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Striking ATI Steelworkers Hold the Line for Premium-Free Health Insurance

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General President Peter Knowlton to Retire (but Stay Active in the Union) |  UE

Across the country, steelworkers at nine plants of Allegheny Technologies, Inc. have been on strike for the last 11 weeks.

They want raises; to stop contracting out; to secure full funding of their retirement benefits; and to beat back management’s efforts to introduce health insurance premiums and a second tier of coverage for younger workers.

The Steelworkers union (USW) accuses ATI of unfair labor practices including bad faith bargaining, and of holding retiree benefits hostage for contract concessions.

ATI, which is headquartered in Pittsburgh, makes steel used in aerospace and defense, oil and gas, chemical processes, and electrical energy generation.

Five years ago ATI locked workers out for seven months, demanding major concessions on wages, pensions, and health insurance. Workers fought off the bulk of those demands, though the company was able to shed future liability for the pension by replacing it with a 401(k) for anyone hired after 2015—a huge cost shift to workers that makes a decent retirement at age 65 unlikely for new hires.

There were 2,200 workers at 12 unionized sites back then. There are 1,300 at nine sites this time around.

Most of the shops are in areas still reeling from the deindustrialization of the ’80s and ’90s. Five are in western Pennsylvania: Canton Township, Brackenridge, Latrobe, Natrona Heights, and Vandergrift. The others are in Louisville, Ohio; Lockport, New York; East Hartford, Connecticut; and New Bedford, Massachusetts, where 60 members are on strike.

MANUFACTURING DESCENT

One of only a few remaining union manufacturers in southeast Massachusetts, ATI has long been seen as a place to earn decent pay and a respectable retirement.

As a young organizer with the United Electrical Workers (UE) in the ’80s and early ’90s I spent many mornings and afternoons leafleting at the ATI plant in New Bedford—then called Rodney Metals, before it was eventually bought out by ATI—and other shops in the area, encouraging workers to organize. (I like to think we helped lay the groundwork for the USW’s eventual success in the mid-’90s.)

Back then there were thousands and thousands of decently paid union workers in manufacturing, and those union shops drove the area rates and standards. The spillover effect was real. Non-union employers like Rodney Metals were “forced” to pay similar rates and conditions in order to compete for workers.

Those days are gone. Like many places throughout the country, southeast Massachusetts lost thousands of manufacturing jobs—union and nonunion—during the Reagan era of greed, union-busting, and moving jobs to lower-wage, nonunion locations (sometimes overseas, but not always). UE lost close to 2,000 members in southeast Massachusetts in less than a decade.

Some of the more innovative and militant strategies to fight plant closings were developed from the struggles of these workers to defend and preserve manufacturing jobs in hard-hit industrial New England.

Now, with the pension replaced by a 401(k) and after seven years of wage freezes, working at ATI—or in manufacturing generally—is not such a great deal anymore. Factory work in the area is now pretty much all nonunion, and most places pay less and provide fewer benefits than they did 20 years ago.

Plus, anyone who has worked in a factory knows the toll the work takes on your body and soul. The camaraderie can be great, but the brutal pace of work in an unhealthy environment is unrelenting. Your body slowly unravels and falls apart.

FLUSH WITH CASH

Now ATI is demanding to gut the benefits of present and future workers even further, which will further erode the living standards of the area. To sell its offers, the company points to wage increases and lump sum payments—but, as the union has pointed out, these are all based on savings generated from other concessionary proposals.

Meanwhile, the company has almost “a billion dollars in liquidity and more than half a billion dollars in the cash drawer,” according to a strike bulletin from the union. The three top executives made $22 million last year in salaries and an additional $17 million in bonuses.

The average hourly rate for production workers is only in the mid-$20s per hour, with the lowest-paying job around $22. Lots of maintenance work has been subcontracted, especially since the last contract. Presently to contract out work the company simply has to notify the union and engage in a discussion; if it doesn’t, the company pays a penalty to a local charity.

These “notification” requirements have done little to stop the company from decimating the maintenance department. But even this weak arrangement isn’t enough for ATI. It wants no accountability or discussion with the union about keeping maintenance work in-house, and it continues to propose eliminating arbitration over even the minimal requirement to give notice.

A PREMIUM ON HEALTH INSURANCE

This strike is in large measure over health insurance. In a sea of non-union workplaces with unaffordable health plans, ATI workers are striking to keep their plan affordable to members.

Presently the company pays the entire health insurance premium—workers were able to stave off ATI’s efforts to force them to pay premiums during the 2015-16 lockout. Workers have an upfront deductible that is 10 percent of first-dollar coverage up to $300 for an individual and $600 for a family per year. If you go outside the network, it is double those figures.

ATI now wants workers to pay 5 percent of the premium and increase the deductible to $500 for an individual and $1,000 for a family. What the company is really after, however, are the new hires: the company wants them to pay 10 percent of their premiums. It’s the typical and divisive two-tier system that unions know all too well.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which researches and publishes national health insurance data and conducts annual surveys on employer-provided health insurance, says that in 1999 the average annual premium was $2,196 for single plans and $5,791 for family plans. Twenty years later those figures have skyrocketed by 240 percent and 269 percent, respectively, to $7,470 for individuals and $21,342 for families.

Employers still contribute the majority of that, but workers now pay an average of $5,588 in premiums alone for family coverage (up from $1,543 in 1999), not to mention the increased share of other medical costs they bear. Wages over that same period have increased, on average, only 77 percent.

