Posts from Tom Conway

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost
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Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his co-workers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Ala., only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his work station, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent this year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

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A Bulwark for Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Bulwark for Workers
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The Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Ala., was always a part of Cindy Beshears’ life.

She attended her grandfather’s retirement party there as a child, worked two summers at the plant as a college student in the 1980s and accepted a full-time job on the production floor in 2004 after leaving a career in retail.

Goodyear devastated the community when it closed the plant two years ago after shifting hundreds of jobs to Mexico, but fortunately, the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provided Beshears and her co-workers with training and other support that helped them through some of the darkest days they’ll ever know.

While thousands of other American workers continue to be harmed by unfair trade, they’ll be denied the same lifeline unless Congress moves quickly to reestablish TAA.

The program expired June 30 because Republicans refused to join Democrats in extending it. Until Congress reinstates the program, the Labor Department cannot consider any additional petitions for TAA assistance. The United Steelworkers (USW), other unions and Democratic lawmakers such as Sens. Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are working to salvage the program, workers’ only real bulwark against the damage inflicted by globalization.

“It’s definitely worth fighting to save,” Beshears said of TAA, created in the 1970s to provide skills-building, employment services and other assistance to workers who lose jobs or wages because of bad trade.

In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled more than 107,000 workers in various industries.

“It covers tuition and books. It covers school supplies. It provided a laptop for me. If you have to travel for your classes, it will pay a mileage stipend,” explained Beshears, a former member of USW Local 12L who enrolled in TAA to obtain an associate degree in paralegal studies from Gadsden State Community College.

“It even paid for caps and gowns if we wanted to walk for graduation,” added Beshears, who completed her schooling in May, recalling the pride she felt as her former co-workers also set out on new careers in nursing, child care, welding, transportation and other fields.

“I was very concerned that these people were going to lose hope and that we were going to see a lot of bad things. I would have been one who sat there and wallowed in self-pity, thinking, ‘Oh, I put all that time in, and now I have nothing.’” Beshears said, calling TAA “as valuable mentally and emotionally” as it is educationally.

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Why Workers Are Turning to Unions

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Why Workers Are Turning to Unions
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Amy Dennett long endured understaffing, low pay and indifferent bosses in her job at the American Red Cross in Asheville, N.C.

But she decided she’d had enough when management’s failure to provide basic resources forced her and her co-workers to build, jury-rig and dig into their own pockets for items needed to operate the blood donation center.

Dennett helped lead a union drive in 2020, resulting in the group’s vote to join the United Steelworkers (USW), and the 24 workers gained raises, greatly improved health care and much-needed equipment even before signing their first contract.

More and more workers like Dennett are realizing that unions fight for them every day, providing a path forward even in tumultuous times like a pandemic.

Gallup surveyed Americans on their confidence in 16 U.S. institutions ranging from the Supreme Court to television news. Over the past year, Gallup found, Americans’ confidence fell in all of them except one—organized labor.

“That doesn’t surprise me. We’re supposed to have faith in our elected officials and other leaders. But it’s a lot easier for a worker to have faith in the guy standing next to them than a guy in some other place you’ve never met who’s supposed to represent you,” Dennett said of the findings, noting that unions helped workers during the pandemic while many of the 16 institutions failed or exploited them.

With the help of a lone Democrat, for example, the Republicans in Congress killed legislation that would have expanded struggling families’ access to education, health care and child care.

Some banks socked borrowers with illegal late fees and charges despite their enrollment in a pandemic program temporarily pausing mortgage payments, compounding the homeowners’ hardships.

Corporations jacked up prices on food and other essentials, raking in ever-higher profits on the backs of working Americans. And tech companies like Amazon and Apple tried to beat back workers’ fights for better wages and working conditions.

In stark contrast to all of this, unions stepped up during the pandemic because their members needed them more than ever. They not only empowered workers to secure the personal protective equipment, paid sick leave and affordable health care they needed to safeguard their families but continued winning the raises and benefits essential for years to come.

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Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Harnessing Workers’ Power for Safety on the Job
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A worker at the International Paper mill in Prattville, Ala., was performing routine maintenance on a paper-making machine a couple of weeks ago when he discovered liquid in a place it didn’t belong.

He stopped work and reported the hazard, triggering an inspection that revealed a punctured condensate line leaking water that was hotter than 140 degrees and would have scalded the worker or fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Instead of causing a serious health and safety risk, the leak was repaired without incident.

