Tom Conway

Why we need to elect more leaders from the labor movement into government

When a group of custodians in York County, South Carolina, learned their bosses planned to sell them out to save a few pennies, they knew exactly who to turn to for help—a fellow worker who’d walked in the very same shoes.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

County Councilman William “Bump” Roddey, a longtime member of the United Steelworkers (USW) and a former custodian himself, assured the county workers that he had their backs. Roddey ultimately helped quash the scheme to contract out the county’s janitorial services, a victory both for the custodians and the taxpayers relying on their quality work.

Electing more union members like Roddey to councils and mayoral posts will help to combat right-wing attacks on workers and hold local government accountable to the ordinary people it’s intended to serve.

“We speak for the American worker,” Roddey, a member of USW Local 1924 who works at New-Indy Containerboard, said of union members. “We speak for the middle class. The agenda is not about us if we are not at the table.”

If the county had privatized cleaning services, any small budgetary savings would have paled next to the pain inflicted on the custodians, Roddey said, noting officials out of touch with working people “don’t too quickly grasp these scenarios.”

“The perspective of the people who sign the front of the paycheck is different from the perspective of the people who sign the back of the paycheck,” said Roddey, whose colleagues on the council include three business owners. “I bring that back-of-the-paycheck perspective to everything I do.”

Attacks on working people aren’t unique to South Carolina.

After the school board in Putnam, Connecticut, contracted out custodial services, for example, workers lost access to their pension system even though they’d been promised no change in benefits.

In recent months, USW-represented school bus drivers in Bay City, Michigan, beat back efforts to contract out their work, while union members in Los Angeles County, California, won their own fight against privatization.

Electing more union members would ensure that local officials instead invest their energies in productive ways, such as building robust, worker-centered economies.

Some forward-thinking local officials have used their authority to pass worker protection laws, to establish agencies for enforcing those safeguards, and to create workers councils to take testimony on job-related issues, noted the Economic Policy Institute (EPI), a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, in a recent report. At Seattle’s Office of Labor Standards, for example, a full-time equivalent staff of 34 enforces 18 worker-centered ordinances, including those requiring paid sick time, employment opportunity, and protections for gig workers.

Local officials have the power to hold corporations accountable when they accept public subsidies with promises of creating dignified, family-sustaining jobs. It’s also the prerogative of mayors and councils to provide resources, like affordable housing, that help level the playing field for struggling workers.

And the advocacy of local officials can buoy workers in difficult times. Roddey and other leaders stepped up to support workers at Giti Tire in Chester County, South Carolina, during a USW organizing drive sparked by low pay, unsafe working conditions, and discrimination.

“I certainly recognize the challenges that workers are facing every day at Giti,” said Roddey, part of a community coalition that signed a letter to corporate management in November 2021 demanding an end to its abusive practices.

Having union members in charge at city hall not only protects jobs but may even help to ensure the survival of the community itself.

Clairton, Pennsylvania, Mayor Richard Lattanzi points out that no one can adequately represent his city without a deep appreciation for the Clairton Coke Works and the Steelworkers who have anchored the community for decades.

And while meeting the daily needs of his constituents, many of them USW members and other union workers, Lattanzi also must defend the coke works against extremists eager to shut it down. “That’s one-third of our tax base, and that’s our identity,” said Lattanzi, a longtime USW member who worked at the Irvin Works in the nearby community of West Mifflin.

Some union members run for local office because their concern for coworkers spills over into the communities they call home.

“Our job as a union and as union leaders is to take care of people, especially working people, and that’s what our communities are made up of,” observed Steve Kramer, president of USW Local 9777 and a member of the Dyer, Indiana, Town Council, calling his step into government service “a natural and easy progression.”

Union membership equips workers with the skills they need for public office. Union members understand the power of solidarity and diversity. They’re accustomed to having a voice and standing up for what’s right.

“What better person to run for elected office than a union member? We’re problem-solvers,” said Kramer, who’s helped to ensure that Dyer buys American-made products, that town-funded projects support good jobs, and that government resources are equitably distributed across the community.

“I wish more union members would step up and do it. I know we have talent out there,” he continued, noting that in addition to elected positions, communities need volunteers to serve on water, library, and many other boards.

An influx of union members into councils and other local posts would also help pave the way to more worker representation at other levels of government. As these local officials move up to higher office, Roddey noted, state legislatures and Congress will become more responsive to the will of the people.

“There’s a path to changing how these bodies operate, and the first step is getting involved locally,” he said.

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

Flood-ravaged Kentucky is getting major federal infrastructure help

Carl Asher clung to a wooden post on his porch for three hours—yelling for help in the darkness, water lapping at his neck—before risking it all.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

He threw himself into the torrent below and, guided by a neighbor’s spotlight, swam several hundred feet against a punishing current to high ground. Asher and his wife, Tonya, a member of the United Steelworkers (USW) who was at work at the time, lost their home, five vehicles, a camper, and their 12-year-old cat, Ebony, in historic flooding that killed 39 and obliterated parts of Eastern Kentucky in July.

Climate change rendered these communities and countless others across the country vulnerable to increasingly frequent and powerful storms.

The nation long responded to these calamities with patchwork repairs that failed to provide lasting improvements or real protection. But now, America’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is delivering the stronger, more resilient roads, broadband networks, and water systems that comprehensively guard against not only floods but also wildfires, tornadoes, hurricanes, and other disasters.

The IIJA, which President Joe Biden signed in November 2021, earmarks billions for flood prevention and mitigation projects alone. That includes shoring up dilapidated dams, strengthening coastal defenses, overhauling the stormwater systems needed to manage heavy rains, relocating drinking water lines out of flood zones, and upgrading sewer systems to prevent the overflows that occur during major storms.

And the IIJA includes funds for dredging long-neglected waterways, while also allocating hundreds of millions of dollars more each year to a program that elevates homes in at-risk areas so that others will be spared what the Ashers and other Kentuckians endured this summer.

The couple, longtime residents of the small community called Lost Creek, had completed a screened-in porch and a concrete driveway and added to a memory garden dedicated to their late son, Matthew, in the months before the flood.

The water rose so rapidly that night that Carl Asher dropped a box of valuables he had gathered and shimmied up the porch for safety. The flood eventually triggered a fire, which caused the second floor to collapse into the first and ended any hope of saving their home of 16 years.

“If I was there, I would not have survived. I cannot swim. I would not have made it,” said Tonya Asher, a member of USW Local 14637 who works at the Appalachian Regional Healthcare medical center in nearby Hazard, Kentucky, noting the current her husband battled was so strong it “literally ripped his clothes off of him. By the time he reached the neighbors, he was just shaking.”

In a 2019 report, the American Society of Civil Engineers gave poor grades to Kentucky’s infrastructure. The flooding “annihilated” much of what remained in 13 counties, wiping out roads and bridges and knocking out power, cell phone, and internet service at a time residents needed them most.

“You’d go to an address, and there was nothing there,” said Gypsy Cantrell, president of USW Local 14581 in Elkhorn City, Kentucky, recalling how the city of Hazard looked on a day she delivered supplies to fellow union members who lost all they had. “It was in such a state you couldn’t tell what street you were on.”

“So much contributed to this,” said Cantrell, who also started a Facebook page and helped to raise thousands of dollars for disaster victims. “The creeks and the small rivers, they’ve never been dredged. They are doing some now as they clean up the flood debris.”

