Category: From the USW International President

Giving Workers the Cold Shoulder

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Giving Workers the Cold Shoulder
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Robert B. “Bull” Bulman stood up to FreightCar America because of the poor pay and hazardous working conditions at its Cherokee, Ala., factory. But the company savagely retaliated with threats to close the plant and relocate to Mexico.

Then, after thwarting the union drive, FreightCar America opted to offshore those 500 jobs anyway in a greedy gambit to exploit low wages and weak laws south of the border.

Although Donald Trump won the White House with a vow to reinvigorate a manufacturing base essential for America’s future, he failed to stanch the torrent of U.S. corporations absconding to countries with abysmal working conditions and lax environmental regulation.

Right under Trump’s nose, America lost hundreds of factories to offshoring, and corporations relocated nearly 200,000 U.S. jobs, all before the COVID-19 pandemic sent the economy into a nosedive. Some of these callous employers, including FreightCar America, even soaked taxpayers for millions of dollars in subsidies and other aid before they cut and run.

“They’re like parasites,” observed Bulman, who will lose his job when FreightCar America abandons its mile-long, 2.2-million-square-foot factory by the end of the year. “They get what they want and leave.”

Bulman, who formerly worked at a United Steelworkers (USW)-represented paper mill, helped lead two organizing drives at FreightCar America because he knew a union would compel the company to provide safer working conditions and give a voice to those performing demanding, hazardous jobs.

But FreightCar America waged vicious anti-union campaigns that included threats to close the plant and—the company’s very name notwithstanding—move the jobs to Mexico. After defeating both organizing drives, the company still sold out its workers.

Although Trump promised to stop companies from playing these heartless games with families’ livelihoods, he refused to intervene with FreightCar America or lift a finger to save manufacturing jobs in a state where workers deeply trusted he’d fight for them.

He gave the cold shoulder to FreightCar America workers who called and emailed the White House with pleas for help, just as he ignored USW members who sought assistance this year before Goodyear closed its nearly-100-year-old Gadsden, Ala., tire plant and moved several hundred remaining jobs to Mexico.

Mickey Ray Williams, the former president of Local 12, reached out to several administration officials and provided them with a presentation outlining Goodyear’s refusal to invest in the Gadsden factory even as it pumped more and more money into a Mexican site paying workers only a few dollars an hour.

Goodyear’s offshoring of the Assurance All-Season tire developed—and long manufactured—in Gadsden was exactly the kind of nefarious practice Trump bragged he would curb.

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Trump’s Biggest Con

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Trump’s Biggest Con
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Bob Kemper recalls the hope Donald Trump intentionally stirred in 2016 by pledging to revive manufacturing and keep factories busy producing steel, aluminum and other materials for a major infrastructure overhaul.

Kemper knows that seductive rhetoric won over many Americans, including some of his co-workers at U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Works in Michigan.

Over the past four years, however, Trump repeatedly showed Kemper’s colleagues and millions of other workers that his vow to save manufacturing was just a con to win the election, not a promise he ever intended to keep.

Trump failed to deliver the manufacturing renaissance that propelled him to the White House and then stood idly by while wave after wave of factory closures devastated the very families who pinned their hopes on him.

Instead of bringing industry back, as he boasted during a visit to Detroit in 2016, Trump turned a blind eye when U.S. Steel last year announced it would lay off as many as 1,500 workers at Great Lakes and idle much of the complex because of low demand for steel.

“It was a feint and a lie,” Kemper, grievance chairman for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1299, which represents Great Lakes workers, said of Trump’s pledge. “He told Americans what they wanted to hear. It’s all broken promises.”

On Trump’s watch, hundreds of factories like Great Lakes went dark—and America’s manufacturing sector fell into recession—even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. His botched response to the health crisis further wrecked the economy and forced still more producers of steel, aluminum, paper and other products to cut back or close.

Since Trump took office, hundreds of thousands of manufacturing workers lost family-sustaining jobs, including more than 16,000 in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin in the year before the pandemic alone.

The factory closures decimated local communities and further eroded America’s capacity to produce critical goods like face masks for health care workers and supplies for the armed forces, putting the nation’s security at risk.

“Heaven forbid we ever get into a real conflict, and we don’t have the capability to produce our own steel for our military,” Kemper noted.

