Posts from Tom Conway

The Threat of Supreme Injustice

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Threat of Supreme Injustice

Joe Oliveira and his co-workers relied greatly on donations of food and gift cards after going on an unfair labor practice strike against multibillion-dollar specialty steelmaker ATI in 2021.

They cut household expenses to the bone, burned through their savings despite the public’s generous support of their cause, and held fundraisers to help one another cover mortgages and car payments during 3½ months on the picket line.

As much as the strike tested workers, however, it pressured ATI even more and ultimately enabled Oliveira and more than 1,300 other members of the United Steelworkers (USW) to secure long-overdue raises and stave off the company’s attempt to gut benefits.

Corporations so fear this kind of worker power that they’re asking the U.S. Supreme Court to rig the scales and help them kill future strikes before they even begin.

Glacier Northwest, a company in the state of Washington, sued the International Brotherhood of Teamsters seeking compensation for ready-mix concrete that went to waste amid a weeklong drivers’ strike in 2017.

The Washington Supreme Court threw out the case, but Glacier Northwest appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, betting a right-wing majority that’s already proven its animosity toward unions will seize the opportunity to kick working people once again.

Corporations anticipate that a ruling in favor of Glacier Northwest will encourage a frenzy of similarly frivolous claims against unions nationwide, bleeding precious resources and eviscerating workers’ right to strike.

The justices held arguments on the case Jan. 10 but it’s not known when the court will rule.

“That’s our greatest strength,” said Oliveira, vice president of USW Local 1357 in New Bedford, Mass., pointing out that the right to strike helped working people over many decades win not only fair wages but retirement security, safer working conditions and fairness on the job.

“It’s rotten when it comes to that point,” he said. “It’s very hard on families. It’s not any fun. But I think it’s probably the greatest weapon we have in our arsenal.”

More ...

A Sacred Pact with Working Families

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Sacred Pact with Working Families
Getty Images

Cliff Carlton was the 10th of 11 children and one of three still living at home when his father, a coal miner, died unexpectedly at 67.

Only his dad’s Social Security benefits, along with vegetables from the family’s small farm in southwestern Virginia, kept the household afloat during the lean years that followed.

That battle for survival made Carlton a lifelong champion of Social Security and a tireless opponent of the Republicans in Congress who keep trying to kill this lifeline for the middle class.

“It’s not a gift. It’s money that we’re due,” explained Carlton, vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 8-UR2 and president of the Virginia Alliance for Retired Americans.

“We put money into it. We deserve it back,” continued Carlton, 70, a retired tire manufacturing worker and longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who’s attended rallies and lobbied Congress on behalf of Social Security for 30 years.

Republicans long hoped to privatize Social Security, preferring to gamble Americans’ futures on the stock market rather than force the wealthy to pay their fair share of the taxes needed to sustain the program. Fortunately, congressional Democrats, union members and other Americans torpedoed these schemes.

But now there’s a new threat. To secure enough votes to become speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy toadied to extremist Republicans whose demands for radical budget cuts once again put Social Security and Medicare at risk.

Pro-corporate Republicans openly plot to cut Social Security benefits and raise the retirement age, moves that would force millions of Americans to work longer and delay their retirements. Some Republicans even want to gut the current funding formula, slashing payments to Americans with other income, regardless of how much they pay into the program.

The National Committee to Preserve Social Security & Medicare warns that this kind of con, called means-testing, would end Social Security as Americans know it and take benefits even from those with “very modest incomes.”

“If you lose something, you don’t ever get it back,” observed Carlton, who fears that Republican toying with Social Security will break seniors already living on the margins amid skyrocketing medical costs and mounting bills stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic.

More ...

Building the Essential Supply Chain

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Building the Essential Supply Chain
Getty Images

Matt Thomas was driving Interstate 75 through the Detroit area about two years ago when he caught his first glimpse of “dead” cars—the partially manufactured vehicles marooned on sprawling factory lots amid the shortage of microchips needed for the autos’ safety, entertainment and GPS systems.

The sight sickened Thomas not only because his own set of wheels was getting along in years but because he recognized that he and other union workers stand ready to meet America’s growing demand for ever-more-sophisticated chips.

