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United Steelworkers remembers its late president

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Lynn R. Williams, who led the United Steelworkers (USW) as its international president during a turbulent decade of steel industry consolidation, died on May 4 at age 89 in Toronto, Canada.

Williams was the first Canadian to lead the USW and served as the union’s president from 1983 to 1994.

“Lynn Williams held this union together through the worst of times, the massive bankruptcies and consolidations in the U.S. steel industry,” USW International President Leo Gerard said in a statement released on Monday. “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.”

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 McBride’s term and was re-elected to full terms in 1985 and 1989.

Between 1981 and 1985, the basic steel industry lost some 350,000 jobs in the U.S., what Williams later called a “frightful time” for the union. The crisis created a wave of early retirements and, in many cases, threatened 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,” 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.”

“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,” the statement said.

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

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

In retirement, 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 two big influences in my union life have been my father and Lynn Williams,” Gerard said. “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.”

 

Posted 5/6/2014