Steelworkers’ Gerard: “Time to go on the offensive”
Conor Lamb (U.S. Representative for Pennsylvania's 18th congressional district) on left, is greeted by USW International President Leo Gerard. The USW, which focuses heavily on political action, played a key role in Lamb's recent victory. | ConorLambPA/Twitter

“It is time to go on the offensive,” stated USW International President Leo Gerard, at the union’s annual political action/Rapid Response Conference in D.C. earlier this month.  “For too many years we’ve been fighting from behind, on the defensive.  The time has come to go on the offensive and fight to really change things!”

Some 800 Steelworkers from numerous industries in the U.S. and Canada attended this year’s conference. Attendees are part of the USW Rapid Response movement, which is set by the union to mobilize members, co-workers, neighbors and families to quickly pressure legislators and build movements around targeted legislation.  It has been described by many as the “state-of-the-art” union organizing/mobilizing initiative, successfully getting the union’s base involved in political activities.

The conference, which prioritizes a couple of bills that become the union’s #1 goals in the immediate period, also prioritizes wider issues facing the union.  For the past couple decades, bills/issues have almost always been defensive in nature, as corporate attacks and economic pressures increased and the union fought to try to defend its hard-won gains.

This year, following Gerard’s call to action, the union prioritized two bills that, if enacted, would result in overturning the entire, broken system of U.S. labor law.  The first, S-2810 (Workplace Democracy Act), is sponsored by Bernie Sanders (D-Ver), and would shift labor law, now completely in the favor of corporations, back toward actually helping workers organize.  Especially in today’s atmosphere of upsurge and growing struggles, passage of S 2810 would revolutionize the American workplace in a way not seen since the historic Wagner Act (1935) led to massive organizing by unions throughout the 1930’s-40’s.

S 2810 would do the following;

  • End all the so-called “right-to-work” laws.
  • Institute “card-check” organizing, requiring companies to recognize a union if over half of the workers in a shop sign cards requesting union recognition.
  • Guarantee “first contracts” by organizing unions, stopping corporate criminals from refusing to recognize unions, even after they’ve won.
  • Set up “triple damages” to be paid to workers by companies found guilty of violating labor law.
  • Outlaw federal contracts going to companies that violate labor law.
  • End corporate ability to use phony “independent contractor” status, which they now use to make workers ineligible to be represented by unions.

After the passage of the Wagner Act during the Roosevelt, New Deal administration, workers were empowered and massive organizing drives established unionization in steel, auto, electric, transport, longshore and all the major heights of industry in our nation.  As well, working with allies, a huge left/center-led alliance of unions and social movements, passed Social Security, unemployment compensation, made gains in civil rights and set up the gigantic WPA/CCC federal jobs programs.

In today’s atmosphere, with the growing mass movements of involving women, African-Americans fighting for justice, immigrant rights groups, LGBT folks and now young people taking on the gun lobby, the possibilities of truly massive gains is more realistic than at any time since the New Deal.

The other USW prioritized bill is S 4142/HR 3514, the WAGE Act, to raise the minimum wage, sponsored by Patty Murray (D-Wash) and Sanders.

There was no thought of steelworkers doing this alone.

“There are huge mass movements out there, allies of ours,” said USW education director, Lisa Jordan.  “Our union is an extremely large institution for workers.  We must combine the two to build a new, huge, labor-led movement for all working people.”

Another area of positive shifts, building toward real solutions, is the International Union of manufacturing workers, miners, (Workers Rising) which the USW is building and helping lead.

International delegates from many of the nations that are part of this development were present at the conference.

“Capital is international, and they use that against us, to move capital and plants to undermine our unity,” Gerard told the conference. “We’re building our international movement, strengthening our organization and solidarity, to deal with that.  If they are across the globe, we are also.  Our solidarity is stronger than their greed!”

‘Workers Rising’ now includes the Brazilian Manufacturing Workers Union, the huge German Industrial Workers, British Miners Union, Irish Industrial Workers Union, South African Miners Union, Australian Miners/Manufacturing Workers and Los Mineros, the Mexican miner’s union, which is in the process of affiliating.  It is a possible model moving toward a much-needed international labor movement that can effectively confront multinational corporations and win.

The other efforts that the USW is making involves building alliances to work on a range of other issues including trade policy and retiree security. The retiree security issue is one that is central to uniting working folks.  Trump, the GOP and corporations have launched massive attacks on pensions, nearly wiping out real, defined benefit pensions, and Social Security.

The Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees is now also part of Rapid Response and have become a leading element in the mass Retiree Security movement.

“When we (SOAR) showed up at union halls, retiree and community centers and churches with our cards on retirement security, calling on politicians to protect, not cut, pensions, Social Security, everyone lined up to sign,” Scott Marshall, Illinois, USW District 7 SOAR Director, told the conference.  “No one asked if we were Democrats or Republicans.  When they saw we were fighting for retiree security, they were all with us.”

The trade issue is very much a mixed bag.  The only area of agreement with the Trump administration, it could pull in the opposite direction from all the other historic, progressive developments.  It has, however, dominated USW policy for decades.

The 800 USW workers had a last day of visiting their home representatives, strongly pushing the Workplace Democracy Act and the WAGE Act and advocating for retiree security and jobs.  We were sent home with strong encouragement to show up at and be part of the growing Poor People’s Campaign, demanding justice across the nation.  As well, everything discussed was put into the context of the extreme importance of the 2018 elections, that defeating the GOP could open the way for the massive progressive changes the USW is now pushing for.


CONTRIBUTOR

Bruce Bostick
Bruce Bostick

Bruce Bostick is a retired steelworker and labor activist in Ohio.

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