Tom Conway

'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.

'Fear was their main tactic': How the forces of labor have been crushed — and how they can be protected

When workers at Orchid Orthopedic Solutions tried to form a union, the company quickly brought in five full-time union-busters to torment them day and night.

The hired guns saturated the Bridgeport, Michigan, plant with anti-union messages, publicly belittled organizers, harangued workers on the shop floor and asked them how they'd feed their families if the plant closed.

The months of endless bullying took their toll, as the company intended, and workers voted against forming the union just to bring the harassment to an end.

"Fear was their main tactic," recalled Duane Forbes, one of the workers, noting the union-busters not only threatened the future of the plant but warned that the company would eliminate his colleagues' jobs and health care during a labor dispute. "Fear is the hardest thing to overcome."

Legislation now before Congress would ensure that corporations never trample workers' rights like this again.

The Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, introduced on February 4, will free Americans to build better lives and curtail the scorched-earth campaigns that employers wage to keep unions out at any cost.

The PRO Act, backed by President Joe Biden and pro-worker majorities in the House and the Senate, will impose stiff financial penalties on companies that retaliate against organizers and require the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) to fast-track legal proceedings for workers suspended or fired for union activism. It also empowers workers to file their own civil lawsuits against employers that violate their labor rights.

The legislation will bar employers from permanently replacing workers during labor disputes, eliminating a threat that companies like Orchid Orthopedic often use to thwart organizing campaigns.

And the PRO Act will empower the NLRB to force corporations into bargaining with workers if they interfere in union drives. That means an end to the mandatory town hall meetings that employers regularly use to disparage organized labor and hector workers into voting against unions.

Orchid Orthopedic's union-busters forced Forbes and his colleagues into hour-long browbeating sessions once or twice a week for months—and that was on top of the daily, one-on-one bullying the workers endured on the production floor.

"There was nowhere to go," Forbes, who's worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 22 years, said of the relentless intimidation. "You couldn't just go to work and do your job anymore."

A growing number of Americans, many of whom saw unions step up to protect members during the COVID-19 pandemic, seek the safe working conditions and other protections they can only achieve by organizing.

That includes Forbes and his colleagues, who endured years of benefit cuts but still put their lives on the line for the company during the pandemic.

They launched an organizing drive to secure a voice in the workplace. They also sought job protections to prevent the company from discarding them "like a broken hammer"—as one worker, Mike Bierlein, put it—when it's done with them.

But as more Americans seek the benefits of union membership, employers' escalating attacks on labor rights make the PRO Act ever more important.

Corporations drop hundreds of millions of dollars every year on "union-avoidance consultants"—like the ones Forbes and Bierlein encountered—to coach them on how to thwart organizing drives.

The higher the stakes, the dirtier employers play. Tech giants Google and Amazon used their vast technology and wealth to propel union-busting to a new level.

Google not only electronically spied on workers it suspected of having union sympathies, but rigged its computer systems to prevent them from sharing calendars and virtual meeting rooms.

Amazon developed plans for special software to track unions and other so-called "threats" to the company's well-being. In Alabama, where thousands of Amazon warehouse workers just began voting on whether to unionize, the company showed anti-union videos and PowerPoints at mandatory town hall meetings, posted propaganda in bathroom stalls and sent multiple harassing text messages to every worker every day.

"It really opened my eyes to what's going on," Bierlein, who's worked at Orchid Orthopedic for 18 years, said of the unfair tactics his company employed against organizers. "The deck is stacked against workers."

The PRO Act will help to level the playing field and arrest the decades-long erosion of labor rights that significantly accelerated under the previous, anti-worker presidential administration.

It will require employers to post notices informing workers of their labor rights, helping to ensure managers respect the law. The legislation will enable prospective union members to vote on union representation on neutral sites instead of workplaces where the threat of coercion looms.

And the PRO Act will make it more difficult for employers to deliberately misclassify employees as contractors with fewer labor rights. That change will give millions of gig workers, including those driving for shared-ride and food-delivery companies, the opportunity to form unions and fight for better futures.

Right now, employers often stall negotiations for a first contract to punish workers for organizing or frustrate them into giving up. The PRO Act will curb these abuses by requiring mediation and binding arbitration when companies drag talks out.

Orchid Orthopedic's campaign of intimidation and deception lasted until the very end of the union drive.

As the vote on organizing neared, Forbes said, the company promised it would treat workers better in the future if they decided against the union.

