Category: From the USW International President

Course Correction

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“We avoided them,” he said.

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Investing in American Families

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yet life for Akron’s kids gets ever grimmer.

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

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

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

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Supplying America

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Supplying America
"We Supply America" bus tour

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Keeping Storms at Bay

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Keeping Storms at Bay
Hurricane Harvey flood damage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Best in the World

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Best in the World
Getty Images

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
Getty Images

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
Getty Images

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
Getty Images

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
Getty Images

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
Getty Images

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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Stronger Together

Stronger Together