Uniting for Ukraine
By Tom Conway
USW International President
Terry Bohuslawsky spoke Ukrainian before he ever learned English, attended Ukrainian schools in Cleveland and, along with his classmates, looked forward each year to decorating the elaborate Easter eggs known as pysanky.
Bohuslawsky, whose parents emigrated from Ukraine, continued to honor his heritage in adulthood. He worked with others to preserve the culture at home while contributing to hospitals, churches and other causes in Ukraine to help the people there rebuild after communism.
Now, in the face of Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s aggression, Bohuslawsky knows that Ukraine’s future depends on a bond much more powerful than the one he and his friends have with their ethnic homeland. It will take the solidarity of working people around the world to help save the Ukrainians and deter future aggression.
“It’s like being in the union,” observed Bohuslawsky, a member of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 979 and an electrician at the Cleveland-Cliffs steel mill that stands near the city’s original Ukrainian settlement. “We all fight for the same reasons. We all fight for what we deserve.”
Since Putin’s unprovoked attack, working people around the world rallied around Ukraine.
The global union IndustriAll began soliciting donations for immediate help and Ukrainians’ long-term needs. Trade unions in Poland, Slovakia and several other countries sent members and trucks to the Ukrainian border to pick up refugees. USW members in Canada donated to Red Cross relief efforts as well as to overseas unions that are aiding war victims, while labor leaders across America called for public pension funds to divest assets related to Putin’s regime.
“It kind of gives you goosebumps,” Bohuslawsky said of the worldwide resistance to Putin.
“We have to fight now,” he explained. “They’re attacking us today, but they’ll be after someone else tomorrow.”
Energy embargoes represent the biggest development yet in this remarkable mobilization of international citizens and unparalleled movement to weaponize shared sacrifice in the fight against tyranny.
The USW, whose 30,000 oil workers account for about two-thirds of America’s oil refining capacity, took a critical step Monday when it not only demanded that the U.S. halt imports of Russian crude but vowed to oppose “with every lever available to us” the processing of Russian-sourced oil on American soil. Cutting off Russian oil deprives Putin of money he needs to continue the destruction of Ukraine.
As heartened as Bohuslawsky was with the USW’s stand, and with President Joe Biden’s executive order on Tuesday banning Russian oil, along with liquefied natural gas and coal, he’s even prouder to know how strongly his fellow American workers back these efforts to cripple Putin’s warmongering.
Polls show overwhelming bipartisan support for a ban, even if that affects the gasoline supply and raises prices at the pump.
Although America’s European allies haven’t committed to a blanket energy embargo, many pledged to sharply curtail gas imports from Russia. And Britain, despite higher gas prices, plans to phase out Russian oil over the course of the year.
Yet that isn’t fast enough for Unite, the biggest union in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland and a global partner of the USW.
Sharon Graham, Unite’s general secretary, announced Sunday that dock workers represented by her union “will under no circumstances unload any Russian oil regardless of the nationality of the vessel which delivers it.” Since then, at least seven fully loaded tankers turned tail and tried to find other ports.
Jon Reed, secretary-treasurer of USW Local 13–423, knows that workers throughout America and across the world have the same view of Russian energy that he does right now.
“It’s dirty,” said Reed, whose local represents oil workers in the Port Arthur, Texas, area. “I’d hate to think we’re fueling our country utilizing a feedstock that has blood on it from other countries, from Ukraine. We have other options.”
As a longtime union member, Reed knows how important it is for working people to band together — even across international borders — to fight for justice.
“To me, that’s what the union is all about, looking out for the people on either side of you and in front of you and behind,” he said.
But Reed also has another personal reason for empathizing with the Ukrainian people. Hurricane Rita destroyed Reed’s home in 2005. He often thinks about that loss these days and deeply regrets the pain and uncertainty the Ukrainians must feel as they flee bombed-out cities and leave all they have behind.
“That was a natural disaster,” Reed said of Rita. “It’s not a human disaster made by some dictator. I can’t imagine what they’re going through. I can’t imagine what it’s like to leave and never be able to come back.”
Bohuslawsky built a good life as a union member and knows that Ukrainians only want the same opportunities.
That’s why they’ve worked since the fall of communism to build a freer, more vibrant society. And that’s why working people the world over want to share their struggle.
“They all tasted Western life, and they will not let that go,” Bohuslawsky said of the Ukrainians. “They won’t stop fighting. They’d rather die.”