A BENCHMARK FOR ALL

Up until the 1980s, when the health insurance industry and employers began imposing premiums, deductibles, co-pays, and other schemes to gobble up more of our paychecks, fully employer-paid health insurance was not uncommon at all.

Those union workplaces that have been able to maintain that standard help all of us—not just their members. They set a benchmark for the wages and benefits that other employers in the same industry or geographic area need to provide to stay “competitive.” They influence what workers and the local community expect a job to offer.

When a benefit is allowed to erode over time, so does the standard. Seeing these workers at ATI fighting to defend premium-free health insurance, something most unions have lost, is inspiring.

“I am proud of my fellow brothers and sisters on the line,” said Bedford ATI worker John Camarao, the grievance chair for USW Local 1357. “Members are in a great hardship right now entering the third month of the strike, but what we’re fighting for is not only for our future but for the future of new hires and our retirees’ benefits.

“Their demands are meant to divide us, but instead they have united us, and our resolve is to see this to the end.”

This blog originally appeared at LaborNotes on June 14, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Peter Knowlton is the retired general president of the United Electrical Workers (UE).


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The Union Bond

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This blog originally appeared at Our Future on February 16, 2021. Reprinted with permission.

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


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Workers Want a Green Economy, Not a Dirty Environment

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To justify withdrawing from the Paris climate change accord, President Trump said during his press conference yesterday, “I was elected to represent the city of Pittsburgh, not Paris.” From terrible experience, Pittsburghers know about pollution.

Before Pittsburgh’s renaissance, the streetlights Downtown frequently glowed at noon to illuminate sidewalks through the darkness of smoke and soot belched from mills. White collar office workers changed grimy shirts midday. To the west 130 miles, the polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland burned – several times.

Pollution sickened and killed. It triggered asthma and aggravated emphysema. In Donora, just south of Pittsburgh, an air inversion in 1948 trapped smog in the Monongahela River valley.  Poisonous steel mill and zinc plant emissions mixed with fog and formed a yellow earth-bound cloud so dense that driving was impossible. Within days, 20 people were dead. Within a month, another 50 of the town’s 14,000 residents succumbed.

Some viewed pollution as a blessing, a harbinger of jobs. Air that tasted of sulfur signified paychecks. For most, though, pollution was a curse. It meant scrubbing the grime off stoops daily. It meant children wheezing and gasping for air. It meant early death.

The preventable deaths are why my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), has fought against pollution for decades, long before scientists conclusively linked it to global climate change. That connection made combatting pollution even more urgent. It crystalized our obligation to save the planet for posterity. Signing the Paris Climate Accord last year committed the United States to preserving what we all share, the water and the air, for our children and their children. Donald Trump’s withdrawal from that agreement moves the United States, and the world, back in time to rivers so toxic they burn and air so noxious it poisons. Trump’s retreat makes America deadly again.

Don’t get me wrong. The USW supports job creation. But the union believes clean air pays; clear water provides work. Engineers design smokestack scrubbers, skilled mechanics construct them and still other workers install them. Additional workers install insulation and solar panels. Untold thousands labor to make the steel and other parts for wind turbine blades, towers and nacelles, fabricate the structures and erect them. Withdrawing from the Paris Accord diminishes these jobs and dispatches the innovators and manufacturers of clean technologies overseas where countries that continue to participate in the climate change agreement will nurture and grow them.

Eleven years ago, the USW joined with the Sierra Club to form the BlueGreen Alliance because USW members believe Americans deserve both a clean environment and good jobs. The USW believes Americans must have both. Or, in the end, they will have neither.

The Alliance, which now includes more than a dozen unions and environmental groups, has collaborated with industry leaders to find solutions to climate change in ways that create high -quality jobs.

It’s an easy sell to many corporate leaders. Shortly after the election last fall, hundreds of companies and investors, including the likes of Nike and Starbucks, signed a letter asking Trump to abandon his campaign rhetoric about withdrawing from the Paris Accord.

In April, more than a dozen Fortune 500 companies, including giants Google, BP and Shell, also wrote Trump urging against reneging on nation’s climate commitment. They said that because the agreement requires action by all countries, it reduces the risk of competitive imbalances for U.S. companies that comply with environmental regulations.

More recently, Apple CEO Tim Cook told Trump that disavowing the accord would injure U.S. business, the economy and the environment. Tesla CEO Elon Musk told Trump that if he turned his back on the accord, Musk would resign from two White House advisory boards.

Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson, the former CEO of ExxonMobil, also urged Trump to keep the United States’ commitments under the 195-nation pact, rather than joining Syria as an outlier. Syria and Nicaragua are the only non-signatory countries, but Nicaragua declined to sign because its leaders felt the accord was not strong enough.

The streetlights never switch on at noon in Pittsburgh anymore. The Cuyahoga River now supports fish that live only in clean water. Donora’s sole reminder of those dark days in October of 1948 is a Smog Museum.

But the United States remains the world’s second-largest greenhouse gas polluter. It has an obligation to lead the world in combating climate change. Great leaders don’t shirk responsibility.

This blog was originally published at OurFuture.org on June 2, 2017. Reprinted with permission. 

About the Author: Leo Gerard is president of the United Steelworkers.


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The Price for Killing Workers Must be Prison for CEOs

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Every 12 days, a member of my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), or one of their non-union co-workers, is killed on the job. Every 12 days. And it’s been that way for years.

