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Secretary of labor, USW president rally support for infrastructure: 'We supply America'
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Secretary of labor, USW president rally support for infrastructure: 'We supply America'

CHESTERTON — Hundreds of steelworkers chanted "We supply America" as U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh, United Steelworkers President Tom Conway, U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan, Cleveland-Cliffs CEO Lourenco Goncalves and others rallied support Monday for a $1 trillion infrastructure bill at a Region union hall.

Steelworkers from across Northwest Indiana gathered at USW Local 6787 in Chesterton on the first stop of a national bus touring calling for more infrastructure investment.

"For decades our union has been calling out for infrastructure, calling out for the needs of our country," Conway said. "If you let your home fall into decay, if you didn't deal with a leaking roof, if you didn't deal with windows that didn't seal, if you didn't deal with cracked foundations, if you didn't seal your deck once in a while, things are going to fall apart on you. That's what's happened in our country. Our country is falling apart."

Walsh, the former mayor of Boston, said the influx of infrastructure spending would create more opportunities for businesses and union workers.

"We need to bring jobs back to the United States of America," he said. "We need to bring those jobs back to Indiana and other states. We need to make sure we're building materials, components, products and steel right here in America."

Walsh, a former president of his local union in Boston and former head of the Boston union trades who said his dues are "still paid," also met with American Federation of Teachers and Sheet Metal Workers Local 20 at the Hammond Central High School Construction site and at the Construction Advancement Foundation of Northwest Indiana’s training facility in Portage during a daylong tour of Northwest Indiana.

He discussed a variety of subjects with a local trades union, including how employers are requiring vaccination cards, minority outreach efforts and workplace safety, said Northwestern Indiana Building & Construction Trades Council Business Manager Randy Palmateer.

"He's only the second guy in the United States from the building trades after Peter Brennan to serve as secretary of labor," Palmateer said. "He's the first guy in 45 years who's actually worked on the job sites. It's pretty damn cool to have one of our own."

Palmateer voiced concerns to Walsh, such as that Indiana got rid of the common construction wage.

"About 90% of the infrastructure, the roads and bridges, even some of the broadband, falls under us," he said. "Marty's sympathetic. He gets it. He was rank-and-file, not some bureaucrat. He carried a lunch pail and laced up his boots in the morning."

Workers will benefit from the "once-in-a-generation" infrastructure plan that passed the U.S. Senate with bipartisan support, Walsh said. 

"We have an opportunity in America right now to buy American and build American like never before," he said. "Over the next five years, in this state of Indiana, we'll see $6.6 billion for highway programs, $400 million for bridge replacement, $680 million for public transportation, $100 million for electric vehicle charging stations, $170 million for the airports, $750 million for water infrastructure, $100 million for affordable high-speed internet, $220 million to protect against wildfires. That's just an estimate of what's coming to this state."

Portage Mayor Sue Lynch hopes to land $80 million in federal funding for a sewer treatment project since the current plant is close to capacity.

"We need the bipartisan infrastructure plan to be able to move forward with that," she said. "Cities like Portage cannot move forward if we can't tap into some of this money. We can't be a strong working America if we don't act on the infrastructure needs of all of our cities throughout this country. It not only points to the need to put our union men and women back to work with good-paying jobs, but it shows that we are not supplying the products we should be making in the United States of America.

"We need to demand that all of the products are made in America. We need to get back to making American products. We just ran into this with the chips that go into the cars. They're not made here. We need to go back to being more of a manufacturing country."

Mrvan said the Region remains a hub of American industry.

"There's no better place in the United States of America to kick off this tour than in Northwest Indiana," he said. "We've proved for generations that we supply America. We're the top-producing steel region in the nation. And what we know is the United Steelworkers are ready, skilled and able to answer the demands of the American infrastructure bill so when we say we supply America we mean it."

The issue has united labor and management. Officials from Cleveland-Cliffs, U.S. Steel and NIPSCO all spoke in favor of the infrastructure spending at the union rally.

"Manufacturing is at the basis of good-paying union jobs," Cleveland-Cliffs' Goncalves said. "It's at the basis of family. It's at the basis of hiring the next generation and the generation after next, as happened with a lot of you guys and girls here and your parents and your grandparents. That's the way it should continue to be. We almost miss that.

"We have now a very unique opportunity in this country where there's an infrastructure effort that's bipartisan, that unites us, like a union. This is at the basis of manufacturing, capitalism and democracy. Capitalism is not about generating billionaires. Capitalism is about sharing the benefits of capital. I came from the same type of workfloor you're at." 

The USW's We Supply America campaign is headed to further stops in Ohio, West Virginia, Virginia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania this week.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.

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