It’s been an up and down year for United Steel Workers Local 12775. Upcoming plant closings in northern Indiana have put many workers’ jobs at risk. A COVID surge in Howard County has endangered gas workers who must enter residences to help repair gas lines.
Thanks to strong union support, what could have been multiple crises have been resolved with creative solutions, said Vernon Beck, vice president of USW Local 12775, which represents the employees of NIPSCO, a natural gas and electricity company that operates in Howard County and across the state.
Many of the workers who faced losing their jobs because of plant closings will now move to different positions at new plants.
“We negotiated for creative things to try and incentivize going to different spots that wouldn’t harm other people,” Beck said. “If you didn’t have a union, you wouldn’t be able to do that. A company could lay you off and you would be without benefits and pay.”
Beck served as president of the union for nine years but, as he prepares for retirement, he recently stepped down and took over the role of vice president so he could help train his predecessor.
Currently, Beck and his team are preparing for negations that will take place during the spring to make sure they have good benefits.
“That’s one of the things unions fight for is to make sure that people who are workers get good benefits and wages, whereas if you don’t have a union you pretty much have to accept what the company gives to you,” Beck said.
When it comes COVID, Beck said workers in Kokomo, especially the gas servicemen who enter customer’s homes, have been challenged with staying healthy. COVID has hit multiple employees in the area.
“That’s been a real challenge because we have to go into people’s homes,” Beck said. “We can’t say, ‘Oh, you’ve got a gas leak, too bad.’ That’s one of the challenges, if you are a pizza delivery person or any other business, you can say, ‘We don’t deliver at night or we don’t deliver in that area,’ but with us we have to go into every single area of our district no matter what, no matter what time, day or night. We can never say no.”
Despite the challenges of 2021, Beck felt positive about the future of labor unions in the United States. Over the past decade, union support has grown and he credits a lot of the new support from young men and women who are graduating from college and entering the workforce. He says many of these new workers come from low-paying jobs at restaurants and retail stores. They also enter their post-college lives with large amounts of debt and wonder how they will survive when it comes to retirement. They see the benefits and support union workers receive and want that security.
“The average union person makes more than the average worker because we have people negotiating for us,” Beck said. “Not to mention a big thing that unions do is making sure that things are safe for workers in the workplace.”
To keep momentum going, Beck said that USW Local 12775 offers multiple ways for workers to learn leadership skills and become a larger part of the union. There’s a Next Generation group where workers are taught about negotiations, grievances, arbitration and the many responsibilities each role in the union undertakes. The Women of Steel helps develop female leaders. There is also a civil rights committee.
Beck said people who are not part of a union and would like to organize one can reach out to the USW Local 12775 and members will talk them through the process and inform the workers of their rights under the National Labor Relations Act.
“People can reach out to different unions and say, ‘Hey, what do we need to do to start a union in our organization?’ And we come over and talk to them about what it takes,” he said.
Beck encourages people to look into and do their own research on the advantages of being in a union.
“There is always a certain group of politicians who try to create the narrative that we are just union thugs,” he said. “That’s not true. People started to buy into that, and now they realize that if these are the benefits a union member gets, then let me be a union thug.”