Leo W. Gerard Announces Retirement; VP Tom Conway to Replace Him

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

By Mark Gruenberg
PAI Staff Writer

PITTSBURGH (PAI) – Making official what he had unofficially disclosed in prior interviews, United Steelworkers (USW) International President Leo W. Gerard announced this week that he will retire as head of the largest manufacturing union in North America in mid-July. Vice President Tom Conway will succeed him.

The union executive board approved the changes – including retirements of Secretary-Treasurer Stan Johnson and two more vice presidents, plus promotion of other people, including two top women, to take their seats – as well as a transition plan.

“The decision to announce these changes together will ensure that a capable and experienced group of trade union leaders will hit the ground running as a team,” Gerard said after the board adopted the transition resolution. “It will also pave the way so that the union continues to be on solid footing and that the transition is seamless and serves the best interest of our membership.” 

Conway, who will succeed Gerard, has been the union’s international vice president for administration since 2005. Starting as a millwright at Bethlehem Steel in 1978, Conway rose to be a staff representative and eventually secretary of the union’s Basic Steel Conference. He chaired major sector bargaining in steel, mining, aluminum, tires, rubber, oil, and other manufacturing. He was also a big part of USW’s trade enforcement and manufacturing revitalization campaigns.

Gerard, an Ontario native, started his union career at age 18 while working at a precious metals mine and smelter in Sudbury. He rose to local, regional and national posts over 50-plus years. The board elected him president in 2001, following the late George Becker. 

Mixing brains, street smarts, a talent for organizing and activism, and the ability to build alliances with other unionists in the United States and abroad, Gerard made the USW a force to be reckoned with.

He jump-started the USW’s political activism with its Rapid Response teams, in ways that other unions have since replicated. Under Gerard’s leadership, the USW filed and won a record number of cases seeking tariffs to punish unfair trade practices that threatened the jobs of USW members.

Building on past work by Becker and former USW President Lynn Williams, the USW under Gerard’s leadership joined with the Sierra Club to create the BlueGreen Alliance. The alliance, which now includes as members nearly every major national environmental group and many other labor unions, advocates for massive reindustrialization, construction of factories to produce green energy components, such as solar panels and wind turbines, unionizing workers and gaining for them good wages and benefits.

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Beware Billionaires Bearing Gifts

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

There’s a new Koch organization in town. Instead of trying to buy politicians to do the bidding of billionaires, as Charles and David Koch have historically done, this foundation will support community groups trying to cure the miseries of eons – everything from poverty to addiction.

And they’ve got some street cred, having successfully worked with renowned liberal Van Jones to secure legislation to reduce mass incarceration. Billionaire Charles Koch says the mission is this: “We must stand together to help every person rise.”

That is some good stuff, right there. It’s what labor unions have always preached – workers must stand together to gain the collective power essential to pull every one of them up. It works, too. In the middle of the last century, collective bargaining created the great American middle class.

There’s an important difference, though, between the work of labor unions and billionaire-funded organizations. Labor unions are created and controlled by workers. Billionaire-funded organizations are beholden to billionaires.

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The PRO Act: Pathway to Power for Workers

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Photo by Fibonacci Blue on FlickrAbigail Disney, granddaughter of the co-founder of the Walt Disney Co., called out the family business’ current CEO last month for making what’s supposed to be the happiest place on earth pretty darn miserable for its workers.

All of the company profits shouldn’t be going into executives’ pockets, she said in a Washington Post column. The workers whose labor makes those profits should not live in abject poverty.

This is what labor leaders have said for two centuries. But Disney executives and bank executives and oil company executives don’t play well with others. They won’t give workers more unless workers force them to. And the only way to do that is with collective bargaining – that is, the power of concerted action.

The United States recognized this in the 1930s and gave Americans the right to organize labor unions under the National Labor Relations Act (NRLA). The increase in unionization encouraged by the law significantly diminished income inequality over the next forty years. American workers prospered as a result of having a voice in the workplace.

But right-wing politicians, at the beck and call of CEOs, have chiseled large chunks out of labor organizing rights, diminishing unions and breeding vast economic disparities.

The decline in union density accounts for one-third of the rise in income inequality among men and one-fifth among women, Economic Policy Institute researchers found.