Federal legislation enacted in August is finally empowering workers for this crucial role. The CHIPS and Science Act, which unions and their Democratic allies pushed through Congress, invests billions to ramp up semiconductor manufacturing across the country and build out the supply chains providing essential materials, parts and components to chip makers.

That will end America’s dangerous over-reliance on foreign chip producers, whose pandemic-related production disruptions and inability to meet surging demand continue to stymie production of new vehicles. Strengthening the nation’s semiconductor industry also will ensure a more reliable supply of the chips needed for many other kinds of consumer goods, along with communications networks, energy systems and the military equipment essential for national security.

The legislation already sparked dozens of manufacturing projects with the potential to create tens of thousands of good-paying jobs all along supply chains.

“There’s no reason why we can’t have these made domestically. There’s no reason why we should have to depend on someone else for production,” said Thomas, a steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12075-24, noting he and his co-workers look for the legislation to boost demand for products like the semiconductor resin they make at a DuPont plant in Midland, Mich.

Manufacturers continually strive to add brainpower to electronic devices, and the advanced packaging resin produced by Local 12075-24 members helps to accomplish this goal. Information on and among chips speeds “up and down, back and forth” with the resin, known as Cyclotene, explained Thomas.

These and other supply chain links are so critical to a robust semiconductor industry that Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer chose a USW-represented glass plant in Canton, N.Y., as a backdrop for promoting the CHIPS and Science Act shortly after President Joe Biden signed the legislation in August.

“It’s incredibly important what our plant does,” said Anthony Badlam, president of USW Local 1026, whose members at the Corning facility make specialty glass that’s used as lenses in machines that imprint information on chips.

More ...

Living Proof

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Living Proof
Getty Images

James Boutcher seized control of his future several years ago when foreign dumping cost him his entry-level position amid a series of job cuts at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Ky.

He enrolled in the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program, went back to school to become an electrician and graduated with high-demand skills affording lasting protection in an evolving economy.

Now, on the heels of yet another wave of layoffs at Century Aluminum, Boutcher wants Republicans in Congress to join Democrats in quickly reestablishing TAA so hundreds of other workers have the same opportunity he did to start over.

Century Aluminum began idling the smelter in June, citing rising energy costs sparked by Russia’s war on Ukraine. TAA expired at the very same time amid the lack of Republican support, leaving about 500 members of USW Local 9423 at the Hawesville plant—and a growing number of other Americans harmed by globalization—to fend for themselves.

“It needs to be there,” Boutcher said of TAA, which Congress created decades ago to assist workers who lose their livelihoods because of the adverse effects of world trade. “If anyone has any doubts, I’m living proof.”

The importance of the program only continues to grow because of the war in Ukraine, foreign competitors’ efforts to subvert fair trade laws and other factors outside workers’ control. In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled 107,000 additional workers, up 12 percent from 2020, with many of the new participants living in states like Texas, Nebraska and Wisconsin where Republicans so far refuse to support the program.

TAA covered tuition, books, mileage, supplies and other expenses for displaced workers who opted to go to college or trade school so they could upskill, as Boutcher did, or change career paths.

The program provided case management, career counseling and job search services. And it provided relocation assistance to workers who had to move for new employment and temporary wage support to eligible workers whose new jobs paid less than their previous ones.

“I was not out a penny,” said Boutcher, recalling how a counselor at Owensboro Community and Technical College regularly reviewed his grades to ensure his compliance with TAA requirements and keep him on the path to graduation.

The program bought tools he needed for hands-on learning and enabled him to take extra classes so that, on top of his associate degree focusing on industrial electricity, he graduated with knowledge of residential and commercial work.

More ...

Investing in Workers’ Rights

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Investing in Workers’ Rights
Getty Images

Some workers began delaying doctor’s appointments and others started delving deeply into their pockets for care when Tecnocap illegally slashed health benefits at its Glen Dale, W.Va., manufacturing plant last year.

One worker even put thousands of dollars of chemotherapy charges on credit cards to save his wife’s life.