“We fixed the issue,” recalled Chad Baker, a USW Local 1458 trustee and safety representative. “It took about 30 minutes, and we continued on with our work, and nobody got hurt.”

Unions empower workers to help build safer workplaces and ensure they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisal.

No one knows the dangers of a job better than the people facing them every day. That’s why the USW’s contract with International Paper gives workers “stop-work authority”—the power to halt a job when they identify a threat and resume work after their concerns have been adequately addressed.

“We find smaller issues like that a lot,” Baker said, referring to the leaky condensate line. “Most of the time, they’re handled in a very efficient manner.”

Workers forming unions at Amazon and Starbucks, among other companies, want better wages and benefits. But they’re also fighting for the workplace protections union workers enjoy every day.

Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per every 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record, according to an analysis of data the company provided to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Driving for Amazon is also perilous. About 20 percent of drivers suffered injuries last year, up 40 percent from 2020, with many of these workers reporting that they felt pressured to take unnecessary risks, like forgoing seat belts and skipping breaks, to meet the company’s relentless delivery schedules.

Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon and other companies pull every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

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Gouging Americans out of House and Home

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Gouging Americans out of House and Home
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Bill Boone eats very little meat and avoids expensive gourmet foods altogether.

Yet Boone’s grocery bill still tops $280 a week at a Kroger in Benton, Ark., thanks to profiteering on a scale the 92-year-old says he has never witnessed before.

Corporations may try to blame the pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for astronomical price increases, but that’s merely a cover story for shameless price-gouging that’s left millions of Americans struggling to survive.

“Big money people are the trouble,” summed up Boone, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who recently saw the price of his favorite coffee double.

“It’s all these brands,” Boone, who worked at Reynolds and Alcoa, said of the rampant price hikes. “It’s all the basic things people have in their homes, like salt and pepper. I feel badly for these families with three and four kids.”

As struggling Americans burn through their savings and scrimp on meals to make ends meet, companies that jacked up prices on everything from cereal to toiletries post ever-higher profits.

While parents take second jobs and even hire out their children as movers and gardeners to make extra money, CEOs brag about the exploitation that’s enabling them to pad their own pockets and shower shareholders with dividends.

“A little bit of inflation is always good in our business,” declared Rodney McMullen, CEO of Kroger, which raised prices on customers like Boone before raking in $1.5 billion in operating profits for the first quarter this year.

Procter & Gamble, manufacturer of diapers and other essentials, plans to raise prices throughout the year even though it’s forecasting higher profits. “The consumer is resilient,” said Andre Schulten, the company’s chief financial officer, blithely dismissing the pain he’s inflicting.

Not even President Joe Biden’s public shaming of oil companies was enough to curb their unprecedented profit-mongering. They still refuse to increase production, even as the average cost of a gallon of gas hovers around $5 and truckers like Boone’s son-in-law spend hundreds of dollars to fill up their rigs.

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Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Stopping Attacks on Health Care Workers
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The young man in Cleveland Clinic Akron General’s behavioral crisis intervention unit hadn’t communicated much during his hospitalization, but he showed no signs of violence until Brian Eckley tried to draw his blood early one morning.

The patient stood up, sat back down, rose again and then punched Eckley, a state-tested nurse aide and senior technician, in the left jaw.

Keeping his cool despite the pain, Eckley dodged more punches as he held the needle and tourniquet out of the patient’s reach, banged on the treatment room windows and called for help.

Attacks on health care workers have reached epidemic levels across the country, exacerbating turnover, turning caregivers into patients and further fraying systems of care already worn thin by COVID-19. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, twice passed by the House and just reintroduced in the Senate, would require employers to implement the safeguards needed to help keep Eckley and millions of his peers safe on the job.

The legislation—supported by numerous labor unions, trade groups and other stakeholders—would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop a standard requiring health care providers to implement safety plans for clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other treatment facilities.

The bill calls for facilities to consider measures such as alarm systems, physical barriers and strategic staffing, including having workers in hazardous situations operate in teams. To ensure the plans are as comprehensive and effective as possible, facilities would have to devise them with the input of workers on the front lines and address the specific hazards in each work area or unit.

“Having a safety officer on the unit 24/7 would be a wonderful first step,” observed Eckley, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014L, who had calmed down his combative patient by the time a security guard in another part of the hospital complex arrived at the behavioral health unit.

“They just don’t have what we need to do the job safely,” he said of health care employers around the country. “They do the bare minimum, and it’s more reactive than proactive.”

