Category: From the USW International President

Homeless Vets Confront A New Enemy—COVID-19

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Under normal circumstances, Jerry Porter would be spending his time helping the veterans he finds in tent camps and run-down housing.

But the escalating threat of COVID-19 forces the community activist and retired Steelworker to remain at home for now, even though vulnerable vets need him more than ever.

As the coronavirus spreads across America, the poor bear the brunt of a pandemic that’s exposed the deep class lines in U.S. society.

The rich have big savings accounts and quality health care. They’ll emerge from the crisis just fine.

But Americans at the margins, including homeless vets who rely on a frayed safety net stretched to the breaking point by COVID-19, now face an even greater struggle to survive.

“I don’t know where they end up,” rued Porter, 75, a Vietnam veteran and longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105 who worked more than 40 years at the aluminum plant in Davenport, Iowa, now owned by Arconic.

Porter and a group of friends work together to help veterans in the Quad Cities area of Iowa and Illinois.

But now, they’re heeding the request of public health officials. They stay home to help their community slow the spread of COVID-19.

That prevents them from helping veterans like the one Porter found sleeping on a squalid mattress in a “junky” house. He got the man into a clean apartment and—thanks to a friend who owned a bedding store—a new mattress and box spring for just $180.

Just as alarming, COVID-19 halted the fund-raising supporting that kind of intervention. Local veterans groups just canceled a taco dinner and a poppy sale that together raise about $6,000 each year.

For some veterans, that money is the difference between sleeping indoors or on the street.

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Killer Of A Cure

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The spread of COVID-19 put Americans’ lives at risk. But even as people across the country hunker down in their homes to protect themselves, they have more to fear.

Stock market swings, business closings and other COVID-19 disruptions threaten the nation’s economic well-being.

Some members of Congress want to address the fallout by lifting tariffs on imports from China and other countries, believing that giving Americans access to a flood of cheaper goods will stimulate the economy.

But what might seem like a quick cure would actually jeopardize America’s long-term health.

America’s steel and aluminum industries are still trying to bounce back from years of dumping and other illegal trade practices, from China and other nations, which caused widescale factory closures and job losses.

Removing tariffs on those products now just invites more of the cheating that led to the penalties in the first place.

Chinese goods, for example, would swamp U.S. markets at the worst possible time, as American industries—still trying to recover from the illegal trade of the past—also face the COVID-19 economic slowdown.  In the wake of increased dumping, U.S. factories would be forced to scale back or close, throwing more Americans out of work.

Members of Congress have to ask themselves: Whose side are they on?

The Chinese government subsidizes steel, aluminum and other manufacturing with cash, loans that producers don’t have to repay, and other kinds of aid. Then China dumps products in foreign markets at artificially low prices, undercutting domestic producers and costing workers their jobs.

From 2001 to 2018, America lost 3.7 million jobs—2.8 million of them in manufacturing—because of the trade imbalance with China. That imbalance was driven largely by unfair competition. The uneven playing field also dragged down wages and benefits for Americans who managed to continue to work.

Unleashing a flood of Chinese goods on U.S. markets now would put America in the same position again, only worse because American factories and workers are still grappling with the unprecedented effects of COVID-19.

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A Prescription for Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Kimberly Delbrune-Mitter, a cardiac nurse, cares deeply about her patients and remains steadfast in her desire to help them, even as COVID-19 spreads across America.

What plagues her about the new disease isn’t that she might encounter it. It’s the lack of guidance, vital information that would help her balance quality care and her own health.

Medical professionals looking to the Trump administration for leadership will hear nothing but a resounding silence.

Instead, people on the front lines have to fight for their own health and safety even while they care for their patients.

A group of labor unions, including the United Steelworkers (USW), last week sent Labor Secretary Eugene Scalia a petition demanding that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) implement an emergency safety standard to protect health care workers, first responders and others at risk of contracting the virus on the job.

The unions and the workers they represent want OSHA to specify the types of equipment employers must provide and the procedures they must follow to keep workers safe.

For hospitals, this could mean providing doctors, nurses and others with the most advanced facemasks on the market. It could mean minimizing the number of people who enter a patient’s room, screening workers for sickness at the start of their shifts or providing staff members with a vaccine when one becomes available.

So far, they’ve received no response.

While the Trump administration fiddles, hundreds of health care workers already are quarantined because of possible exposure to COVID-19, and many others have questions about how to do their jobs without contracting the disease.

“Do we need to wear eye shields? Do we need hair caps? Do we need gowns?” asked Delbrune-Mitter, president of USW Local 9620, which represents about 500 nurses in New Jersey.