Lisa Wilds, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 152M, assured her colleagues that the company would be held accountable for the harm it inflicted on them. And just as she anticipated, a National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) administrative law judge issued a ruling in August that ordered Tecnocap to reinstate the old health plan and reimburse workers, with interest, for all expenses they incurred because of the company’s wrongdoing.

When employers like Tecnocap break the law, workers rely on the NLRB to enforce their rights. But a funding crisis imperils that mission at a time more and more Americans need the agency’s protection.

The NLRB hasn’t had an increase in its $274 million annual budget since the 2014 fiscal year, even though its workload skyrocketed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Union organizing drives, overseen by the NLRB, increased 53 percent over the past year as workers in manufacturing, e-commerce, health care and numerous other industries banded together for the higher wages, affordable health care, paid sick leave and other advantages that only collective action can deliver.

Employers doubled down on misconduct amid this wave of worker empowerment, with unfair labor practice charges—the complaints workers file when companies violate their rights—increasing 19 percent during the same 12-month period.

Fortunately, the NLRB stepped in to save the jobs of workers illegally fired for union activity, force companies to bargain in good faith and prohibit employers from spying on and demeaning workers.

“There is no way to put into words the value and importance of the NLRB,” explained Wilds, who stands to recoup about $7,000 herself after the agency ordered Tecnocap to reimburse the workers for medical bills.

This was just one of numerous times she and her co-workers turned to the NLRB for help over the years. In 2018, for example, Tecnocap illegally locked out workers for nine days, refusing to let them work, in an effort to break the union during contract negotiations.

More ...

Warnock Stands with Working People

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Warnock Stands with Working People

Michael McMullen spent years agonizing over the failing pension plan that put his golden years at risk.

He wrote numerous postcards and made countless phone calls urging Congress to step in and safeguard his future. But not until he and fellow Georgians elected Raphael Warnock to the Senate last year did the Democrats have the final vote needed to pass legislation stabilizing that plan and other multiemployer pension funds on the brink of collapse.

Warnock saved McMullen’s retirement and that of 1.3 million other Americans—then cast scores of other votes that helped to shift the nation’s trajectory from peril to progress. Now, re-electing Warnock in Georgia’s Dec. 6 runoff is crucial to continuing the country’s hard-fought path forward.

“He’s for the working class, for the middle class,” summed up McMullen, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1703, which represents workers at the Georgia-Pacific paper mill in Cedar Springs, Ga., who are already benefiting from the pension-saving provisions of the American Rescue Plan that Warnock pushed over the goal line in March 2021.

McMullen and other union members had grown increasingly alarmed over the years about their paper industry pension plan, one of about 130 multiemployer retirement funds hurtling toward insolvency because of Wall Street recklessness, corporate bankruptcies and other factors outside workers’ control.

Some of his co-workers already delayed retirement to build up savings in case the fund went broke, while others worried about meager retirements in which they’d have to choose between buying food or prescriptions.

“They were really worried about it,” McMullen said, adding that the plan’s impending failure also portended the demise of stores and restaurants relying on retirees for business. “It would have been like a mill closing.”

Unions and their Democratic allies repeatedly attempted to save the plans, but the pro-corporate Republicans in control of the Senate blocked all efforts to safeguard the futures that many workers and retirees had spent decades building.

Warnock’s election last year—he won a seat previously held by a Republican—helped to give Democrats the razor-thin Senate majority needed to finally pass the pension legislation without a single Republican’s support.

“It took every Democratic vote. If they didn’t have that one vote, they couldn’t have passed it,” McMullen said of Warnock, recalling how the anxiety that he and others harbored about their pensions vanished in an instant.

More ...

Union Solidarity Is Driving Better Health Care

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Union Solidarity Is Driving Better Health Care
Getty Images

Alyssa Stout and her 800 co-workers banded together to keep Oroville Hospital open throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, working around the clock to save countless lives.

But these union members didn’t stop there. They brought that same unwavering solidarity to the bargaining table earlier this year and won a new contract with safety enhancements and other provisions designed to leave the work force, the hospital and their Northern California community stronger than before.

Stout and her colleagues are among thousands of union health care workers nationwide who are harnessing the collective power they forged during the pandemic to dramatically improve America’s system of care.

