Labor Day offers a chance to reflect on the sacrifices made by previous generations. But union members continue to make things in the United States while fighting for better conditions for all workers.
Labor Day is Monday, September 5. It’s a day that typically marks the unofficial end of summer, the final three-day weekend during warm weather months.
But more importantly, Labor Day is a celebration of hard-working Americans and the organized labor unions that represent them.
When manufacturing replaced agriculture as America’s major employer during the Industrial Revolution, workers were at the mercy of the company bosses. Americans worked 12 hour days to earn a meager living to support their families, often in unsafe and unsanitary conditions. Children as young as 10 worked in factories and mills across the United States for wages that were a pittance.
Thanks to the efforts of organized labor, working conditions today are much improved. Think of the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, vacation pay, sick pay; we often take these benefits for granted, but they would not have been possible without the bravery of men and women of the labor movement.
There were numerous heroes that fought diligently to organize company laborers into union movements that gave workers bargaining power. Many of these leaders faced physical violence or even death when the company bosses tried to prevent the organizing power of the masses.
Eventually, the U.S. government realized it needed to act. On June 28, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed an act of Congress making Labor Day an official holiday. There would be more than a century of fights, strikes, and atrocities to come, but organized labor was now officially recognized.
To mark Labor Day 2022, we’re profiling five current members of the United Steelworkers (USW), the largest industrial union in North America.
Even if you aren’t in a labor union, organized labor touches your life, including with the items you buy. The USW represents more than 850,000 members working in diverse areas of employment — the union’s official name is the “United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union.” Steelworkers are indeed “Everybody’s Union,” working in a wide range of industries, including primary and fabricated metals, paper, chemicals, glass, rubber, heavy-duty conveyor belting, tires, transportation, utilities, container industries, pharmaceuticals, call centers and even health care.
If you look around your home, you may just find things that you use every day are made by USW-represented employees, including the five below.
Lloyd Ziemer III, Scotch-Brite and Ocelo Kitchen Sponges
One USW-made product many of us have sitting near our kitchen sinks are sponges made by 3M in Tonawanda, N.Y., just outside of Buffalo. You may have an Ocelo blue S-Wave shaped sponge or a Scotch Brite rectangular sponge in your kitchen. These two sponges are ubiquitous in the kitchen sponge market in America, and they are produced at the 3M plant in Tonawanda by USW members.
Lloyd Ziemer III is a 23-year veteran of sponge-making at the 3M plant, and is in his 11th year serving as president of USW Local 13833. At the age of 52, Ziemer’s family has a long history of working for the USW. His grandfather was a steelworker at Bethlehem Steel for 27 years, his uncle worked at Dunlop Tires for 36 years, and his wife has been working at the 3M Sponge plant for 22 years.
“When I first started working here, I couldn’t believe how much sponge was being pumped and being sold because my father was an old-time guy that used to use dish rags,” Ziemer said. “We had one sponge, and he washed his car with it. But these kitchen sponges, I can’t believe how much they sell. Even if we have something going on in the outside world like a recession or whatever, we are just always moving along.
“You’d be surprised how much is going out of there on a daily basis. We can’t make enough of it. It’s just a great product. We are not rolling steel in the factory that is going to be used for a car or something. We’re unique because we are the only sponge factory in the United States now.”
Ziemer’s USW local represents 326 workers and including management, the plant employees approximately 390 Buffalo area workers. 3M has many other divisions, and that 13 of the 3M factories employ USW workers, Ziemer said.
“We are still hiring and have the most USW employees since I’ve worked here,” Ziemer said. “We are the only [3M] factory, I believe, in the last two years that has had an 8% growth. We’ve been at an 8% profit so they are dumping money into our factory so we can move more product out.”
The 3M plant makes a few limited runs of other sponges, but it is the Ocelo and Scotch Brite kitchen sponges that are in high demand.
“Our big sellers are what we call the S-Wave, which is blue and shaped like an S for easier handling and the rectangular Scotch Brite,” Ziemer said. “They both have that abrasive matting on top to help scrub your pots and pans.”
Ziemer is a diemaker. When a sheet of the sponge material, which is electrified to cook it, comes out of its finishing process, it drops 250 sponges at a time from the die that Ziemer created.