Instead, after the vote fell short, the company quickly increased the cost of spousal health insurance. That left Forbes more convinced than ever that workers need changes like those promised in the PRO Act to seize control of their destinies.

"I'm all about right and wrong," Forbes said, "and the way we were treated was wrong."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How Biden moved swiftly to protect workers' rights in one of his first official acts

Time and again over the past few years, as he fought to protect his coworkers at Bobcat's North Dakota plant, William Wilkinson faced two obstacles.

One was the company. The other was a federal government that, instead of fulfilling its duty to safeguard workers, helped management exploit them.

Within hours of taking office on January 20, however, President Joe Biden began to level the playing field and harness the strength of working people to tackle the huge challenges confronting the country.

Biden understands that only with a healthy, empowered workforce can America end the COVID-19 pandemic and rebuild the economy.

So in one of his first official acts, Biden fired Peter Robb, the union-busting corporate lawyer who wormed his way into the general counsel's job at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) and then used his power to turn the agency against the people it was created to protect.

Robb, who directed agency field offices and set policy, thwarted organizing drives and advocated stripping workers of long-standing union protections. He determined that employers had no obligation to bargain with unions seeking COVID-19 protections and even sided with employers who fired workers for voicing coronavirus safety concerns.

"Board charges used to scare the company. Now, they mean nothing," said Wilkinson, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 560, who sensed Robb's anti-worker animus rigging the scales in numerous cases that he filed on behalf of his members.

"No matter what, your case is dead before you get there," Wilkinson said, recalling one dispute in which the NLRB refused to make Bobcat turn over financial data the union needed to assess a health insurance hike. "It's Bizarro World. They have no interest in wrongdoing or whatever problem brought you there."

Righting the NLRB will involve not only selecting a new, capable general counsel but, in a change from the former administration, installing board members committed to upholding labor law.

Biden's housecleaning will ensure the agency returns to its mission of protecting labor rights, such as ensuring that the growing number of Americans who want to join unions—including employees of Amazon, Google and transportation services—can do so without harassment or retaliation.

A properly functioning NLRB will reset the scales and once again bar corporations from changing working conditions in the middle of a contract.

It will roll back recent, unfair rulings making it easier for corporations to oust unions, discipline workers without recourse to their union representatives and misclassify employees as contractors with fewer labor rights. In classifying SuperShuttle drivers as contractors, for example, the board denied many exploited workers the chance to form a union and build better lives.

An overhauled NLRB will have to reassure workers that they'll get a fair hearing when they bring contract violations and other offenses to the board.

"We just want to be equal," Wilkinson said. "I'm not asking for special treatment."

When the coronavirus struck, Wilkinson and many other workers across the country had to fight their employers to implement commonsense safety measures like social distancing and sanitizer stations.

Some refused, exposing their communities to needless risks and fueling the virus's spread. All the while, the previous administration callously refused to ramp up workplace protections or hold corporations accountable.

But in an executive order declaring worker health and safety to be a "national priority," Biden quickly unshackled the agencies charged with protecting Americans on the job.

The order requires the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA)—an agency that Wilkinson described as having "gone completely corporate" like the NLRB in recent years—to update COVID-19 safety guidelines for workplaces.

Biden also directed OSHA, whose leadership allowed investigations to lag and inspector positions to go vacant before the pandemic, to scrutinize its enforcement program and train resources on COVID-19 hotspots.

And under Biden's order, both OSHA and the Mine Safety and Health Administration must quickly study the need for emergency, temporary infectious disease standards that would require employers to take certain steps to keep workers safe on the job.

The USW and other unions demanded these standards for nearly a year, realizing that many employers will act responsibly only when regulators hold their feet to the fire. Workers need these protections more than ever as America's COVID-19 death toll eclipses 440,000, new variants of the virus begin hitting the nation and Biden accelerates the vaccine rollout that his predecessor botched.

To accomplish all of this vital work as quickly as possible, it's essential to have battle-tested experts at the helm.

That's why Biden tapped James S. Frederick, formerly the assistant director and principal investigator for the USW's Health, Safety and Environment Department, to serve as one of the top leaders at OSHA.

During his 25 years on the front lines of occupational safety, Frederick doggedly pursued answers to workplace tragedies and advocated for some of the most important safety regulations that OSHA is responsible for enforcing today.

But it isn't just technical knowledge that prepared Frederick for his new role. His empathy for injured workers and bereft families will give a fresh urgency to OSHA's work.