These are horrible deaths. Workers are crushed by massive machinery. They drown in vats of chemicals. They’re poisoned by toxic gas, burned by molten metal. The company pays a meaningless fine. Nothing changes. And another worker is killed 11 days later.

Of course, it’s not just members of the USW. Nationally, at all workplaces, one employee is killed on the job every other hour. Twelve a day.

These are not all accidents. Too many are foreseeable, preventable, avoidable tragedies. With the approach of April 28, Workers Memorial Day 2017, the USW is seeking in America what workers in Canada have to prevent these deaths. That is a law holding supervisors and corporate officials criminally accountable and exacting serious prison sentences when workers die on the job.

Corporations can take precautions to avert workplace deaths. Too often they don’t. That’s because managers know if workers are killed, it’s very likely the only penalty will be a small fine. To them, it’s just another cost of doing business, a cost infinitely lower than that paid by the dead workers and their families.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the incident that led Canada to establish federal corporate criminal accountability. It was the 1992 Westray coal mine disaster that killed 26 workers. The Plymouth, Nova Scotia, miners had sought help from the United Steelworkers to organize, in part because of deplorable conditions the company refused to remedy, including accumulation of explosive coal dust and methane gas.

Nova Scotia empaneled a commission to investigate. Its report, titled The Westray Story: A Predictable Path to Disaster, condemns the mine owner, Curragh Resources Inc., for placing production – that is profits – before safety.

The report says Curragh “displayed a certain disdain for safety and appeared to regard safety-conscious workers as wimps.” In fact, Curragh openly thwarted safety requirements. For example, the investigators found, “Methane detection equipment at Westray was illegally foiled in the interests of production.”

The calamity occurred because Curragh callously disregarded its duty to safeguard workers, the investigators said. “The fundamental and basic responsibility for the safe operation of an underground coal mine, and indeed of any industrial undertaking, rests clearly with management,” the report says. 

The USW pressed for criminal charges, and prosecutors indicted mine managers. But the case failed because weak laws did not hold supervisors accountable for wantonly endangering workers.

The Steelworkers responded by demanding new legislation, a federal law that would prevent managers from escaping liability for killing workers. It took a decade, but the law, called the Westray Act, passed in 2003. Under it, bosses face unlimited fines and life sentences in prison if their recklessness causes a worker death.

Over the past 13 years, since the law took effect in 2004, prosecutors have rarely used it. Though thousands of workers have died, not one manager has gone to jail.

The first supervisor charged under the Westray Act escaped a prison sentence when he agreed to plead guilty under a provincial law and pay a $50,000 fine. This was the penalty for a trench collapse in 2005 that killed a worker. There are many methods to prevent the common problem of trench cave-ins, but bosses routinely send workers into the holes without protection.

In 2008, the company Transpavé in Quebec was charged under the Westray Law after a packing machine crushed one of its workers to death. There was a criminal conviction and $100,000 fine. But no one was jailed.

In another case, a landscape contractor was criminally convicted in 2010 for a worker’s death, but the court permitted the contractor to serve the two-year sentence at home with curfews and community service.

Soon, however, prison may become more than a theoretical possibility. A Toronto project manager was sentenced last year to three and a half years in prison for permitting workers to board a swing stage, which is a scaffold that was suspended from an apartment building roof, without connecting their chest harnesses to safety lines. The scaffold collapsed, and four workers plummeted 13 stories to their deaths. A fifth worker survived the fall with severe injuries. Another worker, who had clicked onto a safety line, was unscathed.

Before the project began, the manager took a safety course in which the life-and-death consequences of unfailingly utilizing safety lines was emphasized.

The manager described asking the site foreman, as the foreman and the workers climbed onto the scaffold at the end of the work day on Dec. 24, 2009, why there were not enough safety lines for all of the workers. When the foreman told him not to worry about it, the project manager, who was in charge of the job, did nothing. Seconds later, the scaffold floor split in half, dumping the foreman and four other men without safety lines to the ground.

The prosecutor said the manager’s failure to stop the scaffolding from descending with unsecured workers demonstrated “wanton and reckless disregard for the lives and safety of the workers.” The judge said the manager’s position conferred on him the responsibility for safeguarding the workers and that his conduct constituted criminal negligence under the terms of the Westray Law.

The manager has appealed the sentence. The worker who connected himself to the lifeline said the manager asked him that day to lie about what happened because, the manager told him, “I have a family.”  Of course, that ignores completely the families of the dead men.

It is what far too many bosses and CEOs do. They believe their lives are precious and workers’ are not. That’s why so many supervisors defy worker safety rules.

In most U.S. workplace deaths, the company suffers nothing more than a fine. Last year, for example, an Everett, Washington State, landscape company paid $100,000 for the death of a 19-year-old worker crushed in an auger on his second day on the job. His father, Alan Hogue, told The Seattle Times, “It’s just a drop in the bucket. It’s like fining me $10 for shooting a neighbor.” The state cited the company for 16 serious and willful safety violations.

Federal criminal penalties for killing a worker in the United States are so low that they are insulting. The maximum sentence under OSHA is six months; under MSHA, one year. Prosecutors almost never bring such cases, since the penalties are so low and the burden of proof so high.

U.S. supervisors have gone to jail under state criminal laws, though it’s rare. A New York construction foreman was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and sentenced in 2016 to at least 1 year behind bars for sending a 22-year-old worker into an unsecured trench and for failing to stop work when an engineer warned it was too dangerous. The trench collapsed minutes later.

