In midst of pandemic, USW adapts with virtual bargaining, arbitrations

Virtual Bargaining

International President Tom Conway reflects on how the union has had to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic with pride.

 “Our union has always been one of the best servicing unions around and has supported our members and their locals through grievance handling, contract negotiation and solving every-day problems,” Conway said. “It’s just one of the USW’s many strengths and this pandemic isn’t going to change that.” 
 
Despite social distancing, quarantine and lock downs, USW members, staff and leadership found creative ways to keep some of the most important work of the union going, even during a global pandemic.
 
Bargaining via Zoom, arbitrating over video conference, sharing contract language digitally and using conference calls and other technology for meetings and trainings are just some of the ways the union is now doing business.
 
“We continue to find ways to have our voices heard, even if it’s mostly Zoom these days,” said Emily Miller, a librarian at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, who’s a member of the committee bargaining their first contract with the employer. 
 
“Bargaining, achieving benefit improvements to address specific issues, safety committee meetings, demanding bargaining where necessary – these were all things we did as a union before COVID struck, but we are now using virtual platforms to carry forward this work,” said International Vice President Leeann Foster, who oversees paper bargaining.
 
Foster said despite the pandemic, the union has achieved first contracts, added additional benefits to assist our members with COVID expenses, stood up when companies have instituted COVID pay practices without bargaining and conducted safety and benefit meetings.
 
“The work doesn’t stop for our members and we are committed to finding continuous ways to adapt, learn and continue to serve the union’s interests,” Foster said.
 
Starting next week, International Vice President Dave McCall will lead video conferences arbitrations at ArcelorMittal regarding our Layoff Minimization Plans for plants in Indiana, Cleveland and Coatesville. 
 
Because Libbey Glass has filed for bankruptcy, our local union leadership and staff in Shreveport, La.,  and Toledo, Ohio,  are beginning to bargain CBAs. It is anticipated that some of the discussion will be via video in order to coordinate bargaining between four  USW locals and an IAM unit. The union also quickly made a web site to keep locals in the loop and instituted a text messaging system to be able to quickly share updates.
 
International Vice President Fred Redmond has used video technology to keep in touch with the Health Care Workers Council, members who are doing life-saving work during the pandemic, as well as important bargaining with health care employers, along with staff Tamara Lefcowitz.
 
“Our members on the frontlines never stopped working and need us more than ever during the coronavirus outbreak, so it was reassuring to know we could continue working hard on their behalf even during quarantine and government-mandated office closures,” Lefcowitz said. “We were even able to provide health and safety and mental health training virtually for our health care members.”
 
The union quickly created an online COVID-19 resource page, which is often updated with the latest health and safety information. Members can also use the online form to report health and safety concerns. 
 
District 7 Director Mike Millsap is among those who has set up arbitrations by video during the past few months. In his district, Local 6787 President Pete Trinidad with members of the local’s executive board are preparing to do arbitrations using video conferencing software. The local also uses text messaging to send information, including pandemic-related news,  to its more than 2,000 members.
 
"The world is changing. Unions are changing. The way we communicate with our members must change with it. Here at 6787, we believe protecting our membership is of the utmost importance. We are in the development phase with our local IT team to research the best and safest technology available to provide our members with current, real time information,” Trinidad said.
 
In our paper sector, some union staff and locals are bargaining some of the smaller contracts through virtual platforms.
 
"We didn't let a global pandemic or political unrest stop us from doing our core work: we continued to bargain, meeting with the company via video conference instead of physically across from a table. This was a first for us, but I'm proud of our union for not giving up,” said Local 264 President John O'Neil in St. Paul, Minnesota, who was part of the team bargaining with WestRock.
 
O’Neil’s staff representative, District 11’s Brian Ecker, agreed.
 
“It's reassuring to know that our union didn't skip a beat,” Ecker said. “We do what we always do: get to work for our members and their families, overcoming whatever obstacles we have to overcome in order to remain a voice for working people, especially now when they need us most."
 
 Virtual Arbitration

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