigned to the patient’s room that day even though she wasn’t a mental health specialist.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would enforce the violence-prevention act  and intervene if workers experience retaliation for reporting safety lapses.

“Having this type of legislation would put our safety at the forefront,” explained Vu, a behavioral health technician at Essentia and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9460, which represents thousands of workers at more than a dozen northern Minnesota medical facilities. “It’s not something people should be desensitized to.”

“I’m a big guy. I’m not so worried about myself,” said Vu, who’s had racial epithets hurled at him and endured bites, kicks, punches and inappropriate touches over the years. “But I worry about some of my co-workers.”

Health care professionals are five times more likely to encounter violence on the job than other Americans. The crisis has festered for years. Workers face assaults from patients with substance abuse, dementia or cognitive issues, and they’re attacked by patients’ stressed-out family members.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together