Tom Conway

How the Build Back Better bill will help millions of Americans with hearing impairments

Growing up, Tom Hay helped to raise hogs and crops on the family farm, never thinking to protect his ears from the din of tractors, combines and other machinery.

And while his United Steelworkers (USW) contract provided safety controls and protective measures during his decades at Titan Tire, he wasn't surprised when hearing tests revealed his ears aren't as sharp as they used to be.

Right now, Congress is on the cusp of helping millions of Americans like Hay live better lives. In addition to enhancing access to prekindergarten and battling climate change, among many other overdue improvements, the Build Back Better legislation would expand Medicare to cover hearing aids and other auditory care for the first time.

Hay knows that just like a strong heart and powerful lungs, robust hearing is essential for seniors' health, safety and fulfillment.

They need to hear honking horns warning them that they've stepped into oncoming traffic. They need to hear the sirens of police cars and ambulances that zoom up behind them in traffic. And they need to hear the alarms alerting them to fires, intruders and other dangers at home.

Yet even though about half of Americans 60 and older struggle with hearing loss—and even though voters overwhelmingly support Medicare coverage for auditory services—the nation has long relegated hearing care to the back burner.

As a result, many seniors delay getting hearing aids or forgo them altogether because of the expense, which can run to thousands of dollars. Numerous retirees shared these sorts of stories with Hay while he served as president of USW Local 164, the union representing workers at Titan Tire in Des Moines, Iowa.

"They go get a hearing test and realize they can't hear anything," Hay recalled. "Then, when they find out what it's going to cost, it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, I don't know where the money is going to come from.' They about fall over."

Today's hearing aids provide more help than ever before, and that's all the more reason to get them to those in need.

They're compact and highly sophisticated, delivering superior sound quality along with Bluetooth capability that connects users with their electronic devices. Vendors even offer remote support.

The demand for hearing tests and assistive devices is so great that some chapters of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), including Chapter 31-9 in Southeast Chicago, negotiate special rates with local providers.

"It's a quality of life issue," said Bill Alexander, the chapter president. "You don't even know when people are telling you they love you, if you can't hear."

While he's pleased to be able to make these services more readily available to SOAR members, Alexander believes all seniors, wherever they live, need access to affordable, high-quality hearing care.

Because Medicare covers other essential health needs during retirement, Alexander explained, it only makes sense for the program to cover hearing care as well. He's eager for Congress to heed Americans' call and complete work on the Build Back Better legislation, already passed by the House.

"If Medicare will give us a blood pressure monitor, why can't it give us a hearing aid?" asked Alexander, who retired from Acme Steel and Iron and predicts that he'll need hearing aids one day. "It's just as important. I know high blood pressure is a silent killer. But I don't know what life would be like not being able to hear."

People with hearing loss are more likely to experience depression, loneliness and isolation. They're also at increased risk of dementia and falls.

And untreated hearing loss is also a potential barrier to care in medical facilities, especially in conjunction with COVID-19 mask protocols that make one-on-one communication in hospitals and similar settings more difficult. Caregivers can have difficulty assessing and treating patients who are hard of hearing, and impairments rob seniors of the right to actively participate in their care.

"There's a lot of times they don't hear you, and they don't respond," Chris Sova, a licensed practical nurse, said of some of the patients at Bay County Medical Care Center in Essexville, Michigan. "There's just that breakdown."

Sova hopes that expanding Medicare to cover seniors' auditory care will spark a broader, nationwide conversation about hearing health.

"It's not just about the elderly," explained Sova, president of USW Local 15301, which represents workers at the Bay County facility. "Hearing loss doesn't magically happen in old age. It gradually occurs over years and years. It's something that could be prevented."

By "opening the door" through Medicare, he continued, "maybe we can get more preventive care as well."

Hay, who retired at the beginning of November, knows that Medicare expansion would have a real impact on his retirement.

As his hearing continues to decline, he wants to be able to follow the chatter at his grandchildren's sporting events and enjoy their school concerts and other activities. He's earned that after a lifetime of hard work.

"If I had to ask somebody what they said all the time, it would be kind of embarrassing," he explained. "You get to the point where you're not going to ask and just pretend you know what is going on."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why an army of union workers and other activists coalesced around America’s infrastructure bill

Donneta Williams and her coworkers at the Corning plant in Wilmington, North Carolina, hail from different backgrounds and hold diverse views.

But just as they team up on the production floor to make top-quality products powering the internet, they banded together to push for a long-overdue infrastructure program that's destined to lift up their community and countless others across America.

They didn't fight alone. Williams and her colleagues were among a veritable army of Steelworkers and other activists from all over America whose unstinting advocacy helped to propel a historic infrastructure package through Congress and into the Oval Office.

Their rallies, letters, phone calls, tweets and visits to congressional offices provided the heft behind the bipartisan legislation that cleared the House during the first week of November, just as their steely resolve helped to deliver the Senate's vote in August.

"It unified us," Williams, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1025, said of the bill, which was signed into law by President Joe Biden on November 15 and which will invest billions in roads, bridges, seaports, locks and dams, manufacturing facilities, energy systems and communications networks.

"Everyone benefits," she said, noting the infrastructure program will create and sustain millions of union manufacturing and construction jobs while modernizing the nation and revitalizing its manufacturing base. "It's not about one particular party or one particular person. It's about the nation as a whole and our future and what can be accomplished when everybody works together."

Williams and her colleagues make optical fiber, the backbone of broadband networks, a product as fine as thread that carries voice, data and video over the information superhighway at tremendous speed. Across the nation, however, the availability of high-speed broadband remains grossly uneven, and even some of Williams' coworkers can't access it for their own families.