“I feel we have more leverage now than we ever did before, just because people realize we’re needed,” said Stout, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9600 and an X-ray technologist at Oroville, recalling how union workers put their lives on the line and pulled their communities through the crisis.

“People realize, in general, now how important the health care community is,” she continued, noting local residents signed petitions, reposted the union’s social media messages and took other actions to support the workers’ recent contract negotiations. “It all kind of trickles down. People want to see us being treated well so they’re treated well. We were fighting for everyone.”

Hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities wrestled with turnover long before the pandemic, partly because they tried to save money on the backs of workers in crucial but long under-appreciated departments such as environmental services and dietary. But nurses, certified nursing assistants and other caregivers couldn’t have saved COVID-19 victims without the contributions of colleagues who sanitized rooms and prepared nutritious meals.

So workers at Oroville stood together for a contract providing significant raises to all union members, underscoring the collective effort essential to operating the hospital and ensuring patients continued access to an experienced, stable work force committed to delivering ever better care across every department.

The contract also establishes a labor-management safety committee that gives a real voice to the front-line workers who best know how to address the hazards they and their patients face every day. Union members provided management with photos documenting cluttered hallways and blocked fire exits, driving home the need for collective vigilance and worker input in a part of the country where a wildfire destroyed another hospital just a few years ago.

“Our safety has to be a priority. Otherwise, we can’t be there for the patients we care about,” observed Stout, noting the challenges of the pandemic fostered greater cohesion and tenacity that union members brought to bear at the bargaining table.

More ...

Watching Workers’ Backs on Trade

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Watching Workers’ Backs on Trade

Lamar Wilkerson and his co-workers at U.S. Steel’s Fairfield Tubular Operations help to lead the battle for America’s energy security, producing the top-quality pipe that keeps oil, natural gas and other products flowing through vast distribution networks.

But as workers at the Alabama plant labor to build out this critical infrastructure, they face an insidious threat. Foreign countries quietly dump cheap tubular goods in U.S. markets, putting their jobs and the nation’s safety at risk.

Fortunately, workers can count on pro-union officials like U.S. Reps. Frank Mrvan of Indiana and Tim Ryan of Ohio to stand with them in the fight for fair trade.

Just last week, the United Steelworkers (USW) and congressional allies won key protections for the Fairfield workers—and their counterparts at other pipe manufacturers across the country—with a U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) ruling triggering duties on unfairly traded tubular goods from Argentina, Mexico, Russia and South Korea.

“We want to keep everything American made,” explained Wilkerson, president of USW Local 1013, which represents hundreds of workers at Fairfield. “That’s what built this country. That’s what needs to continue to build this country.”

The ITC determined—based on evidence provided by the USW and others—that American workers have been “materially injured” by the unfair imports of these oil country tubular goods (OCTG). Russia and South Korea illegally subsidized the production of these items and acted, along with the other two countries, to dump these products in the United States at artificially low prices and steal market share from U.S. pipe manufacturers.

“As the Co-Chairman of the Congressional Steel Caucus, I am committed to continuing to do everything possible to ensure that bad actors and countries that cheat know that American trade laws will be fully enforced,” Mrvan said in arguing for the duties during a hearing before the ITC in September. “We must continue to work to ensure that all American workers and the domestic pipe and tube industry are able to compete on a level playing field.”

The new duties on imports will not only rebalance the scales, giving Wilkerson and his colleagues a fair shot at competing with foreign suppliers, but also facilitate the continued safe and reliable development of domestic energy supplies.

Union members at Fairfield and other plants take great pride in making products “of the best quality,” Wilkerson said, noting workers manufacture a “line pipe” for carrying the oil or gas as well as a casing that provides additional security for distribution networks.

Some of these pipelines link production fields to refineries and chemical and petrochemical plants, while others deliver energy to customers. Because these lines traverse waterways, residential neighborhoods and other sensitive areas, the nation has strong incentive to rely on only the strongest, most dependable components.

More ...

The Infrastructure Program’s Chain Reaction

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Infrastructure Program’s Chain Reaction

Chris Frydenger and his co-workers at the Mueller Co. in Decatur, Ill., began ramping up production of valves, couplings and other products used in water and gas systems soon after President Joe Biden signed the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) last year.