"What a super win to get a Steelworker in there," said Wilkinson, who praised the USW's health and safety programs. "He'll do a good job for working people. He'll do it right."

Working people took so many hits the past four years that Wilkinson felt the country's foundation crumbling.

But with Biden in their corner, he believes workers will have the support they need to steer through the pandemic and build a stronger America.

"What he's done so far is totally a morale changer," Wilkinson said. "If Biden holds to his promises, I see the middle class growing, along with unions. That's more jobs and higher wages for all working people."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

American workers have been taken to the brink

When COVID-19 forced the 66-bed Maryhill Manor into lockdown, a resolute Veronica Dixon and her colleagues realized they had to make a choice: band together or fall apart.

So they put in longer hours, shouldered extra duties and leaned on each other to keep the Niagara, Wisconsin, nursing facility operating as the coronavirus swept through, sickening dozens of residents and staff members.

What saved Maryhill Manor also offers hope for a country convulsed by storms. Only by working together can Americans end the pandemic, create a more equitable society and build a just economic system.

Dixon, a cook at the nursing home and the financial secretary of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 3168, noted that COVID-19 exacerbated the inequality that mires millions in poverty and tears at the nation's social fabric.

"How can you not come together and try to work it out?" she asked.

"The rich keep getting richer, and the poor keep getting poorer," observed Dixon, who's seen more people in Niagara struggle since a local paper mill shut down, eliminating hundreds of family-sustaining jobs, more than a decade ago. "There has to be something in between so people can live a decent life and not worry about how to pay their bills."

So many Americans see the nation at a crossroads that they came together in record numbers to elect Joe Biden, charting a course for healing and progress.

Then, in runoff elections for U.S. Senate in January, Georgia voters propelled the nation yet another step along the path of change by electing Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, inclusive candidates committed to progress.

"You can't lie about the numbers," Dixon said of the historic election results. "People want change."

But it isn't enough for Americans to band together at the ballot box. It's just as important to rally behind the initiatives that build a fairer country, just as the solidarity of union workers yielded the 40-hour workweek, decent benefits and workplace safety in previous decades.

Right now, it's essential that every citizen pitch in to arrest a pandemic that's already stolen more than 398,000 lives and left the economy in tatters.

Scientists and researchers maintained a feverish pace during the months they spent developing the vaccines, and pharmaceutical manufacturing workers put in grueling hours producing millions of doses. USW members manufacture glass vials for the vaccines and special packaging to keep them safe during transport. Still others label the vaccines and ship them.

With the Biden administration pledging to oversee a speedier, better-coordinated rollout of vaccines, millions of ordinary Americans will soon be able to roll up their sleeves to protect themselves and their communities. Dixon and her colleagues lined up when the vaccine reached Maryhill Manor, knowing the faster people are vaccinated, the more lives will be spared.

And after bringing COVID-19 under control, America can tend to the fragile health of its democracy and strive for a new shared prosperity that will shore up the nation's foundation.

When Niagara's paper mill closed in 2008, a trucking company that did business with it disappeared not long after. Nothing ever replaced them. Dominating Niagara's economy today are low-wage and part-time positions that fail to cover basic expenses, let alone enable workers to save for the future.

"There should not be anybody trying to raise a family on $7.25 an hour. That's crazy," Dixon said, referring to the poverty-level federal minimum wage that congressional Republicans left in place for more than a decade. "We have to make sure that, somehow, we get our share."

To create a just economy, Americans need to continue advocating for legislation that will help workers organize and impose meaningful penalties on employers who illegally attempt to thwart union drives.

Working people helped push the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act through the House in 2020. Senate Republicans refused to consider it. But workers remain hungry for changes that will yield a more level playing field.

Organized workers command decent wages, affordable health care and a voice on the job. Because unions fight for equitable working conditions, they help to narrow racial and gender pay gaps. And because union members embrace social justice and understand the power of collective action, they often volunteer for service projects that uplift their communities.

"As a group, you're that much stronger," noted Mike Dwornik, an Indiana resident and a District 7 coordinator for the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR).

Because of union steel mill jobs, Dwornik said, he earned a "pretty darn good" living as well as a stable retirement.

When the federal government sent him two pandemic stimulus checks—as it did millions of other Americans—he donated the money to charity.

Dwornik realized a lot of people needed the help more than he did. He particularly worries about friends whose retirements depend almost entirely on Social Security—and who get rattled every time they hear about the program potentially running out of money.

Now, Americans can leverage Biden's strong support of retirees and coalesce around a campaign to shore up Social Security and Medicare programs for generations to come.

