Putting Money in Workers’ Pockets

USW Blogger
4 min readDec 22, 2023


By David McCall
USW International President

Libbi Urban’s co-workers broke into applause at the union hall last year when they learned that their new contract with Cleveland-Cliffs not only increased wages by a whopping 20 percent but provided greater work-life balance and even enabled them to retire earlier than planned.

They’d spent years fighting for some of the improvements. But this time, they wielded extra bargaining power because of the hot economy that President Joe Biden engineered with bold investments and a deep commitment to working people.

Workers in aluminum, auto, steel, tire, mining, paper, heavy equipment, service, health care and package delivery, among other industries, all racked up historic contract gains as the economy exploded under the current administration.

Biden inherited a nation battered by COVID-19. But under his steady leadership, America turned the tide.

President Joe Biden at a United Steelworkers (USW) picnic last year

His Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) unleashed $1.2 trillion to upgrade transportation, communications and energy networks with union labor and union-made materials and parts. His CHIPS and Science Act catalyzed billions more to boost production of semiconductors and rebuild crucial supply chains.

“We came out of COVID. The demand for steel was picking up,” said Urban, a longtime vice president with United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9231 in New Carlisle, Ind., recalling the backdrop for negotiations with Cleveland-Cliffs.

“People were starting to buy and build. Everything hit just right for us,” continued Urban, one of 12,000 USW members in six states to benefit from the new contract.

The same scenario is playing out in one industry after another.

Wages nationwide are now growing at a faster rate than they did in the years before the pandemic. They’re outpacing inflation, which under Biden’s careful handling has dropped for months in a row without triggering the recession doubters feared.

The nation’s unemployment rate soared to 14.7 percent during the early days of the pandemic, the highest level since the Great Depression. But it’s plummeted since Biden took the helm, registering just 3.7 percent — a historic low — last month.

“Figures don’t lie. They’re telling a very good story,” observed Urban, noting the low unemployment helps to drive workers’ bargaining power.

“You can set your price,” she explained.

Even better, employers keep adding to the 14 million jobs already created during the past three years — about 800,000 of them in manufacturing — as Bidenomics continues to spur growth and grow worker power.

Cory Small and his 315 co-workers at Green Bay Packaging in Morrilton, Ark., took note of the strong contracts negotiated by workers at other employers in recent years.

And they went into bargaining this year realizing that this was their moment, too, thanks to a growing economy that Small, president of USW Local 13–011965, likened to a “rocket out of a cannon.”

“This was not going to be just another round of negotiations,” recounted Small, stressing that workers sacrificed to continue producing corrugated containerboard — an essential packaging product — during COVID-19. “We were demanding much more than we had expected to get in the past. We went in with high expectations.”

In the end, workers exceeded those expectations, achieving a wage package 7 percent higher than in previous labor agreements. They also preserved affordable health care and enhanced retirement security, among other improvements.

“It was a major win,” said Small, a third-generation union member, noting the gains enable workers to better support their communities.

Empowering workers to bargain stronger contracts is just one example of how Biden has workers’ backs.

He shored up dozens of struggling multiemployer pension plans, saving the retirements of 1.3 million Americans. He thwarted Republicans’ plans to cut Social Security. He also capped seniors’ insulin expenses at $35 a month and took other steps to bring down prescription drug costs.

Bill Alexander, president of Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR) Chapter 31–9 in Southeast Chicago, said one of his family members previously spent $300 a month on insulin.

“Now, he pays $35,” Alexander said, noting the lower costs helped his relative afford a new car. “He can buy other things with that money, things he can enjoy, other than spending it just to live.”

Biden also stood up to oil company gouging, helping Americans keep even more money in their pockets.

Gas prices, falling for months, cost an average of 30 cents a gallon less than they did at this time last year. Alexander now fills up for about $2.79 a gallon in nearby Indiana.

“He’s doing everything he can to bring prices down,” Alexander said, citing Biden’s bold use of strategic oil reserves to stabilize the market.

Urban planned to work another couple of years. But she retired in April because of the big pension boost provided by her new union contract and Biden’s economy.

“He’s just an average Joe,” she said of Biden.

“He talks about how the working class built the country. If it weren’t for unions and people of labor doing what we’ve done all these years, the country wouldn’t be where it is now. Without us, there wouldn’t be a 1 percent. I think he’s trying to bring that back into focus.”

Urban intends to spend some of her free time as a political activist, communicating with voters about the importance of re-electing Biden and putting pro-worker Democrats back in charge of the House.

“A rising tide floats all boats,” she said. “It’s imperative that we make sure people know that the economy is going in the right direction and we’re making progress.”