Tom Conway

How enforcement of the USMCA will end a corporate race to the bottom

Chris Reisinger and his coworkers recently added a third daily shift at the Metal Technologies, Inc. (MTI) Northern Foundry because surging vehicle sales boosted demand for the tow hooks, steering components and other auto parts they produce.

Yet Reisinger knows that jobs at the Hibbing, Minnesota, facility will always hang by a thread—even in really good times—as long as his employer has the option to shift production to poorly paid Mexican workers.

Americans can protect their own livelihoods by ensuring their Mexican counterparts have unfettered, unconditional use of new labor reforms intended to lift them out of poverty and stop employers from exploiting them.

To protect workers on both sides of the border, America's labor community and the U.S. trade representative recently filed the first-ever complaints under the 10-month-old United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), demanding action against two plants that suppressed Mexican workers' right to unionize.

Swift, significant punishment of these kinds of offenses through the USMCA's innovative "rapid response" enforcement procedures would deliver a major boost to Mexican workers' efforts to form real unions for the first time. And those unions, in turn, would help Mexican workers negotiate better wages, eliminate employers' incentive to move jobs out of the United States and end a corporate race to the bottom that's harmed millions in both countries.

Not only has Reisinger seen a steady stream of U.S. automakers and suppliers send work to Mexico over the years, but his own employer opened a location there about three years ago. Reisinger, who represents about 50 Northern Foundry workers as president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 21B, doesn't want to see the company open a second just to take further advantage of low wages there.

He's counting on the USMCA to help keep that from happening.

"It's just frustrating to see work going away from American workers," said Reisinger, noting MTI could have expanded the Northern Foundry or its other U.S. locations rather than open the Mexico facility.

Under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), the previous trade deal in place for 25 years, U.S. corporations relocated about a million good-paying manufacturing jobs south of the border to exploit the abysmal wages, weak labor laws and a lack of environmental safeguards.

These companies made huge profits at the expense of powerless Mexican workers while devastating U.S. manufacturing communities, gutting the nation's industrial capacity and decimating the middle class.

To curb this greed, U.S. labor leaders and their Democratic supporters in Congress successfully battled to enshrine tougher labor standards in the USMCA as well as enforcement mechanisms to hold employers' feet to the fire.

The USMCA, for example, required Mexico to pass laws enabling workers to form democratic unions, select their leaders and negotiate real contracts for the first time.

Those changes empower Mexican workers to kick out the corrupt cabals—masquerading as labor organizations—that for decades collaborated with employers to suppress wages, stifle dissent and even kill those who publicly challenged the status quo. These groups not only denied workers a say on the job but bound them to oppressive contracts that made them the perfect targets for U.S. corporations preying on cheap labor.

Now, Mexican workers can look forward to joining unions that, like Reisinger's, fight not only for better wages but affordable health insurance, retirement plans and safety measures to ensure they return home safely to their families at shift's end.

"It gives you a voice," Reisinger said of the local he's proud to lead. "We have pushed back against the company several times on safety issues."

Eradicating the anti-worker forces entrenched in virtually every Mexican workplace would have been a herculean, time-consuming process even without delays associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In December, the Independent Mexico Labor Expert Board, created to monitor the labor reforms, noted that progress had been made with the help of well-intentioned Mexican officials.

However, the board reported that "serious concerns" remained. Most workers still awaited opportunities to form unions and elect leaders, for example, and many continued to face intimidation for organizing efforts.

Those are some of the issues at the heart of the complaints filed recently.

The AFL-CIO, other unions and the activist group Public Citizen alleged that Tridonex, an auto parts maker owned by a Philadelphia company, harassed and fired hundreds of workers trying to organize. Hourly wages at Tridonex range from about $1.80 to $3.30.

In a separate complaint, the U.S. trade representative reported that a phony labor group trying to cling to power at a General Motors plant in northern Mexico destroyed the ballots of workers seeking legitimate representation for the first time. Workers in the GM factory, which makes Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra trucks, start at $1.35 an hour, with a top wage of $4.95 an hour.

Now, these employers face investigations by the Mexican government, special panels set up under the USMCA or both. Punishments for individual plants found to have violated the new labor rights include tariffs or other sanctions, and repeat violators could have their products denied entry to the United States.

Strict enforcement of the USMCA will not only help the oppressed workers at the Tridonex and GM plants but also send the message to other employers that they have to comply with the law as well.

"Otherwise, they're just going to laugh at it," Reisinger said. "You have to have these enforcement mechanisms in place, and you have to utilize them."

Noting his foundry has struggled at times, Reisinger knows a more level playing field under the USMCA can help secure the facility's future, generate even more business and help his coworkers build better lives.

"I think it's important that they remember to share that increase with the workers," he said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Biden actually has a plan to finally rebuild the American middle class

Nick Kessler lived paycheck to paycheck—eking life out of his bald tires, "praying to God nothing broke" at home—until he landed a union position at U.S. Steel in Granite City, Illinois, three years ago.

While that job changed his life, Kessler didn't stop there. He also took advantage of free training, provided under the United Steelworkers (USW) contract with the company, to advance to a highly skilled electrician's role that provides even more security for his wife and young son.

President Joe Biden's American Families Plan would make that kind of transformative opportunity available to all, giving millions of workers greater access to family-sustaining jobs while helping the nation rebuild the middle class.

Among many other provisions, Biden's plan would provide access to two years of tuition-free community college and training to every American.

It's essential that Congress now pass legislation that enacts the plan and paves the way for more Americans to obtain associate degrees, commercial driver's licenses or professional certifications in the skilled trades and other crucial fields.

"Your education is something nobody can ever take from you," said Kessler, a member of USW Local 1899, noting skills like his enhance his employment prospects no matter where he lives.