"I know a lot of people don't want to get involved in politics. I understand that," Dwornik said. "But I'll tell you this: They have to know what's going on and act on the things that affect them."

"It doesn't take a lot to write a postcard or fire off an email or even write a letter," he said. "They've got to get off their butts and do it. There's strength in numbers."

That's exactly what Dixon and her colleagues discovered at Maryhill Manor during the darkest days of the pandemic.

Their unflagging teamwork kept the virus out of the facility for months and then sustained them when patients and coworkers finally started to get sick.

"We held on, and we did a lot better than all the other nursing homes in the area," Dixon said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How Georgia voters are transforming America's future

Vermeshia Slay burns up the phone lines these days, encouraging Georgia voters to join the burgeoning grassroots movement to transform America's future.

After delivering a crucial victory for Joe Biden in November, Slay and millions of other change-hungry Georgia voters set their sights on something even bigger.

They want to help the new administration put America on the path to health and shared prosperity.

By electing Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff in the state's January 5, 2021, runoff elections for the U.S. Senate, Georgians will lock in congressional support for Biden's agenda to defeat COVID-19 and build an economy that works for everyone.

Moving America forward matters so much to Slay, an American Red Cross laboratory worker and unit chair of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 254, that the longtime voter threw herself into campaigning for the first time.

Slay operates a one-person phone bank from her suburban Atlanta living room, urging one registered voter after another to join the surge of Georgians pushing their state—and the country—in a fresh direction. She wants voters to make sure they grasp the importance of electing Warnock and Ossoff and giving Democrats a Senate majority in January 2021.

Many of those on the other end of the line tell her, "We're with you."

More than a million Georgians requested mail-in ballots for the runoffs, and hundreds of thousands lined up the week before Christmas for the start of early balloting—more signs that the voters who turned out in record numbers for Biden want a further hand in charting America's future.

"It's a lot of people coming together and standing up for what's right," Slay said, noting that young voters, Black women, suburbanites and beleaguered health care workers, among many other groups, coalesced into a movement for change.

Their goals include social justice, economic equality, affordable health care and an end to a pandemic that's wiped out far too many lives and jobs.

"I think everybody is about fed up," declared Slay, who saw her own hours at the Red Cross temporarily reduced when COVID-19 affected blood collection efforts this past spring. The experience gave her a firsthand look at the financial challenges many of her neighbors faced even before the health crisis struck.

She knows Warnock, who grew up poor in a very large family, and Ossoff, an investigative journalist who rooted out crimes like sexual slavery and human trafficking, will help push through a long-overdue, robust stimulus package to help Americans battling to survive the recession.

Since May, the House twice passed the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act to support millions of laid-off workers and jump-start the economy.

Americans demanded the Senate pass the HEROES Act as well. However, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who cares more about protecting the corporations that recklessly exposed workers to COVID-19 than he does helping destitute families, refused for months even to consider the bill.

Rather than demand the Senate take up the legislation and address a spiraling crisis devastating many of their own communities, Georgia's incumbent senators stood idly by and were McConnell's silent partners in hanging the American people out to dry. Adding insult to injury, these super-rich incumbents profited from highly lucrative stock trades while their constituents struggled to put food on the table and protect their families from the virus.

"It seems like they're all about keeping the rich, rich," Slay observed.

While Americans right now need federal unemployment benefits and protection from eviction to endure the pandemic, Slay and other forward-looking voters remain fixed on a much broader agenda that will ensure a brighter, more equitable future for all Americans.

Over the past 40 years, pay for CEOs skyrocketed while workers' wages stagnated. Long before the recession, rampant income inequality left millions of Americans struggling to afford health care and pay regular household bills, let alone prepare for retirement.

The pandemic compounded families' financial struggles, forcing many to burn through the meager savings they did have.

That's why voters like Slay can't wait to help put Biden's Build Back Better plan into motion. The campaign will restore America's manufacturing base and overhaul the nation's infrastructure, creating millions of family-sustaining jobs that rebuild the middle class and spread prosperity to communities across the U.S.

"Ordinary people will have better opportunities," observed Slay, a single mother who struggled at times to raise two sons and an orphaned nephew. "They want increases in pay. They want their health benefits. They can't afford to lose anything else."

Georgia's new coalition of voters also champions an increase in the $7.25-an-hour federal minimum wage, which traps millions in poverty. And they want to crack down on corporations that take huge tax breaks for plants and mills but pay workers abysmal wages.

