Category: From the USW International President

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Voting to Continue America’s Progress

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Voting to Continue America’s Progress
Getty Images

Al Polk will bid his wife goodbye on Oct. 11 and set out for New Hampshire with boots, gloves, heavy coat, windshield scraper and shovel in the trunk of his Chevy Impala.

As the weather grows colder over the next few weeks, the fight for America’s future will also reach a turning point. And there’s no way the 79-year-old will let brutal temperatures, ice or snowstorms impede his efforts to turn out Granite State voters for the crucial Nov. 8 election.

Polk, a Massachusetts resident and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), is among thousands of union activists across the country committed to knocking on doors, handing out leaflets and organizing rallies to support the pro-worker candidates needed to continue moving America forward the next two years.

“I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t believe in it,” declared Polk, who served as president of his United Steelworkers (USW) local at Cleveland Twist Drill in Mansfield, Mass., for 20 years and then worked on the union staff before retiring in 2015.

Polk has volunteered for election work in New Hampshire for decades.

He’s lived in hotels for weeks at a stretch, just as he intends to do again this year. He’s endured drenching rain as well as early winter snowstorms forcing him to shovel out his car before long days of door-knocking.

He’s talked with thousands of fellow union members, securing untold votes with his respectful doorstep advocacy, and handed out thousands of flyers at USW-represented workplaces like the Manchester Water Works, New Hampshire Ball Bearings in Laconia and 3M in Tilton.

And while every election has its pivotal issues—the Democrats’ tireless work on invigorating the economy and growing the middle class proved decisive factors in 2020, for example—Polk cannot remember another time when voters in New Hampshire and throughout the country faced so stark a choice as they do this year.

“Keep the forward movement or stand still,” explained Polk, who expects to log many miles traveling around the state to highlight the string of accomplishments that pro-worker officials and their union allies racked up since President Joe Biden took office just 20 months ago.

That list of accomplishments includes the American Rescue Plan, which provided the child care assistance and other support that families needed to survive the COVID-19 pandemic while also saving the retirements of 1.3 million Americans enrolled in faltering multiemployer pension plans.

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Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government
Getty Images

When a group of custodians in York County, South Carolina, learned their bosses planned to sell them out to save a few pennies, they knew exactly who to turn to for help—a fellow worker who’d walked in the very same shoes.

County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) and a former custodian himself, assured the county workers that he had their backs. Roddey ultimately helped quash the scheme to contract out the county’s janitorial services, a victory both for the custodians and the taxpayers relying on their quality work.

Electing more union members like Roddey to councils and mayoral posts will help to combat right-wing attacks on workers and hold local government accountable to the ordinary people it’s intended to serve.

“We speak for the American worker,” Roddey, a member of USW Local 1924 who works at New-Indy Containerboard, said of union members. “We speak for the middle class. The agenda is not about us if we are not at the table.”

If the county had privatized cleaning services, any small budgetary savings would have paled next to the pain inflicted on the custodians, Roddey said, noting officials out of touch with working people “don’t too quickly grasp these scenarios.”

“The perspective of the people who sign the front of the paycheck is different from the perspective of the people who sign the back of the paycheck,” said Roddey, whose colleagues on the council include three business owners. “I bring that back-of-the-paycheck perspective to everything I do.”

Attacks on working people aren’t unique to South Carolina.

After the school board in Putnam, Conn., contracted out custodial services, for example, workers lost access to their pension system even though they’d been promised no change in benefits.

In recent months, USW-represented school bus drivers in Bay City, Mich., beat back efforts to contract out their work, while union members in Los Angeles County, California, won their own fight against privatization.

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The Path Forward for Communities Like Lost Creek

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Path Forward for Communities Like Lost Creek
Getty Images

Carl Asher clung to a wooden post on his porch for three hours—yelling for help in the darkness, water lapping at his neck —before risking it all.

He threw himself into the torrent below and, guided by a neighbor’s spotlight, swam several hundred feet against a punishing current to high ground. Asher and his wife, Tonya, a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who was at work at the time, lost their home, five vehicles, a camper, and their 12-year-old cat, Ebony, in historic flooding that killed 39 and obliterated parts of Eastern Kentucky in July.

Climate change rendered these communities and countless others across the country vulnerable to increasingly frequent and powerful storms.

The nation long responded to these calamities with patchwork repairs that failed to provide lasting improvements or real protection. But now, America’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is delivering the stronger, more resilient roads, broadband networks and water systems that comprehensively guard against not only floods but wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters.

The IIJA, which President Joe Biden signed in November, earmarks billions for flood prevention and mitigation projects alone. That includes shoring up dilapidated dams, strengthening coastal defenses, overhauling the stormwater systems needed to manage heavy rains, relocating drinking water lines out of flood zones and upgrading sewer systems to prevent the overflows that occur during major storms.

And the IIJA includes funds for dredging long-neglected waterways, while also allocating hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to a program that elevates homes in at-risk areas so that others will be spared what the Ashers and other Kentuckians endured this summer.