In 2016, Trump repeatedly touted a massive infrastructure program that would fund urgently needed improvements to the nation’s crumbling roads, bridges, locks, dams, ports and drinking water systems.

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Saving American Democracy

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Saving American Democracy
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Kristi Serwin knows that Americans clamoring for social justice and decent treatment of working people can correct the nation’s course only with a fair, accessible election.

But she’s also observed the nation’s dire shortages of poll workers result in long lines and force the closure of polling places around the country, depressing the voter turnout needed to drive change.

Serwin refuses to let that plight befall her Ohio community, so she signed up to serve on a precinct election board, ensuring her neighbors have convenient access to the ballot box Nov. 3.

Without many more volunteers like her, American democracy will hang in the balance this Election Day.

The COVID-19 pandemic decimated the ranks of the nation’s poll workers at the very time Donald Trump’s spurious attacks on the legitimacy of mail-in votes make conveniently located, fully staffed voting places more important than ever.

If they’re confronted with long lines at the polls or forced out of their regular voting places, some Americans will just skip the election, no matter how high the stakes—and no matter how critical it is that their voices be heard—this year. And if America fails to conduct a fair, robust election, democracy dies.

Because this election will shape the nation for years to come, the labor movement urges members across the country to emulate Serwin’s example and perform a patriotic service that will safeguard America’s future.

Poll workers set up voting machines, check in voters, accept completed ballots and transport them to county seats for tabulation. During the primary and general elections, these unsung heroes log long hours so their fellow citizens can exercise an indispensable constitutional right.

“If I can make sure somebody’s line is shorter or give them a convenient place to vote, I’m sure as heck going to do it,” said Serwin, a control room operator at BP-Husky Toledo and member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 346. “I felt it was something I needed to do.”

Most Americans want to have the option of voting by mail this year because they fear contracting COVID-19 at polling places.

However, Trump falsely claims that mail-in ballots invite voter fraud, and his Republican allies already filed a blizzard of lawsuits aimed at thwarting mail balloting. His shameful efforts to discount mail-in votes and silence Americans’ voices, driven solely by his fear of losing the election, make traditional polling places more essential than ever.

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Still Failing Health Care Workers

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Still Failing Health Care Workers
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American Red Cross workers travel from one community to another conducting the blood drives that save countless lives in emergency departments and operating rooms.

But they struggle to perform that vital work while keeping themselves safe during the COVID-19 pandemic. Like many health care employers, the Red Cross fails to consistently follow social distancing and other coronavirus safety guidelines.

“Safety shouldn’t be only if it’s feasible,” observed United Steelworkers (USW) Local 254 President Darryl Ford, who represents hundreds of Red Cross workers in Georgia and Alabama. “It should be all the time.”

Eight months after COVID-19 hit America, the nation continues to fail the thousands of health care workers who put their lives on the line each day to help others survive the pandemic.

They still face chronic shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) because the U.S. never fixed the broken supply chains that resulted in highly publicized scarcities of face masks, respirators and other crucial equipment last winter. Some employers refuse to take even common-sense measures to keep workers safe.

The Red Cross failed to provide face shields to protect Ford and his colleagues from blood spatter. And when a company that made the devices offered them for free, the Red Cross declined because of what it deemed the low quality.

“If it’s snowing outside and you don’t have a coat to give me, but you do have a sweater, give me the damn sweater,” fumed Ford, noting his members prefer some protection to none.

Employers’ short-sighted practices not only pose lethal risks to health care workers but ultimately will endanger the patients they serve, especially if a second wave of the virus strikes this winter.

Hospitals, nursing homes and other employers, for example, regularly work health care professionals to the bone despite the danger that understaffing poses both to workers and patients.

Across the country, tens of thousands of patients and workers died after contracting COVID-19 in nursing homes. And although employers had months to fill vacancies and resolve other problems affecting care during the pandemic, workers in these virus hotspots still face severe staffing shortages, lack of PPE or both.

“It’s challenging and it’s stressful,” explained Lynair Gardner, unit griever for USW Local 7898, which represents certified nursing assistants (CNAs), dietary and environmental services workers and other staff members at Prince George Healthcare Center in Georgetown, S.C. “But you’re there for people who can’t help themselves. Sometimes, you have to put that compassion first.”