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An Epidemic of Insecurity

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped nearly 1,200 points in a single day this week because of the coronavirus’ impact on global trade, leaving many Americans sick with worry.

It’s not just a rapidly spreading, mysterious disease that made Americans feel vulnerable. The Dow’s freefall erased millions of dollars from retirement accounts and exposed another kind of epidemic—retirement insecurity.

There once was a time when the combination of company pension plans, Social Security and personal savings could carry retirees through their golden years.

No longer. Most companies eliminated defined-benefit plans providing a reliable income stream and implemented 401(k) plans that leave workers at the mercy of stock market volatility, like the kind that rattled investors this week and crushed workers in 2008.

Today, Americans have so much angst about the future that about 29 percent of baby boomers, 36 percent of Gen Xers and 77 percent of millennials fear they’ll never be able to retire or will have to work past normal retirement age.

Americans work hard so they can provide for their families and enjoy retirement. But no matter how carefully they plan, their retirements depend on factors beyond their control.

Patricia Cotton, a home health aide in Maryland, lost half of her $150,000 investment nest egg in the 2008 recession and retired 12 years later than planned.

In all, Americans lost about $2.4 trillion in retirement earnings during the second half of 2008, and the average household lost a thirdof its net worth.

Cotton was one of many who experienced losses so severe that they had to work longer than intended. The memory of the 2008 recession still gives Americans retirement jitters, and stock market drops like the ones this week compound the fear.

Before 401(k) plans dominated the retirement landscape, companies provided defined-benefit pensions. Workers earned specific—defined—amounts based on their wages and years of service. When workers retired, the employer provided those amounts no matter how the stock market fared.

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Killing The Watchdog

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Pipe fitter Jody Gooch and welders Sedrick Stallworth and William Rolls Jr. stood just feet away when a tank exploded at the Packaging Corp. of America pulp and paper mill in DeRidder, La. The blast killed the contract workers, injured seven others and hurtled the 80-foot tank six stories into the air.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) concluded that welding sparks likely ignited turpentine vapors that built up inside the tank, and the agency released a comprehensive incident report and safety video to protect workers at other mills.

The CSB regularly issues guidance like this so companies that use dangerous chemicals in the production process learn from their mistakes. But Donald Trump, who refuses to admit his own failures, can’t grasp the importance of learning from anyone else’s, either. Instead of supporting the safety watchdog, Trump wants to kill it.

He allocated no funding for the CSB four years in a row.  As board members’ terms expired, Trump failed to replace them. The five-person board is down to just one member, whose term expires in August.

Trump likes to call himself a champion for workers.

But more workers will die if he abolishes the CSB. The people who live near these plants will be at increased risk as well because explosions, leaks and toxic emissions often inflict widespread damage on nearby communities.

Many Americans probably never heard of the CSB. But they’re safer because of it.

Congress created the 22-year-old agency to conduct independent investigations of industrial chemical disasters. Congress considered the work so important that it shielded the agency from outside interference.

The CSB doesn’t answer to any agency or official in the executive branch. This autonomy enables it to scrutinize not only the companies involved in disasters but the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and other federal entities regulating these industries.

The CSB issues no fines or citations. It makes no regulations. Its mission is safety education.

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Gambling Away American Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Fortune-seekers feed the slots and wager on horses at a Chester, Pa., casino where thousands of shipbuilders once forged the commercial cargo vessels that transported America’s goods to the world. The old Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. closed in 1989, unable to compete with foreign producers highly subsidized by their governments.

Other shipbuilders suffered a similar fate, and today, America produces virtually no oceangoing commercial vessels at all. The industry’s demise puts American exports at the mercy of foreign shipping and deprives the armed forces of ships they sometimes need to transport troops and supplies into combat.

Without U.S. shipbuilding, America is not safe.

America once led the world in commercial shipbuilding, but the federal government quit supporting the industry in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan decided to let the industry sink or swim.

It sank.

As the U.S. curtailed assistance, intended to ensure an adequate supply of commercial vessels to back up the military, other countries—especially China, Japan and South Korea—pumped even more money into their shipbuilding industries. Companies like Sun went out of business or scaled back operations as foreign competitors undercut U.S. shipbuilders’ prices and captured the world market.

In 1975, U.S. shipbuilders sold 77 big commercial vessels. Between 1987 and 1992, they sold eight.

As dozens of yards closed, America’s shipbuilding capacity ebbed away. Facilities rotted.

