Retired USW International President Lynn Williams Dies

Contact: Jim McKay, (412) 562-2441,

PITTSBURGH (May 5) – Lynn R. Williams, the son of a Canadian mill-town minister who led the United Steelworkers (USW) as its international president during a turbulent decade of steel industry consolidation, died May 5 at age 89 in Toronto, Canada.

The first Canadian to lead the USW, Mr. Williams was its president from 1983 to 1994, a time of crisis in the North American steel industry, which, confronted by unfairly traded imports, underwent unrelenting bankruptcies and consolidations.

lynn7“Lynn Williams held this union together through the worst of times, the massive bankruptcies and consolidations in the U.S. steel industry,” said USW International President Leo W. Gerard. “Lynn showed that he was a leader of great compassion and ingenuity, securing deals to help save as much of the industry as possible while at the same time preserving pensions and benefits for workers.”

Mr. Williams was appointed USW International President on Nov. 17, 1983, following the death of his predecessor, Lloyd McBride. He won a special election in 1984 to complete the final two years of Mr. McBride’s term and was re-elected to full terms in 1985 and 1989 to lead the union that represents workers in the United States, Canada, the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

In the years between 1981 and 1985, the basic steel industry lost some 350,000 jobs in the United States. Mr. Williams later called it a “frightful time” for the union, its members and retirees. The crisis created a wave of early retirements and, in many cases, threated retiree health benefits and pensions.

“If you can imagine an old mattress out in the junkyard with the springs popping up, I was like a guy lying on the springs trying to hold them all down,” Mr. Williams said in a 2010 interview. “And I didn’t have enough body parts to put a hand on this one, a hand on that one and a knee on another one. I didn’t have enough body parts to hold them all down.”

Mr. Williams used concession negotiations during the crisis to bargain innovative employment agreements and secure for the union a seat in corporate boardrooms, management meetings and sale discussions – places where few American unions appeared at that time.

At several steel companies, the agreements Mr. Williams oversaw empowered the union’s members to participate in corporate decision-making from the shop floor to the boards of directors.

 “Workers really have something to say,” he said then. “But it has to be done in a way where working people are recognized as important in the institutions where they work.”

His innovations during this time included establishing Voluntary Employee Benefit Associations (VEBAs) to protect workers employed by companies going through bankruptcy. A VEBA is a trust funded usually by the corporation to help provide benefits such as pensions and health insurance for workers. 

Mr. Williams cooperated with industry when the result would benefit workers. For example, under his leadership, the USW worked with industry to invest in domestic facilities and protect American jobs from unfair foreign competition.

Mr. Williams was a driving force behind the creation of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), which allows retirees to remain active in politics and other issues important to the union. He was president emeritus of SOAR.

 “Lynn’s vision was that the union should be there to help people – not just when they are at work, but when they are out of work and retired,” Mr. Gerard said.

He also helped to launch the Institute for Career Development, which provides advanced educational opportunities for USW members at participating companies.

Because he saw the connection between unfair imports and American job losses, Mr. Williams worked to broaden the union’s involvement internationally.

“Lynn’s gift was to bring people together and get the best ideas from everyone and then try to move us in a strategic direction,” Mr. Gerard said.

In retirement, Mr. Williams moved from Pittsburgh back to Canada, where in 2005 he was named an Officer of the Order of Canada, the country’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of a lifetime of achievement in the labor movement.

The city of Toronto also named a street after Mr. Williams in the former factory district near the John Inglis Co., where he first worked as a steelworker.

Mr. Williams was born in Springfield, Ontario, on July 21, 1924. During the 1930s, his father led a congregation of working families as pastor for the United Church. Many people were unemployed.

Mr. Williams’ social consciousness was first developed around the family dinner table when discussions would turn to the economic system and how it could be changed to put people back to work.

He received a Bachelor of Arts degree at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1944. He went to work at the Inglis plant in 1947, joined USW Local 2900 and was subsequently hired as an organizer by the Canadian Congress of Labour.

In 1956, Mr. Williams joined the union’s staff in Canada, where he worked in Regina, Saskatchewan, the Niagara Peninsula and Toronto. He transferred to the USW’s District 6 headquarters in Toronto in 1965 and became director of District 6 in 1973.

In 1977, Mr. Williams was elected International Secretary of the union and moved to Pittsburgh.

He was the first person to have served, although not simultaneously, on the executive boards of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) and the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC).

“Lynn served as a life-long mentor to me. He took me under his wing,” Mr. Gerard said and then explained, “The two big influences in my union life have been my father and Lynn Williams. My father taught me the fundamentals of workplace militancy. Lynn taught me the value of patience, of keeping a clear head in the midst of chaos . . . we owe him much more than we can say.”

Mr. Williams’ family will conduct a private funeral service to be followed by a public memorial service to be scheduled in the near future.

The USW is the largest industrial union in North America, representing workers in a range of industries including metals, mining, rubber, paper and forestry, oil refining, health care, security, hotels, and municipal governments and agencies.

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