After health scare, steelworkers union leader renews push to rebuild manufacturing

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

It was February when Leo Gerard finally had to come to a stop for a while.

Mr. Gerard, president of the United Steelworkers, thought he had the flu, but he still got on a plane for a trip to Colombia to talk to government officials about the violence against union organizers there.

He made it onto the plane but then got off because he was just too sick. A few hours later he was having heart surgery. Instead of the flu, he had a blood clot in his heart. He has since realized that if he had stayed on that plane, he might not have gotten off alive.

After spending five days in the hospital, Mr. Gerard, 59, of Cranberry and Sudbury, Ontario, where his wife lives, has changed his diet and now walks to keep in shape. He's 42 pounds lighter and has a new urgency. "I've got a lot to get done, and I only have today to do it," he said.

This year, he has a whole lot to get done.

As the leader of the largest manufacturing union in America, Mr. Gerard is pushing for whatever economic plan that the federal government approves to include money to rebuild manufacturing in the nation.

If that economic plan includes expanding broadband access for the Internet or creating solar and wind-powered energy supplies, he wants the guts of those technologies to be manufactured in the United States.

"It's important that we have a substantive economic renewal program, but it's important that it be done in a way in which jobs are created here," he said.

As the head of the union, Mr. Gerard devotes considerable time to negotiations, but recently he also has spent a great deal of time on politics.

The United Steelworkers mobilized members across the country to work for President-elect Barack Obama's campaign, going door-to-door to union households and participating in rallies.

Now, with the election over, Mr. Gerard has shifted his political focus to working for that spending package for manufacturing. He's been calling congressional leaders and doing TV appearances to make his case.

The union leader's strength is in his ability to negotiate, whether it is in contracts, politics or the flea markets, where he and his predecessor, the late George Becker, used to spend their weekends buying other people's junk.

He grew up in Sudbury and followed his father into the Inco Ltd. nickel smelter. His first job was to open clogged tuyeres, which are the pipes that blow air into the furnaces, with a sledgehammer.

He kept working even while studying economics at Laurentian University, and became a union shop steward at the nickel smelter. He was discouraged with what he was learning in class. When he was about a dozen credits short of graduation in 1977, the United Steelworkers offered him a job as a staff representative. He never finished college, but did don the cap and gown of Laurentian when he was awarded an honorary doctorate.

From staff representative, he moved on to become a district director from 1986 to 1991, and followed with three years as the national director for Canada before coming to Pittsburgh in 1994 as the secretary-treasurer of the international union.

Despite spending the majority of his time in the United States, he said he wouldn't give up his Canadian citizenship: "I don't want to give up my health care."

As president of the 850,000-member United Steelworkers since 2001, when he was appointed to fill the rest of an unexpired term when Mr. Becker retired, he has worked to bring more unionized workers under the USW mantle.

During his tenure, the union has brought in such diverse groups as the American Flint Glass Workers; the Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada; the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union; and the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees in Canada.

Those mergers have changed the official name of the union to the United Steel, Paper and Forestry, Rubber, Manufacturing, Energy, Allied Industrial and Service Workers International Union, even though it's rarely used. It's now the largest industrial union in North America.

This past summer, when he was elected for the second time to be the union's president without opposition, the Steelworkers merged with the manufacturing union Unite in the United Kingdom.

Mr. Gerard is the union's answer to Oprah Winfrey, and not just because of the weight loss issue. As president, he hands out books that he wants his executive board members to read and brings in the authors to talk about economic policies.

Recent books handed out show his taste and political leanings -- such as Robert Kuttner's "Obama's Challenge: America's Economic Crisis and the Power of a Transformative Presidency," Steven Greenhouse's "The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American worker," Naomi Klein's "The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism" and David Cay Johnston's "Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense and Stick You and Me with the Bill."

The people he works with say he expects them to read the books and be able to discuss them. His intellectual tendencies don't come with high-brow pretensions, and his conversations are sprinkled with obscenities.

Like many union leaders, he understands the businesses with which he negotiates, said David Bonior, who chairs the advocacy group American Rights at Work's board of directors and has known Mr. Gerard for more than a decade. But, he said, Mr. Gerard understands much more than the business.

"He understands the numbers, he understands the economic piece as well," Mr. Bonior said. "He did an analysis of TARP [the Troubled Assets Relief Program] that was just stunning in its depth." The relief program was passed by Congress in the fall to help bail out financial institutions.

In his office on the 12th floor of the United Steelworkers building Downtown, he talks as a nearby television displays news channels so he can keep an eye on what's going on.

It's a big year for labor. In addition to the economic plan, unions also are pushing for the Employee Free Choice Act, which a recent survey by Hart Research for the AFL-CIO indicated was supported by a majority of Americans.

Mr. Gerard, who also uses a blog to get his opinions on the public record, has argued that the legislation "would restore workers' freedom to form unions and bargain" and would "put the workers in control of their union instead of a company." The measure has met with strong opposition from a number of business groups.

His priorities extend further than just union advocacy, his admirers say. AFL-CIO's President John Sweeney said Mr. Gerard has an eye for the bigger picture. "Under his leadership, the United Steelworkers seamlessly blends the fight for workers' rights with the interests of the environmental, global and progressive community, all working for a better America."

During the recent presidential election, in his blog, Mr. Gerard challenged Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin's claim that her husband's experience as a steelworker proved she had union bona fides. "His United Steelworker card doesn't include an automatic auxiliary membership for her," he wrote.

He said she was the running mate to Sen. John McCain who "has voted for every American-job-killing free trade deal without regard to human rights or environmental standards. And he has proposed, instead of providing health insurance for all Americans, a plan to tax the insurance of those lucky enough to still have employer-provided coverage."

When it comes to negotiations, Tom Conway, vice president for administration, who is in charge of the Steelworkers collective bargaining arm, said it was nice to have Mr. Gerard behind him.

Mr. Conway said there are two types of bargaining; there is one style that is just a list and the union crosses off what it wants as it gets it, then there is the bargaining as problem solving. "He'll have three or four principal things, and he'll look to solve those problems rather than just swapping or horse trading."

Mr. Conway said his boss was willing to work with companies until they aren't willing to work with him. At that point, he won't back down.

The most recent contract with U.S. Steel is a prime example. Over the previous five years, the U.S. steel industry went through a radical restructuring that included shedding billions in retiree and health-care obligations, closing plants, mergers and winning union concessions

The union and company came to an agreement Sept. 9 that called for wage increases, enhanced pensions and reduced health care premiums for retirees and for the company to invest $3 billion in its U.S. operations.

"That was a good deal," Mr. Conway said, adding that if the United Steelworkers had waited two weeks longer, "I wouldn't have gotten that deal."

At the time of the deal, Mr. Gerard said it was the union that saved the industry.

In a prepared statement, John Surma, chairman and chief executive officer of U.S. Steel, said: "The importance of [Mr. Gerard's] role in the shaping of a new and progressive labor-management relationship in the steel industry cannot be overstated.

"He is a passionate champion of American workers and American manufacturing. His counsel is sought out and valued by many leaders in labor and industry -- including myself -- and his voice will be increasingly important in the discussion surrounding our nation's current economic situation."

When negotiations get tough -- as they might in the next few months -- Mr. Conway said his boss has a saying: "He is both personally and institutionally offended." That's when Mr. Conway knows Mr. Gerard's tough side will come out, and there will be no backing down.

"In his heart, he's kind of just a local steelworker," Mr. Conway said.

Ann Belser can be reached at or 412-263-1699.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?