Category: From the USW International President

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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Going Big on Infrastructure

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Going Big on Infrastructure
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Chris Sova and his co-workers at Bay County Medical Care Facility endured years of staffing shortages before COVID-19 made a grim situation even worse.

Workers sacrificed vacations and other personal time to keep the Essexville, Mich., facility operating as patients and staff members fell ill to the coronavirus and management struggled to recruit reinforcements.

Just like a road can be patched only so many times before falling apart, America’s battered health care system and other long-neglected infrastructure can no longer continue functioning with Band-Aids and stopgap fixes.

That’s why President Joe Biden’s $2 trillion American Jobs Plan not only earmarks money for crumbling highways and bridges but makes much-needed investments in school buildings, education and training, hospitals and airports, water systems, utilities, broadband, manufacturing facilities and health care services that are strained to the breaking point.  

All require attention now because they work together like cement to keep society functioning.

“If you don’t have healthy people, you don’t need roads,” remarked Sova, a licensed practical nurse, third-generation nursing home worker and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 15301-1.

The pandemic underscored America’s need both to make major investments in infrastructure and to take the sweeping, holistic approach that Biden laid out.

For example, it’s crucial to revitalize manufacturing supply chains to ensure the nation can produce sufficient supplies of face masks and other critical items, upgrade transportation systems to speedily move goods around the country, modernize school facilities to produce globally competitive citizens and build the communications networks that enable Americans to learn and work from anywhere.

And the pandemic, which so far has claimed more than 561,000 lives and infected about 31 million people in the U.S., not only showed the importance of providing affordable health insurance but creating a more robust health care system with the capacity to meet Americans’ needs.

“It’s collapsing right now,” Sova said of the nation’s health care infrastructure.

He noted that facilities and providers around the country need higher Medicaid reimbursement rates so they can recruit adequate numbers of workers, provide decent wages and benefits, combat understaffing, improve workplace safety, offer opportunities for advancement and put an end to the grueling overtime that’s dangerous both for caregivers and the people they serve.

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America’s Supply Chain Crisis

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Supply Chain Crisis
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Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic’s Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation’s prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the “brains” of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it also will require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That’s why it’s crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

“It’s that ripple effect,” said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. “If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can’t get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country.”

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturersof other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come as the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

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Ending Callous Delays

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Ending Callous Delays
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Workers at Solvay’s Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union’s proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

“They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us,” said USW Local 13-227 President Steve “Tote” Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his co-workers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together