"We've got to stop corporations from exploiting our people," said Darryl Ford, president of USW Local 254, noting Kumho Tire in Macon, Georgia, received huge government handouts and then unsuccessfully fought workers who decided to join the USW to achieve decent pay and safe working conditions.

"The spotlight is on Georgia," said Ford, noting Warnock and Ossoff will help Biden level the playing field for ordinary Americans. "We have the ball. It's fourth down. If we vote, change can come."

When energized Georgia voters overcame Republicans' long history of voter suppression to sweep Biden to victory in November, it was exactly the outcome that Slay expected.

Now, she said, she's pouring her heart and soul into the runoffs because she's convinced that the wave started in Georgia will spread around the country.

"It makes me feel like I'm making a change," she said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why America's future depends on rebuilding our factories

Brian Banks and his colleagues at Nipro Glass log 60- or 70-hour weeks right now in a grueling race to produce the glass tubing and vials essential to distributing millions of doses of COVID-19 vaccine.

Banks, a maintenance mechanic for nearly three decades, often feared over the years that the Millville, New Jersey, complex would close like so many other glass-making facilities around the country. If it had, America would struggle all the more to turn the corner on a pandemic that's already claimed 282,000 U.S. lives.

COVID-19 laid bare the decades-long decline of manufacturing that left the nation straining to produce the face masks, ventilators, glass vials and other items needed to contain the coronavirus. Now, with vaccines nearly ready for distribution, America has an opportunity to defeat the virus and revive a manufacturing base crucial for protecting the country from future crises.

Of all the responsibilities that President-elect Joe Biden faces upon taking office on January 20, none demands more attention—and requires greater urgency—than ramping up production capacity and rebuilding broken supply chains to keep America safe.

Biden's Build Back Better campaign will make commonsense investments in U.S. manufacturing that put millions to work and ensure a reliable, high-quality supply of critical goods, like the Nipro vials that are used to store not only COVID-19 vaccine but also the other drugs needed to treat hospitalized patients.

"It's comforting for us to know that what we're doing is contributing to something major," explained Banks, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 219M, which represents the 200 or so dedicated workers keeping Nipro's two Millville plants operating around-the-clock.

"There used to be lots of different places where we could get this glass. They've left. If we didn't have this plant, where would we get it from?" asked Banks, who saw his own local shrink by thousands of members as several local glass facilities closed in recent decades.

In the urgent scramble to build stockpiles of vaccine that can be swiftly released for distribution once federal regulators give approval, multiple drugmakers approached Nipro for help.

The company added production capacity to help meet the flood of orders and relied on workers to put in extra shifts. However, as Banks noted, the nation could have more easily addressed the surging demand if it still had the large number of producers it did in years past and marshaled those collective resources to ramp up glass production.

"The product is still being made, just not in the U.S. It could have stayed here," said Banks, who already wonders whether Nipro will embrace America's long-term need for manufacturing and maintain its recently added capacity once the pandemic ends.

Although there are no quick fixes, Build Back Better will not only arrest the long erosion of the manufacturing base but restore America's power to produce critical goods of all kinds.

Because while the pandemic exposed the nation's struggle to produce personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, pharmaceutical ingredients and even the super-cold freezers needed to keep COVID-19 vaccines viable during transport, that's really just the tip of the iceberg.

Over the past 30 years, as greedy corporations closed thousands of U.S. factories and offshored millions of jobs to exploit cheaper labor and lax environmental laws in other countries, America also gave away the capacity to produce appliances, tires, cars, ball bearings and many other items.

Not even the pandemic, which highlighted the nation's urgent need for more manufacturing muscle, slowed the corporate quest for ever-higher profits. In September, FreightCar America announced it will close its Alabama factory, eliminate 500 jobs and move operations to Mexico by the end of the year. And Mondelēz, a company that previously shifted American jobs to Mexico, just threatened to close two of its five remaining U.S. Nabisco bakeries.

America needs thousands of other manufactured products every bit as much as it needs PPE. It relies on trucks, boxes and containers to move commerce every day, textiles to refurnish homes devastated by hurricanes and steel, aluminum and other materials for military vehicles.

Biden understands that rebuilding the manufacturing base is a top priority that transcends politics. He will require government agencies and contractors to spend taxpayer dollars on U.S.-made materials, products and labor, ensuring America invests in itself.

"You've got to be able to produce things to survive," observed Libbi Urban, vice president of USW Local 9231, noting that America's dependence on foreign suppliers puts the nation at grave risk.