Many Local 14581 members are highly skilled construction workers who have been volunteering their time to help USW brothers and sisters devastated by the flooding. They’ve also remained on the job, aiding government agencies in clearing debris, making temporary stream crossings, and reopening communities.

In the coming months, Cantrell expects those workers will return to the larger task of building the new, tougher roads, bridges, water systems, and other infrastructure upgrades set in motion by the IIJA. Those projects will leave Lost Creek and similar communities stronger than before.

“That’s the objective here,” Biden said while inspecting the damage in Lost Creek in August.

“It’s not just to get back to where we were. It’s to get back to better than where we were, and we have the wherewithal to do it now,” Biden added, noting improvements to communication networks and internet service also will be part of rebuilding efforts through the IIJA.

If a community installs a new water line, he pointed out, “there’s no reason why they can’t at the same time be digging a line that puts in a whole new modern line for internet connections.”

The USW helped to push the IIJA through Congress because it will sustain millions of good-paying union jobs and take the expansive, holistic steps needed to move the nation forward. The infrastructure program will touch almost every aspect of American life.

Just as essential as new roads and bridges, for example, are the IIJA’s historic investments in rail, airports, and inland navigation to ensure the flow of commerce and enhance the nation’s global competitiveness.

The billions targeted for wind, solar, and hydrogen energy will grow and diversify America’s power supplies, enhancing national security. And new schools will provide the modern facilities all students need to lead productive lives.

Cantrell said Eastern Kentucky’s rugged topography long hindered infrastructure development there. But now, the IIJA provides the resources—and commitment—essential to giving the people in her region a brighter future.

“It will help us get ahead,” she said. “But we have to catch up first.”

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

Workers’ rights in a constitution? An innovative state ballot proposal could offer a new path for labor

Chris Frydenger’s young coworkers at the Mueller Company performed the same work and brought the same dedication to their jobs as he did, but the manufacturer’s two-tier wage system exploited newer hires by paying them thousands less each year.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Outraged by the unfairness, Frydenger and the entire membership of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 7-838 in Decatur, Illinois, took a stand during contract negotiations a few years ago and not only beat back the inequitable pay system but also won younger members catch-up raises of more than 21 percent.

That collective victory remains one of the proudest moments in Frydenger’s life. And now it’s fueling his fight to make worker power a constitutional right in his home state.

A November 8 referendum will give Illinois voters the opportunity to enact a “Workers’ Rights Amendment” to the state constitution, enshrining in the state’s highest law Illinoisans’ freedom to join unions and bargain collectively for better lives while also barring future legislation that would erode worker strength.

The ballot question passed the Legislature on a bipartisan basis last year, a sign of how much the measure reflects the people’s will. As they educate more voters about the referendum, Frydenger and other activists find almost unanimous support for a measure that would give workers greater control of their destinies, beyond the clutches of CEOs, pro-corporate politicians and other anti-labor forces.

“I can’t imagine why anybody wouldn’t be in support of this,” said Frydenger, grievance chair and Rapid Response coordinator for Local 7-838, who’s canvassing neighborhoods, distributing leaflets and making phone calls to make sure workers know that their very futures are on the ballot this year.

The Workers’ Rights Amendment would help future generations negotiate the family-supporting wages needed to sustain the middle class and the nation’s economy. It would safeguard Illinoisans’ right to a voice on the job, including the freedom to call out unsafe working conditions without fear of reprisal.

And it would ensure workers can band together, as Frydenger and his colleagues did, to hold employers accountable. Frydenger recalled the local’s negotiating committee tossing a pile of worker surveys on the bargaining table—all demanding elimination of the two-tier wage system—and telling management there’s no way union members would ever vote for a contract that retained it.

The constitutional amendment has deep emotional meaning to Frydenger, who observed that it would confer “sacred,” “fundamental” and “essential” status on workers’ rights at a time that more and more Americans view union membership as the path forward.

“Every time I turn on the news, I see an Amazon location or another Starbucks store voting in a union,” he said, noting that a new Gallup poll released on August 30 showed that 71 percent of Americans support organized labor, the most since 1965.

“I think the pandemic showed people that their employers didn’t care about them as much as they thought they did,” Frydenger said. “It’s up to us to secure our rights in the workplace.”

Even in Illinois, a strong union state, workers must remain on guard against efforts to rig the scales against them. Just a few years ago, a pro-corporate, anti-union governor proposed so-called “right-to-work zones” where organized labor would have been forced to represent workers regardless of whether they actually joined unions, a scheme intended to divide workers and undermine their collective power.

“In an era when corporate-bought politicians and lobbyists are doing everything in their power to undercut workers’ rights, this would really help us level the playing field,” explained Aaron Sutter, incoming vice president of USW Local 4294, which represents hundreds of members at Cerro Flow Products in Sauget, Illinois.

Sutter, raised by a postal worker and a public school teacher, grew up knowing that union wages “kept my household running and fed me every night.”

But not until he took a job at a nonunion package delivery company with abusive managers and shoddy equipment did he fully understand the role unions play in protecting workers and helping them obtain their fair share. He vowed never to work in a nonunion shop again.

“We’re living at a time when a pizza party is the most appreciation you can get without collective bargaining,” observed Sutter, who’s going door to door to educate voters about the amendment.

The referendum requires a supermajority of votes for passage, but that also means anti-union forces would face an uphill battle if they ever tried to alter or repeal it. An attempted rollback would almost certainly be doomed to fail, Sutter said, predicting voters will guard it as zealously as Social Security and Medicare.

Cathaline Carter, a retired union schoolteacher and member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees in Chicago, feels strongly about the amendment because of what organized labor has done for generations of her family—and what it has the potential to do for generations more.

Carter’s uncle, Robert Jenkins, left rural Mississippi in the 1940s with little more than the shirt on his back and found his way to Chicago, where he took a union job at Youngstown Sheet and Tube. He worked his way up to crane operator, earning good wages that enabled him to buy a house, start a family and break into the middle class.

Union contracts also gave him the resources to help to relocate other family members, including Carter’s mother, to Chicago. Carter and other members of the extended family then followed in Jenkins’ footsteps, lifting themselves up with union work of their own and building on the progress he made.

“It gave him status in life,” she said of Jenkins’ union job. “He had things that people are struggling to have now.”

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

How labor unions are combating domestic violence

Losing two coworkers to domestic violence over a three-year span left Emily Brannon and other members of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 310L reeling.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

But their grief, Brannon noted, also launched them on a quest to save others. They helped to negotiate paid domestic violence leave into their contract with Bridgestone-Firestone, enabling other colleagues experiencing intimate partner violence to step away, focus on getting safe and return to work when they’re able to do so.

As intimate partner violence continues to increase, the unions that protect workers on the job are also fighting to keep them safe when they go home.

Brannon’s USW local in Des Moines, Iowa, is one of dozens in the United States and Canada with contract language providing domestic violence survivors with the resources crucial to breaking free of their abusers.

And the drive to empower survivors continues to grow. The USW just ratified contracts with two major employers in the paper sector, Domtar and Packaging Corporation of America (PCA), that extend similar protections and resources to thousands more workers at dozens of mills and box plants.