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As Un-American As You Can Get

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

As Un-American As You Can Get
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Joel Buchanan’s stomach turned when he watched poll workers deny ballots to Latinx voters ostensibly because the names and addresses on their driver’s licenses didn’t match those on election records.

And his blood boiled when election officials closed polling stations in poor neighborhoods, deliberately disenfranchising citizens unable to travel to other communities to cast their ballots.

“It’s ugly, and as un-American as you can get,” the retired Steelworker and Navy veteran said of the voter suppression he’s observed as a campaign activist and poll watcher in various states.

Although dismayed by the duplicity he witnessed during two decades of political activism, Buchanan never expected to see an American president openly try to steal an election by disenfranchising millions of voters.

But that’s what’s happening. Donald Trump’s repeated attempts to tear down the U.S. Postal Service and cast doubt on the legitimacy of mail-in ballots are nothing but a desperate attempt to undermine American democracy.

“We’re talking about an assault on our rights and our form of government,” noted Buchanan, a longtime member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2102, who first got involved in politics because local elected officials failed to support union members during a 1997 steel mill strike in his hometown of Pueblo, Colo.

“When a president tries to manipulate the post office to benefit himself in an election, what’s going to happen if he wins that election?” Buchanan asked. “What’s the next step? These are scary times.”

Trump and his new, hand-picked postmaster general, Louis DeJoy, dismantled critically important mail-sorting machines, banned postal worker overtime, reduced hours at some post offices and eliminated trips to intentionally delay the delivery of mail-in ballots beyond election deadlines.

That would disenfranchise millions of Americans who want to vote by mail this year because they fear contracting COVID-19 at the polls.

Amid a ferocious public backlash and threats of lawsuits from more than 20 states, DeJoy this week agreed to suspend the changes.

But the danger of Trump suppressing votes during a crucial election remains very real.

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America’s Grifter-in-Chief

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

America’s Grifter-in-Chief
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Kenny Overstreet scrounges every penny—and even sells the eggs his chickens lay—to make ends meet after Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) furloughed him and hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Ala., site.

Before the COVID-19 recession struck, the 61-year-old saved a little whenever he could for the retirement he planned to take in a couple of years.

But now, he scrimps to pay monthly bills and prays PCA calls him back to work before he blows through the nest egg he spent decades building.

Millions of unemployed workers need strong, rational leadership to guide them through these perilous times. But instead of a sage and ardent champion in the White House, they’re stuck with a president whose incompetence fueled the pandemic’s spread and hastened the economy’s collapse.

Donald Trump downplayed the coronavirus until it overwhelmed the country, failed to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to front-line workers and blustered as unemployment soared to the highest level since the Great Depression.

But it wasn’t enough for Trump to spectacularly fail at his job.

Trump tried to use the turmoil as cover for stealing Americans’ Social Security benefits and consigning millions of workers to retirements of grinding poverty.

What he called a stimulus program is really one of his biggest cons. He proposed deferring payroll taxes and eventually eliminating them under the guise of leaving a little more money in Americans’ paychecks.

Not only would that have provided no help to millions of unemployed workers like Overstreet, who don’t have paychecks right now, but payroll taxes are what the nation uses to fund Social Security and Medicare. Cutting them would advance the Republicans’ long-sought goal of eliminating the retirement safety net, forcing tens of millions of elderly and disabled retirees to scratch out a living on their own.

Workers love Social Security. Most happily pay into the system, considering it an investment in their future and that of their fellow Americans. Yet Republicans illogically denounce Social Security and Medicare as giveaways and repeatedly try to kill them.

That infuriates Overstreet, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9-361, who regards Social Security as a vital and hard-earned part of his retirement.

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A Thousand Cuts

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

A Thousand Cuts
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When Dan Hoskins tried to organize colleagues at an Oregon plant last year, vindictive managers marched him past as many workers as possible enroute to a disciplinary meeting in the human resources office.

The company wanted to create a climate of fear, Hoskins recalled, not only by threatening his job but ensuring others saw “Mr. Leader Pants getting written up.”

From trumped-up disciplinary charges to threats of layoffs and other scare tactics, corporations wage ferocious wars of intimidation to sabotage organizing campaigns and torment union supporters.