The solution, of course, is the same as it was in 1935. In order to restore balance to an astronomically uneven economy, Congress must restore workers’ power to organize. Democrats took a first step last week toward accomplishing that when they introduced the Protect the Right to Organize (PRO) Act in the U.S. House and Senate. It would give back to workers the power they need to demand their fair share of the profits created by the sweat of their brows.

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Better Insurance Begets Better Life

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Better Insurance Begets Better Life
Nichole and Elizabeth with insulin pump supplies. Photo by Steven Dietz of www.unionpix.com.

Last month, in a Pittsburgh parking lot following a conference on type one diabetes, three women stood crying. Two of them, mother and teen aged daughter, had just handed a stranger, 25-year-old Michelle, three shopping bags full of insulin pump supplies.

Michelle was overwhelmed. She knew they were meeting that day so that the mother and daughter could give her medical provisions she needed to stay alive, but she had not realized it would be thousands of dollars worth until she saw those bags.

“We didn’t know how big of a deal it was until she started crying,” the teenager, Elizabeth, said later.

Elizabeth and her mother, Nichole, had the extra supplies partly because they have exceptional health insurance coverage. They could get for a few dollars what it had cost Michelle $6,000 to buy the year before. Increasing numbers of Americans like Michelle are confronted with fear and debts because their employers are dumping on them skyrocketing pharmaceutical, health care and insurance costs.

The big difference between the two young women with diabetes, Elizabeth and Michelle, is that Michelle’s father, whose health insurance covers her for another few months, is not a union member and Elizabeth’s father is.

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American Workers Are Not Happy

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Americans are not happy. And for good reason. They continue to suffer financial stress caused by decades of flat income. And every time they make the slightest peep of complaint about a system rigged against them, the rich and powerful tell them to shut up because it is all their fault.

One percenters instruct them to work harder, pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop bellyaching. Just get a second college degree, a second skill, a second job. Just send the spouse to work, downsize, take a staycation instead of a real vacation. Or don’t take one at all, just work harder and longer and better.

The barrage of blaming has persuaded; workers believe they deserve censure. And that’s a big part of the reason they’re unhappy. If only, they think, they could work harder and longer and better, they would get ahead. They bear the shame. They don’t blame the system: the Supreme Court, the Congress, the President. And yet, it is the system, the American system, that has conspired to crush them.

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Honoring a Victim’s Memory on Workers’ Memorial Day

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Honoring a Victim’s Memory on Workers’ Memorial Day
Frank Leasure

Last year, on Halloween just before midnight, Frank Leasure left work at American Standard in Salem, Ohio. To get to his car in the employee lot, he had to walk across two sets of Norfolk Southern railroad tracks. He waited in frigid, driving rain for a westbound train to pass, then began to cross, only to be struck by an eastbound train that he apparently did not see or hear.

Frank Leasure, 62, of Carrollton, Ohio, Army veteran, husband, father and grandfather, was one of 19 members of the union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), who died on the job between last Workers’ Memorial Day and this one. Workers’ Memorial Day is observed annually on April 28 to commemorate those who lost their lives at work. In 2017, the most recent year for which national statistics are available, 5,147 workers died on the job, an average of 14 every day.

The USW is devoted to reducing those numbers. One way it does that is disseminating information about how specific workplace injuries, illnesses and fatalities occur and how to prevent them. Another is establishing labor-management health and safety committees to continuously analyze workplace risks and reduce them. In the case of Frank Leasure, both occurred.

Unfortunately, at the same time, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reduced its workplace safety inspectors to the lowest level in its 48-year history, diminishing its capacity to investigate workplace deaths, illnesses and injuries. And it reversed a rule that would have provided more information about workplace dangers nationally. It decided to stop requiring large employers to electronically report injury and illness data. OSHA still requires employers to document this information, but they don’t have to tell anyone.

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Amazon – and 56 Other Corporations – Took Your Tax Dollars

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Yeah, yeah, yeah, Bernie Sanders, castigator of the one percent, is a millionaire now. So are Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren. Big whoop. There’s a crucial difference between these candidates seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and the super wealthy – particularly 60 gigantic, massively profitable U.S. corporations. The candidates faithfully pay federal taxes. The corporations don’t.