“I think it shows that we’re sensitive to the issues of our members,” explained Brannon, treasurer of Local 310L and a member of the local’s Women of Steel committee, who knew both of the members fatally shot by their abusers between 2014 and 2017. “We have a very diverse workforce and a diverse membership, and there are a variety of issues outside of work that the members may be dealing with.”

“Any time we can address a safety issue, we will. That’s one of the reasons you have a union in the first place,” added Brannon, noting the union also honors the members lost to domestic violence through a partnership with Soaring Hearts Foundation, a nonprofit in Des Moines advocating for victims of violence.

Domestic violence increased significantly with the lockdowns, economic strain and other impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, becoming known as the “shadow pandemic.” In all, about 20 percent of women and 14 percent of men across the United States have experienced “severe physical violence” from intimate partners, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Financial security is key to helping survivors leave abusive partners and stay away from them. “There’s a lot on the line,” Brannon said, noting that many survivors also have to provide for children.

Union-negotiated domestic violence leave helps to bridge this need. It provides paid or unpaid time off for court appearances, relocation, counseling and more, enabling survivors to attend to pressing obligations without expending vacation or sick days.

When survivors are ready to return to work, their jobs are waiting for them. Still, other supports are just as essential to helping survivors get—and stay—safe.

Under the USW’s contracts with Domtar and PCA, for example, workers may request changes in working hours, transfer to alternate worksites or vacation pay advances. Or they may request the employer’s assistance with safety planning, such as identifying a hiding place within the worksite or making an escape route.

The agreements also call for training, provided with the union’s input, to familiarize workers with the scope of intimate partner violence and the resources available to combat it.

“If you’re going to be a proactive union, this is the next step,” observed Bob Garrou, president of USW Local 248 and safety coordinator at a PCA facility in Tomahawk, Wisconsin. “You just never know what’s going on in people’s lives. Maybe we can save some people.”

“If the union didn’t fight for all the things we have, who would?” added Garrou, noting organized labor’s successful fights over the years for decent wages, affordable health care and retirement security. “I think it’s really important that we stand together.”

Some employers, including Canadian Nuclear Laboratories in Ontario, support the union’s efforts to assist domestic violence survivors. That only makes sense because intimate partner violence can affect productivity or, if abusers show up at the workplace, put other workers at risk.

“There was no pushback whatsoever at the table,” USW Local 1568 Trustee Nancy Walsh said of laboratories management, adding that union members welcomed the language. “They know that we are standing behind everyone. It’s better for everyone.”

Union members have each other’s backs on and off the job. Solidarity is one reason that USW members like Walsh volunteer to serve as trained peer advocates to help domestic violence survivors.

Walsh, who chairs the Women of Steel committee for Local 1568, recalled feeling “helpless” many years ago when a coworker confided her experiences with domestic violence survivors in their workplaces.

Walsh’s training showed her how to provide emotional care, refer survivors to community resources and intervene with management on workplace issues. The second time a coworker confided in her, she knew how to respond.

“We’re just there to add support, to get them the help they need,” Walsh said. “It might be an easier step for someone to get out of a bad situation.”

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

How employers are trying to bust union efforts

Robert B. “Bull” Bulman and his coworkers at the FreightCar America plant in Cherokee, Alabama, only wanted decent pay and a safe work environment.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

But when they tried to form a union to achieve these basic goals a few years ago, the company declared war on them. It bullied union supporters, threatened to move the plant to Mexico and heaped extra abuse on Bulman, one of the leading activists, telling him he couldn’t leave his workstation, even to use the restroom, without permission.

As more and more Americans exercise their right to unionize, greedy employers are stooping ever lower into the gutter and pulling every dirty stunt imaginable to try to thwart them.

Chipotle, Amy’s Kitchen and other employers closed worksites where workers opted to unionize, preferring to turn their backs on customers rather than give those toiling on the front lines a seat at the table. Amazon and other employers have fired or otherwise retaliated against union organizers, just like FreightCar America did to Bulman, even though this kind of misconduct breaks federal law.

And companies like Apple and Trader Joe’s continue to wage scorched-earth campaigns in which they flood worksites with anti-union propaganda and force workers into captive audience meetings where they disparage organized labor, belittle union supporters and threaten their families’ well-being. Companies spend billions on “union avoidance consultants” to oversee these meetings and other union-busting efforts, then write off the expenses at tax time.

“It boils down to one thing—corporate greed,” observed Bulman, who experienced the advantages of USW membership when he worked at a paper mill and knew that a union also would benefit workers at FreightCar America.

“They can’t stand to lose control. They want to keep the ‘little man’ as ‘little’ as possible. They’ll do whatever it takes—lie, cheat, steal,” added Bulman, recalling how FreightCar America inflicted such misery on workers that they voted against the union.

But now, in the wake of a pandemic that showed Americans how much they need the protections unions provide, a growing number of workers are fighting back and proving union-busting to be a losing game. Unfair labor practice (ULP) charges against employers skyrocketed 14 percent during the first six months of this fiscal year compared to the same period last year, according to the National Labor Relations Board, reflecting not only management’s increasing desperation to thwart unions but also workers’ growing determination to hold bosses accountable for illegal interference in union drives.

Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, for example, has said that he’d never accept a union. But baristas across America and Canada are showing him he has no choice.

So far, baristas have persisted in organizing about 200 stores, despite retaliation that includes the closure of unionized locations, the firing of union activists and the company’s withholding of pay raises for union workers. Instead of caving in to Starbucks’ bullying, workers filed ULP charges for these violations.

Workers at an Amazon warehouse in New York also organized, despite the company’s rollout of an actual “playbook” to thwart union drives. In addition to holding captive audience meetings and plastering even the restrooms with anti-union messages, the company’s tactics include hiring “vulnerable students” to dilute pro-union sentiment and schmoozing politicians to burnish the company’s reputation.

Bulman knows how essential it is for union supporters to sustain their momentum because, as he and his coworkers learned at FreightCar America, only a union can bring lasting improvements to a workplace.

“They do a 180 and go back to what they were doing after you vote no,” he said, noting that companies may temporarily improve conditions to derail organizing efforts.

“They’re not going to tell the truth,” Bulman continued, noting FreightCar America moved the plant to Mexico even after workers voted down the union. “You’ve got to stick together and stand strong against them.”

As public approval of unions soars, corporations can feel the tide turning against them.

With President Joe Biden’s support, the House passed bipartisan legislation—the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act—that would ban captive audience meetings, impose financial penalties on executives who block union drives and stop companies from stalling negotiations for a first contract.

The bill, not yet taken up in the Senate, also would fast-track legal proceedings for workers illegally suspended or fired for union activity, and it would give workers the right to sue employers for violating their labor rights.

“It would definitely level the playing field,” noted Mario Smith, recalling the heavy odds workers at Kumho Tire in Macon, Georgia, overcame to join the USW in 2021.

Kumho fired Smith, a leader of the organizing drive, amid a vicious union-busting campaign that included fearmongering, captive audience meetings, bullying of individual employees and anti-union videos running on an endless loop.

“It was indescribable,” Smith, who now works at a USW-represented paper mill, said of the toxic environment Kumho created to avoid giving workers a voice.

While denying workers a voice, however, hypocritical corporations exploit the tax code and force ordinary Americans to subsidize their hectoring and intimidation campaigns.