Foreign countries can experience their own production problems, jack up prices during emergencies, deliver inferior products or simply cut off supplies any time they want, noted Urban, who represents workers at two ArcelorMittal steel facilities in New Carlisle, Indiana.

"Do you want to rely on steel from China if you want to make battleships, tanks or aircraft carriers? Do you think they're going to sell you good-quality steel?" said Urban, who chairs her local's Women of Steel program. "If you go to war with somebody, you can't rely on them to make your ships or your tanks."

Even as they put in wearying amounts of overtime, Banks and his colleagues have to maintain constant vigilance and observe numerous safety precautions to protect themselves from COVID-19.

With millions of lives riding on their work, Banks said, they cannot risk a spate of infections that could disrupt production.

Banks hopes America remembers the risks essential workers continue to make. But what he really wants is for the nation to learn from its failures and commit to a full-scale revitalization of manufacturing to keep his members employed—and America safe—long after the threat of COVID-19 is over.

"We're happy to be doing this," he said. "But we are also worried. At some point, when this pandemic ends, are we still going to thrive?"

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How Americans can help the frontline workers battling COVID-19

Chad Longpre Shepersky repeatedly took COVID-19 tests—and waited on pins and needles for results each time—during a coronavirus outbreak at Guardian Angels Health and Rehabilitation Center in Hibbing, Minnesota.

Longpre Shepersky, a certified nursing assistant (CNA), never contracted the virus. But he watched in agony as dozens of his patients and coworkers fell ill and fought for their lives.

As a weary nation enters the holiday season, Americans have an opportunity to help health care workers like Longpre Shepersky and start bringing the raging pandemic under control.

Consistently wearing face masks, practicing social distancing and taking other safety precautions will slow COVID-19's spread and provide much-needed relief to the frontline workers battling burnout as well as the virus.

"Everyone should do their part," insisted Longpre Shepersky, financial secretary and steward for United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9349, which represents workers at Guardian Angels. "Just the other day, I witnessed people in Walmart not wearing masks or following 6-foot distancing. Too many people aren't doing what they can to fight the virus."

As infection rates soar to their highest levels nationwide, 10 months into the pandemic, it continues to take a disproportionately deadly toll on frail, vulnerable nursing home residents and the people who care for them.

So many residents and workers at Guardian Angels contracted the virus that the Minnesota National Guard sent a five-person medical team in October to help keep the 90-bed facility operating. Even then, as he worried about his own safety and mourned the deaths of several patients, Longpre Shepersky logged grueling amounts of overtime to fill in for ill colleagues.

"It got to the point where you dreaded going to work because you didn't know what the day was going to bring," recalled Longpre Shepersky, a CNA for 21 years who considers his coworkers and patients a second family. "But there was no one else there to do it. I just pulled up my big boy pants and went in to work and got through the day."

Many nursing home workers endured staffing shortages at their facilities long before the pandemic. Because of low Medicaid payments for patient care, among other reasons, facilities paid low wages, skimped on staff or battled chronic turnover.

When COVID-19 struck, turnover and staff sicknesses compounded the chronic understaffing.

Now, nursing home workers struggle to stay physically and psychologically healthy while putting in extra shifts to ensure residents receive the highest quality care around-the-clock. Besides longer hours, many also took on additional responsibilities, such as serving as surrogate family members to residents cut off from visitors during facility lockdowns.

These everyday heroes feel stretched to the breaking point. Many nursing home workers and other health care professionals report unprecedented levels of burnout and other mental health concerns as they worry not only about their own safety but the fate of their patients and the possibility of bringing the virus home to their own family members.

"I try to go in with a positive mindset," explained Shirley Richardson, unit president for USW Local 7898, which represents workers at the 220-bed Veterans' Victory House in Walterboro, South Carolina. "The main object is being safe. I try to stay focused. I don't let little things get to me."

"It's going to get better," she reminds coworkers who've endured about two dozen cases of COVID-19, including the deaths of several patients and a nurse, at their facility. "This can't go on forever. We just have to work through it."

The pandemic highlighted the essential work that nursing home staff members perform—and the necessity of treating them as essential workers from now on.

That will require fixing the nation's health care system—even if that means allocating additional tax dollars—so that nursing homes receive adequate payment for their services. Then the facilities can hire and retain adequate numbers of workers—and provide hazard pay and paid sick leave to ensure staffing remains at high levels during emergencies.