That’s right. Sixty profitable corporations paid no federal taxes in 2018, twice the number that typically paid nothing in the years before the 2017 tax breaks took effect. In fact, it’s worse than that. Fifty-seven of these corporations demanded rebates from the government – which means taxpayers like you and me paid them to exist. These are corporations on the dole. They claim to hate socialism if it means Medicare for All, but they sure as hell love socialism when it’s welfare for them.

Sanders, Harris, Warren and other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination paid their taxes because they are patriots. Most working Americans pay a fair share to support their country. True citizens pay so that their nation can thrive. They pay so that the United States can afford to educate its citizens, pave its roads, operate its courts, care for its vulnerable and sustain its military. They pay because they understand they have a duty to the country that nurtured them, that protects them and that they love.

But too many U.S. corporations, which the U.S. Supreme Court has anointed with human rights, refuse to acknowledge their concomitant obligations. Corporations and the super wealthy pushed hard for the tax breaks Republicans bestowed on them in 2017. Fat cats paid untold tens of millions to dark money groups that served as cash cows for GOP candidates who, once elected, shepherded those tax breaks.

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Hard Knocks Turned Alison McIntosh Collectivist

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Alison McIntosh learned early that life is a little easier with help from friends. Her first professional job reinforced that notion. And now, as a University of Pittsburgh graduate student, she is asking her co-workers to embrace collectivism.

McIntosh, who is working toward a Ph.D. in critical and cultural studies, is urging her fellow teaching assistants, graduate student researchers, and teaching fellows – 2,000 of them altogether – to vote next week to join the United Steelworkers (USW) union. “We have more power collectively. We must work together and across the board,” she told me.

Though she knew little about unions before she started talking to organizers at Pitt, her life experiences compelled her to embrace the idea that if Pitt’s fragmented bunch of graduate researchers and teachers pulled together, their joint voice would be strong enough to persuade the university to make their lives a little easier. 

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Grad Students as Steelworkers

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Grad Students as Steelworkers
University of Pittsburgh Graduate Student Kim Garrett

The moniker “steelworker” generally evokes images of hulking mill buildings, steel-toed boots, and molten metal, not ivory towers, doctoral dissertations, and university research. But next week, 2,000 graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh will vote on whether to become members of the United Steelworkers (USW) union.

The USW has evolved since it was forged in 1942. Now its members build tires, smelt aluminum, make paper, refine oil, produce iPhone glass, serve as physicians, pharmacists and nurses, and teach university classes in the United States and Canada.

A blue collar is not required to be a USW member. All that’s necessary is a sense of belonging to a team of co-workers who believe they all benefit from banding together to jointly seek better wages and working conditions from their employer.

It’s not just the USW either. Other labor unions also have been organizing white-collar workers in record numbers. College instructors, full- and part-time, and grad student teachers and researchers have joined the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association but also the United Auto Workers and the Service Employees International Union.

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Solidarity Against Hate

Leo W. Gerard

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Solidarity Against Hate
New Zealanders' hate-defying symbol

The union I lead, the United Steelworkers (USW), believes in unity, that “all working men and women, regardless of creed, color or nationality” are eligible for membership.

That was the guiding principle of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee (SWOC) when it formed in 1937.

I return to that statement in times like these, times when terrorists shoot up mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, killing 50 worshipers; a synagogue in the USW’s hometown of Pittsburgh, killing 11; an African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C., killing nine; a Sikh temple near Milwaukee, killing six; a nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 mostly young gay people.

The USW membership eligibility statement is an assertion of inclusion. All working men and women qualify. They can all join. They can all attend local union meetings at which members call each other “brother” and “sister.” This practice creates artificial, but crucial, bonds between them. This solidarity gives the group strength when facing off against massive multinational corporations and demanding decent pay and dignified working conditions.

To erode that solidarity, some billionaire hedge fund owners and multinational CEOs work to divide workers. These wealthy .01 percenters separate people by cultivating hate. Some are the same billionaire sugar daddies of alt-right hate sites like Breitbart and more conventional hate sites like Fox News. Investigative journalist Jane Mayer wrote a book about their efforts titled, “Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right.”

This hate mongering sets work-a-day people against each other. That weakens them politically. And it contributes to false-fear provoked violence.

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