The No Tax Breaks for Union Busting Act, recently introduced in Congress, would change that. No longer would corporations be able to write off the costs of ad campaigns, union avoidance consultants and other anti-union activities.

“Corporations shouldn’t be interfering with workers’ right to organize,” Senator Bob Casey said in announcing the bill. “They certainly shouldn’t be able to write off anti-unionization campaigns as a business expense.”

After deciding against organizing, Bulman said, his colleagues at FreightCar America quickly realized that they’d been duped by the company’s lies about unions and manipulated by bosses who stoked their concerns about the plant’s future.

As it turned out, safety issues and other problems plagued the workers right up until the time the company abandoned the facility and shifted the jobs south of the border.

“They scared everybody into voting no,” Bulman recalled. “Fear is a great motivator. That’s exactly how they operate.”

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

Why Congress must reauthorize trade adjustment assistance

The Goodyear plant in Gadsden, Alabama, was always a part of Cindy Beshears’ life.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

She attended her grandfather’s retirement party there as a child, worked two summers at the plant as a college student in the 1980s and accepted a full-time job on the production floor in 2004 after leaving a career in retail.

Goodyear devastated the community when it closed the plant two years ago after shifting hundreds of jobs to Mexico, but fortunately, the federal government’s Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) program provided Beshears and her coworkers with training and other support that helped them through some of the darkest days they’ll ever know.

While thousands of other American workers continue to be harmed by unfair trade, they’ll be denied the same lifeline unless Congress moves quickly to reestablish TAA.

The program expired on June 30 because Republicans refused to join Democrats in extending it. Until Congress reinstates the program, the Labor Department cannot consider any additional petitions for TAA assistance. The United Steelworkers (USW), other unions and Democratic lawmakers such as Senators Ron Wyden of Oregon and Sherrod Brown of Ohio are working to salvage the program, workers’ only real bulwark against the damage inflicted by globalization.

“It’s definitely worth fighting to save,” Beshears said of TAA, created in the 1970s to provide skills-building, employment services and other assistance to workers who lose jobs or wages because of bad trade.

In the 2021 fiscal year alone, the program enrolled more than 107,000 workers in various industries.

“It covers tuition and books. It covers school supplies. It provided a laptop for me. If you have to travel for your classes, it will pay a mileage stipend,” explained Beshears, a former member of USW Local 12L who enrolled in TAA to obtain an associate degree in paralegal studies from Gadsden State Community College.

“It even paid for caps and gowns if we wanted to walk for graduation,” added Beshears, who completed her schooling in May, recalling the pride she felt as her former coworkers also set out on new careers in nursing, child care, welding, transportation and other fields.

“I was very concerned that these people were going to lose hope and that we were going to see a lot of bad things. I would have been one who sat there and wallowed in self-pity, thinking, ‘Oh, I put all that time in, and now I have nothing,’” Beshears said, calling TAA “as valuable mentally and emotionally” as it is educationally.

USW Local 1899 President Dan Simmons would like to see the same opportunities afforded to his members at U.S. Steel’s Granite City, Illinois, facility.

The company recently announced plans to cut 900 jobs there, another betrayal of unionized workers by a steelmaker that’s made a habit of shifting work to nonunion plants.

Workers at Granite City have already seen more than their fair share of tough times over the years, including job losses resulting from unfair trade. Those displaced workers qualified for TAA, with many staying in their new jobs even when the company offered to return them to the mill when market conditions stabilized.

Workers affected by the new round of cuts also would be eligible for TAA if the program still existed, said Simmons, noting he’s especially worried about helping longtime members find new careers.

“There’s no other means to do it except TAA,” Simmons said.

When Republicans torpedoed efforts to extend TAA, they not only turned their backs on workers who will need help in the future but also slammed the door on those already in the middle of the application process.

Jeff Ogg, president of USW Local 1017, worked with GE Lighting in Logan, Ohio, to file a TAA petition for about 50 workers after the company announced plans to shut down the decades-old facility that makes lighting components.

The Logan plant supplied just one facility, a sister plant in Bucyrus, Ohio, that the company also decided to close because of foreign competition. The Labor Department denied the USW members’ petition for TAA, even though their impending job losses directly relate to globalization, and the workers filed an appeal.

Because TAA expired, however, federal officials refuse even to consider it, leaving workers at the Logan plant wondering how and where they’ll get the training they need to move forward.

“I’ve been there pretty much all of my working life,” said Ogg, a mechanic who’s helped to keep the plant running for decades.

“That doesn’t mean I know how to work on anything other than our own machines,” noting he’ll face a learning curve at more modern facilities with computerized equipment. “That’s where the training comes in. I’m going to need a little help.”

TAA’s expiration is doubly tragic because advocates wanted Congress not just to continue the program but also to expand and strengthen it.

Proposed enhancements included streamlining the petition process, providing a tax credit for child care and covering workers who lose their jobs when foreign countries restrict imports of U.S.-made goods.

Unions also called for extending TAA to public service workers. For example, such a provision would cover municipal road workers, firefighters and others who lose their jobs when illegal dumping of foreign goods forces a local manufacturing plant to close, decimating the community’s tax base.

In August, as Beshears starts her job as a paralegal with a municipal government near her home, she’ll leverage one more benefit available at the time she enrolled in TAA. She’ll receive $10,000 in income support to help bridge the gap between her new starting salary and the wages she made at Goodyear.

“I’m just so thankful,” she said of TAA. “That’s what I tell everybody I talk to about it.”

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

Unionized employees are leading the fight for safer workplaces

A worker at the International Paper mill in Prattville, Alabama, was performing routine maintenance on a paper-making machine in mid-June when he discovered liquid in a place it didn’t belong.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

He stopped work and reported the hazard, triggering an inspection that revealed a punctured condensate line leaking water that was hotter than 140 degrees and would have scalded the worker or fellow members of the United Steelworkers (USW). Instead of causing a serious health and safety risk, the leak was repaired without incident.

“We fixed the issue,” recalled Chad Baker, a USW Local 1458 trustee and safety representative. “It took about 30 minutes, and we continued on with our work, and nobody got hurt.”

Unions empower workers to help build safer workplaces and ensure they have the freedom to act without fear of reprisal.

No one knows the dangers of a job better than the people facing them every day. That’s why the USW’s contract with International Paper gives workers “stop-work authority”—the power to halt a job when they identify a threat and resume work after their concerns have been adequately addressed.

“We find smaller issues like that a lot,” Baker said, referring to the leaky condensate line. “Most of the time, they’re handled in a very efficient manner.”

Workers forming unions at Amazon and Starbucks, among other companies, want better wages and benefits. But they’re also fighting for the workplace protections union workers enjoy every day.

Amazon’s production quotas resulted in a shocking injury rate of 6.8 per 100 warehouse workers in 2021. That was more than double the overall warehouse industry rate and 20 percent higher than Amazon’s 2020 record, according to an analysis of data the company provided to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Driving for Amazon is also perilous. About 20 percent of drivers suffered injuries last year, up 40 percent from 2020, with many of these workers reporting that they felt pressured to take unnecessary risks, like forgoing seat belts and skipping breaks, to meet the company’s relentless delivery schedules.

Unions fight against all of this. They enable workers to hold employers accountable. That’s why Amazon and other companies pull every trick in the book to try to keep workers from organizing.