“The best way to describe it is the mix they make to create the sponges looks like taffy,” he said. “We put salt in there, those little pores you see in there, that is made from salt. We produce and generate our own salt so that when we put it in the mix the salt melts when we electrify it. We don’t bake it, but the electricity causes it to bake like a cake.
“Walmart and Costco of course are our biggest customers, but you can find our sponges anywhere,” Ziemer added. “We don’t have much competition from China. They can’t produce enough and are actually buying from us. Our sponges will last quite a bit longer than any sponge made in China.”
Ziemer is a married father of six children, and his USW job has afforded him a comfortable middle-class life and a modern home. His 26-year-old son works at the 3M sponge plant, as did his father. His grandfather worked in a steel mill in 1947 so there are four generations of the Ziemer family that have worked for the USW.
“On the grand scale of things, it’s a good place to work and pays decent money. All you need is a high school diploma and then you can advance because if there is a department you want to get into, 3M will reimburse you for going to college,” Ziemer said. “The thing about it too, is that I believe if there was no union, especially the Steelworkers at 3M, it would probably be a revolving door of low paying jobs. They keep them honest, and the Steelworkers have been here a long time.”
Louis Bain II, Tin for Canned Food Products
Steelworker Louis Bain II works in the massive U.S. Steel Gary Works complex in Gary, Ind., but he is not involved in making heavy-duty steel for major construction projects or automobiles.
Bain is employed in the tin division of the sprawling complex, helping to make the tin that is used for a whole lot of America’s canned food products. He also is the recording secretary for USW Local 1066, which has about 1400 members, approximately 600 of whom work in the tin division.
Chances are that if you have canned goods in your kitchen pantry, many of those cans were made from tin manufactured at Gary Works.
“We pretty much have the American market on tin, so we know that if you have Progresso Soup, Campbells Soup, Green Giant products, there is a good chance it is made of the tin we ran here,” Bain said. “We make the tin lids that go on chew cans for chewing tobacco, and we do the material for a lot of aerosol cans.
“We make the tin steel here and send it out in coils to an after-market processor and they are the ones that do the punching of the cans. One of our big customers is Crown for soda cans, food cans, and I believe they do tuna cans as well.”
Bain is a maintenance planner and has worked at the mill for 24 years. Now 47, he has worked many jobs at the plant and after becoming a millwright, he has taken on the important task of maintenance planner for the past 12 years.
Bain is married with two adult children and lives in Burns Harbor, another steel town about 15 minutes from Gary. His 25-year-old daughter is in law school, and because of his well-paid USW job, he has been able to help with her tuition. His 27-year-old son has followed his father’s path by serving in the Marines.
Bain served as a Marine reservist for 21 years, and deployed three times to Iraq while still keeping his job at Gary Works. He is grateful for the USW for providing assistance while he was overseas serving our country as a Gunnery sergeant and combat engineer.
As a USW local officer and U.S. Steel maintenance planner, Bain gets to talk to the new hires and explain to them the advantages of being in the union.
“I always tell them the union saved my life, saved my job and took care of my family when I couldn’t, so I am very happy with them,” Bain said. “I was in the Marines and I served in Iraq when I was still working here, and it was during the invasion and I had absolutely no communications back here and the government, being the government, messed up, and there was a time when my wife was not getting my pay. So, she went to the union hall and they took up a collection during one of the union meetings to help her pay the bills.
“They also bought toys for the kids and then they assigned somebody to check up on her and made sure she was all right and had what she needed. While I was gone, I didn’t know any of this was happening until I got home. We were moving [in Iraq] so there was no, because of operational security, we couldn’t call home. The union really took care of us.”
Kevin Edmonds, Glass Bottles for Companies Like Tabasco and Tito’s Vodka
Kevin Edmonds works at the Ardagh Glass plant in Simsboro, La., making glass bottles for top brands like Louisiana’s own Tabasco Sauce and Tito’s Vodka in Austin, Texas. The 60-year-old Edmonds has worked at Ardagh for eight years, but has a history of working in the manufacturing industry and knows the benefits that come with a union job.
Edmonds is the vice president of USW Local 253M, representing approximately 200 workers that make the iconic bottles. The plant had nearly 500 employees up until a few years ago, when production was reduced to half capacity.
