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labor Protecting America’s Freedoms

“Virtually everything we do is determined by politics. It’s just so important, from the smallest thing in your life to the biggest. Union people need to understand how powerful their vote is—how important their vote is.”

USW members protest anti-worker legislation in Michigan in 2012,

Sean Clouatre promised accountability, stability and transparency when he ran for alderman in his hometown of French Settlement, La., in 2022.

That was the commitment that his colleagues demanded of him years earlier when they elected him president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 620, the union representing hundreds of workers at BASF and Oxy plants in the state’s chemical manufacturing corridor.

And Clouatre knew that voters in the village of 1,000 desired the same kind of leadership as the community approached crucial decisions about finances, infrastructure and the future.

“The union gave me the knowledge and confidence to do this,” said Clouatre, who won his race for alderman, noting that the USW not only showed him how to stand up for others but instilled in him the true meaning of leadership.

Unions protect Americans’ freedoms. They model democracy, empowering members to elect leaders, vote on contracts and use their voice to advocate for safer working conditions along with other needs.

They also embody the nation’s highest ideals, bringing workers together to fight for fairness, inclusiveness and the level playing field that gives everyone an equal say and a shot at getting ahead.

“I have one vote, just like everybody else,” said Clouatre, an operator at the Oxy plant in Geismar, noting union members collectively set the union’s agenda and expect him to carry it out.

“We stand up for workers’ rights, and that’s what this country was founded on,” he said of unions. “We fight for those principles, still, to this day.”

The democracy fostered in the union spills over into the community. Union members vote at higher rates than other workers in congressional and presidential elections, for example, and their family members also turn out to vote more often than non-union households.

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“To be clear: this is not just the result of any particular GOTV (get-out-the-vote) activity, but rather a function of being in a union, the transformative effect that it has,” wrote Tova Wang, visiting democracy fellow at Harvard’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation, in a 2020 study.

“Unions have often been referred to as ‘schools of democracy’ because they are such central venues for ordinary people to engage in developing arguments, problem-solving, collective decision-making, and voting on issues and for candidates: the very practices one needs to be an active and effective participant in electoral politics,” Wang observed.

This high level of civic participation directly safeguards the country.

States with high numbers of union members tend to have stronger voting rights laws than states with low union density, according to a 2021 report from the Economic Policy Institute that hailed organized labor’s role in the nation’s “democratic well-being.”

Union members educate themselves about issues affecting their livelihoods, push legislation benefiting the middle class, and elect officials willing to promote the common good.

Clouatre became a political activist while working to elect a longtime member of Local 620, Ed Price, as he ran for Louisiana state representative more than a decade ago.

“It was a logical thing for me to do,” he said, noting Price, now a state senator, had personal experience with the issues important to labor.

Jay McMurran, a member of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), recalled joining the USW “the minute I got out of high school” and began working at McLouth Steel in Detroit.

By the time he turned 20, he was serving on a union committee vetting candidates for public office in Michigan and recalled being deeply dismayed by how little they knew about labor issues.

“We sent a lot of them packing,” recalled McMurran, noting the experience turned him into a diehard activist committed to electing the right people and standing guard for Americans’ rights.

“If we don’t watch, they’ll be taken from us. And, by God, they were,” he said, noting that right-wing Michigan lawmakers used the end of the 2012 legislative session to ram through falsely named “right-to-work” (RTW) legislation aimed at gutting unions, silencing workers’ voices and weakening the middle class.

McMurran, other union members and numerous allies spent a decade working to elect pro-worker majorities committed to repealing the RTW law. They achieved that victory early last year.

“We have to be involved,” McMurran said, noting the role that union members play in protecting Social Security, advocating for workplace safety and other measures protecting average Americans.

Bonnie Carey, who grew up poor and lost her parents at a young age, recalled the happiest period of her childhood being when her mom received a public assistance check that enabled the large family to make ends meet.

“I think when you go through experiences like that, you have more empathy, and you see how government can help,” said Carey, president of SOAR Chapter 11-4 in Bettendorf, Iowa.

While her upbringing fueled her desire to assist others, her union empowered her to act.

Carey, a longtime member of USW Local 105 who worked at what’s now the Arconic plant in Bettendorf, spent decades campaigning for pro-worker candidates, attending marches for workers’ rights and registering voters while also championing legislation that protected social supports and created jobs.

Both the Democratic Party of Rock Island County, Illinois, and the Quad Cities Federation of Labor presented her with awards for her activism.

“Virtually everything we do is determined by politics. It’s just so important, from the smallest thing in your life to the biggest,” she said. “Union people need to understand how powerful their vote is—how important their vote is.”

The USW International Executive Board appointed David McCall the union’s ninth International President on Sept. 26, 2023, McCall, a fourth-generation Steelworker, was born and raised in Gary, Ind. He was 18 when he joined USW Local 6787 and went to work as a millwright at Bethlehem Steel’s Burns Harbor Works in northwestern Indiana. McCall was elected a grievance committeeman in 1971, then elected grievance committee chair in 1975 and Local 6787 vice president in 1985.

We are the United Steelworkers, North America’s largest industrial union. We’re 1.2 million members and retirees strong in the United States, Canada and the Caribbean. We proudly represent workers in nearly every industry there is. Our members are leaders in your communities, in your work places, in our governments and more. We have a presence in the United Kingdom, Ireland, England, Scotland, Mexico and many other places around the world. Because since the beginning of our being, we have been fighting for better workplaces, better lives for everyone and a better world.