“We talk. We come up with solutions,” Baker said of Local 1458 members. “It’s kind of hard for the company to disagree with us when we’re all saying the same thing. That commands respect. One of the biggest pluses we have is not being able to be run over.”

Baker is one of seven USW members serving as full-time, company-paid safety representatives at the mill, positions that are shared by Local 1458, which represents maintenance workers, and by Locals 462 and 1978, which represent workers in other jobs.

They make the rounds of the complex every day to look for hazards, communicate with members and address safety issues, noted Local 1458 President Chad Manning.

“You can actually solve the problem when you have the right people involved, who are the people doing the work,” he explained.

After workers expressed concern about shoulder injuries, for example, the union persuaded International Paper to replace the manually operated elevator doors with automatic doors.

Some workers wear heavy insulated suits to protect them from fire, chemical exposure and other dangers. After union members cited mobility constraints in the bulky suits assigned to them, they worked with the manufacturer, who sent representatives to the mill, to design a better version that International Paper ultimately purchased.

With the union’s help, workers also successfully fought for handrails, better lighting and other measures that contribute to a safer workplace and environment.

When incidents occur, unions play a major role in investigations that uncover the root causes and work toward eliminating and controlling the hazards.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota studied data on more than 70,000 workplaces and found that the unionized locations were 30 percent more likely to have experienced state or federal inspections for safety violations. That’s because unions help members understand their rights and protect them from retaliation.

“At the end of the day, it’s the voice. You have one,” Manning observed. “In non-union shops, you don’t have that. You have a good opportunity of being fired if you voice your opinion.”

Unions continually seek new approaches for enhancing health, safety and environment.

Later this year, the USW will hold a series of trainings to bring additional protections to the growing number of members working in hospitals, nursing homes and other health care settings.

These sessions will focus on developing solidarity around safety as well as on hazard identification, incident investigation and holding employers accountable. Then these workers will go back to their workplaces, advocate for their coworkers and encourage them to do the same.

“Everybody has something to bring to the table,” explained Melissa Borgia, a member of USW Local 7600, which represents thousands of workers at Kaiser Permanente facilities in southern California.

Borgia, who works in membership administration at Kaiser, volunteered to help implement the program because of the pandemic, assaults on health care workers and other dangers her coworkers face.

“There is no better time than now,” she said. “This is where the spotlight is.”

In Prattville, soaring summer temperatures in the last week of June exacerbated the threat of heat stress at the paper mill.

Baker collaborated with the company to purchase tens of thousands of dollars in cooling fans, and now, union safety representatives will continue to monitor conditions and keep workers safe.

“We try to work together,” Baker said of management. “Everyone wins when we’re safer.”

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

How we can stop violence against healthcare workers

The young man in Cleveland Clinic Akron General’s behavioral crisis intervention unit hadn’t communicated much during his hospitalization, but he showed no signs of violence until Brian Eckley tried to draw his blood early one morning.

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

The patient stood up, sat back down, rose again and then punched Eckley, a state-tested nurse aide and senior technician, in the left jaw.

Keeping his cool despite the pain, Eckley dodged more punches as he held the needle and tourniquet out of the patient’s reach, banged on the treatment room windows and called for help.

Attacks on health care workers have reached epidemic levels across the country, exacerbating turnover, turning caregivers into patients and further fraying systems of care already worn thin by COVID-19. The Workplace Violence Prevention for Health Care and Social Service Workers Act, twice passed by the House and just reintroduced in the Senate, would require employers to implement the safeguards needed to help keep Eckley and millions of his peers safe on the job.

The legislation—supported by numerous labor unions, trade groups and other stakeholders—would direct the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to develop a standard requiring health care providers to implement safety plans for clinics, hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and other treatment facilities.

The bill calls for facilities to consider measures such as alarm systems, physical barriers and strategic staffing, including having workers in hazardous situations operate in teams. To ensure the plans are as comprehensive and effective as possible, facilities would have to devise them with the input of workers on the front lines and address the specific hazards in each work area or unit.

“Having a safety officer on the unit 24/7 would be a wonderful first step,” observed Eckley, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 1014L, who had calmed down his combative patient by the time a security guard in another part of the hospital complex arrived at the behavioral health unit.

“They just don’t have what we need to do the job safely,” he said of health care employers around the country. “They do the bare minimum, and it’s more reactive than proactive.”

Even before COVID-19, health care workers faced five times more violence on the job than their counterparts in most other professions. Incidents skyrocketed during the pandemic as the crisis exacted a heavy toll on Americans’ emotional health and patients, relatives and community members grew frustrated with staffing shortages at medical facilities.

The violence is now so pervasive that many health care workers are victimized over and over again. Eckley, for example, has been punched repeatedly, stabbed with a pen, and bitten by an HIV-positive patient who disliked the meal he was served. He’s also witnessed numerous attacks on coworkers and once watched a patient batter a door to get to a jar of candy on the other side.

“This is absolutely unacceptable,” Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, the legislation’s chief sponsor in the Senate, said of the surging number of assaults. “We know we need to do more to protect these workers.”

Under the legislation, employers would not only have to implement safety plans but also train workers to report assaults, conduct real investigations when incidents occur, keep records of injuries and ensure workers get immediate treatment when harmed.

Right now, as Jackie Anklam, president of USW Local 9899, knows all too well, many facilities across the country minimize incidents, dismiss assaults as part of the job, or try to pin the blame on the victims.

Anklam recalled getting a frantic phone call late one night from an emergency department technician at Ascension St. Mary’s Hospital in Saginaw, Michigan, who was pushed and threatened by about 20 highly emotional family members who gathered at the facility after a loved one arrived there with a fatal gunshot wound.

The victim’s relatives somehow managed to enter a locked treatment area off the waiting room, and Anklam said the technician was roughed up while following a doctor’s orders to usher them out. Anklam said she expected a robust investigation given the family members’ dangerous breach of a secure area.

Instead, she said, “we reported it, and their investigation was, ‘they don’t know who pushed the button and let them in.’ I think it was downplayed and swept under the rug.”

Amid tireless advocacy by health care workers and their unions, the Democratic-controlled House first passed the violence prevention bill in 2019. But the Senate, then controlled by Republicans, refused even to bring it to a vote.

Under the leadership of Connecticut Representative Joe Courtney, the House passed it again last year with bipartisan support. Now, it’s more crucial than ever that the Senate swiftly take up the bill and pass it.

Some states have attempted to address the crisis by considering or passing laws imposing stiffer penalties on people who assault health care workers. But Eckley and his coworkers know it’s even more essential to prevent violence in the first place.

“As time goes on, it will grow,” Eckley warned, noting attacks are becoming not only more numerous but also more brutal. “The severity seems to keep going up. It doesn’t go down.”

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

'What he did is unbelievable': How Joe Manchin betrayed America’s working families

Ed Barnette long ago realized that affordable child care and paid sick leave, among other resources, would be essential to helping West Virginians build better lives and save what’s left of the middle class.

He just never expected that when America was finally on the cusp of providing these essentials, West Virginia’s Democratic senator would join pro-corporate Republicans in blocking the way.

But that’s exactly what happened. In thwarting the Build Back Better legislation, Senator Joe Manchin turned his back on the working families whose support catapulted him to power in the first place.