That absurdity inflamed Local 1025's support for an infrastructure program that will deliver affordable, high-quality internet to every American's door while also bringing urgently needed repairs to school buildings, expanding the clean economy and upgrading crumbling, congested roads in Wilmington and other cities.

Williams and her coworkers sent their representatives and senators hundreds of postcards and emails championing the infrastructure legislation. And when the USW's multi-city "We Supply America" bus tour rolled into Wilmington in August to promote the bill, many of Williams' coworkers donned blue-and-yellow T-shirts and turned out for a rally to show they were all in.

"They were the wind behind everything," Williams said of the Local 1025 members, who clapped and cheered when it was her turn to speak.

Miners on Minnesota's Iron Range also pulled out all the stops to press for the legislation, knowing it will support family-sustaining union jobs for generations to come by increasing demand for the materials and components needed to rebuild transportation networks, upgrade drinking water systems and tackle other improvement projects.

"This is something that we needed. We still have pipes in this country that are made of wood. That's crazy," said Cliff Tobey, the benefits and joint efforts coordinator for USW Locals 2660 and 1938, who wrote postcards, dropped in to congressional offices and even penned a column on the bill for the local newspaper.

But he didn't stop there. Just a couple of days after the bill passed the House, Tobey was part of a USW delegation making one more visit to local congressional offices to ensure the package contained exactly what America's workers expected.

"I think we understand what infrastructure means," Tobey said, stressing the legislation's importance for workers across a giant swath of industries. "It's not just steel. It's paper. It's rubber. It's glass. They'll all gain from this."

His own advocacy was driven partly by the 2007 collapse of the Interstate 35W Bridge in Minneapolis, a tragedy that sent cars and trucks, commercial vehicles and a school bus plummeting more than 100 feet. The collapse killed 13 and injured dozens of other motorists during their evening commute.

Investigators eventually attributed the collapse to a design flaw. But the span, which carried 144,000 vehicles a day, had been previously classified as "structurally deficient" and "fracture critical" because of maintenance issues.

There was no reason for that kind of neglect, Tobey said, noting how long America's skilled workers have wanted to overhaul the nation's crumbling infrastructure. Now, they'll get that chance.

"It shows that when Steelworkers put their minds to something, they fight, and they keep fighting until they get it done," Tobey observed.

The new infrastructure legislation will stimulate manufacturing and job growth all along supply chains.

That's because construction projects require not just steel, aluminum, glass and other raw materials but paint, insulation, roofing products and electronic equipment, among many other items. Builders also need trucks to transport materials and heavy equipment for use at job sites.

"They're going to be buying Bobcats," said William Wilkinson, president of USW Local 560 in Gwinner, North Dakota, noting the Steelworkers fought to include domestic procurement requirements in the infrastructure bill, ensuring the nation rebuilds with highly skilled union workers.

Wilkinson represents hundreds of workers who make excavators, skid loaders, utility vehicles and various attachments. And when the infrastructure program increases demand for those products, many other businesses, like Bobcat's suppliers and local stores, will also benefit.

"Everyone supported it," Wilkinson said of the infrastructure bill.

After the many months they spent advocating for the legislation, USW members want nothing more than to get to work rebuilding America.

"It's dear to our hearts," Williams said of the historic opportunity she and her members helped to create. "It makes you feel good knowing you did your part."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why the California shipping bottleneck reflects a threat to U.S. security

Workers at the Sibanye-Stillwater complex in Montana mine minerals used to fight cancer, produce lifesaving surgical instruments and manufacture the wind turbines and solar panels essential for the clean economy.

They touch so many facets of American life that Ed Lorash, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 11-0001, considers their work essential to national security.

Lorash knows that without strong supply chains stretching from mining to manufacturing, the nation is vulnerable, not just to a shortage of consumer goods but also to any number of crises from pandemics to natural disasters that could undermine America's safety. And only revitalizing an industrial base decimated by bad trade will eliminate the country's dangerous dependence on foreign products and protect America's freedom.

"It keeps your enemy at bay," Lorash said of a robust manufacturing sector. Foreign producers can cut off supplies for economic or political reasons, he noted, or raise prices on a whim.

"I just think we really need to look at making things here," he said. "Then, if we get a surplus, we can sell it."

Over the past quarter-century, greedy corporations closed hundreds of U.S. manufacturing facilities and offshored more than a million jobs to countries with low wages, weak labor laws and poor environmental standards.

But that wasn't the only blow to America's security. China and other competitor nations compounded the damage by dumping unfairly traded goods in U.S. markets, killing millions more jobs and further decimating the domestic manufacturing base.

COVID-19 threw the damage into sharp relief. Hollowed-out supply chains left the nation unable to produce the face masks, ventilators and other medical equipment essential for fighting the pandemic.

Next, shortages of semiconductors, resulting from pandemic-related manufacturing slowdowns overseas, disrupted the U.S. auto industry and decimated inventories of cars and trucks.

America once made 37 percent of the world's computer chips, used not only in vehicles but also in electronics and myriad other high-tech products. Now, the U.S. accounts for only 12 percent of global production and buys much of what it needs from overseas.

The dozens of huge cargo ships floating off the West Coast provide yet another stark reminder of Americans' overreliance on overseas products.

So many of those vessels—laden with billions of dollars in foreign-made clothing, electronics, furniture and other goods—converged on California ports at the same time that they created an unprecedented traffic jam.

As the ships take turns docking and unloading, millions of Americans continue to wait for goods and supplies they need to run their businesses, operate their households and care for their families.