“You’re in a war zone,” explained Hoskins, who willingly shouldered the mistreatment because he understands the benefits unions bring to a workplace. “The tension is thick, and you know it’s going to be that way for months.”

Sadly, abused workers can expect no help from the Trump administration, which is busy trying to exterminate labor unions.

Even as the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the urgent need for stronger workplace protections, Trump’s National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) ramped up a scorched-earth campaign aimed at annihilating organized labor and subjugating American workers.

The string of NLRB rulings amounts to death by a thousand cuts, each one chipping away at the long-established rights and practices enabling working people to join together to build better lives.

For example, the NLRB—run by Trump’s hand-picked corporate cronies—imposed additional, unnecessary steps to the union election procedure solely to drag out the process and give employers more time to thwart organizing efforts.

And the agency went further, empowering employers to begin withholding email addresses and other information unions need merely to contact prospective voters.

The board also ruled that employers may discipline a worker just for mentioning a union drive to a colleague during work hours. In a decision rooted in spite, rather than logic, it concluded the mere reference to an organizing effort—even an offhand remark—constituted an illegal solicitation of a colleague’s vote.

The NLRB is ostensibly responsible for protecting workers’ rights. But under Trump, it’s stacking the deck in favor of greedy corporations desperate to silence workers’ voices and bust unions at any cost.

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The Union Difference

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The Union Difference
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Thrown out of work by the COVID-19 recession, hundreds of thousands of unemployed North Carolina residents now risk losing their lights and air-conditioning as well.

Because their wages failed to both cover regular expenses and let them save for emergencies, these workers had no financial cushion to soften the blow of sudden unemployment.

They simply cannot pay mounting household bills. And if North Carolina’s moratorium on electricity shutoffs expires next month, enabling utilities to terminate service for overdue customers, their plight will get that much grimmer.

Although the pandemic pushed these workers to the financial brink, it was the nation’s unjust and dysfunctional economy that left them vulnerable to disaster in the first place.

Only a revitalized labor movement can fix this system, which now works solely for the rich.

Decades of soaring income inequality rendered tens of millions of Americans just one or two missed paychecks away from financial calamity.

While CEO and shareholder income skyrocketed over the past four decades, ordinary Americans’ wages stagnated. Even those juggling multiple jobs struggle to feed their families, leaving them unable to save for retirement or squirrel away money for emergencies.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Labor unions force corporations to provide workers with family-sustaining wages, affordable health insurance, viable retirement plans, safe working conditions and other benefits that help workers survive crises like the pandemic.

And only the growth of unions—along with a much-needed strengthening of U.S. labor rights—can restore fairness to the cruel economic system laid bare by COVID-19.

In addition to the more than 146,000 Americans killed by the coronavirus, the recession triggered by the pandemic pushed unemployment to the highest levels since the Great Depression.

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Rebuilding Nicetown

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Rebuilding Nicetown
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Rich Cucarese and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4889 tend a vegetable garden, cook meals and operate a food pantry for their neighbors in Philadelphia’s struggling Nicetown community.

Nicetown went into decline decades ago as corporations shut a string of factories, eliminating thousands of family-sustaining jobs that anchored the neighborhood. Blight festered, poverty soared, and government officials looked the other way.

Now, as much as Cucarese and his colleagues want to revitalize the community, there’s just no way they can do it on their own.

Reversing decades of decline and neglect—in Nicetown and other decimated manufacturing communities across America—will require bold, sustained action like what Joe Biden proposed in his Build Back Better manufacturing blueprint.

The Democratic presidential candidate envisions major investments in manufacturing, technology, and research and development that will create millions of middle-class jobs and revitalize hard-hit communities across the country.

Just as important, he wants to equitably distribute these new opportunities while providing the educational access and labor protections essential to ensuring that all citizens have a shot at the American dream.

The COVID-19 pandemic, which cost millions of jobs and exposed America’s struggle to produce critical goods like face masks, clearly demonstrated what residents of Nicetown have known for decades: Band-Aids and half measures aren’t enough. The nation needs sweeping, coordinated action to rebuild manufacturing capacity.

For all the damage they suffered, Nicetown and other beleaguered manufacturing communities still have potential.