“It’s almost like he forgot where his roots are,” fumed Barnette, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 5668, which represents hundreds of workers at the Constellium plant in Ravenswood, West Virginia. “He comes from a blue-collar state. When you say ‘West Virginia,’ the first thing you picture is a worker with a hard hat.”

“Surely, he won’t do it,” Barnette recalled saying to himself in the days before Manchin decided to withhold his vote and block the bill. “He did, and I just thought, ‘Damn it! You’re supposed to be working for us.’”

Barnette rejoiced last fall when Congress passed a historic, $1 trillion infrastructure bill. Like other states, West Virginia urgently needs improvements to its roads and bridges, schools and airports, energy systems, locks and dams, and communications networks.

But Barnette understands that the infrastructure legislation will have the biggest impact—and create the greatest number of manufacturing and construction jobs—only in conjunction with the $2 trillion Build Back Better bill.

Build Back Better would provide access to affordable child care and pave the way for more parents, especially more single parents, to enter the workforce. It would ensure workers receive up to four weeks of paid family medical leave, so they could battle life’s challenges while continuing to support their families.

And it would provide universal preschool for three- and four-year-olds, putting all of America’s children on the road to productive lives.

“It will do nothing but help the working people and middle class of West Virginia,” said Barnette, citing West Virginia’s high poverty rate and population loss.

Just as important, Build Back Better would boost funding at the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), positioning the agency to better address safety risks workers face every day as well as crises like the COVID-19 pandemic. Among other enhancements, the additional resources would enable the agency to hire more inspectors so the agency can investigate additional complaints, develop new safety standards and save lives.

Build Back Better also would increase the penalties that employers face for violations, making them more likely to address hazards proactively. The current low penalties merely encourage corporations to risk workers’ lives.

“I definitely think we need a stronger OSHA,” Barnette said. “It’s the difference between life and death with some employers.”

In addition, the legislation would incentivize the development of emerging industries, like clean energy and electric vehicle production, that would help to revitalize American manufacturing, create good-paying jobs and better position the nation to lead the world economy.

Whether it’s assembling electric vehicles, making batteries or manufacturing the components for solar panels, West Virginia has union workers with the work ethic and enthusiasm to get these industries up and running, noted Dallas Elswick, a former chemical worker and USW member from Nitro, West Virginia.

“The union workers made this country,” Elswick said. “Everybody knows that. And there’s a need for development here. There’s a big need.”

The House passed Build Back Better in November. The bill needed the support of all 48 Democrats and two Independents to pass the Senate, so President Joe Biden and congressional leaders worked tirelessly to get Manchin on board.

Senator Charles Schumer, the Senate majority leader, repeatedly spoke with him. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi talked with him, too.

Biden spoke with Manchin by phone and had him over to the White House. Biden also went so far as to host Manchin at his Delaware home to talk through the transformative nature of the bill, even though the legislation’s potential to level the playing field for working Americans is clear for all to see.

“He knew what he was doing,” said Elswick, who was disgusted to see Manchin play politics with West Virginians’ lives. “It made people beg him and plead with him. That’s what he wanted.”

Just before the holidays, Manchin stunned the nation by walking away.

His “no” blocked the bill from passing in the Senate and pulled the rug out from under millions of working people, many of them still trying to recover financially from the pandemic.

Manchin had a unique opportunity to cast the decisive vote moving America forward and launching a new era of prosperity. Instead, he singlehandedly impeded the nation’s progress.

He abandoned single parents, unable to afford child care, to poverty. He threw seniors, struggling to pay for prescriptions and health care, under the bus. He slammed the door on workers eager for new industries and jobs.

Barnette and Elswick are among millions in West Virginia and around the country calling on Manchin to do the right thing and embrace Build Back Better.

“We may not get an opportunity to do this ever again,” Elswick said of the sweeping changes offered by Build Back Better. “For him to do what he did is unbelievable.”

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How worker solidarity protects what’s left of the middle class

Patrick Stock, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 105, wasn’t going to let anyone stop him from supporting the United Auto Workers’ strike against Deere & Co.

When a court issued an injunction limiting the number of picketers at a Deere facility in Davenport, Iowa, Stock gathered about 30 members of his local and other unions and organized a rally along a four-lane highway within sight of the plant gate.

He and the others gave up their afternoon—and risked injury from the vehicles whizzing past—because Deere’s attack on the Auto Workers was an attack on them, too.

Union contracts provide decent wages and benefits along with safe working conditions, retirement security and a means for workers to stand up for themselves.

One company’s efforts to gut a contract and trample on workers emboldens others to follow suit. That’s why workers from across the labor movement band together to protect one another.

They walk each other’s picket lines. They fire off letters of support to the local newspapers. They attend rallies and stick signs in their yards.

They also boycott offending employers and take up collections to ensure striking workers have food, diapers and other necessities.

Solidarity serves as a counterweight to corporate power and helps to preserve what’s left of the middle class.

“We see the big picture, and we support everybody,” Stock said, adding he’s certain other unions will back his members, who work at Arconic’s Davenport Works, during their next contract negotiations.

Workers throughout the country put their lives on the line and worked exhausting amounts of overtime to keep factories operating during the pandemic.

Despite those sacrifices, however, companies like Deere doubled down on greed. Even employers that made record profits during the pandemic want to further bloat their bottom lines on the backs of those who stepped up during the crisis.

That’s forced workers into a wave of strikes around the country and underscored the power of solidarity in holding employers accountable.

“They couldn’t thank us enough for the support. It meant a lot to them, especially after the injunction,” Stock said of the Deere workers in Iowa, among 10,000 Auto Workers nationwide who succeeded in winning a fair contract from Deere after a five-week strike this fall.

At the same time that they were helping the Auto Workers stand up to Deere’s avarice, members of the USW and other unions mobilized to demand justice for 1,400 members of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union.

Those workers began a nationwide strike against Kellogg’s in October after rejecting the cereal maker’s demands that they give up quality health care and other hard-won benefits.

The company initially tried to bully workers by threatening to move jobs across the border if they refused to accept the cuts. Now, it’s threatening to hire permanent replacements for striking workers, a ploy sharply condemned by President Joe Biden and social justice activists around the nation.

“Harm to one is harm to all,” said Dave McLimans, vice president of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 7-4, explaining why he’s twice driven to the bakery workers’ picket line in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to show support. “You have to fight the fight.”

“I’ve been on strike before. I know the feeling,” added the longtime USW member, recalling a 105-day strike in 1991 against the Lukens Steel Co.

McLimans still remembers the company’s refusal to give workers a fair share of its prosperity, the worries about paying bills as the strike wore on and the anxiety that rippled through his coworkers’ families and across the community. Also etched in his mind, however, is how members of other unions stepped forward to ensure he and his coworkers stayed the course.

“The support we got was tremendous,” he said.

Right now, the same kind of solidarity helps to buoy Chad Thompson and about 400 other members of USW Local 40 in their two-month-long unfair labor practice strike against Special Metals in Huntington, West Virginia.

Thompson, the local president, said the city’s unionized police and firefighters stop some mornings to provide striking workers with coffee and breakfast sandwiches. Members of USW locals from as far away as Virginia and Maryland, along with workers from other national and international unions, donated hundreds of hams and turkeys and a truckload of grocery items. Volunteers from unions and their retiree groups help to staff the union hall and walk the picket line, giving Thompson’s coworkers a boost even in the rain and cold.