"It's just the staffing that's been the worst part of this year," explained Chris Sova, unit president for USW Local 15301-1, which represents nurses at Bay County Medical Care Facility in Essexville, Michigan.

"I feel like a zombie, almost. I honestly don't know how we do it anymore," marveled Sova, a third-generation nursing home worker, who described his routine some weeks as, "Wake up. Go to work. Come home. Wake up. Go to work."

It infuriates Sova to know that while he and his coworkers put their lives on the line every day, some Americans refuse to take simple steps to slow the virus' spread.

Across the country, some people fail to wear masks even as infection rates in their own communities skyrocket and strain the capacity of local hospitals.

So far, at least 259,000 Americans died of COVID-19, more than 65,000 of them in nursing homes. Universal mask-wearing, according to one new study, could prevent 130,000 more deaths in the U.S. in coming months.

"People wear seatbelts, but they have a big thing about face masks?" Sova fumed.

Longpre Shepersky faces the upcoming holidays with trepidation, realizing that the family gatherings and parties Americans long for so earnestly this year also present additional opportunities for spreading the virus.

The residents at Guardian Angels wear masks whenever they leave their rooms, and because of the risk of another outbreak, they also could face limits on visitors this holiday season.

If they can make sacrifices to help contain the virus, other Americans can as well.

"Everyone definitely has to take this seriously," Longpre Shepersky said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

'They're holding the whole country hostage': How Mitch McConnell flouts the will of the American people

Tim O'Daniel and his coworkers at Cleveland Clinic Akron General confront additional cases of COVID-19 every day in a hospital so busy it's sometimes difficult to find an empty bed.

They're also battling rising frustration after waiting months for comprehensive coronavirus testing and other federal resources essential to containing the pandemic.

Americans voted overwhelmingly in the November 3 election to support the nation's health care workers and go on the offensive against COVID-19.

But while President-elect Joe Biden assembles a team of scientific advisers and finalizes his strategy for defeating the virus, there's no reason to wait until he takes office on January 20 to begin turning the corner.

Americans can come together to demand that the Republican-controlled Senate immediately pass a commonsense bill providing coronavirus testing, contact-tracing programs and funds that states could use to give hazard pay to essential workers, like health care professionals.

Right now, one person—Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell—stands in the way of America's fight against COVID-19. Instead of rushing to give Americans the support they demand, he defies the will of the people and lets the bill languish while the pandemic death toll mounts.

"We're paying with our lives," noted O'Daniel, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014L, who recently lost a colleague to COVID-19. "We're paying with our health."

The House already approved the bill, known as the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions (HEROES) Act, which would also set workplace safety standards for the duration of the pandemic and ensure a reliable supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for the frontline workers putting themselves in harm's way.

McConnell refused to take up the HEROES Act before the election—even as infection rates soared—because saving lives meant less to him than ramming through Justice Amy Coney Barrett's confirmation to the Supreme Court and cementing the court's right-wing majority for decades to come.

"The confirmation of that justice did nothing to help the American people right now," observed O'Daniel, who's infuriated that McConnell and other Republican senators "can act on a dime" for partisan political gain while dithering for months on measures essential to controlling COVID-19.

"Cleveland Clinic Akron General is inundated with COVID patients right now," he said. "We don't see any kind of lull in the positive cases. They keep coming. We don't see any outside help."

It wasn't enough for McConnell to put politics before Americans' safety in the run-up to the election.

He's now flouting the marching orders that American voters issued on Election Day, when they braved COVID-19 and turned out in record numbers to demand not only a comprehensive pandemic response but also decisive steps to rebuild the nation's shattered economy.

Americans overwhelmingly favor the kinds of economic measures included in the HEROES Act, such as another round of $1,200 stimulus checks to help low- and moderate-income families make ends meet during the crisis. The bill would also extend $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits and emergency health care to millions of workers who lost jobs through no fault of their own, while also protecting the unemployed from eviction and mortgage foreclosure.

However, McConnell opposes aid to ordinary Americans—and even made the ridiculous claim that some workers would rather receive unemployment benefits than return to the jobs the pandemic took from them.

Instead of aiding O'Daniel and other health care workers overrun with COVID-19 patients, he worries about protecting corporations from what he fears will be a flood of lawsuits filed by workers and customers they recklessly exposed to the virus.

And so, although the American people want a stimulus bill to be the Senate's top priority, McConnell and his Republican cronies refuse to act.

"They're holding the whole country hostage," observed Brad Greve, president of USW Local 105, which represents workers at Arconic Davenport Works in Iowa.

