Better Insurance Begets Better Life

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Better Insurance Begets Better Life
Nichole and Elizabeth with insulin pump supplies. Photo by Steven Dietz of www.unionpix.com.

Last month, in a Pittsburgh parking lot following a conference on type one diabetes, three women stood crying. Two of them, mother and teen aged daughter, had just handed a stranger, 25-year-old Michelle, three shopping bags full of insulin pump supplies.

Michelle was overwhelmed. She knew they were meeting that day so that the mother and daughter could give her medical provisions she needed to stay alive, but she had not realized it would be thousands of dollars worth until she saw those bags.

“We didn’t know how big of a deal it was until she started crying,” the teenager, Elizabeth, said later.

Elizabeth and her mother, Nichole, had the extra supplies partly because they have exceptional health insurance coverage. They could get for a few dollars what it had cost Michelle $6,000 to buy the year before. Increasing numbers of Americans like Michelle are confronted with fear and debts because their employers are dumping on them skyrocketing pharmaceutical, health care and insurance costs.

The big difference between the two young women with diabetes, Elizabeth and Michelle, is that Michelle’s father, whose health insurance covers her for another few months, is not a union member and Elizabeth’s father is.

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American Workers Are Not Happy

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Americans are not happy. And for good reason. They continue to suffer financial stress caused by decades of flat income. And every time they make the slightest peep of complaint about a system rigged against them, the rich and powerful tell them to shut up because it is all their fault.

One percenters instruct them to work harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop bellyaching. Just get a second college degree, a second skill, a second job. Just send the spouse to work, downsize, take a staycation instead of a real vacation. Or don’t take one at all, just work harder and longer and better.

The barrage of blaming has persuaded; workers believe they deserve censure. And that’s a big part of the reason they’re unhappy. If only, they think, they could work harder and longer and better, they would get ahead. They bear the shame. They don’t blame the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President. And yet, it is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them.

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Honoring a Victim’s Memory on Workers’ Memorial Day

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Honoring a Victim’s Memory on Workers’ Memorial Day
Frank Leasure

Last year, on Halloween just before midnight, Frank Leasure left work at American Standard in Salem, Ohio. To get to his car in the employee lot, he had to walk across two sets of Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. He waited in frigid, driving rain for a westbound train to pass, then began to cross, only to be struck by an eastbound train that he apparently did not see or hear.

Frank Leasure, 62, of Carrollton, Ohio, Army veteran, husband, father and grandfather, was one of 19 members of the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), who died on the job between last Workers’ Memorial Day and this one. Workers’ Memorial Day is observed annually on April 28 to commemorate those who lost their lives at work. In 2017, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 5,147 workers died on the job, an average of 14 every day.

The USW is devoted to reducing those numbers. One way it does that is disseminating information about how specific workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities occur and how to prevent them. Another is establishing labor-management health and safety committees to continuously analyze workplace risks and reduce them. In the case of Frank Leasure, both occurred.

Unfortunately, at the same time, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reduced its workplace safety inspectors to the lowest level in its 48-year history, diminishing its capacity to investigate workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries. And it reversed a rule that would have provided more information about workplace dangers nationally. It decided to stop requiring large employers to electronically report injury and illness data. OSHA still requires employers to document this information, but they don’t have to tell anyone.

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Amazon – and 56 Other Corporations – Took Your Tax Dollars

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Bernie Sanders, castigator of the one percent, is a millionaire now. So are Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Big whoop. There’s a crucial difference between these candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and the super wealthy – particularly 60 gigantic, massively profitable U.S. corporations. The candidates faithfully pay federal taxes. The corporations don’t.

That’s right. Sixty profitable corporations paid no federal taxes in 2018, twice the number that typically paid nothing in the years before the 2017 tax breaks took effect. In fact, it’s worse than that. Fifty-seven of these corporations demanded rebates from the government – which means taxpayers like you and me paid them to exist. These are corporations on the dole. They claim to hate socialism if it means Medicare for All, but they sure as hell love socialism when it’s welfare for them.