"The electricians and the plumbers and the carpenters and the welders are the ones that keep everything going," he observed. "The demand for the trades is the highest that it's been in years."

And the demand will only grow exponentially under the American Jobs Plan, the president's call to invest nearly $2 trillion in infrastructure, including roads and bridges, locks and dams, schools and airports, manufacturing facilities, the electric grid, new energy systems and communication networks.

These long-overdue infrastructure investments, long championed by the USW, will lift America out of the COVID-19 recession, rebuild the economy and strengthen the country for the next crisis.

The nation will need pipefitters, electricians, carpenters, welders and other skilled workers not only to construct roads and refurbish buildings but also to fill highly technical jobs like Kessler's in steel mills, foundries and other plants that manufacture the materials and equipment for infrastructure projects.

According to Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce, "[t]he infrastructure plan would create or save 15 million jobs over 10 years." Workers could obtain the skills needed for many of those jobs with six months of training or less.

Providing workers with a pathway for that upskilling will be essential to meeting the nation's infrastructure needs. While union members often receive training benefits through their contracts, many Americans currently lack those opportunities.

Before joining the USW at U.S. Steel, for example, Kessler took electrician's classes at a community college but found the tuition too expensive to complete the program on his own.

Another steelworker, Erik Boyer, picked up mechanical skills as best he could while working on cars in his backyard.

Now, after accepting a job at Cleveland-Cliffs' New Carlisle Works in Indiana and testing into the mechanical program, Boyer will get the combination of classroom instruction and on-the-job training he needs to formalize and complete his education in a year to 14 months.

He knows many more Americans would consider careers in the trades if they knew that the jobs and training were available to them.

"That opens things up to a lot of people," Boyer, a member of USW Local 9231, said of Biden's college and training proposal. "It does provide answers to a lot of problems."

USW Local 14581 in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, operates an on-the-job training program with decades of success putting workers into family-sustaining highway construction jobs like truck drivers, carpenters, drillers, blasters and grader and roller operators.

Local President Gypsy Cantrell realizes that many more local residents would benefit from the program—now supported by government agencies and contractors—and hopes that funds from the American Families Plan will enable her to expand it.

Among other possibilities, she would like to establish a training center so she can begin offering classroom instruction, install equipment simulators and bring in retired union members to offer their expertise. She said some trainees, like carpenters, could even put their skills to use in community service projects as part of an enhanced curriculum.

"The need is there," Cantrell said, noting an expanded program would enable the local to provide skilled workers for new projects generated through Biden's infrastructure push.

Women and workers of color have long fought for equitable opportunities in the nation's economy, and the education benefits afforded by the American Families Plan would help to level the playing field.

An expansion of the Local 14581 training program, for example, would boost the union's longstanding efforts to place struggling residents like DeDe Wallace in family-sustaining jobs. Wallace's training as a grader operator enabled her to raise three grandchildren after her husband, Ricky, became disabled and later died.

"I don't know what would have happened to them if I hadn't been able to take care of them," Wallace, who retired in 2018, said of her grown and successful grandkids.

Because of his past struggles, Kessler appreciates what he has now all the more.

He's happy to be able to provide for his family. But he's also proud to wield skills essential to the nation's prosperity.

"It's a pretty great career," he said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why Workers Memorial Day is a national call to action

The United Steelworkers (USW) Local 959 safety committee leapt into action a few years ago after discovering that more and more workers at the Goodyear plant in Fayetteville, North Carolina, were exposed to knife injuries on the job.

Committee members solicited workers' input on how to address the hazard and then collaborated with the company to provide cut-resistant gloves, introduce more safely designed knives and take other steps to bring the crisis under control.

"It was our number one injury at the plant," recalled Ronald Sessoms, Local 959 safety chairman. "Now, we've almost eliminated it."

It isn't enough to have marked Workers Memorial Day on April 28 by grieving for the thousands of Americans who lost their lives on the job over the past year. Only a renewed, unrelenting commitment to workplace safety will properly honor their memory and ensure that none of them died in vain.

That's especially true in light of COVID-19, which pushed the death toll higher than usual and endangered workers like never before. The pandemic underscored the need for constant vigilance against threats as well as the importance of giving workers a meaningful voice in combating them.

No one knows the hazards and risks better than the people facing them every day. A strong union contract helped to entrench that philosophy at Fayetteville, where worker input not only led to the reduction of knife-related injuries but also resulted in better ventilation, the elimination of certain hazardous chemicals once used at the plant and even adjustments to a machine that helped to avert a head injury risk.

"Our job is not to sit behind a desk," Sessoms said of his USW committee representatives, all of them former production workers who now perform union health, safety and environment (HSE) responsibilities under the contract with Goodyear. "We want to be very accessible."

He and the other USW safety representatives walk the sprawling complex to look for hazards, evaluate hazard controls and confer with 96 "safety coaches"—full-time production workers who volunteer as union safety liaisons in the plant's many departments.

However, committee members realize that plant-wide safety really hinges on leveraging the eyes, ears and expertise of all 2,000 USW members there, and that's why they stop on the shop floor to communicate with workers about their concerns.

Target Zero, an injury prevention program that the USW and Goodyear negotiated more than a decade ago, provides another way to raise red flags.

Frank Cameron, the Target Zero facilitator for Local 959, encourages workers to fill out cards outlining safety concerns and drop them in boxes placed around the plant. He and safety committee members review all cards and follow up with the company to eliminate hazards.

One woman used the program to help a tall coworker constantly at risk of banging his head on a bar used to feed rubber along the production line. She suggested making the bar adjustable so that it could accommodate his height. The change also meant shorter workers, like her, wouldn't have to strain to reach it.