Even before COVID-19, health care workers faced five times more violence on the job than their counterparts in most other professions. Incidents skyrocketed during the pandemic as the crisis exacted a heavy toll on Americans’ emotional health and patients, relatives and community members grew frustrated with staffing shortages at medical facilities.

The violence is now so pervasive that many health care workers are victimized over and over again. Eckley, for example, has been punched repeatedly, stabbed with a pen, and bitten by an HIV-positive patient who disliked the meal he was served. He’s also witnessed numerous attacks on co-workers and once watched a patient batter a door to get to a jar of candy on the other side.

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Outsourcing Children’s Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Outsourcing Children’s Safety
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Early in the school year, a kindergartner on Joni Meyer’s school bus got motion sickness and threw up all over himself—and his brother, his cousin and his laptop.

Meyer pulled over, soothed the anguished child, cleaned everybody up as best she could and then drove the bus to school.

Over 34 years, Meyer has served as chauffeur, counselor, confidant, nurse and guardian angel to countless children like these in Bay City, Mich. She’s skillfully navigated a 35-foot, 14-ton bus over serpentine roads and through treacherous winter storms, safely delivering what she calls “our precious cargo” to schools and football games. Now, in gratitude for Meyer’s dedication, officials in the Bay City Public Schools intend to kick her to the curb.

The school district recently notified Meyer and her 25 co-workers, represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7380, of plans to eliminate their jobs and outsource transportation to a for-profit company. By continuing down this road, they’ll join the ranks of short-sighted employers who auction off crucial services to the lowest bidders, potentially saving a few bucks but gambling on safety.

Out-of-town drivers will never know Bay City’s rural roads or care about the community’s 8,150 students like Meyer and her co-workers, some of whom log upwards of 150 miles during work days that—because of split shifts—begin at 5 a.m. and end 12 hours later.

“I really enjoy my job. I enjoy my children. They’re sort of like extended family to us,” said Meyer, Local 7380’s unit president and the district’s second-most-senior driver, who wonders where a private contractor would even find replacements.

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts around the country have struggled to recruit and retain drivers. Because of the shortage, some districts closed schools or cut service while others called in the National Guard for help, put teachers behind the wheel or paid parents to transport their own kids. So far this year, bus companies contracted by one Maryland school district missed more than 3,000 trips, leaving hundreds of students and parents in the lurch.

Bay City already has the dedicated, reliable work force that other school districts crave. Teachers, elected officials, other community leaders and parents are rallying around the drivers, demanding the school district keep them on the job and avert the potential nightmare contracting out would bring.

“It’s terribly sad and unfortunate and quite disappointing because it’s going to rock these kids’ boats. Some of these kids come from homes that aren’t really stable. This is one stable thing they have in their lives,” Kristin McDonell, a Bay City parent, said of district drivers. “I trust these drivers. They’re part of our backbone. It means a lot to them to be contributing to their community in this way.”

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Restoring America’s Manufacturing Might

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Restoring America’s Manufacturing Might
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Montrell Steib recalls the young electrician rattling off his expertise in the latest technology and systems, hoping to make a good impression during his job interview at Atlantic Alumina in Gramercy, La.

But a supervisor took the wind out of the worker’s sails, saying he’d be working on old and temperamental equipment at the nation’s last remaining alumina refinery and that keeping the aging facility operating with Band-Aids would be a far cry from what he expected.

Steib, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5702, relates that story to underscore the feeble state of U.S. supply chains and the need to equip America’s workers with the tools and resources needed to compete globally.

Although both the Senate and House each passed long-overdue legislation to overhaul the nation’s manufacturing base, only the House’s version, the America COMPETES Act, provides billions in direct investments essential to preserving critical industrial infrastructure like the Gramercy refinery.

“This is it. This is all we have,” said Steib, one of about 270 USW members who work there, noting that losing the facility would make America entirely dependent on other nations for the alumina essential to the automotive, health care, consumer goods and numerous other industries.

The long decline of American manufacturing constitutes a national security threat that recent shortages of face masks and semiconductors threw into sharp relief. America lags behind other countries not only in the production of these goods but in the manufacturing of aluminum and steel, commercial shipbuilding and the mining of essential minerals.

“Together, a U.S. business climate that has favored short-term shareholder earnings (versus long-term capital investment), deindustrialization, and an abstract, radical vision of ‘free trade,’ without fair trade enforcement, have severely damaged America’s ability to arm itself today and in the future,” the Defense Department warned in a report last year.

