Last year, Mark Glyptis and dozens of other union leaders went into contract negotiations with the Cleveland-Cliffs mining company. They were determined not only to win wage and benefit enhancements for their coworkers, but also to protect thousands of family-sustaining steel mill jobs for years toÂ come.
The United Steelworkers (USW) negotiating team ultimately delivered aÂ historic contract requiring the company toÂ invest $4Â billionÂ inÂ 13Â union-represented facilities. This includes about $100Â million at the Weirton, West Virginia mill where Glyptis and his colleagues rely on ever more sophisticated equipment to make precision tinÂ plate.
Protecting Workers’ Sweat Equity
Unions fight for financial commitments like these to safeguard workersâ€™ sweat equity.
The time and labor they invest in their workplaces for decades at aÂ stretch. Capital upgrades keep employers accountable and plants viable, preserving family-sustaining jobs while also laying the groundwork for futureÂ growth.
â€śSteel mills are being built across the world, and weâ€™re definitely competing on aÂ worldwide basis,â€ť observed Glyptis, president of USW LocalÂ 2911, noting the overseas facilities feature the “most modernÂ technology.â€ť
â€śWeâ€™re the best steelworkers in the world. We can compete. But we have to keep up with capital investments,â€ť continued Glyptis, who helped to represent about 12,000 USW members from six states in the talks with Cleveland-Cliffs in 2022.
Glyptis and other LocalÂ 2911Â members fought for new equipment that they need to produce “perfectly flat and flawless “tin plate for foodÂ containers.
Based on membersâ€™ input, other local unions — supplying the military, highway contractors, aerospace, and numerous other industries — went into negotiations with their own requirements forÂ upgrades.
Members overwhelmingly ratified aÂ new, four-year contract last fall. The vote reflected their satisfaction with the $4Â billion in investments — to be allocated among theÂ 13Â worksites — as much as it did theÂ 20% raises and benefit enhancementsÂ the agreementÂ provides.
â€śYou can have the best health care in the country or in the world, but if you canâ€™t compete because of technological deficiencies, youâ€™re going to be an also-ran,â€ť Glyptis pointed out. “Maintaining aÂ competitive facility is just asÂ important.â€ť
â€śIt all goes into aÂ decision about whether this is aÂ fair contract. It would be difficult to have aÂ contract passed if it didnâ€™t have aÂ commitment to capital investments attached,â€ť he said. He added that the companyÂ continues hiringÂ many younger workers who see the upgrades as crucial to raising families and putting downÂ roots.
Unions also negotiate capital investments to protect workers from companies that might otherwise abandon plants on a whim or run them to failure while wringing out every last penny in profit.
â€śThey donâ€™t have to live with the long-term impact of what they do. We do. Union workers do,â€ť declared Andrew Worby, president of USW LocalÂ 2-209. He was referring to “profit-takerâ€ť CEOs who line their pockets on workersâ€™ backs before moving on to their nextÂ jobs.
Once aÂ company commits resources to aÂ location, itâ€™s more likely to stick around, said Worby. He recalled that he and his coworkers at the Harley-Davidson plant in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin upped their demands for capital investments after aÂ cavalier executiveÂ threatened to move the facilityÂ during aÂ contract dispute.
Most recently, a contract requires Harley-Davidson toÂ invest $65Â millionÂ in the Menomonee Falls powertrain manufacturing site over five years. The company also has to invest another $10Â million at aÂ Tomahawk, Wisconsin, plant where workers are represented by USW LocalÂ 460.
The impact is already evident. Workers in Wisconsin are “tooling up and readying to produceâ€ť the powertrains for aÂ new line of electricÂ motorcycles, the company announced.
â€śThereâ€™s aÂ much bigger and broader picture to the impact of aÂ union contract,â€ť said Worby. “It doesnâ€™t just affect the union members. It affects the families. It affects the community. It affects the state weâ€™reÂ in.â€ť
The security provided by union-won investments means that “a new worker, instead of renting, is willing to buy aÂ house,â€ť he explained. “Now heâ€™s paying property taxes. Heâ€™s going to send his kids to the school district. Heâ€™s going to buy aÂ refrigerator from the local appliance guy. Itâ€™sÂ huge.â€ť
Preserving Jobs, Protecting Communities
When companies do threaten to close worksites, unions step up to preserve jobs and protectÂ communities.
The USW, for example, intervened when Domtar announced plans to close a Kingsport, Tennessee paper mill where union members made uncoated free sheet. Some workers, including USW Local 12943 President Keith Kiker, worked there for decades.
Union leaders knew Domtar wanted to enter the recycled containerboard market, so they successfully pushed the company to overhaul and reopen the Kingsport facility for that new product line.
The unionâ€™s advocacy resulted in a $350 million investment, saving about 150 jobs and ensuring a competitive facility for decades to come. Workers produced their first roll of recycled containerboard in January 2023.
â€śEverybody who wanted to come back got to come back,â€ť said Kiker, noting company officials “knew what they hadâ€ť in aÂ skilled and dedicated workforce committed to ensuring aÂ successful millÂ conversion.
â€śThis has been a good place to work. Itâ€™s still the best insurance in the region,â€ť he added, noting other companies in the Kingsport area must match USW-negotiated health benefits to retain their own workers.
Worby and his coworkers at Harley-Davidson see “a lot of new equipment coming inâ€ť right now, giving them the sense of security that they sought in the last round of contract talks. But they realize that the fight for facility investments, like the battle for fair wages and benefits, neverÂ ends.
â€śYou want to keep the positive energy flowing,â€ť Worby said.. “Longevity is very important toÂ us.â€ť
This blog originally appeared at In These Times on February 28, 2023.
About the Author: Tom Conway is the international president of the United Steelworkers Union (USW).
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