Because of their commitment to vigilance and prevention, union HSE committees can respond quickly and effectively when a crisis strikes.

At Fayetteville, Sessoms, Cameron and other union safety representatives collaborated with Goodyear to implement safety procedures at the start of the pandemic and later worked with local health officials to set up a vaccination clinic.

And at International Paper in San Antonio, the leadership and safety committee of USW Local 13-1 swiftly rose to the challenge and launched a COVID-19 prevention campaign.

"As soon as something happens, you act on it," Emilio Salinas, Local 13-1 executive committee member, said. "You don't want it growing into something bigger. We try to jump on something as quickly as we can to nip it in the bud."

Local 13-1 urged members to wear face masks, disinfect shared tools and practice social distancing in break rooms.

"We're grateful that we're in a union and that we have a voice," Salinas said. "The reason the union exists is not just [to ensure fair] wages and benefits. It's all about safety. It gives us the power to enforce safety for our workers."

Unions not only give workers a voice and protect them from retaliation for raising concerns but also foster a spirit of solidarity that contributes to safety.

"We're 2,150 feet underground. We have to take care of each other," explained JJ Chavez, a union safety representative for USW Local 9477, which represents workers at the U.S. Department of Energy's Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) near Carlsbad, New Mexico.

He and his coworkers dispose of nuclear waste in a salt bed, working at a depth that is greater than the height (1,454 feet) of the Empire State Building. Chavez, a former deputy sheriff, said only a shared commitment to safety can help union members address the many hazards they face every day.

The fight for healthier workplaces never ends.

At Fayetteville, for example, Sessoms and fellow committee members are analyzing data about ergonomic injuries and hazards to determine the need for equipment that helps lift piles of rubber. And they're looking into the purchase of rubber-cutting machines that would further reduce the potential exposure to knife injuries.

"The goal for every one of our team members is to ensure all of our brothers and sisters go home safely to their families each and every day," Sessoms said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

There's an epidemic of violence against health care workers

The patient intended to commit suicide and knew the worker making his bed at Essentia Health-St. Mary's Medical Center in Duluth, Minnesota, stood in the way.

So he crept up behind the caregiver, grabbed the cord to the call bell and began choking her with it.

Only chance saved her, recalled Tuan Vu, a longtime hospital worker who was on duty in another part of the facility that day, noting the woman's colleagues rushed to the rescue after the struggle inadvertently activated the call bell.

The U.S. House just passed a bipartisan bill, the Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, to curtail the rising epidemic of assaults on doctors, nurses, certified nursing assistants, case managers and others on the front lines of care.

The legislation, now before the Senate, requires hospitals, clinics, medical office buildings and other facilities to develop violence prevention plans that cover the unique needs of each workplace.

For example, Vu said, a plan requiring that only specially trained behavioral health workers care for suicidal patients would have been one possible way to avert the near-strangulation of his coworker a few years ago. She was assigned to the patient's room that day even though she wasn't a mental health specialist.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) would enforce this violence prevention act and intervene if workers experience retaliation for reporting safety lapses.

"Having this type of legislation would put our safety at the forefront," explained Vu, a behavioral health technician at Essentia and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9460, which represents thousands of workers at more than a dozen northern Minnesota medical facilities. "It's not something people should be desensitized to."

"I'm a big guy. I'm not so worried about myself," said Vu, who's had racial epithets hurled at him and endured bites, kicks, punches and inappropriate touches over the years. "But I worry about some of my coworkers."

Health care professionals are five times more likely to encounter violence on the job than other Americans. The crisis has festered for years. Workers face assaults from patients with substance abuse, dementia or cognitive issues, and they're attacked by patients' stressed-out family members.

The COVID-19 pandemic made a horrific situation worse. Even as they grappled with staffing shortages and infection-control protocols, workers experienced a spike in assaults from patients and others upset with mask requirements, restrictions on visitors and financial pressures stemming from the coronavirus.

No one is safe. When a patient attacks a health care worker, the struggle can spill into hallways, nearby treatment rooms or parking lots, putting other patients and visitors at risk.

At the urging of the USW and other unions representing caregivers, the House initially passed the violence prevention bill in 2019. USW members and retirees alone collected 80,000 signatures demanding enactment of the legislation.

But the Republicans then in control of the Senate refused to consider the measure. Now, as injuries continue to mount, it's more critical than ever to get the bill through the Senate.

Right now, OSHA recommends health care facilities adopt violence prevention plans. But the agency doesn't require them to do so. Many medical facilities pinch pennies on security and look the other way when workers experience violence on the job.

"Something needs to change," insisted Jessica Johns, a senior technician at Cleveland Clinic Akron General in Ohio who estimated she's been assaulted 100 times in the past 10 years.

"I've been hit. I've been scratched. I've been spit on. I've been bitten. I've got dents in my legs from people kicking me," said Johns, whose role as a "floater" requires her to work in whatever part of the hospital needs her that day. "I just can't believe the violence happens as often as it does."

A few weeks ago, Johns faced one of her biggest scares yet. A patient grabbed her by the hair and pulled her down onto the bed. She thrashed furiously to get away and injured a knee while kicking against the bed frame.

But she felt even worse when a patient recently scratched a colleague and left a permanent injury. "Now, she has a scar on her face," said Johns, who represents hospital workers as a member of the USW Local 1014L executive board.

Instead of going the extra mile for safety, employers often expect health care workers to accept violence as a part of the job. They trivialize incidents or try to portray them as the staff members' fault.

That's reprehensible, especially when so many attacks can be predicted and avoided. The violence prevention bill requires medical facilities and social service agencies to identify safety weaknesses and take a proactive approach.