The America COMPETES Act would provide loans and grants for upgrading manufacturing facilities so that workers like Steib no longer have to scrounge parts or cannibalize some machines to keep others running. The investments also would enable employers to expand production, which Local 5702 members see an urgent need to do.

“Everything we can make is already sold,” Steib observed of current market conditions. “I wish we could open up more alumina facilities in the U.S.”

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Taxing Billionaires the Right Way

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Taxing Billionaires the Right Way
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The single mom appeared at the church in Davenport, Iowa, where Vera Kelly volunteered and asked for some food to share with her children.

But not just any food, Kelly recalled, noting the woman only wanted items she could keep in the car where the family lived and cook on the charcoal grill that served as their kitchen.

Civic-minded activists like Kelly do all they can to assist the less fortunate and lift up their communities. But only fixing America’s broken tax system, as President Joe Biden has proposed, will force the super-rich to pay their fair share and curb the rampant economic inequality that’s turned the nation into a land of haves and have-nots.

“They have the money. We don’t have it,” Kelly, a member of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 11-4 and the vice president of the Davenport NAACP, said of America’s billionaires. “Some of them got it by hook or by crook, and we worked honestly.”

“If you’re a billionaire, you’re never going to go broke,” added Kelly, who supports Biden’s plan calling for the wealthiest citizens to finally begin paying what they’ve long owed. “They can live off the interest on their money.”

The 77-year-old Kelly, who spends Saturday mornings distributing boxes of cereal, sugar, frozen chicken and other items at a local food pantry, worked 32 years at the former Alcoa plant, now operated by Arconic, near her home. Her husband, B.W. Kelly, who died in November 2020, worked at Deere & Co. for 33 years.

The two paid taxes on every dime they ever earned, considering it not only a duty but a privilege to support America’s social programs as well as essentials like infrastructure funding, medical research and the national defense.

But instead of holding up their end like the Kellys, America’s richest citizens let the rest of the country carry them. A rigged system lets billionaires exploit tax-avoidance tricks unavailable to the masses. The uber-rich shirk their obligations to society and freeload off of everyone else while squandering ever-growing sums on jets, mega-yachts, spaceships and even private islands.

“The rich get richer and the poor get poorer,” Kelly said, referring to the income inequality that’s been growing for decades. “That’s the way that happens.”

“They look down on people,” she said of billionaires. “They think they’re entitled.”

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On the Front Lines of Nuclear Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

On the Front Lines of Nuclear Safety
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Jim Key’s blood ran cold a few years ago as he listened to a former worker at Chernobyl recount the explosion, fires and panic that swept through the power plant as the world’s worst nuclear disaster unfolded in April 1986.

The most wrenching part of the speaker’s conference presentation came when he saluted co-workers and first responders who fell sick and died in the weeks, months and years after exposure to the intensely radioactive environment.

The memory of that talk came flooding back to Key as Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine unleashed new risks at Chernobyl and underscored the heroic work of nuclear industry workers across the globe.

These workers normally operate behind the scenes in each country, outside the view of a public barely conscious of how much it relies on them to keep their communities safe.

That’s by design, explained Key, president of the United Steelworkers (USW) Atomic Energy Workers Council and former vice president at large of USW Local 8-550, noting the high level of confidentiality involved in the work.

“We just have always gone about it quietly. No fanfare, no ticker-tape parade,” he said, noting many of the USW members involved in this work have security clearances and cannot talk about their specific roles.

USW members at Paducah, Ky., and Portsmouth, Ohio, continue to decontaminate and decommission gaseous diffusion plants built in the 1950s to produce enriched uranium for the nation’s nuclear weapons program and power plants. Other USW members work on remediating the former plutonium production facility in Hanford, Wash., established during World War II as part of the Manhattan Project.

“These plants have provided a tremendous service to our nation, and the people who worked in them have been termed Cold War patriots,” explained Key, adding that USW members at these sites today still perform a dangerous duty breaking down contaminated plant components, shipping them out and undertaking many other kinds of clean-up work.

These workers—along with their USW siblings at other nuclear sites in Idaho, New Mexico and Tennessee—receive extensive training to detect radioactivity, operate sensitive equipment and ensure the integrity of work sites while keeping themselves as safe as possible. The USW’s Tony Mazzocchi Center even volunteered to train a new generation of radiation control technicians who work on the front lines of safety at sites like Paducah and Portsmouth.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together