Biden’s plan would unleash it.

“There are definitely people in the community who are trying everything they can to make the area viable,” said Cucarese, Local 4889’s Rapid Response coordinator and an assistant operator on the galvanizing line at U.S. Steel’s plant in Fairless Hills, about 25 miles from Nicetown. “There’s despair, but there’s also hope.”

Over the past quarter-century, America lost millions of manufacturing jobs, many because failed trade policies incentivized corporations to shift operations to countries with low wages and lax environmental regulations.

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McConnell’s Callous Indifference

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

McConnell’s Callous Indifference
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Ken Merkel started cutting expenses as soon as Packaging Corp. of America (PCA) furloughed him along with hundreds of other workers at its Jackson, Ala., location amid the COVID-19 recession.

Although the Army veteran and community volunteer slashed his car insurance, quit his satellite TV service and canceled a life insurance policy, he still needs $600 in weekly federal unemployment payments to make ends meet.

But this lifeline for Merkel and more than 30 million other unemployed workers is in jeopardy because Senate Republicans refuse to extend the benefits period and pass other legislation critically needed to battle the pandemic.

Instead of safeguarding hard-working Americans who fell on hard times through no fault of their own, callous Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—the person who controls the Senate’s agenda—put them squarely in harm’s way.

The 54-year-old Merkel, for example, got his first job pumping gas when he was 12 and never stopped pushing himself. Now, as infection rates soar across the U.S. and COVID-19 threatens still more damage to the nation’s economy, the former military policeman could lose almost everything he spent a lifetime building.

The Democratic-controlled House already passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act to combat the pandemic and help millions of average Americans avert financial calamity.

The common-sense legislation would extend emergency federal unemployment benefits, due to expire next week, through January. It would provide aid to local governments struggling to maintain essential public services because of COVID-19 budget crises, deliver another round of stimulus checks to hard-pressed families and ensure that those who lose their jobs continue to receive health insurance.

The HEROES Act would finally force the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration to take steps to protect workers from COVID-19 on the job. And it would allocate billions of dollars for COVID-19 testing and contact tracing, measures crucial for controlling the virus in hotspots like Alabama and McConnell’s home state of Kentucky.

But more than two months after the House passed the HEROES Act, it languishes in the Senate.

In refusing to bring the measure to a vote, McConnell flaunts both his disdain for average Americans and his indifference to the enormous damage that COVID-19 continues to inflict on the country each day.

He derided the HEROES Act as a “wish list” of giveaways—a windfall for people he considers freeloaders—when it’s really a responsible stopgap measure intended to save lives and sustain unemployed workers until they get back to the jobs they’re proud to do.

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Union Matters

Saving the Nation’s Parks

From the USW

From tumbledown bridges to decrepit roads and failing water systems, crumbling infrastructure undermines America’s safety and prosperity. In coming weeks, Union Matters will delve into this neglect and the urgent need for a rebuilding campaign that creates jobs, fuels economic growth and revitalizes communities. 

The wildfires ravaging the West Coast not only pose imminent danger to iconic national parks like Crater Lake in Oregon and the Redwoods in California, but threaten the future of all of America’s beloved scenic places.

As climate change fuels the federal government’s need to spend more of National Park Service (NPS) and U.S. Forest Service budgets on wildfire suppression, massive maintenance backlogs and decrepit infrastructure threaten the entire system of national parks and forests.

A long-overdue infusion of funds into the roads, bridges, tunnels, dams and marinas in these treasured spaces would generate jobs and preserve landmark sites for generations to come.

The infrastructure networks in the nation’s parks long have failed to meet modern-day demand. The American Society of Civil Engineers gave parks a D+ rating in its 2017 infrastructure report card, citing chronic underfunding and deferred maintenance.

Just this year, a large portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is owned and managed by the NPS, collapsed due to heavy rains and slope failures. Projects to prevent disasters like this one get pushed further down the road as wildfire management squeezes agency budgets more each year.

Congress recently passed the Great American Outdoors Act,  allocating billions in new funding for the NPS.

But that’s just a first step in a long yet vital process to bring parks and forests to 21st-century standards. America’s big, open spaces cannot afford to suffer additional neglect.

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There is Dignity in All Work

There is Dignity in All Work