Safeguarding Sweat Equity
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Mark Glyptis and dozens of other union leaders went into contract negotiations with Cleveland-Cliffs last year determined not only to win wage and benefit enhancements for their co-workers but to protect thousands of family-sustaining steel mill jobs for years to come.
The United Steelworkers (USW) negotiating team ultimately delivered a historic contract requiring the company to invest $4 billion in 13 union-represented facilities, including about $100 million at the Weirton, W.Va., mill where Glyptis and his colleagues rely on ever-more-sophisticated equipment to make precision tin plate.
Unions fight for financial commitments like these to safeguard workers’ sweat equity — the time and labor they invest in their workplaces for decades at a stretch. Capital upgrades keep employers accountable and plants viable, preserving family-sustaining jobs while also laying the groundwork for future growth.
“Steel mills are being built across the world, and we’re definitely competing on a worldwide basis,” observed Glyptis, president of USW Local 2911, noting the overseas facilities feature the “most modern technology.”
“We’re the best steelworkers in the world. We can compete. But we have to keep up with capital investments,” continued Glyptis, who helped to represent about 12,000 USW members from six states in the talks with Cleveland-Cliffs last year.
Glyptis and other Local 2911 members fought for new equipment that they need to produce “perfectly flat and flawless” tin plate for food containers.
Based on members’ input, other local unions — supplying the military, highway contractors, aerospace and numerous other industries — went into negotiations with their own requirements for upgrades.
Members overwhelmingly ratified a new, four-year contract last fall. The vote reflected their satisfaction with the $4 billion in investments — to be allocated among the 13 worksites — as much as it did the 20 percent raises and benefit enhancements the agreement provides.
“You can have the best health care in the country or in the world, but if you can’t compete because of technological deficiencies, you’re going to be an also-ran,” Glyptis pointed out. “Maintaining a competitive facility is just as important.”
“It all goes into a decision about whether this is a fair contract. It would be difficult to have a contract passed if it didn’t have a commitment to capital investments attached,” he said, adding that the company continues hiring many younger workers who see the upgrades as crucial to raising families and putting down 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.
“They don’t have to live with the long-term impact of what they do. We do. Union workers do,” declared Andrew Worby, president of USW Local 2–209, referring to “profit-taker” CEOs who line their pockets on workers’ backs before moving on to their next jobs.
Once a company commits resources to a location, it’s more likely to stick around, said Worby, recalling that he and his co-workers at the Harley-Davidson plant in Menomonee Falls, Wis., upped their demands for capital investments after a cavalier executive threatened to move the facility during a contract dispute.
The local’s most recent contract requires Harley-Davidson to invest $65 million in the Menomonee Falls powertrain manufacturing site over five years. The company also has to invest another $10 million at a Tomahawk, Wis., plant where workers are represented by USW Local 460.
The impact is already evident. The company recently announced that workers in Wisconsin are “tooling up and readying to produce” the powertrains for a new line of electric motorcycles.
“There’s a much bigger and broader picture to the impact of a union contract,” said Worby. “It doesn’t just affect the union members. It affects the families. It affects the community. It affects the state we’re in.”
The security provided by union-won investments means that “a new worker, instead of renting, is willing to buy a house,” he explained. “Now he’s paying property taxes. He’s going to send his kids to the school district. He’s going to buy a refrigerator from the local appliance guy. It’s huge.”
When companies do threaten to close worksites, unions step up to preserve jobs and protect communities.
The USW, for example, intervened when Domtar announced plans to close a Kingsport, Tenn., 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 union’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 last month.
“Everybody who wanted to come back got to come back,” said Kiker, noting company officials “knew what they had” in a skilled and dedicated work force committed to ensuring a successful mill conversion.
“This has been a good place to work. It’s still the best insurance in the region,” he added, noting other companies in the Kingsport area must match USW-negotiated health benefits to retain their own workers.
Worby and his co-workers at Harley-Davidson see “a lot of new equipment coming in” 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, never ends.
“You want to keep the positive energy flowing,” Worby said. “Longevity is very important to us.”