Posts from Leo W. Gerard

The Soul of a Union Man

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

I was raised in a company house in a company town where the miners had to buy their own oilers – that is, rubber coveralls – drill bits and other tools at the company store.

That company, Inco Limited, the world’s leading producer of nickel for most of the 20th century, controlled the town of Sudbury, Ontario, but never succeeded in owning the souls of the men and women who lived and worked there.

That’s because these were union men and women, self-possessed, a little rowdy and well aware that puny pleas from individual workers fall on deaf corporate ears.

As I prepare to retire in a couple of days, 54 years after starting work as a copper puncher at the Inco smelter, the relationship between massive, multi-national corporations and workers is different.

Unions represent a much smaller percentage of workers now, so few that some don’t even know what a labor organization is – or what organized labor can accomplish. That is the result of deliberate, decades-long attacks on unions by corporations and the rich. They intend to own not only workers’ time and production but their very souls.

I’d like to tell you the story of Inco because it illustrates the arc of labor union ascendance and attenuation over the past 72 years since I was born in Sudbury. 

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China and America: The Struggle for Independence

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

China and America: The Struggle for Independence
Photo by Getty Images

The United States is number one. First to secure independence from a colonial overlord, it boasts the freest speech, the best junk food, and the largest economy. And, frankly, its citizens like it that way. Being free and number one defines Americans.

That standing, however, is at risk.

China is ascendant. Deliberately and strategically, China is moving toward becoming the world’s largest economy.  It would be one thing if that occurred naturally. But key to China’s rise is fraud, including violation of international laws, norms and standards.

That’s what President Donald Trump confronts when he meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping Saturday in Japan at the annual Group of 20 summit. The Trump administration has imposed tariffs and sought to curb China’s rogue practices. U.S. trade negotiators have stood strong in the face of withering criticism. And that’s exactly right. America needs a tough, enforceable agreement, or China is going to own America. And being owned is not being free.

Three examples – trains, telephones, and steel – explain the threat.

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NAFTA Old and New: Deals by the Rich for the Rich

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

The new NAFTA must contain language under which Mexico would actively protect its workers' right to organize into independent unions, negotiate labor agreements and strike when necessary. Image by Yevhenii Dubinko on Getty Images

Mick Mulvaney, a millionaire who is President Trump’s acting chief of staff and director of the Office of Management and Budget, awarded himself another job last week: spokesman for labor.

Referring to the proposed new NAFTA, he told the Wall Street Journal, “We know that labor supports it.”

That, right there, is the problem with NAFTA, old and new. One percenters like Mulvaney, self-dealing corporate honchos and fancy-pants corporate lobbyists negotiated the deals. Those fat cats claimed they spoke for labor. But when they opened their mouths, only the word profit emerged.

They didn’t give a damn about jobs or wages or workers’ welfare. The ravages NAFTA inflicted on the non-rich prove that. The proposed new NAFTA is barely different. Mulvaney, though he tried to usurp labor’s voice, is far from labor’s mouthpiece. Labor speaks for itself. And it is railing against NAFTA, old and new.

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New Leadership for USW

Leo W. Gerard USW President Emeriti

Dear Brothers and Sisters,
As many of you have heard by now, I’ve announced my decision to retire as USW International President, effective July 15, 2019. Fighting alongside all of you has been my privilege for more than 50 years. Our shared mission to improve the lives of all working people will always be my guiding light, as well as the enduring purpose of our union.
But now it’s time for other activists to take up the mantle of leadership.
In my decades as a local union activist, union staff, District Director, National Director of Canada, Secretary-Treasurer and finally International President, our union has grown and changed.
Our great union has welcomed new members in new sectors. We’ve weathered difficult negotiations, and we’ve taken our fights on many issues important to our members to our nations’ capitals.
We developed key partnerships with international allies, including forming the first global union, Workers Uniting. And our union was one of the founders of the Blue Green Alliance (BGA) and the Centre for Research in Occupational Health and Safety (CROSH).
We took on big, multinational corporations, we beat back unfair trade deals, and we made our workplaces safer.
My work with the union is not ending. Over the course of my career I was deeply touched to be awarded honorary degrees from three Canadian universities in recognition of our union’s important work: Laurentian University, Brock University and the University of Guelph. Now, I intend to remain active in the labor community, and I’ll always fight on the side of workers’ rights.
However, I also intend to step back, to enjoy my retirement and spend more time with my wife and family.
As union brothers and sisters, we’ve stood together through good and bad. I now ask you to join me in supporting the next step in our union’s future.
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Leo W. Gerard Announces Retirement; VP Tom Conway to Replace Him

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 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 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 USW President Emeriti

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

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 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 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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Stronger Together

Stronger Together