Stuck somewhere in the supply chain are motors that Sibanye-Stillwater needs for Jeep-like vehicles used to transport miners underground. Without the motors, the machines sit idle.

"They're small," Lorash explained of the vehicles. "They're durable. They're very low-emission," he said, and critical to responsible mining.

Ports have moved to around-the-clock operations and taken other steps to ease the congestion, but that does nothing to address the underlying factors that caused the gridlock in the first place.

President Joe Biden has taken initial steps to build back the nation's manufacturing base and patch supply chains, such as directing new investments in the manufacturing of essential drugs, batteries and minerals.

The impending national infrastructure program also will help to reinvigorate manufacturing by generating demand for steel, aluminum, glass, paint and other products.

But only long-term investment—and continuous stewardship—will provide the industrial base and supply lines necessary for fighting diseases, bouncing back after natural disasters and meeting the daily challenges of a global economy.

That means locking down every link in supply chains and ensuring, for example, that America can produce not only platinum and palladium but also the steel, aluminum, fiberglass and other parts needed for surgical instruments, wind turbines, solar panels, autos, electronics and other finished products.

"It's all so interdependent," noted Matthew Bashaw, president of USW Local 01-01494, which represents about 65 workers who make citric acid at the Tate & Lyle facility in Dayton, Ohio.

The issue isn't only about ensuring the availability of goods. As Bashaw pointed out, controlling supply lines end to end also means maintaining the quality and purity of goods Americans use and consume.

He and his coworkers follow strict on-the-job safety standards and meticulously safeguard the quality of their products, including a food-grade variety of citric acid used in items like soft drinks and macaroni and cheese.

But Bashaw noted that other countries tried to undercut domestic producers over the years and asked, "What are their regulations? Are they meeting standards consumers look for in their products?"

The platinum, palladium, copper, silver and nickel that USW members at Sibanye-Stillwater produce will become ever more important as the nation makes more electric vehicles and increasingly grows a clean-energy economy.

Lorash knows his coworkers are up for the challenge of supplying the country's needs. He wants to see a manufacturing revitalization so that union workers at other companies have their own opportunities to help build a stronger, safer America.

"Keep it at home," he said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why American workers want Congress to deliver an infrastructure bill

With business already strong and a national infrastructure program likely to further increase demand for its products, DuPont realized it needed a strategy to find more workers.

So it did what any sensible employer would do—turned to the union for help. DuPont approached United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12075 about the possibility of a worker recruitment campaign highlighting the availability of union jobs, which provide the benefits, security and dignity more and more Americans seek in the wake of COVID-19.

Major investments in America's infrastructure will modernize the nation and revitalize its industrial base. But an infrastructure program is about more than rebuilding roads and bridges. It's about creating more of those family-sustaining union jobs and rebuilding the middle class.

It's about creating an economy that's not only more powerful but more just.

In August, the Senate took the critical first step by passing a $1 trillion infrastructure bill that would pave the way for long-overdue improvements in roads, water systems, school buildings, airports, communications networks, energy systems and manufacturing facilities.

Now, the House needs to pass its own version of the legislation and set the nation on a path to shared prosperity.

"We are waiting for them to finish up, so we can move on," said Local 12075 President Kent Holsing, noting he represents hundreds of workers at DuPont, Dow and other chemical companies in the Midland, Michigan, area who are ready to handle the added business that an infrastructure program would generate.

"We make lots of products that are used in building construction," Holsing explained. "We make products that go into water-treatment plants. We make a number of products that go into cars. Investment in infrastructure is an investment in products, and investment in products is an investment in jobs."

But DuPont needs more workers to take on those jobs. Holsing said that when company representatives asked which USW benefits it ought to highlight in recruitment efforts, he and his colleagues told them "everything from worker representation to the college scholarship program."

The pandemic underscored the withered state of America's manufacturing base and marked a turning point for Americans fed up with the low-wage, nonunion jobs that proliferated amid industrial decline.

No longer willing to endure the exploitation that COVID-19 threw into sharp relief, millions of workers left employers that not only exposed them to the virus but also denied them the affordable health care, paid sick leave and other basics they needed to help their families through the crisis.

"A lot of them don't have anything to lose," Lorri Walker, president of USW Local 444L, said of Americans who ditched exploitative employers. "They can't afford to buy a house. They can't afford to buy a car."

"People have to have a pathway for a future so they can retire," explained Walker, who represents hundreds of workers at Henniges Automotive in Keokuk, Iowa. "They have to have decent wages, and they have to have a voice in the workplace. It's not going to happen without a union."

During the pandemic, unions fought for COVID-19 protections. They succeeded in preserving members' jobs, even as nonunion employers cut many more workers loose during the crisis. And because of contracts negotiated before COVID-19, union workers had greater access to health insurance and paid sick leave to help care for their families when the virus struck.

Now, a growing number of Americans want union jobs. "I think they understand the value of labor," said Walker, noting how eagerly new hires at Henniges Automotive, a manufacturer of weatherstripping products, join the USW.

A national infrastructure program is essential for creating more of the opportunities Americans now demand.

Infrastructure investments have the potential to generate quality jobs for the workers at mines, steel mills and aluminum plants who furnish the raw materials for infrastructure projects. These projects also would create work for heavy equipment manufacturers, glassmakers and producers of tires, optical fiber and numerous other products all along supply chains.

At Holophane in Newark, Ohio, for example, workers anticipate increased demand for their lighting products, which government agencies and other customers purchase for interstate highways, city streets, parks, ports, power plants and other settings.

And USW Local 525T President Steve Bishoff said the union and Holophane recently wrapped up a contract that will help recruit and retain the workers the company knows it needs to capitalize on coming opportunities.