For example, enclosing nurses' stations, installing panic buttons and using heavy, hard-to-move furniture are all commonsense measures affording greater protection. Johns, lightly stabbed with a butter knife on one occasion, wonders why any facility still serves meals with metal silverware.

Assigning behavioral health specialists to care for suicidal or aggressive patients is one idea for reducing assaults. Providing a basic level of mental health training to all of a facility's workers, Johns said, is another safeguard.

Workers also would like to see facilities install more metal detectors, hire sufficient numbers of security guards and maintain staff ratios that ensure all patients receive proper attention. And employers need to show they have workers' backs when assaults occur.

Vu said he and his colleagues have run out of patience with employers willing to let them return home bruised and bloodied at the end of their shifts.

Facilities need to implement violence prevention plans with all due speed, he said, and front-line workers have earned a role in formulating them.

"We're the ones that are out here," Vu 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 to go big on infrastructure

Chris Sova and his coworkers at Bay County Medical Care Facility endured years of staffing shortages before COVID-19 made a grim situation even worse.

Workers sacrificed vacations and other personal time to keep the Essexville, Michigan, facility operating as patients and staff members fell ill to the coronavirus and management struggled to recruit reinforcements.

Just like a road can be patched only so many times before falling apart, America's battered health care system and other long-neglected infrastructure can no longer continue functioning with Band-Aids and stopgap fixes.

That's why President Joe Biden's $2 trillion American Jobs Plan not only earmarks money for crumbling highways and bridges but also makes much-needed investments in school buildings, education and training, hospitals and airports, water systems, utilities, broadband, manufacturing facilities and health care services that are strained to the breaking point.

All these sectors require attention now because they work together like cement to keep society functioning.

"If you don't have healthy people, you don't need roads," remarked Sova, a licensed practical nurse, third-generation nursing home worker and unit president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 15301-1.

The pandemic underscored America's need both to make major investments in infrastructure and to take the sweeping, holistic approach that Biden laid out.

For example, it's crucial to revitalize manufacturing supply chains to ensure the nation can produce sufficient supplies of face masks and other critical items, upgrade transportation systems to speedily move goods around the country, modernize school facilities to produce globally competitive citizens and build the communications networks that enable Americans to learn and work from anywhere.

And the pandemic, which so far has claimed more than 564,000 lives and infected more than 31 million people in the United States, showed the importance not only of providing affordable health insurance but also of creating a more robust health care system with the capacity to meet Americans' needs.

"It's collapsing right now," Sova said of the nation's health care infrastructure.

He noted that facilities and providers around the country need higher Medicaid reimbursement rates so they can recruit adequate numbers of workers, provide decent wages and benefits, combat understaffing, improve workplace safety, offer opportunities for advancement and put an end to the grueling overtime that's dangerous for both caregivers and the people they serve.

While health care workers received wide praise for their professionalism during the pandemic, the reality is that, even in normal times, they're fighting an uphill battle to ensure patients receive top-level care. It's essential to make improvements now because retiring waves of baby boomers will put more pressure on the system, increasing the risk of catastrophic failures.

"Pizzas are nice, but that's not what we need," Sova said, referring to gifts of food that workers at his facility and other nursing homes received for their heroic efforts during the pandemic. "We need money. We need funding. We need resources."

Other kinds of infrastructure are also in dire straits.

The nation's drinking water systems struggle with lead contamination and rely on pipes so old that, on average, one springs a leak every two minutes. Malfunctioning locks and dams create juggernauts on inland waterways, costing U.S. industry about $44 million in delays every year. Nearly half of all Americans have no access to public transit, and those who do often have to travel on aging vehicles and rickety tracks.

A smoothly functioning society cannot afford any of this. Because of its wide-ranging investments, the American Jobs Plan will modernize the country, prepare it for the next crisis and provide work to millions of Americans hurt by the COVID-19 recession.

But the plan also provides a historic opportunity to dream big and rebuild better, to ensure a more equitable distribution of the nation's resources and create a society that works for everyone.

That's why Americans already support every major facet of the infrastructure program, with some parts—such as renovating veterans' hospitals, extending broadband, improving health care and establishing new job training programs—scoring approval ratings of 70 percent or even higher. As Biden travels the country to explain his vision, he's finding that people from all backgrounds want a stronger, more tightly knit America.

And so far, Biden revealed only half of his plan. He's scheduled to roll out the remaining portions—to include additional investments in health care and child care, among other initiatives—in coming weeks.

"I think he's absolutely on the right track," said Joel Buchanan, a longtime USW member from Pueblo, Colorado, and the vice president of Chapter 38-3 of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR). "In my area, we will benefit from almost every aspect of his infrastructure plan."

Local mills will profit from road and bridge projects, Buchanan noted. Residents in outlying areas will welcome better access to broadband, he added, while disadvantaged schools need upgraded facilities, and Pueblo area retirees, many of whom lost family-sustaining manufacturing jobs many years ago, desperately hope for better access to health care.

"We're investing in America and American workers and American society," Buchanan said of the infrastructure program. "We're building for the future. I think people are starting to realize we can make some great change happen."

Because he holds his neighbors' lives in his hands, Sova always considered health care to be part of the nation's infrastructure.

He wants more Americans to see his work in the same light—and to realize the potential the nation has right now to make transformational, stem-to-stern changes that will help them "live their lives better."

"Everything's codependent," he said. "You need healthy workers. You need them to build roads. You need roads to provide access to health care."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Biden has only one path to overseeing an American economic renaissance

Brad Greve knew it was just a matter of time before the computer chip shortage disrupting the auto industry had a ripple effect on aluminum manufacturing in Iowa.

