The USW local president says a factory job can provide opportunity, but people like him need Washington to do its part, too.
Kameen Thompson is a man of unity.
The 40-year-old Black steelworker from Philadelphia has proven he possesses the ability to bring people together through times of adversity and racial tension.
Thompson is the Safety Coordinator at the ArcelorMittal Conshohocken steel mill in southeast Philadelphia. His talent of creating a team environment also got him elected president of United Steelworkers (USW) Local 9462, which represents the 90 hourly workers at the Conshohocken mill.
But it wasn’t always a smooth ride to get there.
Along the way, Thompson had his name written on the wall with N-word, found a noose hanging in front of his office door, and often discovered racially motivated notes left on his car windshield.
Some people may have decided to take a step back after being directly targeted by such racism. But Thompson took it as a challenge to see how he could bring his fellow steelworkers together.
“It is what it is, and as president I have to keep trucking along,” Thompson said. “I have other people I have to worry about. I have the whole membership I have to worry about, so it didn’t bother me.”
Thompson got his start in the mill at the age of 24. While he was attending Montgomery County Community College, his single mother became ill and passed away from ovarian cancer. Thompson left college to care for his mother and find a variety of jobs to pay the bills.
After her passing, instead of returning to school, Thompson took a job at the Conshohocken steel mill as a utility man.
The Conshohoken steel mill makes military-grade armor and high-alloy steel. Much of the mill’s steel is used in naval ships. Soon after Thompson began his career at the mill, he got involved with the United Steelworkers union.
“I just wanted to do more to help out members and my co-workers just to fight for better working conditions,” Thompson said. “I started out as a shop steward, and went to the Rapid Response part of the union, and learned about the politics of the union, which got me more involved to educate myself and go higher in the union if I could, and now I am the local president. That was after I became the Rapid Response Coordinator.”
About 10 years ago, the mill was predominantly staffed with white workers. Today the 90 USW members are close to an even mix of Black and white workers, and Thompson is just the man to lead a talented workforce mostly devoid of color and racial issues.
“There are these stereotypes, and some people assumed a lot of things,” he recalled. “People go off what TV and movies say what Black people are and run with that. You know, ‘all Black men are lazy, they don’t take care of their kids, they don’t want to get married, they don’t want to raise a family.’ Well, that’s not the case.
“We want to take care of our families and make a good living like everyone else. And believe me, the steel mill gives you an opportunity to make 80 to 100 thousand dollars a year with great benefits.”
Thompson is a married father of a 16-year-old daughter and an 8-year-old son. The family lives in a middle-class neighborhood in Berks County, Pa., in a community occupied by nearly 95 percent white residents. It’s a long way from where Thompson grew up in North Philadelphia.
“This manufacturing career for me has been great,” Thompson said. “This has been the best paying job I’ve ever had, and it has grown me into a better man. I am able to take care of my family. I am able to things I’ve never done before. It also expanded my education.
“I am branching out on a lot of projects for the USW. I travel around the world to be on a global safety committee to help with safety issues at other plants in Germany, Ukraine, Argentina so it has opened up a lot of doors for me.”
But Thompson is concerned about the steelmakers right here in the U.S.A.
The ArcelorMittal Conshohocken mill makes high quality alloy steel for the military. Parts of the mill have been closed over the years, including the Bridge Arm that was vital in making many of America’s steel bridge crossings. The rolling mill shut down in 2018 despite President Trump’s promises to support the steel industry.
In 2003, the mill employed 450 workers. It is down to a small crew of 90 hourly employees today.
“If it wasn’t for the military spending right now, we wouldn’t have much work,” Thompson said.
One of the reasons that the mill has struggled in recent years is due to a lack of infrastructure investment, Thompson said. Although there’s widespread bipartisan support for a major effort to rebuild America’s crumbling bridges, roads, water systems, airports, pipelines, transit systems, and more, Congress and the White House haven’t followed through.
And that has real world consequences.
“Infrastructure is huge, not just for my plant but for the entire steel industry,” Thompson said. “We had a thriving Bridge yard with a significant amount of workers and equipment but that all closed up because our politicians couldn’t come to an agreement.
“The current presidential administration couldn’t come up with some kind of infrastructure plan, and those orders just go away. The steel is coming from somewhere. All the companies would rather just buy cheap.
“Steel bridges in this country are so important, and it is a very crucial bill that needs to get passed in Congress. It will bring back the steel industry. What it does is when that infrastructure bill gets passed a lot of mills get full up and it’s a trickle-down effect. It helps everybody out because everybody gets a piece of the pie.
“In my mind, it is crazy that you have to constantly get on TV or go to Capitol Hill or ask you state reps about infrastructure, because when you drive you see the potholes, bad roads and unsafe bridges. All that is infrastructure.
“And what happens with that is the infrastructure bill, the transportation benefits, the construction industry benefits, the steel industry benefits, and it goes on and on. Whoever gets into office, I think an infrastructure bill should be one of the first priorities to create jobs and bring back the economy.
“But as always with a lot of policy – we’ll fix it when it breaks,” he added. “Just look at Flint, Michigan.”
Editor’s note: This is the latest in an occasional series of interviews with Black factory workers about racism in the United States and their experiences in the manufacturing industry. If you or someone you know would like to take part, please email [email protected]
See the previous entries: Steve Ackerman, a Black Millwright in Rural Ohio, Sees Slow Racial Progress; After Facing Racial Discrimination at His Paper Mill, Alex Perkins Sprung Into Action; No Stranger to Adversity, Syracuse Steelworker Keith Odume is an Advocate for Change; Manufacturing Offered Opportunity for Black Workers Like E.J. Jenkins, But Inequalities Persist; As a Black Woman in a Factory Dominated by White Men, Monica Mabin Faced Double Discrimination; and Manufacturing Helped Darrell Rideout Build a Good Life, But He Worries About “What My Kids Will Have to Go Through.”