The new agreement included improvements in the wage scale and preserved affordable health care, among other enhancements. The company, Bishoff added, "didn't try to take anything away."

"These are good jobs," he said, noting workers at other local employers vie for openings at Holophane because of the higher wages and other benefits.

America has a historic opportunity not just to emerge from the pandemic stronger than before but also to galvanize a tide of prosperity that will benefit generations to come.

It all starts with the infrastructure bill. Millions of Americans eager for better lives expect Congress to push it over the finish line.

"In my 22 years working for the union, I have not seen a labor marketplace like this ever," Holsing said, referring to the large number of workers fighting back against unfair treatment and demanding more from employers. "This is something we're going to really need to capitalize on."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why America’s health care workers are escalating their fight for fair treatment and patient safety

So many people with COVID-19 sought treatment at Providence St. Mary Medical Center in recent months that the hospital triaged patients in a tent outside the facility and set up a makeshift ward in the main lobby.

Many workers put in 14- and 16-hour shifts to keep the Southern California facility operating during the crisis, with some comforting the dying and others volunteering to use their Spanish skills to help communicate with bereft family members over the phone.

But instead of recognizing workers who risked their lives and pushed themselves to exhaustion, the hospital compounded the strain by demanding concessions and dragging out contract negotiations for more than a year.

Around the country, hospitals continue to stretch workers to the breaking point and put the entire health care system at risk.

"The fact is that without us, the hospitals have no one," observed Alma Garzon, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 183, which represents hundreds of workers at Providence St. Mary.

"Some of them don't understand what we really do," Garzon said of hospital executives. "The higher-ups are not going to come in and take care of our patients. They're not going to get their hands dirty."

The pandemic exacerbated staffing shortages that plagued hospitals, nursing homes and other health care facilities long before COVID-19.

To protect their communities during the crisis, workers stepped up, put in arduous amounts of overtime and took on extra duties. Yet Garzon said that when union officials cited the need to invest in workers and take steps to boost staffing levels, management's response was: "You signed up for this."

"That was a big slap in the face," said Garzon, whose members ratified a new contract October 7, after about 15 months of the hospital's stonewalling.

More and more health systems treat workers with the same kind of disdain.

That's fueling widespread burnout and fatigue, and it's forcing a growing number of health care workers to escalate their fights for fair treatment and patient safety.

Nurses at a Massachusetts hospital began a strike seven months ago. Workers at facilities in New York and Oregon also took to picket lines in recent weeks.

California's Inland Empire is another potential flashpoint. About 7,400 members of USW Local 7600 are among tens of thousands of workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities there who recently authorized a strike because of demands by management that would impoverish their families and compromise care.

Although the conglomerate maintained a healthy bottom line during the pandemic, it wants to hold down wages for current workers and drastically cut pay scales for new hires, a one-two punch certain to worsen staffing shortages and put hospitals at risk.

Adding insult to injury, the health system intends to carry out the proposal on the backs of workers in environmental services, dietary and other behind-the-scenes departments.

All fulfill essential roles in patient care.

Yet because these workers have a low profile, health systems often treat them as expendable and try to cut corners at their expense. Kaiser Permanente's proposed pay scale would start some new workers right around California's minimum wage and suppress their earning potential for the rest of their lives.

"That's not OK. It's disrespectful and an outrage to health care workers everywhere. Everybody deserves a living wage," said Norberto Gomez, vice president of Local 7600.

Instead of urgently seeking an agreement, Kaiser Permanente retaliated against workers by threatening to withhold or cancel contractually obligated time off until the end of the labor dispute. It even stooped to harassing workers who wore union T-shirts.

Like their counterparts in California and across the country, Jackie Anklam and about 620 other workers at Ascension St. Mary's Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, shouldered extra responsibilities during the pandemic.

Greeters repeatedly risked exposure to COVID-19 by handing out fresh masks to all of those entering the hospital. Phlebotomists conducted drive-through coronavirus tests in the facility's parking lots.

And environmental services workers put their lives on the line to sanitize the floors, walls, linens and furnishings of rooms occupied by COVID-19 patients. The hour-long cleanings—conducted in gowns, gloves and goggles—often left the workers drenched in sweat.

Yet, like Garzon and Gomez, Anklam found herself fighting to preserve workers' hard-earned benefits during contract negotiations with ungrateful executives.

"I just think they undervalue the work my members do," said Anklam, president of USW Local 9899. "I don't know why they don't get it. They don't look at the big picture."

The lack of respect only spurred Anklam and her colleagues to fight harder. They stood firm and won wage increases and benefit enhancements.

"The members spoke," Anklam said.

Workers at Kaiser Permanente want nothing more than for the health system to come to its senses and take the steps necessary to avert a strike.

But they realize that they cannot truly care for their patients without also providing for themselves and their families and holding the health system accountable. Right now, with the pandemic still raging, their commitment in the face of shabby treatment is all that keeps dozens of Kaiser Permanente facilities open to the public.

"People are sick and tired, and they've had enough, and they're ready to stand up and fight back," Gomez said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why America needs a national program of paid sick and family leave

Keli Vereb wasn't sure how long it would take to recover from complicated neck surgery last year, but she took comfort knowing she'd be able to focus on healing without having to worry about her job.

That's because United Steelworkers (USW) Local 2227-01 negotiated a contract with Vereb's employer, U.S. Steel, ensuring paid leave for workers who need time to fight for their health.

Millions of other workers need the same security. But they're out of luck because America remains the only major industrialized country without a universal paid leave program that protects workers' livelihoods while they confront serious health and family issues.