Sanders, Harris, Warren and other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination paid their taxes because they are patriots. Most working Americans pay a fair share to support their country. True citizens pay so that their nation can thrive. They pay so that the United States can afford to educate its citizens, pave its roads, operate its courts, care for its vulnerable and sustain its military. They pay because they understand they have a duty to the country that nurtured them, that protects them and that they love.

But too many U.S. corporations, which the U.S. Supreme Court has anointed with human rights, refuse to acknowledge their concomitant obligations. Corporations and the super wealthy pushed hard for the tax breaks Republicans bestowed on them in 2017. Fat cats paid untold tens of millions to dark money groups that served as cash cows for GOP candidates who, once elected, shepherded those tax breaks.

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Hard Knocks Turned Alison McIntosh Collectivist

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Alison McIntosh learned early that life is a little easier with help from friends. Her first professional job reinforced that notion. And now, as a University of Pittsburgh graduate student, she is asking her co-workers to embrace collectivism.

McIntosh, who is working toward a Ph.D. in critical and cultural studies, is urging her fellow teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, and teaching fellows – 2,000 of them altogether – to vote next week to join the United Steelworkers (USW) union. “We have more power collectively. We must work together and across the board,” she told me.

Though she knew little about unions before she started talking to organizers at Pitt, her life experiences compelled her to embrace the idea that if Pitt’s fragmented bunch of graduate researchers and teachers pulled together, their joint voice would be strong enough to persuade the university to make their lives a little easier. 

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Grad Students as Steelworkers

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Grad Students as Steelworkers
University of Pittsburgh Graduate Student Kim Garrett

The moniker “steelworker” generally evokes images of hulking mill buildings, steel-toed boots, and molten metal, not ivory towers, doctoral dissertations, and university research. But next week, 2,000 graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh will vote on whether to become members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The USW has evolved since it was forged in 1942. Now its members build tires, smelt aluminum, make paper, refine oil, produce iPhone glass, serve as physicians, pharmacists and nurses, and teach university classes in the United States and Canada.

A blue collar is not required to be a USW member. All that’s necessary is a sense of belonging to a team of co-workers who believe they all benefit from banding together to jointly seek better wages and working conditions from their employer.

It’s not just the USW either. Other labor unions also have been organizing white-collar workers in record numbers. College instructors, full- and part-time, and grad student teachers and researchers have joined the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association but also the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union.

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Solidarity Against Hate

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Solidarity Against Hate
New Zealanders' hate-defying symbol

The union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), believes in unity, that “all working men and women, regardless of creed, color or nationality” are eligible for membership.

That was the guiding principle of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) when it formed in 1937.

I return to that statement in times like these, times when terrorists shoot up mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 worshipers; a synagogue in the USW’s hometown of Pittsburgh, killing 11; an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine; a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, killing six; a nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 mostly young gay people.

The USW membership eligibility statement is an assertion of inclusion. All working men and women qualify. They can all join. They can all attend local union meetings at which members call each other “brother” and “sister.” This practice creates artificial, but crucial, bonds between them. This solidarity gives the group strength when facing off against massive multinational corporations and demanding decent pay and dignified working conditions.

To erode that solidarity, some billionaire hedge fund owners and multinational CEOs work to divide workers. These wealthy .01 percenters separate people by cultivating hate. Some are the same billionaire sugar daddies of alt-right hate sites like Breitbart and more conventional hate sites like Fox News. Investigative journalist Jane Mayer wrote a book about their efforts titled, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”

This hate mongering sets work-a-day people against each other. That weakens them politically. And it contributes to false-fear provoked violence.

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The Big Cheat

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

The Big Cheat
Yale’s official motto “Light and Truth” on its Sheffield-Sterling-Strathcona Hall. Prosecutors this week shone light on the truth that the rich bought admission to Ivy League schools. Photo by Getty Images

The children of working stiffs learned a brutal lesson this week as federal prosecutors criminally charged rich people with buying admission to elite universities for their less-than-stellar children.

The lesson is that no matter how hard you work, no matter how smart or talented you are, a dumb, lazy rich kid is going to beat you.

It’s crucial that everyone who is not a wealthy movie star, hedge fund executive, or corporate CEO – that is, 99 percent of all Americans – see this college admissions scandal for what it really is: a microcosm of the larger, corrupt system that works against working people, squashing their chances for advancement.

