The Power of Our Union; Rapid Response Activists Flex Their Muscle on Capitol Hill

Vern Beck of Local 12775 was at the Indiana State House for a rally in support of teachers when he learned that lawmakers were debating a bill that would help members of his local. 

When he took a detour to listen to legislators, Beck found an official with Northern Indiana Public Service Co., which employs Local 12775 members. He convinced company executives to pay for USW Rapid Response activists to travel to the capitol, where they convinced two lawmakers to change their stances on the bill, which passed out of committee by one vote.

“That is the power of our union,” International Vice President David McCall told the 700 USW member activists who traveled to Washington, D.C., in June for the Rapid Response, Legislative and Policy Conference. “This work is critical to keeping our facilities operating and our members on the job.”

It was the union’s largest gathering of Rapid Response activists and coordinators in a decade. Rapid Response is the USW’s nonpartisan education, communication, and action program. Through the union’s grassroots, nationwide network of activists, it provides members a powerful voice in government decisions in Washington, D.C., in state houses, and in cities and towns across the country. For nearly 30 years, activists in the program have made calls, written letters and visited with officials to lobby for pro-worker initiatives.

“Rapid Response,” program Director Amber Miller said, “is a direct reflection of the union’s core values.”

Four-Year Hiatus

While the 2023 Rapid Response conference was the first in-person meeting for the activists since October 2019, McCall and other USW leaders reminded members that, even though Covid prevented them from gathering, their important work never stopped.

In fact, the first day of the event was largely a celebration of several years of USW-led wins. Beck’s effort on behalf of Local 12775 was just one of scores of victories union activists achieved since their last in-person meeting. Since then, members successfully fought to preserve retirement security, secure more affordable health care, protect workers’ rights, ensure fair trade, and enact a host of other policies, while pushing back against attacks on workers that would result in plant closures or jobs shipped overseas.

Secretary-Treasurer John Shinn rattled off a long list of those victories, which included passage of the Butch-Lewis bill that secured the pensions of more than a million workers and retirees, including more than 100,000 USW members.

Other victories included passage of crucial COVID relief bills, the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure and jobs plan, the Inflation Reduction Act, and the CHIPS Act, which provided support for U.S. production of semiconductors and other technology vital to domestic supply chains.

“These things didn’t happen by accident,” Shinn told the crowd. “They happened because of the hard work of people in this room, and the hard work of the members of this union.”

Crowd of use supporters holding signs for worker's rights

Local, State Victories

The USW’s wins on a national scale helped to support the USW’s core values - including creating good jobs, safeguarding workers’ rights, improving health care, and preserving retirement security for  American families. Members also fought at the state and local level to ensure safe staffing in hospitals, support military veterans, pass “Buy America” laws, preserve organizing rights, and other important efforts.

International Vice President Roxanne Brown congratulated USW members in Michigan for their push earlier this year in overturning a so-called “right to work” law meant to crush unions by starving them of funds. In other states, including Montana, members successfully blocked passage of the same type of union-busting laws.

“We have a lot of wins,” Brown said. “But we have a lot more fights ahead of us.”

Those fights include pushing for passage of the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which would remove barriers to union organizing and increase penalties against union-busting employers, as well as the Leveling the Playing Field 2.0 Act, which would modernize the nation’s trade laws and provide new tools for workers to fight illegal imports.

Both pieces of legislation have bipartisan support and were centerpieces of USW members’ conversations with their representatives on Capitol Hill, which took place on the third and final day of the conference.

Buril Smith of Local 9231 in New Carlisle, Ind., said he has attended about 20 Rapid Response conferences and he’s still awed each time by the history on display in Washington, D.C.

“But you have to remember, this is our house,” Smith said. “This is our city, this is our town.”

On a rainy morning as they prepared to head to the Capitol to remind their lawmakers of that fact, USW members received a series of rallying cries from AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer and former USW leader Fred Redmond, along with a dozen labor-friendly members of Congress, about the importance of their lobbying mission.