Sun’s site remained a sprawling ghost town until Harrah’s opened there about 15 years ago. It put slot machines in the gutted fabricating shop and built a bridge over a wet dock.

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Facing Retirement With Fear

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Glen Heck spent 28 years sweating in a Campti, La., paper mill that he likes to say was “hotter than nine kinds of hell.”

But now, Heck’s sacrifice may have been for nothing because his multiemployer pension plan is one of about 150 nationwide set to go broke. If that happens, the 78-year-old Heck will have to find a cheaper, lower-quality health plan and keep the beef herd he’s itching to sell.

The Democratic-controlled House passed—with bipartisan support—a commonsense plan to save Heck’s pension and those of another 1.3 million workers, retirees and widows. But Republican leaders in the Senate refuse to consider it.

In the meantime, the futures of workers and retirees like Heck hang in the balance. Many face retirement with fear instead of anticipation.

Multiemployer pension plans like Heck’s include workers from two or more companies in industries such as transportation, entertainment, construction and paper. Employers make contributions for workers as part of their compensation. Heck and others often give up wage increases or other benefits to fund those plans.

Many of the 1,400 plans nationwide are still healthy. But through no fault of workers or retirees, about 150 are struggling.

Recessions in 2001 and 2008 cut the plans’ investment earnings, and some corporations used bankruptcies to evade pension obligations. Deregulation forced less-competitive companies out of business, straining the plans’ resources.

Now, they owe more money to beneficiaries than they have coming in, and they’re at risk of collapsing. The PACE Industry Union-Management Pension Fund (PIUMPF)—Heck’s plan—is one of them. According to recent projections, the fund will be insolvent in as few as 10 years.

Under the bill passed by the House, the Butch Lewis Act, the Treasury Department would loan money to troubled plans. The plans would use the money to meet their obligations to retirees, and they would repay the loans over 30 years.

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Silencing Corporate Bullies

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

John Tate felt betrayed when Materion unilaterally cut retirement and vacation benefits at its Elmore, Ohio, plant. He’d devoted 10 years to the company and believed that it owed him and his co-workers a modicum of respect.

So Tate turned to the protections that unions provide and helped lead an organizing campaign with the United Steelworkers (USW). Despite widespread enthusiasm at the outset, the effort ultimately failed after Materion forced workers into mandatory company meetings where union-busting consultants bullied and threatened them.

A bill due for a vote next week in the U.S. House—the Protecting the Right to Organize Act—would outlaw mandatory anti-union meetings and other abusive tactics that corporations regularly use to thwart union drives. Making it easier for grassroots activists like Tate to organize will help rebuild a middle class decimated by corporate greed and curb the runaway income equality that imperils American democracy.

Labor organizers emphasize solidarity—strength through collective action—while union-busters deliberately sow discord and prey on workers’ fears for their individual livelihoods.

Tate noticed that difference when Materion, a producer of beryllium-based metals, brought in the hired-gun “union-avoidance” consultants and forced about 440 workers to attend multiple anti-union meetings. The consultants belittled workers—even questioned their intelligence for wanting to join a union—during meetings that lasted two to four hours.

“It was rough to watch,” Tate said.

The consultants told their hostage audiences that companies struggle once workers organize. They warned that Materion might never agree to a contract and that the company had the option of hiring permanent replacements for workers who strike. When workers made positive comments about unions, the consultants bullied them into silence.

 “You could just feel the entire room deflate,” said Tate, who works in research and development at the plant. “They presented a worst-case scenario and then tried to pass it off as ‘this is what’s going to happen to you.’”

The union-busting efforts included a rare visit to the plant by Materion CEO Jugal K. Vijayvargiya. “‘It’s going to get better,’” Tate recalled him telling the workers. “‘We know we have problems. We’re going to fix them.’”

Organizers launched the campaign with strong support and worked hard to educate co-workers about the benefits of unions. Tate said the first few months were “beyond successful.”

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Failing Workers On Trade

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Donald Trump, the self-proclaimed “great negotiator” and author of “The Art of the Deal,” promised to use his bargaining skills to help the American worker.

Trump vowed to rewrite trade deals, stanch the offshoring of U.S. jobs and reinvigorate American manufacturing.

His behavior tells a different story. Both of the trade deals he produced so far—the original United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the “phase one” agreement with China—failed American workers.

Bad trade cost millions of American jobs. Trump’s brand of deal-making won’t bring them back.

Make no mistake, Trump inherited real trade problems. For more than 20 years, politicians of both parties failed to fix a broken system.