The couple, longtime residents of the small community called Lost Creek, completed a screened-in porch and a concrete driveway and added to a memory garden dedicated to their late son, Matthew, in the months before the flood.

The water rose so rapidly that night that Carl Asher dropped a box of valuables he had gathered and shimmied up the porch for safety. The flood eventually triggered a fire, which caused the second floor to collapse into the first and ended any hope of saving their home of 16 years.

“If I was there, I would not have survived. I cannot swim. I would not have made it,” said Tonya Asher, a member of USW Local 14637 who works at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare medical center in nearby Hazard, Ky., noting the current her husband battled was so strong it “literally ripped his clothes off of him. By the time he reached the neighbors, he was just shaking.”

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Making Worker Power A Constitutional Right

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Making Worker Power A Constitutional Right
Getty Images

Chris Frydenger’s young co-workers at the Mueller Co. performed the same work and brought the same dedication to their jobs as he did, but the manufacturer’s two-tier wage system exploited newer hires by paying them thousands less each year.

Outraged by the unfairness, Frydenger and the entire membership of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838 in Decatur, Ill., took a stand during contract negotiations a few years ago and not only beat back the inequitable pay system but won younger members catch-up raises of more than 21 percent.

That collective victory remains one of the proudest moments in Frydenger’s life. And now it’s fueling his fight to make worker power a constitutional right in his home state.

A Nov. 8 referendum will give Illinois voters the opportunity to enact a “Workers’ Rights Amendment” to the state constitution, enshrining in the state’s highest law Illinoisans’ freedom to join unions and bargain collectively for better lives while also barring future legislation that would erode worker strength.

The ballot question passed the Legislature on a bipartisan basis last year, a sign of how much the measure reflects the people’s will. As they educate more voters about the referendum, Frydenger and other activists find almost unanimous support for a measure that would give workers greater control of their destinies, beyond the clutches of CEOs, pro-corporate politicians and other anti-labor forces.

“I can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t be in support of this,” said Frydenger, grievance chair and Rapid Response coordinator for Local 7-838, who’s canvassing neighborhoods, distributing leaflets and making phone calls to make sure workers know that their very futures are on the ballot this year.

The Workers’ Rights Amendment would help future generations negotiate the family-supporting wages needed to sustain the middle class and the nation’s economy. It would safeguard Illinoisans’ right to a voice on the job, including the freedom to call out unsafe working conditions without fear of reprisal.

And it would ensure workers can band together, as Frydenger and his colleagues did, to hold employers accountable. Frydenger recalled the local’s negotiating committee tossing a pile of worker surveys on the bargaining table—all demanding elimination of the two-tier wage system—and telling management there’s no way union members would ever vote for a contract that retained it.

The constitutional amendment has deep emotional meaning to Frydenger, who observed that it would confer “sacred,” “fundamental” and “essential” status on workers’ rights at a time that more and more Americans view union membership as the path forward.

“Every time I turn on the news, I see an Amazon location or another Starbucks store voting in a union,” he said, noting a new Gallup poll this week showed that 71 percent of Americans support organized labor, the most since 1965.

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Fighting the Shadow Pandemic

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Fighting the Shadow Pandemic
Getty Images

Losing two co-workers to domestic violence over a three-year span left Emily Brannon and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L reeling.

But their grief, Brannon noted, also launched them on a quest to save others. They helped to negotiate paid domestic violence leave into their contract with Bridgestone-Firestone, enabling other colleagues experiencing intimate partner violence to step away, focus on getting safe and return to work when they’re able to do so.

As intimate partner violence continues to increase, the unions that protect workers on the job are also fighting to keep them safe when they go home.

Brannon’s USW local in Des Moines, Iowa, is one of dozens in the United States and Canada with contract language providing domestic violence survivors with the resources crucial to breaking free of their abusers.

And the drive to empower survivors continues to grow. The USW just ratified contracts with two major employers in the paper sector, Domtar and Packaging Corp. of America (PCA), that extend similar protections and resources to thousands more workers at dozens of mills and box plants.

“I think it shows that we’re sensitive to the issues of our members,” explained Brannon, treasurer of Local 310L and a member of the local’s Women of Steel committee, who knew both of the members fatally shot by their abusers between 2014 and 2017. “We have a very diverse workforce and a diverse membership, and there are a variety of issues outside of work that the members may be dealing with.”

“Any time we can address a safety issue, we will. That’s one of the reasons you have a union in the first place,” added Brannon, noting the union also honors the members lost to domestic violence through a partnership with Soaring Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit in Des Moines advocating for victims of violence.

Domestic violence increased significantly with the lockdowns, economic strain and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming known as the “shadow pandemic.” In all, about 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men across the United States have experienced “severe physical violence” from intimate partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Financial security is key to helping survivors leave abusive partners and stay away from them. “There’s a lot on the line,” Brannon said, noting many survivors also have to provide for children.

Union-negotiated domestic violence leave helps to bridge this need. It provides paid or unpaid time off for court appearances, relocation, counseling and more, enabling survivors to attend to pressing obligations without expending vacation or sick days.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together