By Tom Conway
USW International President
Keith Aubrey’s construction job forced him to work long stretches without a day off, even in rain and lightning, all for a measly paycheck and health benefits so lousy he could barely afford to see a doctor.
After getting laid off during the pandemic last year, Aubrey resolved to seize control of his destiny and landed a union manufacturing position that changed his life.
COVID-19 showed Americans that it’s no longer enough to scrape by on jobs that just barely pay the household bills. They need family-sustaining wages that will cover child care costs, health care providing high-quality coverage in emergencies and other essential benefits that unions routinely deliver for their members.
As the nation emerges from the pandemic, more and more workers find themselves at the same turning point that Aubrey did.
They’re fed up with callous, exploitative employers who recklessly exposed them to a deadly virus, denied them the flexibility they needed to care for ill loved ones and laid them off at the drop of a hat. Now, they’re pursuing jobs with the union difference.
After just a few months at Century Aluminum in Hawesville, Ky., where he’s represented by United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9423, Aubrey glimpses the union’s impact on “overtime, safety, the whole nine yards.”
“Benefits were a big thing for me,” said Aubrey, whose previous bosses went the “cheapest route” on medical insurance, saddled him with skyrocketing rates and failed to take adequate COVID-19 safeguards.
Now, in addition to quality health care, the union makes sure he has paid sick leave, safety programs addressing workplace hazards, and COVID-19 protections.
Among the many other benefits his union representation affords, Aubrey especially appreciates the new balance in his life. The USW contract prohibits burdensome overtime, whereas Aubrey’s construction job forced him to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week.
“You can work anytime you like, but they can’t take your life away from you,” he said of his role at Century.
Even before COVID-19, polling showed that tens of millions of workers desired union jobs not only for the higher wages and better benefits but because of labor’s fight against harassment, favoritism and discrimination.
“These are sought-after jobs,” said Andy Meserve, president of Local 9423, noting the union continually fights to preserve good wages and benefits at Century. “People want these jobs because of the union. They know the union makes them good.”
All 400 or so hourly workers at the facility chose to join the USW, he noted, even though Kentucky is one of 27 states with labor-busting laws that require unions to represent workers even if they refuse to become members.
Against the backdrop of growing support for organized labor, the pandemic prompted a profound shift in Americans’ thinking about what employers owe them in exchange for their labor and highlighted the role of unions in leveling the playing field.
Gallup last year estimated that 65 percent of Americans — the highest since 2003 — approved of unions. Support soared as the labor movement successfully fought for personal protective equipment (PPE), social distancing, quarantine pay and even job security for members.
When the recession hit, many corporations slashed employment. But union workers had input into how their employers reacted to the pandemic and used that leverage to save countless jobs.
Stefanie Calderone was well aware of the stability that unions provide in a crisis. That’s why she gave up her salaried lab supervisor position at BP-Husky’s Toledo refinery and took a USW-represented job in the same lab instead.
She knows the union provides more security than her salaried position, given the pandemic and the corporation’s global downsizing campaign.
“I wasn’t really sure I would have a job at all, and even if I did, it might be a job I didn’t know anything about or a job in another location,” explained Calderone, a member of USW Local 346. “I switched for the protection and the pay. It doubled my pay. It’s life-changing.”
Some workers successfully conducted unionization campaigns right in the middle of the pandemic to protect themselves and others.
Last fall, nurses at Mission Hospital in Asheville, N.C., overwhelmingly voted to unionize amid exhausting caseloads and inadequate COVID-19 protections. Earlier this spring, workers at Imperfect Foods, a California food delivery service, elected to form a union to address unpredictable schedules, growing workloads and other concerns exacerbated by the pandemic.
And teachers at several California charter school networks and the Latin School of Chicago voted to organize in recent months, saying the pandemic showed them the need to work collaboratively for each other, their students and their communities.
Because of COVID-19 safety lapses, among other concerns, workers at Amazon and other companies also mounted unionizing campaigns that remain up in the air because the employers’ brutal union-busting campaigns tainted the election results.
As the nation recovers from the pandemic, Congress has a historic opportunity to help the growing number of workers get the quality union jobs they want.
The House already passed the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act to make it easier to form unions and punish employers for interfering. The Senate now needs to pass this bill, which would help to protect workers in the next crisis and provide more Americans with the secure futures that Aubrey and Calderone enjoy.
“To be very frank, it’s one of the greatest decisions I’ll ever make,” Calderone, now a steward and the vice chair of her unit, said of joining the USW. “I’m very grateful to be where I am right now.”