Unfair Trade, Workers' Rights Top Lobbying Topics for Steelworkers

Mark Gruenberg

Mark Gruenberg Editor, Press Associates Union News

Unfair trade treaties, retirement security, and threats to workers’ rights and U.S. democracy from Congress, the GOP Trump administration and the U.S. Supreme Court topped Steelworkers’ lobbying topics at their legislative conference in D.C.

Oh, and politics got in there, too, as a parade of pro-worker senators, all up for re-election this fall, marched to the podium in a sun-splashed Capitol Hill park on May 23. So did several representatives, and they’re seeking new terms, too.

The lawmakers thanked the union delegates – who hailed from as far west as Hawaii to as far east as the U.S. Virgin Islands -- for past support, re-supported pro-USW issues and predicted victory in November. But that will come only if the several hundred union activists exhort their colleagues at home to really turn out the votes this fall, virtually all of them said.

But when they weren’t talking politics, Steelworkers and the speakers spent their time denouncing so-called “free trade” treaties that trash workers, plus unfair trade with China, and the threats to democracy from the GOP.

New Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., who owed much of his upset victory margin in a special election to Steelworker mobilization in key industrial cities, thanked the union, pledged future support – and predicted his win is a forecast of good things to come. “This is not the end, this is the beginning – throughout the South and most of America,” Jones said.

Several senators, including Sherrod Brown of Ohio and Bernie Sanders of Vermont – who got the biggest cheer and a “Bernie! Bernie!” chant – brought up threats to workers’ retirement, including GOP plans to cut Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security.

Retirement was also a big topic for the delegates. Many congressional visits were to laud supportive lawmakers, virtually all of them Democrats. The reception they got from Congress’ ruling Republicans was another matter.

“We love him,” Local 1693 Recording Secretary James Campbell said of Rep. John Yarmouth, D-Kent., the sole Democrat in the state’s delegation. “We’ll stop in and thank him.”

Campbell and his colleagues visited Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Kent., and Sens. Ron Paul, R-Texas, and Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, the majority leader. “Massie’s following his majority and he’s tied to its marionette strings,” Campbell said. Campbell said the senators’ aides “will just let us vent.”

“Retirement security is really important,” said Catherine Houston, the union’s regional Rapid Response coordinator for USW District 12, which includes 11 Western states, Alaska and Hawaii. Lawmakers have to understand Social Security “is a benefit workers paid into. It’s solvency level is 71 years, if we don’t rob it from the people. We have a lot of retirees in District 12 dependent on this.”

That message got through to one of the youngest attendees, Jarrett Wa’a, a 20-something millennial refinery worker from Honolulu, said Houston.

"He was saying how we have to give people an education about the blood, sweat and tears” shed to win Social Security, pensions and workers’ rights, including the right to organize, Houston said.

That in turn was a big topic of the parade of speakers, including Independent Sanders, and Democrats Tina Smith of Minnesota, Ohio’s Sherrod Brown and Pennsylvanian Bob Casey. All four face voters this fall.

Sanders told the crowd he just reintroduced the Workplace Democracy Act, which would write card-check recognition of unions into U.S. labor law. Ruling Republicans are trying to take unions away, regardless of workers’ wishes, he said.

“Corporate America has been at war against workers trying to form a union,” Sanders said. “That’s why we introduced the Workplace Democracy Act. It says, very simply, ‘If 50 percent plus one want a union, they get a union.”

"We have to stand together to protect the middle class and tell the Koch brothers and the other billionaires, ‘Enough is enough!’” about their anti-worker, anti-union crusades.

Brown struck a similar note, and both said union strength is vital to preserving democracy. “We’ve seen corporate profits go up, productivity go up, yet your wages are flat. So it’s important you tell your story” with those points to lawmakers and staffers, he said. “And the right-wingers and right to workers across the U.S. are always trying to put you out of business.”

“There’s a lot to be pissed off about,” added Minnesota’s Smith, who is seeking election for the remainder of Al Franken’s unexpired term. “But I’m standing with Bernie for raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and against forced arbitration.” Legislation is needed to counteract the anti-worker forced arbitration ruling which the Supreme Court handed down on May 21, the conference’s opening day.

Unfair and job-killing trade treaties, starting with NAFTA, also were among the unionists’ causes. In between introducing speakers, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard denounced the treaties for costing U.S. manufacturing jobs.

“My first big vote” after his initial U.S. House election 26 years ago “was against NAFTA,” said Rep. Gene Green, D-Texas. When that NAFTA vote occurred, Green’s old district was 62 percent Hispanic, and analysts thought he’d be pro-NAFTA as a result. His constituents weren’t and he wasn’t. He’s voted against NAFTA and all other “free trade” pacts since. “They were worried about their jobs no matter what their ethnicity was,” Green said.

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Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Uber Drivers Deserve Legal Rights and Protections

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

In an advisory memo released May 14, the U.S. labor board general counsel’s office stated that Uber drivers are not employees for the purposes of federal labor laws.

Their stance holds that workers for companies like Uber are not included in federal protections for workplace organizing activities, which means the labor board is effectively denying Uber drivers the benefits of forming or joining unions.

Simply stating that Uber drivers are just gig workers does not suddenly undo the unjust working conditions that all workers potentially face, such as wage theft, dangerous working conditions and  job insecurity. These challenges are ever-present, only now Uber drivers are facing them without the protection or resources they deserve. 

The labor board’s May statement even seems to contradict an Obama-era National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ruling that couriers for Postmates, a job very similar to Uber drivers’, are legal employees.

However, the Department of Labor has now stated that such gig workers are simply independent contractors, meaning that they are not entitled to minimum wages or overtime pay.

While being unable to unionize limits these workers’ ability to fight for improved pay and working conditions, independent contractors can still make strides forward by organizing, explained executive director of New York Taxi Workers Alliance Bhairavi Desai.

“We can’t depend solely on the law or the courts to stop worker exploitation. We can only rely on the steadfast militancy of workers who are rising up everywhere,” Desai said in a statement. 

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