President Joe Biden's American Families Plan fills this gaping hole in the nation's social infrastructure. It would provide workers with 12 weeks of paid leave so they can navigate some of life's biggest challenges without fear of unsympathetic bosses docking their wages or even firing them for taking time off.

Congress has begun working on legislation addressing key aspects of Biden's proposal amid overwhelming public support for this commonsense policy.

"I didn't worry about how I was going to pay the bills while I was off," Vereb, a caster scheduler based at U.S. Steel's Irvin Works near Pittsburgh, said of the three months she relied on her union-negotiated leave last year. "My benefits continued. My pension kept accruing."

Vereb faced an arduous recovery after the operation, one of three she's had over the years because of injuries sustained in a fender-bender three decades ago.

"It was a whole lot of healing," recalled Vereb, a union griever, citing the pain and the line of 25 stitches starting at the back of her head. "The first six weeks, I had my neck in a neck immobilizer. I couldn't even… [take] a shower on my own."

She's grateful that the USW fights to retain the leave program during every round of negotiations with U.S. Steel and realizes that many workers across the country are entirely subject to the whims of their bosses.

In the absence of a national paid sick and family leave program, many shortsighted and callous employers force Americans to choose between their health and their paychecks.

About 25 percent of private sector workers lack even one paid sick day a year, let alone a paid leave program. So many put off health screenings or other preventive care, at the risk of compounding their health problems, so they can keep working to cover the bills.

Other Americans power through their jobs despite kidney stones or cancer treatments or report to work with the flu, sore throats or runny noses, even though they can spread diseases to others and put entire workplaces in jeopardy.

The American Families Plan would spare workers those kinds of agonizing decisions, providing them time off not only for themselves but also to care for seriously ill family members, welcome new children, adjust to loved ones' military deployments, grieve relatives' deaths or seek safety following sexual assaults, stalking or domestic violence.

"It should be a benefit everyone has," observed Cheryl Husk, recording secretary for USW Local 9423, which represents workers at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Kentucky.

Husk's son recently needed time off to provide around-the-clock care for his wife and newborn, but he could only get an unpaid leave from his nonunion mechanic's job. Husk and other family members chipped in to help cover his bills during his time as a caregiver.

Providing paid leave for family emergencies is not only humane but also a way to protect others in the workplace.

"I don't want to be working beside somebody who's distracted by medical issues at home," Husk explained. "That doesn't create a good work atmosphere for anybody. It can even be quite dangerous."

Employers refuse to meet workers' needs even though paid sick leave helps them as well. It reduces the risk of workplace accidents, and it boosts stability, productivity and worker loyalty.

Also, as other countries have discovered in the case of maternity leave, paid time off contributes to a nation's competitiveness.

In America, the lack of universal maternity leave forces many moms back to work within just two weeks of giving birth.

"I could never see that," said Alycia Allen, a painter at Newport News Shipbuilding in Virginia, where members of USW Local 8888 build nuclear-powered submarines and aircraft carriers for the Navy. "Your body's not even ready yet."

When her four-year-old daughter, Skylah, was born, Allen leveraged a pair of USW-negotiated benefits to spend about two months with her infant. Without her union contract, said Allen, a trustee and safety chairperson for Local 8888, she'd have been one of those moms prematurely driven back to work.

Rather than go back too soon, however, some mothers reluctantly quit their jobs, sacrificing careers and income for parenthood. As many as 30 percent of women without paid leave exit the workforce within a year of having a baby. And some remain out for a decade or longer.

That's one reason America trails many other nations in the percentage of women in the workforce. Paid leave helps to keep women on the job, and that drives overall economic performance.

Vereb already knows she'll need a fourth surgery to address the continuing deterioration in her neck.

While she knows her union will ensure she has the time off she needs to recover, she can't help thinking about her brother, who works for a transportation company, and her sister, a grocery store worker, who have no paid leave at all.

If they needed time off for surgery, Vereb said, "they would just lose their jobs."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why American workers need the National Labor Relations Board to return to its mission

When managers at National Steel installed hidden cameras at an Illinois mill to guard against theft, they ended up being the ones on the wrong side of the law.

The United Steelworkers (USW) reported the illicit surveillance to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and in a 2001 order that remains a major check on corporate abuses, the agency ordered an end to the secret spying.

To USW Local 1899 President Dan Simmons, that still-important case is a constant reminder of how much Americans need the NLRB to ensure justice in the workplace. So he's pleased that after veering wildly off course during the previous administration, the agency under Joe Biden is getting back to its vital mission of enforcing labor rights.

On his first day as president in January, Biden fired the board's general counsel, Peter Robb, a corporate pawn who used his powerful position to turn the agency against the very people it was created to help.

With the support of the Democratic-controlled Senate, Biden replaced Robb with Jennifer Abruzzo, a respected labor lawyer who's expected to bring a fair-minded approach to a role that includes overseeing NLRB field offices, prosecuting unfair labor practice charges and prioritizing cases brought to the five-member board.

Biden and Senate Democrats also put new members on the board, eliminating a pro-business majority that, during the previous four years, issued a string of decisions that eroded workers' rights and rigged the system for employers.

"You knew what their agenda was," Simmons, who represents about 1,800 workers at U.S. Steel and a handful of other companies in Illinois, said of Robb and the previous board. "It was not looking to protect labor or working people. It was clearly driven by corporations."

Simmons, who played a role in fighting the illegal surveillance scheme at now-defunct National Steel, recalled that the company refused to tell the union the whereabouts of the cameras after word about the clandestine surveillance efforts leaked out. The union filed a complaint with the NLRB amid concerns that the company watched workers even while they took medications or made phone calls during breaks.