Greve and his colleagues at Arconic Davenport Works—members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105—supply the Ford F-150 pickup and other vehicles.

Automakers forced to cut production because of the semiconductor crunch scaled back the amount of aluminum they take from the facility, just as Greve expected, posing another potential setback to a plant already fighting to rebound from the COVID-19 recession.

America cannot afford to jeopardize major industries for want of parts.

The nation's prosperity depends on ensuring the ready availability of all of the raw materials and components that go into the products essential for crises and daily life.

That will mean ramping up domestic production of the semiconductors—now made largely overseas—that serve as the "brains" of automobiles, computers, cell phones, communications networks, appliances and life-saving medical equipment.

But it will also require building out supply chains in other industries. For example, America needs to produce titanium sponge for warplanes and satellites, pharmaceutical ingredients for medicines and the bearings that keep elevators and other machinery running.

The failure of just one link in a supply chain—as the semiconductor shortage shows—has the potential to paralyze huge swaths of the economy. That's why it's crucial not only to source components on U.S. soil but also to incorporate redundancy into supply lines so that an industry can survive the loss of a single supplier.

"It's that ripple effect," said Greve, president of Local 105, recalling the time when a fire at a die-cast parts supplier disrupted production of the F-150. "If you shut down a car manufacturer—or they can't get one part—you can affect a whole lot of jobs around the country."

COVID-19 interrupted computer chip production even as demand for televisions, home computers and other goods soared among consumers locked down in their homes. Now, neither U.S. automakers nor manufacturers of other goods can obtain adequate amounts of the semiconductors they need.

Because of the shortage, carmakers cut shifts and laid off workers. The production cuts come when the nation needs the boost from auto sales—and other items containing semiconductors—to climb out of the recession.

Although the decreased aluminum shipments haven't resulted in layoffs at Davenport, the automotive supply-chain meltdown couldn't have come at a worse time. When the pandemic curbed air travel last year, airplane manufacturers cut back on the aluminum they get from Arconic.

"Automotive is what kept us going," Greve said.

America was once a leader in computer chip manufacturing. But as with many other industries in recent decades, the U.S. frittered away the upper hand while other countries boosted production.

The nation's share of chip manufacturing capacity fell from 37 percent to 12 percent over the past 30 years. And although demand for chips continues to grow, the U.S. stands to gain only a fraction of the additional capacity currently in the pipeline.

That leaves the country overly reliant on foreign suppliers who can encounter their own production shortfalls, as happened during the pandemic, or who can cut off shipments for political or economic reasons at any time.

"If you're going to war with somebody, they're not going to sell you anything," Greve said, noting dependence on overseas supplies threatens the nation's ability not only to make cars and other consumer goods but also to obtain the chips needed for defense and intelligence purposes.

Although the current crisis centers on semiconductors, neglect of the nation's manufacturing base decimated America's capacity to produce parts and components for many other industries.

"It affects everybody," Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, said of hollowed-out supply chains that threaten jobs and access to goods. Because of the semiconductor shortage, automakers now take less of the galvanized steel she and her coworkers make at Cleveland-Cliffs' New Carlisle, Indiana, Works.

Shortages of medical and safety equipment during the pandemic revealed how much manufacturing power the nation let slip away.

But it wasn't only the finished products, like face masks, America found itself ill-equipped to produce. Makers of hand sanitizer and cleaning products struggled to obtain adequate supplies of the hand pumps and spray triggers made overseas.

"How much time and money are being lost waiting on overseas companies to get products and supplies to the U.S.?" Urban asked.

President Joe Biden took the first step toward rebuilding manufacturing power with an executive order in February requiring immediate reviews of supply chains for the semiconductor, pharmaceutical, electric-battery and rare earth minerals industries as well as longer-term reviews of other sectors.

But after identifying weaknesses, America needs to implement a strategy for restoring supply lines and ensuring long-term resiliency.

That will include direct investment in U.S. manufacturing facilities, such as the $37 billion Biden proposed to ramp up chip production.

It involves strategically using tax incentives to encourage employers to expand operations and invest in new technology. And it means building strong markets for U.S. products, partly through policies that encourage federal contractors and other companies to buy domestic goods.

Besides cutting shifts, Greve noted, automakers have been trying to weather the semiconductor shortage by allocating chips to their most popular models or leaving vehicles partially completed until chips arrive.

GM even eliminated an important feature, an advanced fuel management system, in some models just to save chips and get vehicles to market.

"We shouldn't have that happen in this country," Greve said. "If we don't make the supplies here, then we have no control."

How employers punish workers for forming unions

Workers at Solvay's Pasadena, Texas, plant voted overwhelmingly to join the United Steelworkers (USW) in 2017 and looked forward to sitting down with the company to quickly negotiate a fair contract.

Solvay decided to play games instead.

Company representatives canceled some bargaining sessions at the last minute, took two-hour lunches on days they did show up, dithered for weeks over the union's proposals and pulled every stunt imaginable to drag out the talks and frustrate the workers into giving up.

"They were angry that we actually had the audacity—in their mind—to challenge them with a union. This was their way of getting back at us," said USW Local 13-227 President Steve "Tote" Toto, noting the spiteful antics cost him precious time with his wife, Mary, who was dying of pancreatic cancer about 1,500 miles away.

The U.S. House just passed bipartisan legislation to end shenanigans like this and help ensure that workers achieve the fair contracts they earned.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which faces an uphill battle in the Senate because of a lack of Republican support, would better protect workers from illegal bullying and retaliation during the organizing process.

And once workers vote to form a union, the PRO Act would set timelines for progress toward a contract and impose mediation and binding arbitration when employers stall and delay.