In a similar case, the owner of a Fremont, Calif., construction company and his project manager were convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to two years in prison after a trench collapsed on a worker. The January 2012 incident occurred three days after a building inspector ordered work to stop because the excavation lacked shoring. The manager ignored the order.

“These men, the workers, were treated like their lives didn’t matter,” Deputy District Attorney Bud Porter told a reporter at the time of conviction.

The only way to make workers’ lives matter is to make prison a real possibility for CEOs and supervisors. Lethal greed must be tempered by frightening ramifications. Fines are no threat.  Only prison is. America needs its own Westray Law and aggressive enforcement.

This post originally appeared on ourfuture.org on April 27, 2017. Reprinted with Permission.

Leo Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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Lacie Little: You’re Un-Fired

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Leo Gerard  Lacie Little won back last week everything Indiana University Health Inc. took from her –  except her job. Her beloved nursing job.

She got back wages and a formal public statement by the hospital corporation saying that it  removed the firing from her work record. So she’s un-fired.

But she’s not rehired. The hospital behemoth refused to consider restoring Lacie to her  nursing job for seven years, long enough, it hopes, to prevent her from helping form a union  there. Despite everything that has happened to her, Lacie hasn’t given up that goal. Now, she’s  working for my union, the United Steelworkers (USW), trying to organize nurses.

Indiana University (IU) Health fired Lacie on March 30, three days after she began trying to persuade her fellow nurses to unionize. Lacie wanted her co-workers to join together to collectively bargain with IU Health for the same reason many nurses want to negotiate with their hospitals. They love their profession; they’re devoted to their patients, and they want to help their hospitals be the best that they can be.

IU Health Inc. believed it knew what was best for the bottom line of the hospital system – and that wasn’t a nurses union. So like many employers, it took action to squash the nascent effort by employees to gain a voice at work by organizing. Firing workers for trying to form a union is illegal. But institutions – even ones supposedly dedicated to restoring health or to Catholic theology – do it all the time anyway because the penalties are so very paltry and the fear instilled is so very profound.

Corporations know they can stall an organizing campaign with just the threat of firing. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh recently used this tactic in a startling way. It included in a pleading to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) a threat to refuse to rehire for future semesters two adjunct professors who had testified at an NLRB hearing about efforts to organize at Duquesne, which holds itself out as a religious institution. One of the adjuncts described Duquesne’s written threat as bone chilling.

Lacie felt both unnerved and betrayed when the hospital corporation fired her. Her partner was five months pregnant with their second child. She had responsibilities, and the termination left her unsure how she would fulfill them. She could not believe the hospital system she so loved had done this to her.

The doctors and nurses and staff at Indiana University Health endeared themselves to Lacie when her grandfather, Robert Little, was hospitalized at Methodist, an IU institution, just after she graduated from high school. He was admitted to the cardiovascular critical care unit, where Lacie would later work.

Robert Little was having trouble breathing. To distract him, the nurses joked with him. They held his gargantuan hands. The doctor took the time to find out about Robert Little as a person. The physician learned that Robert Little was a union bricklayer who had worked hard all his life and who continued chopping wood as he fell increasingly ill in his 70s. Robert Little would not be happy bedridden, tube invaded, machine dependent.

At that time, Lacie’s mother was a nurse at IU Health. She had worked in its bone marrow transplant unit in the very early days when many patients did not survive. Lacie says her mother taught her an important lesson about that:

“She told me that taking care of someone in their last days and hours of life is an honor. You usher them out. And you can make it a great experience or an awful experience. You can truly take care of the patient and the family. I feel Methodist really did that for my family, took the time to get to know my grandfather and explain things to us. They were able to let him die with dignity. He was clean and warm and not in pain and had his family around him. Everyone has to die. It might as well be in a good way.”

Lacie started work at IU Health when she was just 19 years old. She earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology and biology. Then, while working as a secretary for the hospital system, she returned to college to get her nursing degree. She says she learned: “Nursing is caring for people. Great nurses care for their patients. They don’t just take care of them.”

In 2009, she launched her nursing career in the cardiovascular critical care unit where her grandfather had died. Every day, she challenged herself to care for her patients like they were her grandfather.

The stories she tells show that she reveled in accomplishing that. She talks about caring for an older farmer who had been injured in a tractor accident. At one point as he began to get better, he kept motioning toward his face. Still connected to a breathing tube, he could not talk. She knew he was trying to ask for a shave. Lacie recounts:

“I got some hot water and put some wash cloths in there. I sat him in a reclining chair and leaned him back and said, ‘Here we are at the barber shop’ and gave him a really good shave. He kept touching his face and giving me thumbs up. The shave wasn’t necessary to get him better, but we had fixed all of the acute things, and this was important for helping him feel better. We have to do some things to help them feel good mentally.”

When Lacie began in nursing, the hospital system enabled nurses to help patients feel better. But that changed.

In the fall of 2013, the hospital corporation laid off 800 workers, including Lacie’s mother, who had worked there 25 years. At about the same time, IU Health instituted a management method described as “going lean.” What that meant to Lacie was that the hospital system had the best doctors and nurses and staff but was setting them up to fail at meeting goals like treating their patients like their grandfathers.

“They wanted us to do more with less. And they would say that. Everything was about cost, cost, cost. But we care about patients over profits,” she said. It meant there was rarely time to give a farmer a shave.