“I have had a few careers. I worked in manufacturing and with these eight years, it will be a total of 23 years,” Edmonds said. “I worked in retail, I worked in service, I did a little bit of it all, but manufacturing has been the bulk of my work.
“My first stint in manufacturing was with a union company, and we actually made plywood and it was a good job with great benefits and reasonable work hours, holiday pay and a pension. I left there because the plant closed, and I went into retail for awhile where the pay was good, but there was no union representation. You were out there on your own. It was you against the company.
“But I wanted to be somewhere where I was respected. I am constantly preaching that to our people about the USW. We are trying to get them to see all the attributes the union offers.”
The Ardagh Glass Simsboro Louisiana plant also makes bottles and jars for Mt. Olive Pickles, salsa jars, cheese jars, bottles for Holland House cooking vinegar and bottles for other spirits like Seagram’s.
“A company like Tito’s has several different size bottles, so we may make one size of their bottles here and another Ardagh plant might handle a different size,” Edmonds said. “They go all the way up to the 1.75-liter handle bottles.”
Edmonds works as a utility man in the forming area where the bottles are created from molten glass that goes through a forming machine.
“Glass is made of sand and lime which are two of its primary components and it has to be fired up to a very high heat,” he said. “Once we get the glass to melt, we add recycled glass, and we can always use recycled glass. With recycled glass you don’t use as much energy as you would without the recycled glass.”
Edmonds has been married for 37 years and has two adult children. His USW pay scale has allowed him to raise his children in a comfortable middle-class house and take his family on vacations.
“That’s what the president is talking about,” he said. “You’ve got to support the middle class. With all the things happening around us people tend to forget the middle class, the people that built America. We have to be sure to stay aware of what’s happening with the union.
“That is something I would have to say the United Steelworkers has allowed us to be a big, big footprint as far a citing unfair trade practices. It’s great to know we have a backup with the Steelworkers union and to know we can have a contract between the company and labor that is guaranteed by federal law.”
Rob and Daniele Byrne, Pyrex Glassware
Another USW made product that many of us have in our kitchens is Pyrex cooking ware. The company is well-known for its glass four-cup measuring cup with the red measurement lines, but Pyrex also makes many glass vessels for cooking and baking.
Husband and wife Rob and Daniele Byrne have a combined 65 years working at the Pyrex manufacturing facility in Charleroi, located outside of Pittsburgh. The company is now under the corporate umbrella of Instant Brands, but they still makes the original Pyrex at the plant that was owned for many years by Corning, a leader in the glass cookware industry.
Rob Byrne is a trustee in USW Local 53G, and works as an electrician in the factory. His wife Daniele started out in the finishing and packaging department, but now works as a scheduler.
“I’ve been here since 1989 and we’ve been making the same stuff year after year,” said Rob Byrne.
Added Daniele Byrne: “Our plant is the only one that can make the measuring cups. Everything you use to bake that is glassware is Pyrex. Pie plates, lasagna pans, mixing bowls, bread pans.”
Ingredients for the glass are brought in on a rail car, most of which is sand and a few other products that go into the mix. Every ingredient is melted together, and the resulting molten glass is cut by a pair of scissor-like sheers. The molten glass slides into a mold that moves under a press that forms the glass. It is then cooled, fire-polished before it goes into a kiln where it is tempered.
The plant employs 305 USW members and an additional 43 management workers. The factory operated throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, as business thrived with so many people working and cooking from home and shopping online.
Despite a decline in employees – 1,200 people worked at the plant in the mid-1990s — the Pyrex plant is still a major employer in the Mon Valley of Pennsylvania, and continues to hire new workers.
Rob Byrne has worked at the plant for 33 years and Daniele Byrne has been there 32 years. He is 53 years old, and she is 54.
Nearly the same age and working at the plant for nearly the same number of years? It all adds up: Rob and Daniele met at the Pyrex factory and have now been married for more than 25 years.
These are just a few examples of common household items many of us have but may not have known are union-made by the United Steelworkers. So, if you open a can of tomato sauce from a tin can made by Steelworkers, and you spill the liquid while trying to put it into your USW-made Pyrex lasagna pan, you always have your USW-made 3M sponges close at hand. And after the cleanup, you just might want to pour yourself a cocktail from a Tito’s Vodka bottle made by USW workers in Louisiana. And don’t forget to try a little Tabasco in that libation.