Thomas M. Conway

President’s Perspective

Tom Conway USW International President

Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government

Bringing Workers’ Sensibility to Local Government
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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
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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
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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
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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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Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Denying Workers a Voice at Any Cost
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Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his co-workers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Ala., only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his work station, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent this year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

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Stronger Together

Stronger Together