Lacie says nurses began talking about being in moral distress, “People were leaving the hospital and going home and crying because they felt they did not take good care of their patients.” They did all the basics. They gave patients all of the medications but had no time to talk to them like they were human beings. “If you are not spoken to, you feel like a specimen, not a person,” Lacie explains. Feeling like a specimen does not help heal.

That’s when the union talk started. Because her father and grandfather were union men, Lacie said family experience had taught her that unions could put workers in a position to get CEOs to listen. “I knew unions were a way to stack up enough people so they were on a level playing field with the CEO,” she said.

Earlier this year, the IU nurses chose the USW to help them organize and began holding informational meetings, three a day, twice a week. Lots of nurses attended. They discussed problems at work and how organizing could be a solution. “People were encouraged because they wanted to do something, not just talk about it,” Lacie says.

In March, Lacie and several other nurses began asking co-workers if they were willing to sign a card petitioning for an election that would determine whether they could form a union.

Lacie was careful to do this only while she was on lunch and other breaks. She cautioned co-workers not to sign unless they too were on a break. She chatted with on-duty nurses but did not take their signatures. Even so, on her third day of doing this, IU Health Inc. officials accused her of accepting signatures from nurses who were on duty.

The hospital corporation suspended her, then fired her just days later. “I was dumbfounded,” she says, “I felt betrayed because I had given my loyalty to IU Health.” She had worked there a decade.

Not long after the hospital system terminated Lacie, the state Health Department issued a report saying the hospital was short staffed and that it adversely affected patient care.

The USW hired Lacie immediately after the firing, but the termination imperiled renewal of her nursing license. She knew if she fought the hospital corporation through the NLRB process and the courts, she would win. But that could take years. And she’d be unable to work as a nurse in the meantime.

So she took the settlement deal. It requires IU Health Inc. to post notices at its hospitals saying that it had rescinded Lacie’s firing and discipline against her and that federal law forbids the hospital corporation from threatening, interrogating, surveilling, disciplining, suspending or firing anyone for attempting to form a union.

Lacie’s firing steeled the commitment of some, who started a Facebook meme saying, “I’ve got a Little fight in me.” But for many others, the firing had the effect the hospital corporation intended. Nurses were fearful, and turnout at union meetings declined.

Studies show the number of illegal firings of union activists increasing and the number of union members in the United States dwindling. Workers like Lacie need legislation to stop it. This time last year U.S. Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) introduced the Employee Empowerment Act, which would do just that. It could be called Lacie’s Law. But that wouldn’t be fair to the thousands of other workers who suffered as a result of the same illegal corporate union-busting practice.

Lacie insisted on a provision in the agreement allowing her to apply to return to IU Health in seven years because, she said, “I still love the IU Health nurses and doctors and staff.”

This blog originally appeared at OurFuture.org on August 11, 2015. Reprinted with permission.

About the author: Leo W. Gerard is the president of the United Steelworkers International union, part of the AFL-CIO. Gerard, the second Canadian to lead the union, started working at Inco’s nickel smelter in Sudbury, Ontario at age 18. For more information about Gerard, visit usw.org.


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Honeywell Plant Freezes Summer Vacations

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Mike ElkAt a time of year when many workers are taking family vacations, uranium workers at Honeywell’s plant in Metropolis, Ill. won’t have that option. On July 27, the company announced a vacation freeze. United Steelworkers Local 7-669, which represents workers at the plant, claims that the decision is just another salvo in a three-year-long battle by Honeywell to bust the union.

Honeywell is currently in the process of rehiring several hundred operations workers at the uranium plant who were laid off in July of 2012 when the plant shut down for earthquake-safety improvements requested by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

Earlier this year, Honeywell began slowly rehiring the laid-off workers—both hourly union employees and non-union salary employees—to restart the plant. Now all but 21 of the 200 union employees have been rehired as the plant moves toward full operationality. But instead of rehiring the final 21 union workers, Honeywell is proceeding short-staffed and calling in workers on their days off to make up the gap.

In order to put pressure on the company to rehire the 21 laid-off union members, some union employees are refusing to work any overtime (and passing up the time-and-half pay). In response, Honeywell announced that because of the staffing shortage, no workers can take a vacation this summer.

In a July 27, 2013 email to employees, Honeywell Metropolis Operating Manager Jim Pritchett wrote:

Effective immediately, all vacations are cancelled and no further vacations are to be granted in operations including individuals’ days—that includes all hourly and salaried staff. The purpose is to assure we are staffed to support operations and to continue to get the remaining units on line so we can support our customers. … I am disappointed it has gotten to this but we have no choice due to employees not responding to call ins and taking care of their responsibilities…. This vacation freeze will be lifted as soon as the business needs of the plant are being effectively met by people coming when they are called.

The union speculates that Honeywell has an ulterior motive for not hiring the remaining 21 workers: It doesn’t want to rehire Local 7-669 President Stephen Lech. Under the union contract, Honeywell is obligated to rehire all of the laid-off union employees according to a mutually agreed upon list developed according to workers’ qualifications and seniority. The next person on the list is Lech.

“It’s directly targeting me for my work as union president,” says Lech, who thinks that Honeywell is trying to send a message about the length that the company is willing to go to crush the union.

The union says that instead of following the list, Honeywell has told the final 21 workers that they must compete against outside applicants and reapply for their jobs as if they were new hires directly off the street.

