Category: From the USW International President

The PRO Act: Pathway to Power for Workers

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

Photo by Fibonacci Blue on FlickrAbigail Disney, granddaughter of the co-founder of the Walt Disney Co., called out the family business’ current CEO last month for making what’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth pretty darn miserable for its workers.

All of the company profits shouldn’t be going into executives’ pockets, she said in a Washington Post column. The workers whose labor makes those profits should not live in abject poverty.

This is what labor leaders have said for two centuries. But Disney executives and bank executives and oil company executives don’t play well with others. They won’t give workers more unless workers force them to. And the only way to do that is with collective bargaining – that is, the power of concerted action.

The United States recognized this in the 1930s and gave Americans the right to organize labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). The increase in unionization encouraged by the law significantly diminished income inequality over the next forty years. American workers prospered as a result of having a voice in the workplace.

But right-wing politicians, at the beck and call of CEOs, have chiseled large chunks out of labor organizing rights, diminishing unions and breeding vast economic disparities.

The decline in union density accounts for one-third of the rise in income inequality among men and one-fifth among women, Economic Policy Institute researchers found.

The solution, of course, is the same as it was in 1935. In order to restore balance to an astronomically uneven economy, Congress must restore workers’ power to organize. Democrats took a first step last week toward accomplishing that when they introduced the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the U.S. House and Senate. It would give back to workers the power they need to demand their fair share of the profits created by the sweat of their brows.

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Better Insurance Begets Better Life

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

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 International President

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 International President

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 International President

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 International President

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 International President

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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Republicans on Health Care: Do Vast Harm

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

This week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a Republican, announced that his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, just hadn’t gone far enough when he asked a federal judge to kill the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions, that is, stuff like asthma, diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Barr told an appeals court that he does not want it to merely murder that one provision but, instead, will insist that it massacre the ACA’s entire 1,990 pages  – death to every clause protecting patients from insurance company abuses, every portion devoted to containing costs, every phrase extending health care to the nation’s young adults and working poor.

It is essential, Barr contends, that the court rip insurance from 21 million people covered by the ACA health insurance marketplaces and Medicaid expansion; that the court deny insurance to 2 million young adults covered by their parents’ plans, that the court foreclose substance abuse treatment to 800,000 Americans suffering opioid addiction.

It is critical, Barr insists, to deprive the ACA’s guarantee of medical insurance access to 133 million Americans with pre-existing conditions and to increase medication and premium costs for 60 million senior citizens on Medicare. Also, of course, Barr says, the court must restore the medical insurance caps that bankrupted and killed Americans who suffered diseases that are expensive to treat, like cancer, or whose babies were born prematurely requiring costly long-term care. 

Barr is not an outlier. He is the face of a Republican Party that has done everything in its power to rob Americans of ACA benefits every minute of the nine years that the law has existed. GOP governors have vetoed the ACA extension of Medicaid, denying insurance to millions of low-income working people. When the U.S. House was controlled by the GOP, it voted more than 50 times to repeal all or parts of the ACA. Twenty GOP state attorneys general asked a federal judge to overturn the law after Congress zeroed out its tax penalties for people who refuse to get insurance.

All of this is blatantly mean spirited because the GOP never produced a plan to replace the ACA health insurance guarantees. In medical terms, it is the opposite of the physician mission to heal. It is Republican machination to harm.

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Solidarity Against Hate

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW International President

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 International President

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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Union Matters

A Few Hundred Million Good Reasons Not to Care

Sam Pizzigati

Sam Pizzigati Editor, Too Much online magazine

Millions of American families are still reeling from the aftershocks of the financial crash a dozen years ago. But a key architect of that debacle, Countrywide Financial CEO Angelo Mozilo, is feeling no pain — and no remorse either. In the decade before the crash, Mozilo took $650 million out of Countrywide, a hefty chunk of that just before the subprime mortgage scam Countrywide exploited started to implode. Earlier this month, Angelo described Countrywide as a “great company” at a conference appearance and declared subprimes as “not the cause at all” of the nation’s 2007-2008 financial wreckage. Added Mozilo: “Somehow — for some unknown reason — I got blamed.” The former CEO is acknowledging that all the blame did at one point bother him. And now? The famously always tanned Mozilo notes simply: “I don’t care.” 

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Every Worker's Right

Every Worker's Right