Category: From the USW International President

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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OSHA's Inertia

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Within two months of starting work at an Amazon warehouse in Eastvale, Calif., Candice Dixon ruined her back.

Dixon had to bend, lift and strain at a feverish pace to meet Amazon’s demand that she scan and stow one item every 11 seconds. If she didn’t keep up, she’d be fired. But the grueling quotas left her with bulging discs and other problems so severe that she now struggles to walk.

Injury rates at Amazon warehouses across the country are so high that 13 members of Congress last summer called on the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to investigate the retailer’s working conditions. But OSHA—the agency responsible for ensuring that Americans have safe workplaces—has abandoned the workers it’s charged with protecting.

Under President Donald Trump, OSHA’s enforcement activities plummeted to new lows even as worker deaths soared to the highest level in more than a decade. This didn’t happen by accident. Corporations like Amazon want a neutered OSHA. Cutting corners on safety and working people to the bone means CEOs and shareholders make more money.

They have a willing partner in the Trump administration. OSHA’s inertia is the deliberate decision of appointees who serve corporations, not people, and put healthy profits before healthy workers.

Since 2017, Trump’s OSHA averaged only 32,610 worksite inspections a year, thousands fewer than during the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. The agency has the fewest inspectors in 40 years, even though it’s responsible for ensuring the safety of more workers.

OSHA hasn’t even had a top director since Trump took office. But the lower-level political appointees there dragged their feet in hiring new inspectors to compensate for retirements and other vacancies. They didn’t hire a single inspector in 2017. These departures depleted the agency of critical expertise and hamstrung remaining inspectors who want to do their jobs.

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America's Do-Nothing Senate

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Patients have punched Marketa Anderson. They’ve kicked and head-butted her. They’ve slammed her into walls. 

One threw a shoe, hitting her. Then he threw a chair at her—and missed.

Health care workers like Anderson, president of United Steelworkers Local 9349 in Chisholm, Minn., are assaulted by patients all of the time. The Democratic-controlled House recognized the need for action and passed a bill requiring employers in the health care and social service fields to implement violence-prevention plans.

But the Republican-controlled Senate has ignored this bill, along with about 400 others the House passed this year. When these legislators refuse to legislate, they’re telling the American people that they couldn’t care less about urgent issues like workplace safety, failing pension plans or fair wages. They’ll gladly imperil workers and retirees.

That’s because Senate Republicans have sold their souls to corporations and the one percent. Working Americans aren’t their concern.

When the House passes bills, Senate Republicans—with Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky at the helm—simply ignore them. They can’t be bothered to debate the legislation. They fail to hold hearings or votes.

They refuse to pick up the phone and try to work out a compromise with House leaders. They just let the bills languish. Doing nothing is their strategy for stymying House Democrats’ efforts to help working Americans.

House Democrats tried to shame Senate Republicans. They called the Senate a “legislative graveyard” and displayed fake tombstones representing important bills the Senate ignored to death.

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Building Freedom

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Pride wells up in Erica M. Brinson when she thinks about her work helping to build aircraft carriers and submarines at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia.

Those ships and subs defend America’s shores and much of the free world. The men and women serving on them trust that every screw, every weld, will hold up under the most punishing conditions that weather or war can unleash.

“We have a lot of people’s lives in our hands,” Brinson, a member of United Steelworkers Local 8888 who works in the shipyard’s tool rooms, explained.

Brinson and more than 9,700 other USW members at the sprawling shipyard do patriotic work. The same is true of members of USW Locals 1165 and 9462, who work at ArcelorMittal plants in Coatesville and Conshohocken, Pa., that make armor plate for Navy ships and other products for the military.

And it’s true of USW members at other plants across the country that supply materials and parts to the military.

Every day, these workers contribute their skills, knowledge and strong-as-steel work ethic to the nation’s defense. The Navy is only as formidable as the fleet it operates, and USW members at Newport News deliver the highest-performing carriers and subs on the planet.

“It’s up to us to provide the Navy with what it needs to keep us safe,” said Brinson, who has worked at the shipyard for 12 years. “They’re fighting for us.”

On Saturday, the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, USW members joined military leaders, elected officials and thousands of guests in christening the Navy’s newest aircraft carrier, the future USS John F. Kennedy.

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Selling Out Safety

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

The March 2005 fire and explosions at BP’s Texas City, Texas, oil refinery killed 15 contractors and injured 180 other workers in ways that will haunt them forever.

Some lost limbs. Others suffered horrific burns, head injuries or wounds that left them infertile. Still others live with the memory of injured co-workers screaming in agony or dying under heaps of rubble.

Since then, dozens of other incidents have killed workers and endangered residents near petrochemical plants. But tragedies like these don’t have to happen.

In January 2017, the EPA issued the Chemical Disaster Rule, which provided sweeping new safeguards for workers, first responders and communities where dangerous plants are located. It would have forced operators to address unsafe practices and keep their equipment up to date.

However, Donald Trump became president before the new requirements took effect. Corporations that own chemical and petrochemical plants complained about the requirements, and shortly after Trump took office, his business-friendly EPA abruptly decided to sit on them.

Now, after delaying implementation of the Chemical Disaster Rule for two years, Trump’s EPA just killed most of it.

Corporations don’t want the cost or inconvenience of tougher standards, even when those changes would save lives. They don’t want to be told that they have to consider safer methods of production. They don’t want to share hazard information with the public. They don’t want to answer to anyone.

And instead of standing up for workers, the EPA capitulated to the industry it’s supposed to regulate. It sold out safety. It put corporations over workers.

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Unleashing Corporate Spies

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Google’s computers are spying on its workers.