Since helping to win that case, Simmons has relied on the agency many times while enforcing contracts and labor rights. But he said he "never would have considered" bringing important matters to the NLRB during the previous administration because he knew Robb and his right-wing cronies looked for cases they could exploit to further chip away workers' rights.

"We avoided them," he said.

Abruzzo intends to rebalance the scales. Whereas Robb helped to thwart union drives and expand corporate power, Abruzzo recently sent a memo to field offices laying out her plan for trying to reverse recent board decisions holding workers down.

That includes the board's 2019 ruling that drivers for SuperShuttle, the airport transportation company, are independent contractors rather than employees entitled to form unions. That decision dealt a setback not only to poorly treated van drivers but also to workers throughout the gig economy.

And against the backdrop of COVID-19, more and more companies in the technology, delivery, hospitality and other sectors are relying on gig workers so they can not only skimp on wages and benefits but also exercise absolute control over working conditions.

The SuperShuttle decision robs these workers of the ability to band together for better pay, affordable health care and a voice on the job. Reversing it is essential for building a fairer, stronger economy.

Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and created the NLRB decades ago specifically to encourage workers to form unions. It wanted to capitalize on the power of collective bargaining to forge a stronger middle class and give ordinary Americans a share in the nation's prosperity.

Robb and the previous board subverted those ends to give corporations the upper hand. Now, among the dozens of recent board decisions in Abruzzo's sights are those that not only threw up roadblocks intended to thwart union drives but also strip workers of power they achieve when organizing campaigns succeed.

In 2019, for example, the board issued a decision enabling employers to unilaterally change working conditions in the middle of contracts, making a mockery of the bargaining process. In another case that year, the board made it easier for corporations to kick out unions just as collective bargaining agreements expire—a time when workers especially need the stability their unions provide.

Amid the crush of devastating decisions, Simmons recalled thinking that the NLRB "is out to get me" and other workers.

Adding insult to injury, the previous board stacked the deck against workers even as a growing number—in a wide variety of fields—clamored to join unions.

The demand for representation, increasing even before COVID-19, soared during the pandemic as Americans saw how unions helped their members negotiate affordable health care, paid sick leave and workplace safety protections.

Now, Simmons anticipates that Abruzzo and the new board will level the playing field, enabling workers to once again exercise their labor rights and leverage the benefits unions provide.

But the four years before Biden took office continue to haunt him.

The unprecedented assault on workers during that period reminded Simmons of how important it is to continually press for stronger labor rights and remain vigilant for any attempt to undercut them.

It's too easy to lose what workers spent decades building.

"You can't become complacent," Simmons said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why America needs union workers to rebuild the nation’s infrastructure

New ornate streetlights add charm and ambience to Knoxville, Tennessee, even as they help the city dramatically slash energy consumption and save millions of taxpayer dollars each year.

These high-tech lights last for years, require almost zero maintenance and provide better illumination than the old models, leading one grateful official to say they "raised the bar and changed the game" for a city seeking a brighter future.

The United Steelworkers (USW) launched a weeklong bus tour on August 16 to call for historic investments in America's infrastructure and to underscore the importance of using union-made materials and products, like the lights Knoxville installed, for these much-needed rebuilding projects.

The multistate event, part of the union's "We Supply America" campaign, included a stop at Holophane's plant in Newark, Ohio. There's where members of USW Locals 525T, 4T and 105T manufacture lighting products that not only illuminate Knoxville and other cities but also help to preserve vital supply chains across the economy.

"We pretty much light the world," said Local 525T President Steve Bishoff, noting he and his coworkers also supply state highway departments, shipping terminals, sewer authorities, energy facilities and military installations, along with numerous industries in the U.S. and overseas. "All the glass is made right here."

Bishoff strongly supports President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan, which would modernize the country and supercharge the economy with long-overdue investments in roads, water systems, communications networks and other infrastructure. He views the Senate's bipartisan passage of a $1 trillion infrastructure bill on August 10 as an important step in achieving this progress and wants the House to quickly get to work on its own legislation.

However, he knows that these bold investments will deliver the maximum benefits for America's economy and security only if union workers lead the way.

An infrastructure program with domestic procurement requirements "would bring more jobs here," Bishoff said, noting upgrades to bridges, school buildings and other facilities would dramatically increase demand for Holophane's products.

An influx of new workers would help the greater Newark community, he added, noting the USW's contract provides good wages and benefits that enable his coworkers to lead middle-class lives and support local businesses.

He also has other important reasons for insisting that union workers drive the infrastructure upgrades.

Upgraded roads and other improvements will only be as strong and dependable as the materials that go into them. Union members have the skills and dedication to build infrastructure that will be safe to use and stand the test of time.

Officials in Knoxville, for example, chose lighting products made by Bishoff and his colleagues because of the reliability, brightness and safety they bring to streets, highways and other city-owned spaces.

Similarly, the Tennessee Valley Authority chose Holophane's union-made products to ensure the efficient operation of a gas plant crucial for power needs. And the ports of Los Angeles and Seattle installed Holophane's lighting systems to maximize safety and productivity at two of the nation's biggest shipping terminals.

One port official in Seattle noted that the new lights turned darkness into daylight. That's the kind of compliment Bishoff and his colleagues often hear.

"It's kind of a long process," Bishoff, who's worked at the plant for 44 years, said of the mixing, curing and craftsmanship that go into their top-quality production. "It takes teamwork to do it."

Shortages of face masks, hand sanitizer and other critical goods during the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the withered state of American manufacturing and exposed gaping holes in the nation's supply chains.

