Obituary: Lynn R. Williams / First Canadian to run United Steelworkers

July 21, 1924 - May 5, 2014

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By the time Lynn R. Williams assumed the mantle of international president of the United Steelworkers, the industry was already in trouble.

His predecessor, Lloyd McBride, died in 1983 as the industry was collapsing. Mr. Williams was appointed to take over as the international president of the USW, then elected in 1984 to fill Mr. McBride's unexpired term. He ran for and won the presidency for two more terms in 1985 and 1989 before his retirement in 1994.

During that time, the North American steel industry was consolidating after being battered by cheap imports and multiple corporate bankruptcies.

Mr. Williams died Monday in Toronto. He was 89 and had suffered from Parkinson's disease.

He was born in Springfield, Ontario, and received a Bachelor of Arts degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1944.

In 1947, he got a job at the John Inglis and Co. factory in Toronto, where he joined the USW. He was subsequently hired as a union organizer by the Canadian Congress of Labor. He moved up through organized labor and became a district director in 1973.

He moved to Pittsburgh in 1977 when he was elected international secretary of the USW.

He was the first Canadian to lead the international union.

Mr. Williams took over the union during a period he later called "a frightful time." Between 1981 and 1985, the steel industry lost 350,000 jobs in the United States.

In a 2010 article in the USW's magazine, "USW @ Work," Mr. Williams described his early tenure.

"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," he said. "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."

While agreeing to concessionary contracts, he made gains for the workers by securing a seat for the union on corporate boards of directors and in management meetings, including meetings about selling steel companies.

He also created programs that protected the health insurance and pensions of workers whose companies were going through bankruptcy.

"Lynn Williams held this union together through the worst of times. 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," said USW international president Leo W. Gerard.

The funeral service will be private.


Ann Belser: abelser@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1699.


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