Corporations exploited trade agreements to shift family-sustaining manufacturing jobs to Mexico, China and other countries that pay workers low wages and deny them the protection of labor unions. They made boatloads of money offshoring jobs, but in the process, they robbed U.S. workers of their livelihoods and hollowed out countless American communities, decimating their tax bases and exposing them to epidemics of crime and opioids.

Cheating compounded the job losses. China subsidizes its industries, manipulates its currency and then floods global marketswith cheaply priced goods, severely damaging U.S. manufacturing in steel, aluminum, paper, furniture, glass and other products. 

“Work just started to dwindle,” recalled Bill Curtis,who eventually lost his cloth-cutting job at a Lenoir, N.C., furniture factory swept under by cheap Chinese imports.

Trump made fair trade—and standing up to cheaters—a centerpiece of his 2016 campaign.

He railed against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which empowered corporations to shift more than one million manufacturing jobs to Mexico. He excoriated China for illegal trading practices that siphoned off more than three million American jobs, and he vowed to stop the bleeding.

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Dying of Despair

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Maria Fernandes was a good-hearted American with a family, ambitions and a rock-solid work ethic.

She also juggled three part-time jobs to make ends meet and grabbed much-needed sleep in her SUV between shifts. She left the engine running during one of those naps, and when a gas container she kept in the SUV somehow overturned, the fumes and carbon monoxide killed her.

While her death might appear to be an accident, the poverty-level wages that kept Fernandes working all hours of the day and night are the deliberate choice of corporations that make billions of dollars exploiting the labor of average Americans. Corporate greed turned America into a nation of haves and have-nots.

And more and more often, economic despair kills the have-nots.

U.S. life expectancy dropped three years in a row, America’s suicide rate is at a record high, millions struggle with opioid addictions, and workers with multiple part-time jobs battle hopelessness. None of this occurred by chance. Diseases of despair soared as corporations sold out the American worker for higher profits.

CEO pay soared 940 percent over the past 40 years as middle-class workers’ pay stagnated. Corporations shifted family-sustaining manufacturing jobs to low-wage Mexico, hollowing out entire communities. They gutted retiree health care and shifted more health care costs to workers.

CEOs and business groups schemed with their Republican cronies in government to crush the labor unions that fight to get workers decent pay, fair benefits and safe working conditions. As union membership declined from more than 30 percent of American workers to about 11 percent, the bottom fell out of the middle class. Income inequality skyrocketed.

Fernandes held down minimum-wage jobs at three different Dunkin’ Donuts shops in New Jersey. She napped in her car because she had no time to go home to sleep and traveled with a filled gas can so she’d never be late because of an empty tank.

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Union Matters

Get to Know AFL-CIO's Affiliates: National Association of Letter Carriers

From the AFL-CIO

Next up in our series that takes a deeper look at each of our affiliates is the National Association of Letter Carriers.

Name of Union: National Association of Letter Carriers (NALC)

Mission: To unite fraternally all city letter carriers employed by the U.S. Postal Service for their mutual benefit; to obtain and secure rights as employees of the USPS and to strive at all times to promote the safety and the welfare of every member; to strive for the constant improvement of the Postal Service; and for other purposes. NALC is a single-craft union and is the sole collective-bargaining agent for city letter carriers.

Current Leadership of Union: Fredric V. Rolando serves as president of NALC, after being sworn in as the union's 18th president in 2009. Rolando began his career as a letter carrier in 1978 in South Miami before moving to Sarasota in 1984. He was elected president of Branch 2148 in 1988 and served in that role until 1999. In the ensuing years, he worked in various roles for NALC before winning his election as a national officer in 2002, when he was elected director of city delivery. In 2006, he won election as executive vice president. Rolando was re-elected as NALC president in 2010, 2014 and 2018.

Brian Renfroe serves as executive vice president, Lew Drass as vice president, Nicole Rhine as secretary-treasurer, Paul Barner as assistant secretary-treasurer, Christopher Jackson as director of city delivery, Manuel L. Peralta Jr. as director of safety and health, Dan Toth as director of retired members, Stephanie Stewart as director of the Health Benefit Plan and James W. “Jim” Yates as director of life insurance.

Number of Members: 291,000 active and retired letter carriers.

Members Work As: City letter carriers.

Industries Represented: The United States Postal Service.

History: In 1794, the first letter carriers were appointed by Congress as the implementation of the new U.S. Constitution was being put into effect. By the time of the Civil War, free delivery of city mail was established and letter carriers successfully concluded a campaign for the eight-hour workday in 1888. The next year, letter carriers came together in Milwaukee and the National Association of Letter Carriers was formed.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work