Carrying out infrastructure improvements with union-made components will help to sustain companies like Holophane, where Bishoff and his coworkers manufacture the kinds of items the nation relies on every day. But Biden's plan will also stimulate additional manufacturing capacity throughout the economy and help to fill out supply chains, ensuring the nation never again has to rely on imported goods needed for everyday life or emergencies.

It's essential that America maintain the capacity to produce lenses, bulbs and light fixtures for highways, tunnels, airports and shipping terminals. It's just as critical that the U.S. be able to supply the raw materials, manufacture parts and assemble finished products for numerous other infrastructure and industrial uses.

The USW launched its "We Supply America" campaign to shine a light on the highly skilled union workers who are eager to deliver new infrastructure, a more powerful economy and stronger national security.

In addition to Newark, the bus tour includes stops at Cleveland-Cliffs steel mills in Indiana and West Virginia, a Goodyear tire factory in Virginia and Corning's optical-fiber plant in North Carolina.

USW members like those at Cleveland-Cliffs produce the steel that America relies on not only for bridges, school buildings and drinking-water systems but also for shopping centers, athletic complexes and a vast array of consumer goods. Union workers at Goodyear and similar companies make the tires that keep passenger vehicles and tractor-trailers rolling, while also powering the cranes, graders and other heavy equipment essential for construction work.

And USW members at Corning turn glass into optical fiber that's the brains of cutting-edge broadband systems that help to connect Americans to business and educational opportunities.

"It's nice to be part of this," Bishoff said of a union workforce that powers so much of the nation's economy.

Now, America has an unprecedented opportunity to harness that skill and passion to build not only better infrastructure but also a stronger, more prosperous country.

"It would be good for everyone," Bishoff said.

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How a national infrastructure program would protect Americans from hurricanes

After Hurricane Harvey swamped Texas, Chad Sullivan spent five straight days rescuing flood victims from their attics and rooftops and rushing sick, elderly residents, some long overdue for dialysis, to an overwhelmed hospital.

The volunteer firefighter still chokes up at the memory of navigating a personnel carrier through streets that Harvey turned into a debris-filled lake, pulling the stranded and sodden aboard while fielding calls the 911 center relayed to him from terror-stricken residents still waiting for help.

"It was call after call after call. They didn't know what to do," said Sullivan, a unit president with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 227 who works at the Albemarle specialty chemicals plant near Houston.

Four years after Harvey caused billions in damage and killed about 100, Sullivan knows exactly what the nation needs to do to avert future calamities like this: Commit to a national infrastructure program that strengthens coastal barriers and toughens America's roads, bridges, utilities and buildings against the more frequent and stronger storms associated with climate change.

President Joe Biden's American Jobs Plan, now before Congress, not only calls for much-needed investments in transportation systems, utilities, schools and other facilities, but also makes the increased resilience of infrastructure a central part of the building program.

"If the funds are allocated properly, this could go a long way," said Sullivan, a lieutenant in the Southeast Volunteer Fire Department, who fears what will happen if the nation fails to act now.

In addition to the death and destruction, hurricanes exact other tolls. They close schools and universities, pose environmental hazards and halt the operations of factories, triggering disruptions that ripple across the economy.

And the storms keep coming. Last year's season produced about 30 named storms, including Hurricanes Hanna and Laura, which struck parts of Texas.

More resilient infrastructure means measures like stronger home and school construction, relocation of utility lines underground to protect them from wind and water damage, increased use of microgrids to ensure power stays on in some areas even if it goes out in others, and building coastal barrier systems to deflect the storm surges that accompany hurricanes.

Sullivan also cited the need for an expanded highway network to speed up the evacuation of residents during weather emergencies and better drainage systems, especially in unincorporated areas like his 5-square-mile community just outside of Houston.

Increased residential development since Harvey has only increased the risk of damage and death from future hurricanes. Yet his community has little in the way of infrastructure or government services.

"We don't even have city building inspectors," said Sullivan, whose department rescued about 2,500 residents after Harvey, many in personnel carriers it previously acquired from the National Guard.

The hundreds of chemical plants, several oil refineries and thousands of storage tanks concentrated along the Gulf Coast compound the threats that hurricanes pose to residents, local communities and the national economy. These facilities produce much of the nation's jet fuel and gasoline, plus chemicals for numerous other products the country uses every day.

Many of these sites have "zero protection" against storm surge, even though flooding could lead to explosions, fires or chemical releases that claim more lives and divert first responders from other hurricane-related duties. These grim scenarios haunt firefighters like Sullivan throughout the storm season.

While Sullivan points out that chemical companies need to take greater responsibility for their own facilities—by upgrading water-pumping equipment, for example—he sees a national infrastructure program as a historic opportunity to make the comprehensive improvements needed to avert future weather disasters.

That means not only construction of storm barriers to protect plants and storage tanks but also upgrades to transmission pipelines that could suffer damage, with catastrophic consequences, during extreme weather.

Stronger infrastructure also would spare millions of families the heartache of loss and the misery of rebuilding. In 2017, for example, Hurricane Maria killed about 3,000 people in Puerto Rico, knocked out power to the whole island and reduced entire communities to rubble.

Abandoned by the previous presidential administration, residents relied on donations of water, clothing and other items just to survive, recalled Mayra Rivera, president of USW Local 8198, which represents municipal workers in Ponce.

Four years later, Rivera remains grateful for the help of her union brothers and sisters. But the island continues its slow recovery, with many residents still struggling to clean up and rebuild homes that have blue tarps covering holes in their roofs.