The company laid off more than 100 of Greve's members in July. A few moved to take jobs in other cities. But most just struggle to get by while hoping the economy will improve and enable them to return to work.

"A stimulus program is going to have to fill the gap here," Greve said, noting workers laid off from many other businesses in the Davenport area face similar hardships. "They need help."

O'Daniel knows that Biden will take office on January 20 with decisive measures to defeat the virus and restore the economy.

But it angers him to think that while he and other health care workers do their part to fight COVID-19 every day, McConnell just sits on his hands as the pandemic rages. Further delay in attacking the virus, O'Daniel noted, will mean the needless deaths of many more good-hearted Americans like the coworker he'd known for 25 years.

"This can't wait," O'Daniel said. "We needed help a long time ago."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

This election represented an unprecedented exercise in democracy

Ken Yatsko wrote hundreds of postcards and made thousands of phone calls as part of a campaign encouraging fellow union members to perform their civic duty during Election Day on November 3.

And having done his part to generate a record turnout, Yatsko now expects every vote to be counted.

He and other Americans witnessed an unprecedented exercise in democracy as legions of patriotic voters braved COVID-19, long lines at polling places and other hardships to cast ballots in a crucial election.

Now, it's essential to bring the process to its fair and proper end, one that respects the sacrifices voters made—the risks they took—to put the nation on the road to change. That means accurately counting all 160 million ballots—the most ever cast in a presidential election—and ensuring every voter's voice is heard.

"The people have spoken," noted Yatsko, a U.S. Steel retiree and the vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 7-1, who was still making get-out-the-vote phone calls on the eve of the election. "The will of the people is that you count the votes, and add them up, and you have a winner."

The surging turnout rate—the highest for a presidential contest in more than a century—reflected Americans' demand that the nation finally mount a comprehensive fight against the deadly COVID-19 pandemic and take decisive steps to rebuild the country's broken economy.

Joe Biden, who unveiled an aggressive strategy for leading the nation's recovery, received more votes than any presidential candidate in history.

Because Biden urged his supporters to vote remotely because of the pandemic, it's taking local election boards longer than usual to tabulate an unprecedented number of mail-in votes.

Elections officials knew this would be the case—and let the public know—well before Election Day. Now, to uphold democracy, these officials need to take as much time as necessary to perform a comprehensive, accurate count.

"Let the process play out," urged Tom Treisch, a longtime United Steelworkers (USW) member and Republic Steel retiree who cast his own ballot by mail because of health concerns. "It's the American way. It's the way we've always done it."

Although many Americans cast mail-in ballots for the first time this year, Treisch noted that this practical and secure form of voting is nothing new.

More Americans use mail-in ballots every year. They give a voice to members of the armed forces serving overseas, Americans living abroad and other voters unable to make it to neighborhood polling places because of work or illness.

And while Americans may be accustomed to the media projecting the outcomes of races on election night, based on partial returns, the reality is that election boards really keep counting votes for days and even certify results weeks down the road. The need to tabulate mail-in votes, which election workers must manually remove from their envelopes, is one reason the process lasts longer than voters think.

The elections officials who responsibly handled long lines and other challenges at the polls on November 3 will prove just as diligent in properly counting the remaining ballots in the coming days.

"They've been doing this for years," Treisch said, noting most are decent working people just like him. "They want to be honest. They want to see things work."

Dorine Godinez, a member of SOAR's executive board and a former worker at ArcelorMittal, expected the flood of votes for Biden.

Disgusted with the mounting COVID-19 death toll and appalling unemployment rate, voters seized control of their destiny and put the nation on a path to recovery. Hardship stoked democracy's fire.

"Americans will step up, and they will fight," Godinez observed. "I think people had to do that now."

Godinez knows that Biden will follow the guidance of the doctors and scientists who know best how to combat COVID-19.

And because he helped save America's auto industry, oversee stimulus programs and rescue the economy after becoming vice president during the last recession, he has the experience necessary to put millions of workers back to work now.

"I think he's gone through so much tragedy in his own life that his compassion is genuine," Godinez said, noting Biden lost his first wife and two of his children. "Those experiences made him who he is today. Biden gives us hope."

Besides trusted leaders, what Americans need is greater solidarity to effectively fight the pandemic and revitalize the economy.

Yatsko noted that Biden not only called for unity but took a step in that direction by pledging to be a president for all Americans, even those who voted against him.

"You can't get any fairer than that," Yatsko said.

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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