Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

At Risk of Collapse

At Risk of Collapse
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So many people with COVID-19 sought treatment at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in recent months that the hospital triaged patients in a tent outside the facility and set up a makeshift ward in the main lobby.

Many workers put in 14- and 16-hour shifts to keep the Southern California facility operating during the crisis, with some comforting the dying and others volunteering to use their Spanish skills to help communicate with bereft family members over the phone.

But instead of recognizing workers who risked their lives and pushed themselves to exhaustion, the hospital compounded the strain by demanding concessions and dragging out contract negotiations for more than a year.

Around the country, hospitals continue to stretch workers to the breaking point and put the entire health care system at risk.

“The fact is that without us, the hospitals have no one,” observed Alma Garzon, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 183, which represents hundreds of workers at Providence St. Mary.

“Some of them don’t understand what we really do,” Garzon said of hospital executives. “The higher-ups are not going to come in and take care of our patients. They’re not going to get their hands dirty.”

The pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that plagued hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities long before COVID-19.

To protect their communities during the crisis, workers stepped up, put in arduous amounts of overtime and took on extra duties. Yet Garzon said that when union officials cited the need to invest in workers and take steps to boost staffing levels, management’s response was: “You signed up for this.”

“That was a big slap in the face,” said Garzon, whose members ratified a new contract Oct. 7, after about 15 months of the hospital’s stonewalling.

More and more health systems treat workers with the same kind of disdain.

That’s fueling widespread burnout and fatigue, and it’s forcing a growing number of health care workers to escalate their fights for fair treatment and patient safety.

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A Common-Sense Policy

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Common-Sense Policy
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Keli Vereb wasn’t sure how long it would take to recover from complicated neck surgery last year, but she took comfort knowing she’d be able to focus on healing without having to worry about her job.

That’s because United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2227-01 negotiated a contract with Vereb’s employer, U.S. Steel, ensuring paid leave for workers who need time to fight for their health.

Millions of other workers need the same security. But they’re out of luck because America remains the only major industrialized country without a universal paid leave program that protects workers’ livelihoods while they confront serious health and family issues.

President Joe Biden’s American Families Plan fills this gaping hole in the nation’s social infrastructure. It would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave so they can navigate some of life’s biggest challenges without fear of unsympathetic bosses docking their wages or even firing them for taking time off.

Congress has begun working on legislation addressing key aspects Biden’s proposal amid overwhelming public support for this common-sense policy.

“I didn’t worry about how I was going to pay the bills while I was off,” Vereb, a caster scheduler based at U.S. Steel’s Irvin Works near Pittsburgh, said of the three months she relied on her union-negotiated leave last year. “My benefits continued. My pension kept accruing.”

Vereb faced an arduous recovery after the operation, one of three she’s had over the years because of injuries sustained in a fender-bender three decades ago.

“It was a whole lot of healing,” recalled Vereb, a union griever, citing the pain and the line of 25 stitches starting at the back of her head. “The first six weeks, I had my neck in a neck immobilizer. I couldn’t even get a shower on my own.”

She’s grateful that the USW fights to retain the leave program during every round of negotiations with U.S. Steel and realizes that many workers across the country are entirely subject to the whims of their bosses.

In the absence of a national paid sick and family leave program, many short-sighted and callous employers force Americans to choose between their health and their paychecks.

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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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Union Matters

Weathering the Storm

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities.

Columbia, Mo., faces a perilous winter because COVID-19 budget losses forced layoffs of snow-fighting workers and could even prompt the city to cut back on road salt.

The pandemic drastically reduced tax revenue, leaving local and state governments across America to slash budgets for public works departments and other essential services.

Unless the Republican-controlled Senate finally passes a stimulus bill providing billions in local and state aid, many communities will be forced to fight treacherous weather with smaller workforces and fewer resources than usual, ultimately putting the public at risk.

A stimulus bill--such as the one the House already passed--would not only help Columbia and other beleaguered cities keep road crews on the job but also enable them to maintain essential cold weather infrastructure like storage facilities and drainage systems.

And leading economists agree that relief to cities and states would fuel America’s economic comeback and help ensure the nation’s future health.

As millions of Americans brace for a dark winter, federal support for local governments will be essential to helping the country weather COVID-19 and other storms.

Stronger Together

Stronger Together