"When you fly to Puerto Rico, from the air, you see a lot of blue tarps," explained Rivera, who took special training on flood cleanup from the USW's Tony Mazzocchi Center for Health, Safety, and Environmental Education and now teaches others how to guard against mold and other flood hazards.

Hurricanes aren't the only threat. Over the past two years, an unusually large number of earthquakes leveled more homes and businesses while also destroying or damaging many of the poorly constructed schools in her part of the island.

"We need a lot of funds to recover and improve our infrastructure in Puerto Rico," observed Rivera, citing the need not just for stronger roads and bridges but for a resilient power grid, sturdily built schools and assistance to weary homeowners. Only the federal government has the resources to accomplish this work, she added, noting severe financial problems limit the projects the island can fund itself.

The sweeping infrastructure upgrades in the American Jobs Plan will modernize the nation and supercharge the economy while averting needless deaths and untold anguish.

"I don't subscribe to the idea that infrastructure is just bridges and roads," said Sullivan, who favors Biden's go-big approach. "This is our chance, right? We need to take it."

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why America needs union workers to drive the success of a national infrastructure program

Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).

Visitors to National Airport in Washington, D.C., have often gazed in awe at a grand, wide hall with soaring, vaulted ceilings intended to evoke the grandeur of government buildings in the nation's capital.

Union workers at Cives Steel Co. in Winchester, Virginia, fabricated thousands of tons of steel for that innovative project. While they're pleased to have contributed to the facility's majestic appearance, they're even prouder to know that their skilled craftsmanship produced strong, flawless steel components keeping thousands of passengers, vendors and other airport users safe every day.

As America embarks on a historic modernization of roads, bridges, water systems, airports, schools, manufacturing facilities and other infrastructure, it's essential that the nation's highly skilled union workers supply the raw materials and parts as well as the labor for these publicly funded projects.

Union workers will deliver infrastructure that's safe to use and built to last. Congress just needs to ensure they have the opportunity to put those skills to use, and that means including domestic procurement requirements in legislation implementing President Joe Biden's infrastructure program.

"If you want a good-quality product, it's got to be made by union people. They take pride in what they do. They want to put out a good product," said Buddy Morgan, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 8360, which represents workers at the Winchester plant.

Morgan, who has worked at Cives Steel for 42 years, and his coworkers, many of whom also have decades of experience under their belts, have already worked on many of the kinds of infrastructure projects Biden now wants to take to scale through his American Jobs Plan.

In addition to the National Airport project, which involved the production of pieces so huge that workers faced formidable challenges just maneuvering them onto trucks, members of Local 8360 fabricated tons of steel for a terminal at Philadelphia International Airport and a military aircraft hangar in Norfolk, Virginia.

Over the years, they've also manufactured steel components for schools, industrial facilities, sports complexes, hospitals and laboratories.

The structural integrity of enormous buildings—and the lives of people using them—depend on the quality of their work. That's why welders in Morgan's plant will stand for hours, barely moving, sweating profusely under helmets and protective clothing, to perfectly fuse steel pieces together.

"You wouldn't believe the welds they put down and some of the pieces they put together," Morgan said, noting the difficulty of transforming the specifications on a blueprint into components that will hold up a building. "They can look at the thing, and they do this so well, and they've done it for so long, that they can figure out what they need to do."

Upgrading the nation's roads, bridges, locks, dams and ports—all crucial parts of Biden's infrastructure plan—would help Morgan and his coworkers more quickly and cost-effectively transport their large, custom-built products to customers.

Hundreds of Virginia's bridges are structurally deficient, and many of the state's roads are in poor condition, according to the most recent analysis by the American Society of Civil Engineers. Just around Winchester, Morgan noted, major transportation projects continue to languish for lack of funding even though they're urgently needed to reduce congestion, improve traffic flow and help businesses like Cives Steel stay competitive.

"It's hard to get around," some of the truckers tell Morgan.

Upgrading infrastructure with union labor and union-made goods will not only guarantee quality craftsmanship but also ensure that the American Jobs Plan delivers the biggest possible boost to the U.S. economy.

Biden's plan has the potential to create as many as 2.7 million jobs—essential for rebuilding the middle class—while re-energizing the nation's industrial base.

"It's our economy," said Mark Powers, a longtime member of USW Local 831, explaining why he wants a national infrastructure program to directly benefit workers in his Danville, Virginia, community.

Powers trains new workers at the Goodyear plant in Danville that produces tires for tractor-trailers, dump trucks, cranes, cherry-pickers and other heavy-work vehicles.

An infrastructure program carried out with union-made goods would send demand for tires soaring. That, in turn, means more of the good-paying jobs that enable Powers' coworkers to provide for their families, support local businesses and pay the taxes that sustain their communities.

"We would have to grow our plant to meet the demand," Powers predicted. "If the trucks are rolling, we're making money."

Construction companies receiving road-building contracts under the American Jobs Plan would need to buy tires for earthmoving equipment. Biden's proposal to upgrade the electric grid, build renewable energy facilities and expand high-speed broadband portends surging purchases of tires for bucket trucks. Modernization of schools, airports and seaports means increased need for the tires on water trucks, fuel carriers and cement mixers.

And Powers envisions many of the parts and components for infrastructure projects traveling to job sites on 18-wheelers equipped with the highly regarded "steer" tire and other products his coworkers make.

"It's the best in the world," Powers said of the steer tire that goes on the front of the truck. "They're smooth, and they're built on our most modern machinery. They balance well. They run well. You've got to pay attention to the details."

The success of America's once-in-a-generation infrastructure program also hinges on the details.

Only America's union workers have the skills and passion necessary to deliver historic, top-quality returns on the nation's infrastructure investments.

"We can do just about everything," Morgan said.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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