U.S. Sen. John Fetterman said that he owes his career to the Steelworkers, who provided him with his first endorsement.

“I’ve carried it with me as a badge of honor ever since,” said the Pennsylvania Democrat, whose home sits across the street from U.S. Steel’sEdgar Thomson Works. “You have a friend with an unflinching devotion to your union.”

Capitol Office Visits

Dustin Hardisty, of Local 712 in Lewiston, Idaho, works as a bleach operator for Clearwater Paper. He was making his first visit to Capitol Hill as a Rapid Response activist, knowing that he might not always find a friendly ear from his lawmakers.

“I’m hoping they will keep an open mind, especially about trade,” Hardisty said as he made his way to lawmakers’ offices. The 11-year USW member was the only activist to make the trip from Idaho, but said he quickly connected with other members from around the country.

“It’s awesome,” Hardisty said of watching 700 Steelworkers march to Capitol Hill to fight for workers rights. “It makes you feel less alone.”

Fair Trade Fight

The issue of trade dominated the second day of the conference, with speakers and panel discussions that emphasized the importance of the USW’s vigilance on unfair imports, both for workers and for the communities in which they live.

U.S. House members Frank Mrvan, a Democrat from Indiana, and Bill Johnson, a Republican from Ohio, led a discussion on the subject, and agreed that passing the Leveling the Playing Field 2.0 bill was a priority for them and others in the 100-member Congressional Steel Caucus.

“China has disadvantaged American workers,” Johnson said. “That is apparent no more so than in the steel industry.”

Craig McKey of Local 1899 in Granite City, Ill., said hundreds of members at his U.S. Steel facility have seen the effects of unfair trade first hand over the past two decades. He said that current U.S. trade laws – which require petitioners to prove injury to workers before the government can impose remedies – are badly in need of an update.

“The hardship is already there before they can take any action,” McKey said.

In-Person Advantage

The fact that the conference took place in person for the first time in four years provided an opportunity for Chris Frydenger of Local 7-838 in Illinois and Jill Stough of Local 7248 in Ohio. It was the first time the pair met face to face, despite the fact that their employers’ and their locals’ fortunes are deeply intertwined.

Frydenger and his co-workers at Mueller Co. make fire hydrants and other water-distribution products. Their facility utilizes raw materials provided by Stough’s employer, Wieland Chase. In turn, Mueller ships scrap metal back to Weiland Chase, where it is melted down and re-used.

“Our orders drive their orders,” Frydenger said. “They’re not successful without us, and we’re not successful without them.”

Over the years, pressures from unfair imports have threatened jobs at both locations, but Rapid Response activism on that issue, as well as the push for infrastructure investments and “Made in America” policies, has helped ensure that workers at both sites have bright futures.

“That has helped us tremendously,” Stough said of the USW’s work. “Through the years, we have struggled due to dumping.”

USW Rapid Response showing up for members

Positive Public Opinion

In the days before they headed to the U.S. Capitol, members took part in training sessions, workshops and discussions aimed at sharpening their lobbying skills and arming them with information to support their work.

Shinn made sure members knew that support for unions among American workers is at an all-time high, and that they should use that information when arguing for the PRO Act.

Scott Paul, president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a partnership between the USW and employers, which advocates for “Buy America” policies and manufacturing jobs, told members that they were heading to Capitol Hill with public opinion squarely on their side. Scott shared statistics from a recent poll that showed that nearly 80 percent of American voters support “Buy America” laws, and nearly 90 percent support cracking down on unfair trade.

“They work for you,” Paul reminded members about their representatives in Congress. “You put them there. You are the strength of America.”

Pro-Union Policies

Jeff Vance, of Local 1155L at Bridgestone Tire in Tennessee, said that the strength of the nation’s pro-worker policies goes hand in hand with his and other USW members’ success in bargaining and organizing.

“I strongly believe in representing my local and trying to get the best for my local,” Vance said. “I know that has to be done through legislation.”

Press Inquiries

Media Contacts

Communications Director:
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Editor R.J. Hufnagel

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Call USW Communications at 412-562-2442

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