Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'We Will Win Because We Are Right' as United Steelworkers Leader Steps Down, He Leaves a Fight Unfinished

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

'We Will Win Because We Are Right' as United Steelworkers Leader Steps Down, He Leaves a Fight Unfinished

Article excerpt

Leo Gerard let a silence linger unusually long for a union leader who seems rarely short on words.

The international president of the United Steelworkers was surrounded by memorabilia collected over decades, ready to be boxed up and shipped out of his Downtown office. His television had been blaring MSNBC political analysis of more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates.

Finally, he said, "It's a question that causes a fight between your gut and your brain."

Mr. Gerard was mulling over whether he was surprised when Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. It's standard self-reflection for virtually anyone who touches national politics these days. But for Mr. Gerard, whose union's membership helped drive Mr. Trump's win, the question was still perplexing.

As Mr. Gerard, 72, retires Monday after four decades climbing the ranks of the largest private-sector labor union in North America, his legacy will be defined by leading with his gut and his brain, according to interviews with those who know him well.

As a politically savvy ferocious negotiator and studious follower of economic trends, he battled unfair trade deals along the way. In doing so, he broadened the United Steelworkers' reach to a global scale as many unions struggled to keep up with multinational companies.

Yet the 2016 election underscored a fight unfinished. Mr. Trump's promises to revive American manufacturing by rewriting trade deals were straight from Mr. Gerard's pulpit. The messages fractured the United Steelworkers, a working-class stronghold usually loyal to Democrats. The United Steelworkers endorsed Mr. Trump's opponent, Hillary Clinton.

"Trump saw the opportunity," Mr. Gerard acknowledged in an interview in June. "When you go through the heartland ... that's the group of people who have been lied to three or four times" by previous U.S. presidents, he said.

"And so when the election came," he said, the members thought, "Well, they didn't do it for us, they didn't do it for us, they didn't do it for us - you might as well take a shot with this guy.

"Trump basically told the members what we had been telling the members," he said.

As Mr. Gerard retires, he leaves the 77-year-old United Steelworkers at a critical juncture. The political climate surrounding organized labor could be the most fraught in a generation, with a renewed uprising against unfair trade practices and distrust of political institutions. While Mr. Gerard expressed disgust for Mr. Trump and the Republicans who support him, many rank-and-file workers see the president as helping the industry.

Meanwhile, the union, with its 1.2 million members in the United States and Canada, is growing younger and more diverse, expanding to organize workers in different professions in colleges, casinos and health care facilities.

The United Steelworkers' leadership transition could offer a glimpse into the next era of the American labor movement.

Tom Conway, who will take over as international president after 14 years as an international vice president, said he plans to encourage younger members to move up through the ranks.

The union is strong in many ways, he said, noting the strike fund was healthy and that recent bargaining sessions with U.S. Steel and ArcelorMittal yielded favorable contracts. But trade issues have divided many members, he said, after the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Chinese imports - a move the union had been pushing for decades.

"Our union is very much a snapshot of the country," Mr. Conway said. "We have members who think Trump was helpful on the tariffs, and we have members who despise Trump."

He recently saw a letter the USW sent to Congress in 1991, urging lawmakers to protect American jobs against trade deals with other countries.

"You could change the date on this letter and it's like nothing has happened," Mr. Conway said. "The country never dealt with it. …

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