But the life-changing impact of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure program really struck Frydenger, grievance chair for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838, when management reached out to the union with an unprecedented proposal.

The company asked to reopen the local’s contract and negotiate an additional pay increase so it could hire and retain enough workers to meet the dramatic spike in orders. “Everybody in the union got a raise,” Frydenger recalled.

Historic improvements to America’s roads, bridges, airports, public utilities and communications networks have generated surging demand for aluminum and steel as well as raw materials like nickel and ore and the pipes, batteries, valves and other components needed for thousands of infrastructure projects.

That demand, in turn, continues to create family-sustaining jobs, put more money in workers’ pockets and lift the middle class, just as labor unions and their Democratic allies predicted when they pushed the legislation through Congress and onto Biden’s desk.

“This story needs to be told, for sure. It at least doubled our business in a short period of time,” said Frydenger, noting the local’s 408 members not only received middle-of-the-contract pay increases but continue to avail themselves of all the overtime they want.

Workers use that extra money to buy cars and appliances, remodel their houses and support local businesses, among many other purposes, helping to extend the IIJA’s reach to virtually every segment of the local economy.

“It’s had such an impact that in our new hire orientations, our general manager talks about it,” Frydenger said of the IIJA. “That’s how big an impact it’s had on sales. He gives all the credit to the infrastructure bill.”

The billions allocated for drinking water, sewer and stormwater upgrades will enable utilities across the nation to extend distribution systems, replace aging pipes, curtail runoff and address lead and other contaminants. And investments in natural gas infrastructure—as well as solar, wind and hydrogen power—will help the country build a more secure, reliable energy base.

Domestic procurement requirements in the infrastructure law will ensure these projects rely on products such as those made at the Decatur plant. What makes Frydenger happier still is knowing that his union brothers and sisters up and down the supply chain also have brighter futures because of the infrastructure push.

More ...

Solidarity Lifts Workers over Life’s Struggles

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Solidarity Lifts Workers over Life’s Struggles
Photo courtesy of Mayra Rivera

Navigating washed-out roads and piles of debris, Mayra Rivera quickly began checking on co-workers and neighbors after Hurricane Fiona battered Puerto Rico last month.

Rivera, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8198, realized she’d spend months if not years helping the island navigate a daunting cleanup and recovery process. But her immediate goal was ensuring community members had the basics:

Safe food. Clean drinking water. And, just as important, a shoulder for survivors to lean on as they began picking up the pieces of their shattered lives.

While labor unions continue their traditional fights for decent wages, affordable health care and safe working conditions, they’re also stepping up to help workers manage stress and the threats to mental health that they encounter on and off the job.

Rivera, whose local represents municipal workers in the southern coastal city of Ponce, collaborated with the USW’s Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety and Environmental Education in recent years to deliver disaster and mental resilience training to island communities pummeled by a string of hurricanes and earthquakes.

The training includes techniques for helping families prepare physically and psychologically for disasters, such as assembling “go bags” to sustain them in case of extended evacuations. The program, adapted from resources and materials developed by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences Worker Training Program, also helps to boost residents’ safety and confidence by demonstrating how to guard against contaminants, downed power lines and other hazards that hurricanes leave in their wake.

And the training showcases strategies—like providing social support, as Rivera offered in Fiona’s aftermath—to help survivors maintain the resilience essential to persevering after tragedy strikes. Rivera knows that the same solidarity that lifts up workers on the job also can help disaster survivors get through their darkest days.

“They start talking and talking and talking. They need to talk. People need to be heard,” said Rivera, recalling how eagerly residents related their experiences to her after Fiona knocked out power to the entire island, destroyed infrastructure and flattened entire communities.

Providing this kind of outlet is especially critical, she noted, to maintain hope among people who were still trying to bounce back from 5-year-old Hurricane Maria when Fiona walloped them again.

Tarps still covered thousands of homes that lost their roofs during Maria. Fiona destroyed some of the same infrastructure all over again. The wave of disasters created a looming mental health crisis that Rivera says her union is well suited to help address.

More ...

Stronger Together

Stronger Together