“It’s a violation of the contract,” Lech says. “How can Honeywell do it? Well, Honeywell does whatever they want.”

“It will take six months before the case even gets before an arbitrator and another six months before the arbitrator rules,” he says.

Workers are refusing overtime in the hopes that they can resolve the issue sooner. Many were planning family vacations and were outraged by the vacation moratorium.

“It’s a morally bankrupt company that punishes their employees for staffing shortages it created out of spite,” reads a text message to Working In These Times by one Honeywell employee who wished to remain anonymous for fear of being fired. “Two years ago we took their lousy contract and they’re still kicking us.”

Honeywell did not respond to request for comment for this piece.

Lech says that despite being laid off, he is undeterred from his work for the union.

“This absolutely will not stop me from doing my job,” says Lech. “Heck, I got more time than ever to work as union president.”

This article originally appeared on Working In These Times on August 12, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Mike Elk is an In These Times Staff Writer and a regular contributor to the labor blog Working In These Times.


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“This is Not Just a Steelworker Issue”

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berry craigShowing solidarity with our union brothers and sisters is a great way for us to ring in the New Year, says Jim Key, vice president at large of Steelworkers Local 550 in Paducah, Ky.
Key, also his local’s legislative and political chairman, is asking union members and union supporters nationwide to take a minute to put their John Hancock on a White House cyber-petition against corporations that file for bankruptcy “to circumvent their liabilities for workers’ pensions and post-retirement health care benefits.”
The link to the petition is http://wh.gov/Reqy.
Added Key: “The stark reality is that many unions will likely be facing the same thing in the very near future.”
The future is now, says Chris MacLarion, vice president of USW Local 9477 in Baltimore. One of his members, Eric Schindler, started the petition, using their former employer, RG Steel, as an example of corporate greed run amok.
The petition, addressed to the Obama administration, explains that in March 2011, RG Steel, LLC, entered into a contract with the USW. But in June 2012, the company filed for chapter 11 bankruptcy.
While in bankruptcy proceedings, RG Steel asked to be permitted to pay $20 million in bonuses to 10 “key managers” to help the company “secure a buyer,” the petition also says. “…After the buyer was named these managers were to be paid their salaries and other monies” including funds to purchase health insurance.
“Meanwhile the 2000+ Union workers were laid off and unemployed,” the petition says. “Their medical benefits were stopped September 1 of 2012. Unfortunately the insurance provider was issued an order to stop paying claims two weeks before the end date.” Union members also lost “other monies promised in the contract that was voided.”
The petition urges, “stop companies from rewarding bad behavior. Make them abide by the contract.”
MacLarion says his local represented about 1,850 USW members in RG’s Baltimore mill — the former Sparrow’s Point Bethlehem Steel works — and approximately 150 more in amalgamated units that serviced the factory.
“RG Steel’s demise has left all of them without jobs, while the management group made a grab at $20 million in bonuses,” he said. “While that grab at the money proved futile, as the judge rejected their attempt, they nonetheless were able to secure another set of bonuses and pay under a second motion.”
Added MacLarion: “While this was a much smaller amount it is still appalling that the same people that ran the company into the ground were able to take payments of three-quarters of $1 million. That money would have been better served paying the medical bills that our members were stuck holding the tab for.”
MacLarion says he and the members of his union liken the RG Steel bonus grab to paying the captain of the Titanic a bonus for hitting the iceberg while managing to keep his ship afloat for almost three hours afterwards.
MacLarion says RG’s actions also devastated USW members in the company’s Warren, Ohio, and Wheeling, W.Va., mills.  “They were part of the bankruptcy. All in all, I’d say roughly 5,000- plus USW members lost out in the RG Steel bankruptcy.”
Meanwhile, Key has gained the support of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky Area Council, AFL-CIO, which represents AFL-CIO affiliated unions in the Bluegrass State’s 13 westernmost counties. Key is a recently-elected council trustee.
“We all need to sign this petition,” said Jeff Wiggins, council president and president of Steelworkers Local 9447 in nearby Calvert City, Ky. “This is not just a Steelworker issue. This is an issue that affects all union members, retirees and members still working, and our families.
“It’s happening all over the country. You work hard for a company all of your life, retire with dignity and the company ends up trying to cheat you of what should be rightfully yours. It’s greed, pure and simple.”
This article was originally posted by Union Review on January 10, 2013. Reprinted with Permission.
About the Author: Berry Craig is recording secretary for the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council and a professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College, is a former daily newspaper and Associated Press columnist and currently a member of AFT Local 1360.

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China Drops Some Wind Power Subsidies After USW Complaint

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Image: James ParksHere’s some good news on the trade front: U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) Ron Kirk announced today that China has ended certain wind power equipment subsidies that gave its companies an unfair advantage in the global market.

The action came after the United Steelworkers (USW) filed a Section 301 trade complaint last October charging that China’s government uses hundreds of billions of dollars in subsidies, performance requirements, preferential practices and other illegal trade activities to dominate the renewable energy market.

The subsidies take the form of grants to Chinese wind turbine manufacturers that agreed to use key parts and components made in China rather than purchasing imports. The size of the individual grants range between $6.7 million and $22.5 million, according to the USTR.

AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said:

Today’s news is a significant move in the right direction.  But much more must still be done to enforce our trade laws consistently and create good jobs here at home…  We must work to end unfair trade practices, including currency manipulation, export subsidies and the suppression of workers’ rights both here and abroad.