And donations enabled the local to buy holiday gifts for members’ children and even throw a holiday party.

Over the years, Thompson and his coworkers often supported other unions during their tough times. Today, when he tries to thank supporters for their generosity, many remind him of his own members’ past kindnesses.

“We haven’t forgotten what Local 40 did for us,” one worker told him.

Employers like Deere, Kellogg’s and Special Metals try to sow uncertainty, foment hardship and divide workers against each other.

Unions do exactly the opposite. Solidarity brings working people together to fight for justice and better lives. It anchors workers in place during some of the darkest days they’ll ever face.

“It gives you the strength to do it again tomorrow,” Thompson observed. “That’s what it’s all about—one day longer. The support makes all the difference.”

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How the Build Back Better bill would save workers’ lives

When Ron Brady drives through highway construction zones, he makes a point of looking for safety violations that threaten workers’ lives.

He’s seen more and more of them the past few years as employers, emboldened by the weakened state of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), grew increasingly comfortable flouting the rules.

Funding and staffing shortages engineered by the previous presidential administration hobbled OSHA and put workers in numerous industries at risk. But now, Congress is poised to pass a bill that would help revitalize the agency and provide the resources needed to protect workers in a growing economy.

Along with many other provisions helping workers and their families, the Build Back Better legislation recently approved by the House would position OSHA to respond to more work sites, investigate additional complaints and proactively address a greater number of hazards.

“They’ve been woefully understaffed for a long time,” observed Brady, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14614, which represents about 1,200 workers in the chemical, construction, gaming, manufacturing and other industries in West Virginia.

“They’re very professional,” he said of OSHA inspectors. “I’ve always found them to be very well trained. I think a lot of them are frustrated. They don’t have the resources to really do the job. There simply aren’t enough of them to cover it.”

The number of OSHA inspectors fell to the lowest level in half a century in 2019, and the agency conducted fewer investigations into top hazards like chemical exposure and musculoskeletal risks, as the previous president deliberately undercut the agency to benefit corporations.

Brady maintained a close watch on his members’ safety.

But in recent years, he said, he’s seen other construction workers navigate high beams without fall protection and risk their lives in work zones lacking the proper signage. And he knows that the starving of OSHA also put workers in other industries at higher risk.

“Everybody’s cutting corners and cutting budgets and trying to do more with fewer people. It’s something that’s going to get worse and worse,” Brady said.

After taking office in January 2021, President Joe Biden quickly took steps to put OSHA back on course. He filled key vacancies and appointed proven, experienced advocates to top leadership positions. But more is needed to reenergize the agency’s mission of prevention and deterrence.

The Build Back Better legislation, now before the Senate, would help Biden realize his goal of doubling the number of inspectors, to about 1,500, while also empowering the agency to impose significantly higher fines, as high as $700,000 per willful violation in some cases, on employers who flout safety rules.

The bigger penalties are needed to deter safety lapses. Brady said the current low fines merely encourage employers to gamble with workers’ lives.

The additional resources provided through the Build Back Better bill would also enable OSHA to focus on other kinds of prevention, like development of national standards to protect workers against growing and emerging threats.

After a combustible dust incident killed a colleague in 2015, for example, workers at the former International Paper mill in Ticonderoga, New York, and the USW’s Health, Safety and Environment Department worked with OSHA and the company to implement new safety measures intended to ensure no tragedy like that ever happened again.

But workers worried about their counterparts at other facilities across the U.S. who remained vulnerable, and they looked for OSHA to implement industry-wide safeguards.

They’re still waiting.

OSHA began working on a combustible dust standard even before the tragedy at Ticonderoga underscored the need for it. But the agency shelved the project during the previous administration because of “resource constraints and other priorities.”

“If there was a combustible dust standard, everyone would have rules to follow,” explained Paul Shaffer, president of USW Local 005, which represents workers at the paper mill, now owned by Sylvamo.

“It would make work much safer for everybody in the industry,” he said, noting standards both raise awareness and spell out the steps employers are required to take to keep workers safe. “You can’t protect against something you don’t know about.”

Combustible dust is just one threat requiring OSHA’s attention. Workers also need national standards to help protect them from heat stress—a growing danger because of climate change—as well as infectious diseases and workplace violence. Without OSHA specifying the safeguards employers must take and holding them accountable, observed Shaffer, workers and unions “spend a lot of time trying to get companies to do what’s right.”

It’s essential to strengthen OSHA as the nation prepares to carry out the historic, $1 trillion package of infrastructure investments that Biden signed into law in November.

Upgrades to roads and bridges, airports, locks and dams, energy systems and communications networks will sustain millions of middle-class jobs, benefiting construction workers as well as workers who produce the raw materials, parts and components needed for infrastructure projects.

Those workers will rely on OSHA to respond to complaints, inspect work sites and take other measures needed to keep them safe.

Brady recalls the days when OSHA inspectors regularly visited job sites and looks forward to a time when they once again not only respond to complaints but also make spot checks to provide safe and healthy workplaces.

“It makes management more safety-conscious,” he said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"Keep it at home," he said.

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why American workers want Congress to deliver an infrastructure bill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All fulfill essential roles in patient care.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"The members spoke," Anklam said.

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

"We avoided them," he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

How a national infrastructure program would protect Americans from hurricanes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

The U.S. must bolster retraining for workers harmed by unfair trade

When Goodyear closed its Tennessee manufacturing facility and laid off Ray Spangler about a decade ago, he moved his shell-shocked family about 330 miles so he could take a job at the company's Gadsden, Alabama, plant.

Goodyear shut that plant as well last year, after shifting most of the work to Mexico, leaving Spangler with the agonizing question of whether to relocate again.

In the end, he opted to use a federal retraining program, Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) for Workers, to build a future in Gadsden.

Thousands of Americans find themselves in Spangler's shoes each year, victims of bad trade and corporate greed, and so Democrats in the House and Senate want to strengthen the program and provide more of the resources these workers need to start over.

However, the clock is ticking. On July 1, the most recent version of TAA expired, limiting assistance for those not already in the program. Congress needs to act as quickly as possible to ensure help is available when workers need it.

"It's life-saving," Spangler, a former member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 12L, said of the TAA program that's covering his tuition, supplies, and other expenses while he studies electronics technology at Wallace State Community College near his home. "Other people need to have access to it."

TAA enables workers to chart new paths forward when they lose their jobs because of bad trade.

In some cases, as with Spangler and his coworkers, corporations shift jobs and production to countries with low wages, weak labor standards and lax environmental laws. Goodyear moved work from Gadsden to a plant in San Luis Potosí, Mexico, and pays workers there just a few dollars an hour.

Other times, foreign countries illegally subsidize the production of aluminum, electronics, paper, steel, tires and other goods, and then dump the items in the United States at below-market prices. American manufacturers cannot compete on this uneven playing field, and so U.S. workers lose their livelihoods.

TAA pays for postsecondary education, on-the-job training, apprenticeships and other skill-building to let workers enter new fields.

Even then, starting over isn't easy. That's why TAA also provides income supports, case management services, job search allowances, a tax credit to help cover health care premiums and other resources that workers need to rebound from the bad hands they're dealt.

Dozens of Spangler's former coworkers leveraged TAA benefits to obtain commercial driver's licenses, learn trades, and pursue degrees in education, nursing and other fields.