Anytime a Google employee uses an online calendar to schedule a meeting involving more than 100 co-workers, management gets an alert—a great way for the anti-union corporation to sniff out union organizing efforts.

Lots of other employers also would like to put union organizing campaigns under surveillance. And they’ll have their chance if the National Labor Relations Board gives corporations a free hand to snoop on employees, as two of the board’s right-wing members, John Ring and Marvin Kaplan, evidently want to do.

Ring and Kaplan want to reconsider the longtime ban on labor spying. It’s a sleazy idea, but typical for these two. They’re part of a three-member Republican cabal that’s taken over the board and issued a string of decisions eviscerating workers’ rights and giving ever more power to corporations.

Because of them, for example, employers can change working conditions in the middle of a contract, fire employees for engaging in what was previously considered protected union activity and misclassify employees as contractors, who aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act. Allowing corporations to spy on workers would be one more gift the pair could give to employers that are eager to suppress wages and keep workers from organizing.

Surveillance intimidates employees. It can kill organizing efforts. If corporations get the green light to spy on workers, they’ll have an easier time ferreting out organizing campaigns and bullying employees into dropping them.

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An Accomplice To Murder

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

An Accomplice To Murder
Oscar Hernández Romero

Oscar Hernández Romero’s friends searched for him in garbage dumps, ravines and all the other places that could hide what they feared to find—the bullet-riddled body of a Mexican labor activist.

But they’ve turned up no trace of Oscar, who disappeared near the open-pit gold mine in southwestern Mexico where workers went on strike two years ago demanding to join the independent labor union Los Mineros. Anti-union thugs murdered three other men involved in the organizing effort by workers at the Media Luna mine, and Oscar is feared dead, too.

NAFTA, which siphoned a million jobs from America and mired Mexican workers in poverty, is an accomplice to murder because it incentivized the killing of labor activists.

Corporations in Mexico exploit workers and pollute the environment to slash costs, which enables them to undercut U.S. and Canadian competitors. They aggressively thwart unions because their business model requires cheap labor. That puts targets on the backs of labor organizers who work to improve conditions in Mexican factories, mills and mines. And because Mexico too frequently fails to hold anyone accountable for violence against labor leaders, corporate thugs can target these workers with impunity. 

If this situation is going to change, NAFTA must change. Strong labor standards and enforcement provisions must be written into the text of the proposed new NAFTA, including an ironclad right to organize and protection for activists, so Mexican workers can join real labor unions like Los Mineros, throw out company-controlled imposter unions like the one at Media Luna and get better wages and working conditions.

Without these safeguards in the new NAFTA, formally known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, Mexican labor activists will risk death. And corporations will continue to fire American and Canadian workers and move operations to Mexico.

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American Democracy Is Not A Charity Case

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, America’s fourth-richest person, finally admitted that no one deserves to accumulate as much wealth as he has.

But hey, he says, at least he plans to give a lot of his $69.6 billion net worth to charity.

That’s nice. But it’s not enough considering the threat of concentrated wealth to the American ideal.

America’s very democracy is dying because billionaires like Zuckerberg amass ever more wealth—and thus ever more political power—while everyone else struggles with less. Less money. But, just as importantly, less clout in government.

Philanthropy is fine. But to preserve a functioning democracy, everyone, including billionaires, must pay a fair share of taxes so that America has the money it desperately needs to address shared priorities, reinvigorate the middle class and repair the social fabric torn by income inequality. And we need real limits on campaign contributions to stop the nation’s slide from democracy, where many have a voice, to oligarchy, where only the rich are heard.

The rich don’t pay anything like their proportionate share of taxes right now. Not even close.

In fact, a new study shows that the super-rich pay a lower rate than working Americans thanks to the Republicans’ 2017 tax giveaway.

Last year, the nation’s 400 richest families paid an average effective tax rate of 23 percent, compared to the 24.2 percent paid by the bottom half of U.S. households. It turns out hotel queen Leona Helmsley was right all those years ago when she said only the little people pay taxes.

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A Pregnant Target

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Those bundles of joy cost bundles of money, so Victoria Whipple, a quality control worker at Kumho Tire in Macon, Ga., had been working overtime to get ready for her new arrival.

WhippleShe also got involved in union organizing at the plant, and management decided to teach her a lesson. It didn’t matter that Victoria had seven kids ranging in age from 10 to 1. Or that she was eight months pregnant. Those things just made her a more appealing target.

On Sept. 6, the day Kumho workers wrapped up an election in which they voted to join the United Steelworkers (USW), managers pulled Victoria off the plant floor and suspended her indefinitely without pay solely because she was supporting the union. In a heartbeat, her income was gone.

“It kind of stressed me out because of the bills,” she explained.

What happened to Victoria happens all the time. Employers face no real financial penalties for breaking federal labor law by retaliating against workers during a union organizing campaign. So they feel free to suspend, fire or threaten anyone they want. Workers are fired in one of every three organizing efforts nationwide, and the recent election at Kumho was held only because the company harassed workers before the initial vote two years ago.

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Star-Spangled Knockoff

Tom Conway

Tom Conway USW International President

Image by Getty ImagesAn American flag made in China is not an American flag. It’s a knockoff.

New York Assemblyman Angelo Santabarbara wants a guarantee that flags flown at New York events and on New York poles are made in America. He introduced legislation last week to require that after learning millions of flags are imported annually.

Good for him. Because nothing symbolizes the weakened state of American manufacturing as much as a foreign-made U.S. flag.

America’s manufacturing sector has been decimated. NAFTA and China’s unfair trade practices are major culprits. That’s a sorry state of affairs for a superpower.

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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