USW President Leo Gerard said in a statement that the union’s complaint and the Obama administration’s pursuit of the complaint brought China’s government to the table with a commitment to end this program. He adds:

That’s good news for our members, U.S. companies and American workers. It needs to be followed up with continued vigilance to ensure the Chinese keep their commitments.

America’s workers and our nation face many more clear World Trade Organization (WTO) violations of obligations by China’s government, Gerard said.

With this first green technology issue behind us, we encourage the administration to continue to work to level the playing field for clean technology companies and American workers to grow sustained employment and good job opportunities.

Read Kirk’s announcement here , Gerard’s full statement here and Trumka’s statement here.

This article originally appeared on the AFL-CIO blog on June 7, 2011. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: James Parks’ first encounter with unions was at Gannett’s newspaper in Cincinnati when his colleagues in the newsroom tried to organize a unit of The Newspaper Guild. He saw firsthand how companies pull out all the stops to prevent workers from forming a union. He is a journalist by trade, and worked for newspapers in five different states before joining the AFL-CIO staff in 1990. He also has been a seminary student, drug counselor, community organizer, event planner, adjunct college professor and county bureaucrat. His proudest career moment, though, was when he served, along with other union members and staff, as an official observer for South Africa’s first multiracial elections.


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Assert Yourself, America; Don’t be an Illegal Trade Victim

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Leo GerardLong-suffering victim is hardly the American image. Paul Revere, Mother Jones, John Glenn, Martin Luther King Jr. — those are American icons. Bold, wry, justice-seeking.

So how is it that America finds herself in the position of schoolyard patsy, woe-is-me casualty of China’s illegal trade practices that are destroying U.S. renewable energy manufacturing and foreclosing an energy-independent future?

Come on, America. Show some of that confident pioneer spirit. Stand up for yourself. Tell China that America isn’t going to hand over its lunch money anymore; international trade law will be enforced now.

That’s the demand the United Steelworkers (USW) union made this week when it filed a 5,800-page suit detailing how China violates a wide variety of World Trade Organization (WTO) obligations.

The case, now in the hands of the U.S. Trade Representative, shows how China uses illegal land grants, prohibited low-interest loans and other outlawed measures to pump up its renewable energy industries and facilitate export of those products at artificially low prices to places like the United States and Europe.

The U.S. aids renewable energy industries, like solar cell and wind turbine manufacturers, but no where near the extent that China does. And the American aid lawfully goes to renewable manufacturers that produce for domestic consumption. China, by contrast, illegally subsidizes industries that export, a strategy that kills off competition.

The USW recognizes and appreciates that trade with China has lifted millions there out of poverty. But truly fair trade would benefit workers in both China and the United States. And that is what the USW is demanding.

The USW is far from alone in accusing China of violations. New York Times reporter Keith Bradsher described them in a story Sept. 8, titled “On Clean Energy, China Skirts Rules.” It ends with this quote from Zhao Feng, general manger of Hunan Sunzone Optoelectronics, a two-year-old solar panel manufacturer that exports nearly 95 percent of its products to Europe and is opening offices in three U.S. cities to push into the American market:

“Who wins this clean energy race really depends on how much support the government gives.”

The U.S. isn’t providing support that violates WTO regulations. China is. And it’s hundreds of billions — $216 billion from China’s stimulus package, another $184 billion to be spent through 2020, $172 million in research and development over the past four years.

Bradsher’s story details illegal aid given Sunzone and says that it’s common, not exceptional. It includes China turning over land to Sunzone for a third of the market price and government-controlled banks granting Sunzone low-interest loans that the provincial government helps Sunzone repay.

In addition, the USW suit notes that China, which accounts for 93 percent of the world’s production of so-called rare earth materials like dysprosium and terbium essential for green energy technology, has severely restricted their export. That practice, illegal under WTO rules, forces some foreign companies to move manufacturing to China to get access.

And when corporations move, China routinely – and illegally — mandates they transfer technology to Chinese partners, which often means U.S.-tax-dollar-supported research and development benefits China.

That is one reason China rose to first in the world in clean energy so quickly. China now leads globally in producing solar panels. It doubled its wind power capacity in one year – 2009. Worldwide, Chinese manufacturers supply at least half of all hydropower projects and fabricate 75 percent of all compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Meanwhile, here in the United States, BP shut down its solar panel manufacturing plant in Maryland this year and Evergreen Solar of Marlboro, Mass., plans to close its American plant, eliminating 300 U.S. jobs. Both are moving manufacturing to China.

Germany’s Solar World still manufactures in Europe and the United States, and its chief executive, Frank A. Asbeck, told Bradsher the German solar industry association is investigating whether to file a suit of its own to try to stop China’s illegal practices:

“China is cordoning off its own solar market to fend off international competition while arming its industry with a bottomless pile of subsidies and boundless lines of credit.”

The Times story also says China’s “aggressive government policies” are designed to ensure “Chinese energy security.”

China’s illegal aggression to secure its energy independence and dominate world production of green technology threatens the energy security of the United States.

America turned to renewables not just to diminish climate change but also to reduce dependence on foreign oil, an addiction that has entangled the U.S. in costly and bloody wars.

If the United States can’t build its own renewable energy products, it will forfeit the next generation high technology industry and good manufacturing jobs, and it will remain dangerously beholden to foreign nations for energy.