Although Toto and his coworkers achieved an agreement in January 2019—after more than a year of fighting—corporate foot-dragging on contract talks continues to worsen nationwide.

Right now, companies resort to stall tactics so often that about half of all workers who organize still lack a contract one year later. Worse, 37 percent of workers in newly formed private-sector unions have no agreement after two years. And some continue fighting for a first agreement long after that.

The PRO Act, which President Joe Biden hails as essential for leveling the playing field for workers and rebuilding the middle class, will spur employers to show up at the bargaining table and reach agreements as expeditiously as possible.

That's exactly what would have helped Toto and his colleagues four years ago.

The workers at Solvay organized to obtain safer working conditions and a voice at the chemical plant, recalled Toto, who relocated to Pasadena after the company closed the Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania, facility where he originally worked. His wife, already battling cancer, remained in the couple's Philadelphia area home to be in comfortable surroundings and to stay close to her doctors.

Talks stretched out month after month as Solvay's negotiators refused to schedule regular bargaining sessions, made onerous proposals solely intended to bog down the discussions and even balked at excusing workers for jury duty. But nothing infuriated union members as much as finding the company's chief negotiator asleep one day in a room where he had ostensibly gone to study union proposals.

"It's about discouraging you," Toto said of the company's ploys. "It's about breaking you down. It was also frustrating for me because it was taking time away from the last year I had with my wife."

Just like Toto and his colleagues, workers at the Bishop Noa Home in Escanaba, Michigan, made modest demands that they expected to speedily resolve at the bargaining table.

Yet more than three years after voting to join the USW, the 55 certified nursing assistants and dietary, environmental services and laundry workers continue fighting for a contract even as they put their lives on the line to care for the facility's residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The home refuses to accept the workers' choice to organize. It brought in a union-busting attorney who belittles workers at the bargaining table, makes unreasonable proposals, spurns efforts to bring the parties together and drags out talks to try to break the workers' morale.

Marcia Hardy, a dietary worker who has dedicated 35 years to Bishop Noa, said she and other negotiating committee members repeatedly made good-faith compromises that they felt certain would speed talks along.

"That didn't happen," she said, noting the home not only rebuffed the workers' goodwill but refused to budge from its own proposals.

"They don't want to have to answer to anybody but themselves," Hardy said of the facility's efforts to silence workers. "They will not give that up for anything. It's just so disheartening because you've put your heart and soul into the place."

Throughout the pandemic, workers have been putting in extra hours, taking on additional responsibilities and serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from loved ones, all so Bishop Noa can continue providing a top level of care. And although a contract would afford opportunities for building on that record of excellence, Hardy said, Bishop Noa prefers to wage war on workers instead.

She and her colleagues, who have widespread community support, will keep fighting for the agreement they earned. "If I give up," Hardy said, "they win."

Solvay, Bishop Noa and other employers that drag out negotiations squander resources that could be better used to provide safe working conditions, serve customers or otherwise improve operations.

Toto said workers want to put contract talks behind them and "live our lives." And he predicted that the PRO Act would hold employers' feet to the fire and finally force them to approach contract talks with the urgency the task requires.

"It puts accountability back at the bargaining table," Toto said. "The job is to go in there and get it done in a timely fashion."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

A key vulnerability in the American economy could be the country's downfall — will Biden fix it?

Sam Phillips and Trey Maestas fought tirelessly to save TIMET's titanium sponge plant, both to protect the jobs of about 420 coworkers and to safeguard America's future.

The decades-old facility in Henderson, Nevada, was the nation's last remaining producer of the coral-like material essential for manufacturing warplanes, munitions, satellites, civilian jetliners, ships and even joints for artificial hips.

The plant's closing last year—despite the best efforts of Phillips and Maestas of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 4856—left the nation completely dependent on foreign imports of titanium sponge and further decimated manufacturing supply chains crucial to the nation's security.

America can only be truly free if it rebuilds these and other vital lifelines.

On February 24, President Joe Biden signed an executive order requiring an immediate, 100-day federal review of supply chain vulnerabilities in industries like computer chips and pharmaceuticals.

That's a welcome start. But it will take a much broader and long-term rebuilding commitment to overcome the damage that decades of neglect and offshoring inflicted on the country's manufacturing base.

Over the past year, widespread shortages of face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) needed to fight the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare the withered state of U.S. industry.

However, the nation cannot regain industrial strength merely by ramping up the assembly of PPE, cars, refrigerators, electronic devices and the other finished products that consumers need for emergencies and everyday life. That would leave the job half done.

The country's security also depends on patching hollowed-out supply chains and building back the capacity to produce all of the raw materials, parts and components, like titanium sponge, that go into those end products.

That means ensuring America not only makes sufficient numbers of face masks and surgical gowns but also continues to produce the homopolymers that go into them.

It means manufacturing and stockpiling hand sanitizer, as well as the springs that operate the hand pumps.

America needs to manufacture air conditioners to cool homes and businesses and earth-moving equipment, wheat combines and elevators to power a diverse economy. But it's just as important to produce on U.S. soil the bearings and other parts that keep these machines running.

"We're at the mercy of whoever is supplying us," said Maestas, vice president of Local 4856 and a TIMET worker for 17 years, noting foreign nations can cut off shipments for economic or political reasons whenever they want. "Our supplies could change at the drop of a dime."

Maestas and Phillips, the Local 4856 president, repeatedly warned last year that eliminating domestic production of titanium sponge posed a grave threat to national security.

"We were keeping planes in the air, military and civilian," Maestas recalled. "I, for one, was proud of what we were doing."

The USW sent an urgent letter to the previous administration, stressing that the importance of titanium sponge "cannot be overstated" and demanding that the plant be saved "to assist in the defense of our nation." But no help ever came.

