For These Steelworkers, A Trip to the White House Is Another Step in a Decades-Long Fight

By Jeffrey Bonior Writer, Alliance for American Manufacturing

A group of 10 steel and aluminum workers traveled to the White House on Thursday to witness President Trump sign a proclamation issuing tariffs on imported steel and aluminum products coming into the United States.

Several of the workers are members of the United Steelworkers (USW), and while they were in the national spotlight for an afternoon, the trip to the White House was just one more event in a decades-long struggle to defend their industry from unfair trade.

After making his statements and before signing the declaration, Trump asked the workers if they wanted to speak about the issue. Scott Sauritch, a steelworker at the United States Steel Irvin Works in West Mifflin, Pa., stepped to the microphone and shared a very personal story.

“My father was a steelworker and lost his job in the early 80s with six kids at home,” Sauritch recalled after the White House visit.  “He was crushed. You know you see a man go to work, joke around with the guys, tell good stories and be able to support a wife and six kids. It was heartbreaking.

“There are definitely going to be a lot of positive effects from this. It allows U.S. Steel to take a deep breath and maybe then get some more people employed and invest in capital improvements. It brings some security to those working in the mill today.”

When Sauritch finished his statements, Trump told him that his father would be proud of him looking down from above, at which point Sauritch turned around and told the president that his father was still alive. Amid some nervous laughter in the Roosevelt Room, Trump quickly chimed in that “well then, he’s even more proud of you.”

“It turned out to be funny and we laughed,” said Sauritch, a millwright who repairs the many cranes used in the steelmaking process. “My father was on the treadmill when he watched it on TV and he laughed like hell, too.”

Sauritch, 58, is a married father of two children and the president of USW Local 2227. He’s worked at U.S. Steel for 23 years, but never considered the possibility that he would be in the White House one day.

“I still don’t have words for it,” he said. “It was unexpected. I didn’t plan to be there. I’m tickled pink and very happy. I’m happy for those guys in Granite City.”

Sauritch was referring to the steelworkers at U.S. Steel’s Granite City Works, located just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis. On Wednesday, U.S. Steel announced it would be bringing back approximately 500 workers who were laid off when the Illinois plant idled its steelmaking production in December 2015.

Tom Duffy, a USW safety inspector of four steel mills in Pennsylvania including Irvin Works, has seen the devastation caused by layoffs and shut downs at plants such as Granite City Works and steelmaking facilities in Lorain, Ohio; Fairfield, Alabama; and Lone Star, Texas.

“This is going to help steelworkers all over the country,” said Duffy after the White House visit. “Hopefully, this will give the steel industry some time to recover. How did we get to this point in this country where we have to be concerned about how we are going to support our military in the time of war? The idea that we might have to buy our steel from China or Russia or who knows where to support our military, to support our infrastructure and our pipelines. How did we get to this point?”

Duffy wasn’t sure that his Washington, D.C. visit would get to the point of an actual signing by the president.

“When we got to the White House, we were going through security and the motorcade came by and we saw Trump and [First Lady] Melania [Trump] driving in as we were coming in,” he said. “I don’t know where he was, but he just came in and I thought well, maybe he is going to sign this.

“It was a really good thing. It was nice to go into the White House and Oval Office and be part of something that really is historic. This was just a really good thing. It was humbling.”

Jim Johnston is a 36-year-old steelworker at U.S. Steel’s Edgar Thomson Steel Works in North Braddock, Pa. He has worked at the mill for 13 years and is the president of USW Local 1219, which represents the production and maintenance workers at the mill.

A tireless advocate of steelworker issues, Johnston could hardly believe he was standing in the White House with the president.

“It was kind of surreal,” said Johnston. “He took us into the Oval Office, which was a lot smaller than I thought it would be, and shook each one of our hands and thanked us for what we do. [Vice President] Mike Pence took some time to talk to us and said we meant a lot to them.

“It was exciting. Obviously, today meant a lot not only for our membership and the communities we work in but for our future as a steel industry. Our future to be able to support our national defense in this nation. It was a good day.

“I hope on our end he (President Trump) stands firm with this and does not exclude too many countries so they can circumvent steel through other places. I know he is getting a lot of opposition right now, but we were excited to hear him say “hey, if you don’t want to pay this tariff, move your company here. Bring your company to the United States and you won’t have to pay this tariff.”

For Jon Grunsky, who has worked for more than four decades at U.S. Steel’s Clairton Works coke-making facility in Clairton, Pa., the White House visit was a culmination of activist work he has been dedicated to since he started on the job in 1972.

“It was amazing. It was a great experience,” said Grunsky, president of USW Local 1557 in Clairton. “Just to see the fulfillment of what we have been trying to do for 25 years come to maybe a conclusion, was just a great moment for labor, steelworkers and our members across the country.

“Did I ever think I would shake hands with the president? Never. Did I ever think I would be actually at the White House? No. But it was an amazing experience.

“Here is the beauty of the situation – today I’m here with President Trump and Saturday our local is donating time for the Boy Scouts getting their merit badges of unionism. That’s what we do. This is only going to be a shot in the arm for us to keep the economy going and keep steelworkers employed. It can only get better for us.”.

Duffy stressed the importance of the middle-class lifestyle in struggling, steelmaking communities.

“Ultimately it goes back to jobs, good American jobs. People can have the ability to live the American dream. Can I buy a house? How many people at work these days can afford to buy a house? There is not a whole lot anymore. There’s not a lot that can buy new cars and help their kids go to college and can save up and actually go on a vacation,” Duffy said.

“If you work hard all of your life, after 30 years you can actually get a pension so you can live and not have to go back to work,” Duffy added. “I won’t have to decide if I’m going to eat or pay for my medicine. Things that you see going on everywhere. These are the jobs that make the difference.”

***

First published on the Alliance For American Manufacturing Blog, Manufacture This

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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