China agreed to follow international regulations when it joined the World Trade Organization. This pledge was crucial because China’s economy is government-controlled, very different from the free market economies of the United States and most Western nations.

Faced with blatant rule-flouting that has cost USW members their jobs and threatens to cost their children high-technology manufacturing of the future, the USW is demanding the American government put a stop to it.

That is how a true American acts. Americans have a sense of justice. They follow the rules and expect trading partners to do the same. When they don’t, Americans do something about it.


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For the Strength of Rosie the Riveter: Make It in America

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Leo GerardRosie the Riveter defiantly rolls up her blue work shirt to show off a brawny bicep. She’s a symbol of American strength.

She worked in a manufacturing job, one of millions that constructed the defense machine that won World War II for the Allies. She said, “We can do it.” And America did.

Now, however, shuttered U.S. factories and off-shored manufacturing are sapping American strength. The nation has lost more than 40,000 manufacturing plants and one-third of its manufacturing jobs, nearly six million, over the past dozen years. China is on the verge of overtaking the U.S. in manufacturing output. And Americans know it. Late in April, 58 percent of 1,000 likely voters told pollsters they believed America’s economy no longer led the world.

They also told pollsters they supported enacting a national manufacturing policy to promote resurgence of domestic production — a return to the days of a robust Rosie the Riveter and a country that could secure its independence with dynamic manufacturing capability.

Democrats in Congress heard that message. They’ve created a program called “Make It in America.” They plan to pass a series of bills to create an environment in which both Americans and American manufacturers make it. “We want everybody to make it in America,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said as she described the plan to 2,000 bloggers and progressive activists at Netroots Nation 2010 last week in Las Vegas.

After all the support America has given the financial sector – estimated to total more than $4 trillion – it’s time for Congress to invest in the productive sector, the one that creates jobs, real wealth and American power.

“We must stop the erosion of our manufacturing base, our industrial base, our technological base,” the Speaker told Netroots Nation, “It is a national security issue to do so, if we had no other justification,” she said, adding that there are, of course, plenty of other reasons.

She said the strategy is to pass “one bill after another” supporting American manufacturing. The House started last week with two, one to ease American industries’ access to raw materials and parts and another to improve specialized workforce training.

In addition, Speaker Pelosi said, House leaders want to address currency manipulation – the deliberate undervaluing of currency to make a country’s exports artificially cheap and imports into that country artificially expensive. Currency manipulation by China, for example, is believed by both conservative and liberal economists to be adding as much as 40 cents to every dollar of the cost of U.S. products exported to China and discounting Chinese goods sold in the U.S. by 40 cents on every dollar.

“There is a strong interest in our caucus in holding China accountable for manipulation of currency. That would make a tremendous difference in our trade because currency manipulation is really a subsidy to their exports to America – an unfair advantage,” the Speaker said at Netroots Nation.

Other bills Speaker Pelosi hopes to pass soon include $5 billion in tax credits for domestic manufacturers that produce components for alternative energy and a requirement that foreign manufacturers keep at least one worker stationed in the U.S. so the company can be officially served with court papers. Also, there’s a bill by Illinois Congressman Daniel Lipinski that would require each U.S. president to produce a manufacturing strategy in the second year of office and to review progress annually.

The survey that prompted Democrats to create the “Make It in America” program was commissioned by the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM) and conducted by Democratic pollster Mark Mellman and Republican pollster Whit Ayres. They found that likely voters believed creating manufacturing jobs was more important than reducing the federal deficit and more important than cutting government spending.

The survey also showed strong support for policies requiring the government to buy American-made goods. Similarly, it showed the Democrats, Independents and Republicans surveyed felt the quality of products manufactured in American exceeded those made in China, Japan, India and Germany.

Americans now even prefer U.S.-made cars: An Associated Press-GfK Poll in April showed 38 percent of Americans favor U.S. vehicles. Asian brands got 33 percent.

Chrysler takes advantage of that sentiment in its commercial for the new Grand Cherokee. The words are chilling:

“The things that make us American are the things we make,” it begins.

“This has always been a nation of builders, craftsmen, men and women for whom straight stitches and clean welds were matters of personal pride. They made the skyscrapers and the cotton gins, colt revolvers, Jeep 4-by-4s,” the ad continues.

“These things make us who we are,” the narrator says. Yes. The things Americans make, make the country strong.

To the sound of a sledge hammer pounding a railroad spike, the narrator goes on to describe the reborn Grand Cherokee, “This, our newest son, was imagined, drawn, craved, stamped, hewn and forged here, in America. It is well-made and it is designed to work. This was once a country that made things, beautiful things, and so it is again.”

Well, not quite. Chrysler may make a terrific Grand Cherokee in Michigan. But American manufacturing needs some help. And with unemployment stuck at 9.5 percent, so do the American people. “Make it in America” is that aid. The AAM poll showed 85 percent of those who said the U.S. had lost economic leadership believed America could regain it.

Americans believe we can still do it.

***

Make sure Congress acts. Join the One Nation Working Together march on Washington Oct. 2 to demand good jobs, as well as Wall Street and immigration reform.

About The Author: Leo Gerard is the United Steelworkers International President. Under his leadership, the USW joined with Unite -the biggest union in the UK and Republic of Ireland – to create Workers Uniting, the first global union. He has also helped pass legislation, including the landmark Canadian Westray Bill, making corporations criminally liable when they kill or seriously injure their employees or members of the public.


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