When Goodyear closed the Gadsden plant, Spangler wasn't sure what to do. The career tire worker thought about pursuing a job at the Goodyear facility in Topeka, Kansas, but he decided to keep his family in the Gadsden area.

TAA lets him chart the future on his terms.

"It's just preparing me for more opportunity down the road," explained Spangler, whose associate degree will enable him to work for manufacturers, power generators and communications companies, among many other employers.

He and his colleagues were among 96,000 workers across the country who became eligible for TAA during the 2020 fiscal year alone. And that figure was up 6 percent over the 2019 fiscal year, driving home the continuing threat of bad trade and the dire effects on workers, their families and communities.

Congress reauthorized TAA many times over the years, and on July 1, the most recent iteration expired, triggering an automatic reversion to an older version of the program with a smaller budget, fewer resources and restricted eligibility.

It's essential that congressional Democrats quickly move forward with proposals to implement a program even stronger than before so it can better meet the needs of workers in today's economy.

The Democrats' plans include expanding income supports, increasing the job-search allowance and health care tax credit, establishing a child-care allowance, and adding pre-apprenticeships to the list of education programs TAA will cover.

They also want to extend TAA help to additional categories of workers affected by trade, like public-sector workers whose jobs are outsourced as well as those who lose their livelihoods when disruptions in global supply chains—as occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic, for example—hurt production and sales.

"Hopefully, they keep that program and expand it to others as well," said Brian Schweitzer, formerly a negotiating steward for USW Local 94, who was among hundreds laid off when the Verso paper facility in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin, idled operations amid high levels of imports last year. "Without it, I would have been scrambling."

Schweitzer, who worked in the facility shipping department for 13 years, recalled how learning about the program made an immediate difference to him and coworkers who felt "down… and worried about the future."

He initially considered selling his house and leaving town but instead decided to use TAA to enter a heating, ventilation and air-conditioning training program at Mid-State Technical College. He still has several months of study, yet already gets a steady stream of job offers from employers who cannot fill vacancies for technicians and other HVAC experts fast enough.

"I'll have this in my back pocket forever," he said of his in-demand skills.

Because of its comprehensive services and high success rate, among other reasons, TAA stands out in a nation that has long failed to provide adequate job training opportunities.

Relative to the size of its economy, the United States spends far less on worker training programs than many other industrial countries, according to one study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Congress has a chance to start reversing that trend with a significant new investment in TAA, which has proven time and again to help workers like Spangler and Schweitzer forge ahead.

"It's been very rough," Spangler said, "but it's going to pay off."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

Why closing the digital divide will strengthen America and help U.S. workers

The slow, spotty internet access in rural Colorado plagued Steve Hardin for years, foiling his efforts to send emails and pay bills online, but the poor service never irritated him as much as the time it hurt his stepdaughter's grades.

She was attending college remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic when the internet suddenly went out, causing her to miss deadlines for several assignments.

"Late is late, whether your internet is great or not," said Hardin, noting she got docked for the delay.

With huge disparities in internet access across America, building out the information superhighway will be as essential as modernizing roads and bridges as the nation strives to rebound from the pandemic, grow a more powerful economy and forge a brighter future for all.

The American Jobs Plan, President Joe Biden's comprehensive infrastructure program, calls for investing $100 billion in affordable, high-speed broadband for Americans who cannot afford internet access, live in areas without service or, like Hardin, struggle with low-quality, hit-or-miss connections.

These investments would support American workers—including those making optical fiber, the key component of broadband—at the same time they eliminate the nation's vast digital divide.

The pandemic, which forced many workers to perform their jobs remotely and students to study online, showed that reliable internet service isn't merely a convenience but a necessity.

Too often, however, the quality of service depends on where a person lives. An interactive map recently published by the U.S. Commerce Department shows that people in more affluent areas enjoy high-speed internet, while those in rural, poor and tribal communities struggle with low-quality service, if they get service at all.

"We'd love to have better internet—something affordable," said Hardin, president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 14482, which represents workers at the LafargeHolcim cement plant in Florence, Colorado.

"It's pretty pitiful," he said of the current access that a telephone company provides to his home and beef ranch about 30 miles from the cement plant. "You can't do pictures. You can't download them or send them. FaceTime is nonexistent. We've lost internet service for three or four days at a time."

The internet has the power to tie the nation together, re-energize the economy and open the doors of education, employment, health and civic participation to all.

But right now, the digital divide isolates large swaths of the country, perpetuates inequality and undermines the nation's future. Uneven access not only personally disadvantages certain citizens, like Hardin's stepdaughter, but also prevents them from bringing their talents, skills and ideas to the table.

"Her teacher said, 'Too bad, so sad, I guess you should have gone somewhere else to get the assignments in,'" recalled Hardin, who lives in a sparsely populated county where many households lack broadband.

Rural areas like his often lack high-speed internet because providers refuse to make broadband investments.

Biden is collaborating with a bipartisan group of senators to move an infrastructure package forward. However, there's no time to waste. Both houses of Congress need to move quickly to pass legislation implementing the American Jobs Plan.

"Educating folks about this infrastructure program is very important," explained David Beard, executive board member for USW Local 752L, the union for about 1,500 workers at the Cooper Tire plant in Texarkana, Arkansas.

Beard travels around rural Arkansas to speak with fellow union members about the importance of the American Jobs Plan and the USW's "We Supply America" campaign, which aims to ensure that U.S. workers provide the raw materials and manufactured goods for publicly funded infrastructure projects.

While Beard long understood that rebuilding roads and bridges, repairing the state's deteriorated dams and modernizing aging schools would help to boost the economy, the pandemic drove home the need to extend quality internet to counties where very few households have broadband.

"It's become a safety issue, and it's become an education issue. And just consider the economics of it," Beard said, noting the spouses of a couple of his coworkers rely on the internet to operate their makeup and jewelry business.

Donneta Williams knows there's no excuse for a digital divide when America already has the skills and resources to eliminate it.

Williams, president of USW Local 1025, represents hundreds of workers who make optical fiber—the brains of broadband—at the Corning plant in Wilmington, North Carolina.

They turn glass into a technological marvel, fiber as thin and flexible as thread, yet stronger inch for inch than steel and capable of reliably carrying voice, data and video at high speeds over tremendous distances.

"We know what we do is vital," Williams said. "When you hear about 'bandwidth,' that's optical fiber."

"It's a craft," she said. "It's not something a computer is going to be able to teach you. We make sure we put out a quality product so the signal doesn't drop."

Their product kept America functioning during the pandemic. Now, Williams looks forward to a national broadband expansion that would enable her members to deliver the life-changing technology to more homes, paving the way to digital equality and a stronger nation.

"Our fiber makes it possible," said Williams, noting the broadband push would create jobs for those who manufacture not only fiber but various other components of internet systems.

For Hardin, who lives miles from a library and other public buildings that could afford him internet access when his goes down, speedy and reliable service cannot arrive fast enough.

"Are you going to take anything off my bill?" he once asked a telephone company representative after losing his internet for days.

"Of course," Hardin recounted, "he said no."

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

This article was produced by the Independent Media Institute.

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.

BRAND NEW STORIES
@2022 - AlterNet Media Inc. All Rights Reserved. - "Poynter" fonts provided by fontsempire.com.