It wasn't just the USW raising the alarm. The Defense Department has cited unavailability of titanium sponge as a "potential single point of failure" in military supply chains.

Yet TIMET idled the plant anyway. And more losses like this will only render the country weaker and weaker.

"If you can do this to the only titanium sponge plant in North America, what else are you going to do it to?" asked Phillips, who has worked at TIMET for 20 years. "Where does it stop?"

Right now, America's failure to produce sufficient numbers of computer chips hinders recovery from the COVID-19 recession.

Ford and General Motors scaled back production in three states in recent days because of severe shortages of the semiconductors needed to operate vehicle entertainment, navigation and safety systems.

But the bottleneck puts more than automobile production at risk. Computer chips also power vacuum cleaners, kitchen appliances, cell phones and the U.S. space program, among many other industries, so scarcities imperil vast swaths of the U.S. economy as well as millions of jobs.

Biden's executive order requires the government to conduct 100-day reviews of supply chain weaknesses in the computer chip, pharmaceutical, electric battery and rare minerals industries while also launching yearlong analyses of capacity in the defense, transportation and several other industries.

Filling the many gaps will require historic, long-term investments in manufacturing facilities, in innovation and research, and in the roads, ports and other transportation systems essential for moving U.S. goods across the country and around the world.

America's prosperity and security will require shoring up the supply chains in all industries, not just the handful that Biden has highlighted so far. Because while the nation faces urgent shortages of PPE and computer chips today, it could face just as pressing a demand for other products—like components and infrastructure for energy generation—tomorrow.

"We make important stuff," said Paul Bartholomew, president of USW Local 2285, whose 200 members produce valves, spacers and compressor disks for gas turbines, along with products for the aerospace and defense industries, at Wyman-Gordon in Massachusetts.

"You just saw what happened in Texas," Bartholomew said, referring to a collapse of the state's power grid that plunged millions into darkness during frigid winter storms in February. "You need electricity. You need heat. We assist in power generation."

After decades of decline, Bartholomew said, the nation now seems "on the brink" of understanding that it's let far too much manufacturing capacity slip away.

Phillips hopes the nation will yet realize the mistake of idling titanium sponge operations in Nevada. But once a plant like that goes idle, it takes time to build the capacity back.

Phillips estimates it would take two years to have the facility fully operational again. And in a crisis, America may not have that time to spare.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

'There's no excuse for this': The crisis in Texas was a warning of the larger threat looming over America

Patricia McDonald layered on sweaters, socks and mittens and huddled under blankets for 15 hours as the temperature in her Duncanville, Texas, home plunged to 42 degrees in the wake of Winter Storm Uri.

Well after the water in her kitchen froze, McDonald decided she'd had enough and braved a hair-raising ride over snow-covered, ice-slicked roads to get to her daughter's house several miles away.

The Dallas County probation officer was safe and warm there. However, McDonald couldn't establish the computer connection she needed to check in with colleagues, and she worried about clients who had had fewer resources than she did for surviving the state's massive power failure.

This isn't merely a Texas problem. Failing infrastructure—from pothole-scarred roads and run-down bridges to aging utility lines and dilapidated water systems—poses just as big a threat to the rest of the country.

Without a bold rebuilding campaign, Americans will continue to risk their well-being and livelihoods as the nation collapses around them.

McDonald, financial secretary for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9487, which represents hundreds of city and county workers in Dallas, grew increasingly angry knowing that it took just several inches of snow and frigid temperatures to knock out the Texas power grid and paralyze the state.

Some Texans, confronted with days-long power outages, slept in idling motor coaches that officials turned into makeshift warming centers or drove around seeking hotel rooms that still had light and heat.

Others hunkered down at home, melting snow to flush toilets after frozen pipes burst or heating rooms with generators and charcoal grills despite the danger of carbon monoxide poisoning. A handful of people froze to death, including an 11-year-old boy found lifeless in his bed.

But even as McDonald and other Texans waited for power to be restored, police and firefighters in Philadelphia used rafts to rescue at least 11 people trapped by a torrent of water after a 48-inch main ruptured in the city's Nicetown neighborhood.

On February 5, a utility worker in Oldsmar, Florida, averted disaster when he noticed that a hacker had taken over his computer and increased the amount of lye in the drinking water supply to dangerous levels. The security breach provided a chilling reminder that financially struggling water systems not only contend with lead-tainted pipes and failing dams but also with vulnerable computer systems that require urgent improvements.

America cannot move forward if it continues falling apart. That's why the USW and other labor unions are championing a historic infrastructure program that will modernize the country, improve the nation's competitiveness and create millions of jobs while simultaneously enhancing public safety.

"There needs to be change," said McDonald, one of the millions affected by the blackouts that utilities hurriedly imposed because surging demand and equipment failures put the whole power grid "seconds and minutes away" from a catastrophic failure that could have left the state without electricity for months.

A major infrastructure investment, such as the one President Joe Biden envisioned in his Build Back Better plan, will create jobs not only for the workers who build roads and bridges but also for the Americans who manufacture aluminum, cement, fiberglass, steel and other items essential for construction projects.

Stronger, more resilient infrastructure will help America weather the ever more frequent, increasingly severe storms associated with climate change. That means not only upgrading power grids but also encasing utility poles in concrete or relocating power lines underground. It also requires strengthening coastal barriers to guard against the growing hurricane damage that Texas and other states face.

Expanding broadband and rebuilding schools will ensure that children across the country have equitable access to educational opportunities. Investments in manufacturing facilities will enable the nation to rebuild production capacity decimated by decades of offshoring.

And an infrastructure campaign will ensure local officials have the resources they need to manage growth, such as the huge expansion underway at the Electric Boat submarine shipyard in Groton, Connecticut.

