The Union Way of Life; Ohio Pipe Mill Illustrates Need for Major Infrastructure Bill

Tony Ashcraft has worked at McWane Ductile Pipe in Coshocton, Ohio, for more than 23 years.

It’s his third job, and the third time he’s been a union member.

“Every job I have had, there has always been some type of union,” he said. “I don’t know if I could work in a non-union facility.”

Ashcraft, president of Local 7014, learned a long time ago the difference that the union makes for the workers at his plant and at other USW-represented facilities, fighting for better wages and benefits, secure retirements, safer workplaces and other protections.

‘We Supply America’

Now, besides securing those important contractual benefits, the USW has launched a plan of action – known as “We Supply America” – to enact a massive, nationwide federal infrastructure program that will provide a foundation of tens of thousands more good union jobs for decades to come. It’s another USW member-led fight of which Ashcraft is proud to be a part.

“To me, it’s very important because it will keep us working,” Ashcraft said of the “We Supply America” effort. “It keeps American products and American companies here.”

Local 7014 members make some of those vital products at their factory in Coshocton. The McWane facility produces ductile iron pipe used in water infrastructure, as well as utility poles used to provide electrical power to communities throughout the United States.

From the beginning, when raw, mostly recycled, materials are melted down, through the casting machines and annealing oven, to the finishing area where pipes are put through tests, painted and prepared for shipping, USW members play a central role throughout the pipe-making process.

American Jobs Plan

The Biden administration’s infrastructure proposal, known as the American Jobs Plan, includes billions of dollars to rebuild highways and bridges and upgrade airports, seaports and transit systems.

The plan also would modernize the nation’s water systems, revamp electrical grids and ensure high-speed internet access for all Americans, among many other initiatives.

The water and power system upgrades are the parts of the plan that would most directly benefit Ashcraft, his USW co-workers, and their neighbors.

Financial Ripple Effect

The McWane factory employs about 500 workers, including 320 USW members, but that number doesn’t begin to illustrate its importance to the people of Coshocton, a small town in eastern Ohio about halfway between the state capital of Columbus and the Pennsylvania border.

“These are good jobs,” Ashcraft said. “And in this town, there aren’t too many factories like this left.”

Chris Balo, who at 43 years of service is one of the plant’s most senior workers, said the strong union contract at McWane delivers the kind of wages and benefits that allow members to support their families, while also creating an economic ripple effect that provides a base for other businesses in town to thrive.

“At McWane, they do their best to keep us working even through the slow times,” said Balo, the local vice president. “That helps us all out around this little town of ours.”

Aging Infrastructure

An infrastructure investment of about $1.2 trillion, like the bipartisan agreement Biden has been negotiating this summer with members of Congress, would help out even more, workers say, both to rebuild the American economy and to bring the nation’s utility systems and other essential services fully into the 21st century.

“Our water system was built at the turn of the last century,” said Tom Crawford, vice president and general manager of the Coshocton facility.

Many Americans take their water supply for granted, he said, but the age of the nation’s water system makes it less reliable than it once was and puts the United States behind other first-world countries in terms of quality.

“Everything gets older,” said Local 7014 member Stephanie Adams. “Nothing lasts forever.”

Rebuilding the nation’s water delivery and wastewater infrastructure likely would mean a significant uptick in business for McWane, which already has been running near full capacity as communities begin to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Economists with Moody’s Analytics estimate that the American Jobs Plan would create at least 2.7 million more jobs over 10 years than the current economy is projected to create without such a plan.

“When the infrastructure plan does take off, we’re definitely going to need more people to keep up with the demand,” Ashcraft said.

Made in the USA

A crucial piece of any infrastructure legislation, USW members say, is to ensure that the materials used in rebuilding the country are made in the United States by union workers.

“It helps us, but it helps everybody else too,” said Jay Dawson, who has worked as a mold machinist in McWane’s maintenance department for more than 20 years.

Unfairly traded foreign-made products have been a major challenge for companies like McWane for decades. Overseas competitors have historically dumped cheap products into the U.S. pipe market in a bid to undercut domestic producers and claim a greater share of business for themselves.

The Biden infrastructure plan would make that fight easier by requiring materials used in federal infrastructure projects to be made in the United States and shipped on vessels staffed by American crews.

The fight to secure those kinds of protections has led Dawson and other Local 7014 members to travel to Washington, D.C., over the years to seek support for Buy American programs and fair trade remedies.

“We have competitors, obviously,” Dawson said. “But not only are we competing with them, but we’re fighting with foreign companies too, and we don’t need that.”

Workplace Safety

Besides standing up for fair trade, another subject on which USW members and management at McWane see eye to eye is in the area of workplace safety.

The company buys into the USW’s painstaking commitment to maintaining a healthy and safe work environment, said Dawson, who serves on the plant’s safety committee.

“They want to go forward, not backward,” Dawson said.

That means ensuring proper training for workers, supporting them when they raise their voices about potentially unsafe situations, and constantly being vigilant about the equipment and processes they employ to reduce the possibility of dangerous situations.

“Without the union here, that wouldn’t happen,” Ashcraft said.

Steelworkers’ Pride

That commitment to looking out for each other also extends to the products they make. That’s why the pipes that come out of the McWane facility are some of the best in the world, said Local 7014 member Scott Terrell.

“We take pride in what we make and send out the gate,” he said.

With that pride comes a commitment to top-of-the-line quality that USW members bring to the job each day.

“This is the hardest-working work force that I’ve ever worked with,” Crawford said.

Because of that hard work, McWane pipes – whether they are used to deliver water or electrical power – will stand the test of time, Balo said.

“This pipe will be in there for 100 years or better,” he said.

And, by extension, the workers at McWane hope that their facility will be there for the next 100 years continuing to serve the nation’s infrastructure needs.

To ensure that future, though, Congress must act quickly to put the American Jobs Plan in motion.

There’s been enough talk about infrastructure in recent years, members say. Now it’s time to get it done.

“If we don’t get something started now, I think it’s going to be too late,” Balo said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get caught back up with it.”

USW members must put pressure on their senators and representatives to vote for a comprehensive infrastructure plan that prioritizes good-paying, family-supporting union jobs like the ones at McWane, said District 1 Director Donnie Blatt.

“Factories like McWane are part of the backbone of this country,” Blatt said. “We need to support them and others like them so that we can build a strong, sustainable base for our economy for generations to come.”

It’s up to working people to make their voices heard on the issues of infrastructure and Buy American so that leaders inside and outside of Washington, D.C., get that message, Balo said.

“People have to wake up,” Balo said. “If they don’t, there may not be any jobs like this anymore.”

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