This system is the reason that rich people and corporations got massive tax breaks last year while the 99 percent got paltry ones. It’s the reason the federal minimum wage and the overtime threshold are stuck at poverty levels. It is the reason labor unions have dwindled over the past four decades.

This system is the reason we cannot have nice things. Despite all that land-of-equal-opportunity crap, the rich ensure that only they can have nice things, starting with what they can buy legally and illegally for their children and rising through what they can buy legally and illegally from politicians who make the rules that withdraw money from the pockets of working people and deposit it into the bulging bank accounts of the fabulously rich.

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Rabble Rousing for Righteous Retirement

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Rallying for retiree security are, from left, Ray Scherer, who works at Etched Metals in Ohio; Mike Miller, a financial officer for USW Local Union 1-243 in Ohio; Ben Trusnik, recording secretary for Local 1-243; Joe Pickering, past president of Local 1-243, and Mark Minor, president of Local 1-243.

Standing out among the bald pates and grey hairs crowding into a Congressional hearing room Thursday morning with “Protect our Pensions” stickers will be 26-year-old Ben Trusnik.

The son, grandson and great-grandson of labor union members, Ben will travel to Washington, D.C., from his home in Bedford, Ohio, to speak for the men and women he works with at Etched Metals Co. He will join other union activists in speaking for workers who are afraid that after laboring 40 or 50 years, they won’t be able to retire because the multiemployer pension plan they depended on is nearly insolvent.

He’ll be there for the guy who retired from Etched Metals a little over two years ago whose wife has been ill for a long time. When visiting his former co-workers at the plant, this guy talks about the bills piling up from medical treatments, doctors and medications. Insurance doesn’t cover it all. “He is pretty worried,” Trusnik says, about losing his pension and with it, the ability to pay.

Actuaries project that 130 multiemployer pensions, that is plans in which several companies participate, will run out of money over the next 20 years. Even though that number is less than 10 percent of all multiemployer pension plans, their impending insolvency threatens the entire multiemployer pension warranty program of the Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC).

The PBGC is the program created by Congress in 1974 to step in when pension plans fail. Using payments from pension plans, the PBGC provides benefits to about 1.5 million people in failed multiemployer and single-employer plans. The payments pensions make to the PBGC are essentially insurance premiums. The PBGC does not receive tax dollars.

The PBGC anticipates that its multiemployer program will go bust by 2025, but that could occur sooner if several of the larger threatened multiemployer plans fail quickly. Implosion of the PBGC multiemployer guaranty program would have devastating consequences for everyone who currently receives benefits from it and for everyone whose multiemployer pension is weak. The 130 vulnerable multiemployer plans cover 1.3 million people. 

The PBGC does not pay full pensions to retirees, but something is better than zip, especially because pensions are deferred compensation. They’re earned for each hour worked. They’re not gifts like fancy engraved retirement clocks. Union workers often trade wage hikes for pension increases in contract negotiations. They sacrifice immediate gratification for the security of a good pension later. But if the PBGC’s multiemployer program fails, then the workers it covers would get virtually nothing.

When Congress created the PBGC, it made a commitment to working men and women that they would not lose their pension benefits through no fault of their own. It must stand true to that obligation now.

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Gritty Trade Negotiations

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Gritty Trade Negotiations
Robert Lighthizer by Flickr

It took grit to get this far. U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer explained that to Congress yesterday.

So, he said, no one in the administration is backing down now.

They’ve managed to confront Beijing, a trade renegade, and do it with a powerful tool that previous negotiators lacked – tariffs. They launched the penalties last spring with charges on all imported steel and aluminum, then increased the pain with levies specifically on $50 billion in Chinese imports in July, followed by duties on $200 billion in Chinese imports in September.

China retaliated, particularly with tariffs on agricultural goods. Some American businesses, farmers and workers suffered. And they complained. But the tariffs brought China to the table to discuss its violations – abuses that have damaged American industries and destroyed millions of American jobs for nearly two decades.

Lighthizer told Congress yesterday he doesn’t have a deal yet, but he’s made progress. None of it would be possible, he said, without the leverage of the tariffs and the grit of the administration to stick with them through tough times.

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