Kevin Ziolkovski welcomes the business that the shipyard brings to his community. But Ziolkovski, who represents dozens of Groton Utilities workers as unit president of USW Local 9411-00, said it makes no sense for the federal government to continue awarding bigger contracts to Electric Boat without providing sufficient funds for related infrastructure.

Ziolkovski says Groton Utilities needs $3.5 million more just to construct a new water tank for the shipyard, one of its biggest customers. He also knows that Groton and other towns need funds to upgrade roads, sewerage systems, public transit and recreational amenities to accommodate the expected influx of workers and their families.

"If you want to see these multibillion-dollar nuclear submarines get built for the defense of the entire nation, you should support everything that goes into that, too," said Ziolkovski, who sees a national infrastructure program as one solution and developed a briefing book on local infrastructure needs for Connecticut's congressional delegation.

McDonald, who returned to her home after three days to find the power back on but her neighborhood under a boil-water advisory, knows that other communities will suffer unless the nation embraces a rebuilding program.

It pains her to know that America fell into such disrepair that it cannot provide basic services, like power and safe roads, at the very time people need them most.

"There's no excuse for this," she said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How corporations try to divide and exploit America's workers

Dave Dell Isola, the son and grandson of union members, grew up grateful for the family-sustaining wages and benefits that organized labor won for working people.

But he never fully grasped the might of solidarity until he and his wife, Barbara, and their two sons lost everything in an apartment fire. Dell Isola's brothers and sisters in the United Steelworkers (USW) rushed to the couple's side with financial assistance and other support to help them through the tragedy.

"They had me in tears," recalled Dell Isola, now vice president of USW Local 12012, which represents hundreds of natural gas and propane industry workers in Massachusetts and New Hampshire.

The union bond is so powerful that corporate interests and their allies across the country desperately want to smash it.

Twenty-seven states already have falsely named right-to-work (RTW) laws on the books, and advocates of these union-busting measures now hope to enact them in New Hampshire and Montana.

In addition, corporations and their allies want to make another effort to ram the legislation through in Missouri, even though angry voters there rejected it by a landslide just a few years ago. And Republican lawmakers in Tennessee want to enshrine their anti-worker law in the state constitution, just to make it more difficult for wiser heads to repeal the legislation one day.

Working people only win fair wages, decent benefits and safe working conditions when they stand together. Solidarity also gives union members the grit to survive battles like the months-long lockout that Dell Isola and his coworkers at National Grid in Massachusetts endured during their successful fight for a fair contract.

Corporations want to rig the scales in their favor. They push RTW laws so they can divide workers—tear at the union bond—and exploit them more easily.

These laws allow workers to opt out of supporting unions while still reaping the benefits. Unions remain legally bound to represent workers regardless of whether they pay dues.

And just as corporations want, that erodes union activism and starves locals like Dell Isola's of the resources they need to bargain with strength, enforce contracts, build solidarity and survive labor disputes.

"It snowballs into not being able to represent people," explained Dell Isola, noting the laws' corrosive force helps employers not only depress wages but also claw back sick time and other benefits earned with the sweat, blood and unity of previous generations of union members. "It's un-American to expect people to work for you, bargain for you, and not pay them anything."

Workers call them "right-to-work-for-less" laws. That's because people in states with RTW legislation earn 3 percent lower wages, on average, than their peers in other parts of the country.

Also, workers in these states are less likely to have employer-provided health insurance and retirement plans, but more likely to die in workplace incidents, than their counterparts elsewhere.

Nobody, outside of corporations and conservative groups, wants these laws, Dell Isola said, pointing out that officials in New Hampshire rejected the legislation dozens of times over the years "because of the outrage of the people."

Yet out-of-state agitators with deep pockets are bankrolling another push, hoping they can dupe the Republican legislature and governor into enacting it.

"They're trying to weasel their way into the Northeast by starting with New Hampshire," explained Dell Isola, noting an overwhelming cross section of voters, local government officials and business owners not only adamantly opposes the bill but resents the outsiders' efforts to foist it on them.

When Republicans and corporations schemed to enact the legislation in Missouri four years ago, John "Tiny" Powell knew how much he and other workers stood to lose. So he joined a broad-based grassroots movement to overturn the law with a first-of-its-kind referendum.

Powell, vice president of USW Local 169G and an electrician at Mississippi Lime Company in Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, stood at a busy intersection for hours and helped to gather 800 of the signatures needed to get the referendum on the ballot.

Ultimately, he and other activists delivered an astonishing 310,000 signatures to state election officials—more than three times the number required—and celebrated the coming referendum with a rally so large that the state Capitol "sounded like a hornet's nest."

Powell put hundreds of miles on his car as he traveled dusty rural roads and stopped at one house after another to educate voters about the importance of killing RTW through the referendum.

He explained that dues are a small price to pay for the benefits unions provide. And Powell, who takes pride in his local's bargaining power every time a member can afford to buy a house or welcome a baby, stressed that strong unions mean strong families.

"These companies are not going to give you everything out of the goodness of their hearts," Powell said. "They start sweating when they see you standing together."

Just as Missouri voters turned out in force to strike down a law they never wanted, Dell Isola and a large coalition of New Hampshire residents are working hard to defeat the legislation there.

If enacted, he said, many workers simply won't stand for it.

As soon as employers take steps to dilute union membership, drag down pay and cut corners on safety, he predicted, many will take jobs in Massachusetts or other states. They'll go where workers still stand together and fight for the wages, benefits and working conditions that sustained Dell Isola's family for generations.

"My blood's been in the union a long time," he said. "I wouldn't go any other way."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.


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