Leo Gerard: An Extraordinary Legacy

Leo W. Gerard’s introduction to the value – and necessity – of unions came at an early age.

As a boy growing up in the 1950s in the hardrock mining town of Sudbury – dominated by global nickel giant Inco Ltd. – Gerard spent hours perched on a stairway in the family home, listening in fascination as his father Wilfred and fellow union “rabble rousers” held meetings in an adjacent room.

The young Gerard was struck by the fact that workers had to risk their livelihoods to achieve the most basic improvements to horrible working conditions, such as plotting a work stoppage to pressure the company to provide safety glasses.

“I was amazed that they would have to take action like that to get essential work equipment. The company, I thought, should voluntarily take this simple step to ensure workers were not unnecessarily injured on the job,” Gerard recalls.

“I learned two important lessons from sitting on the steps and listening to those meetings. One was that the company would do nothing for the workers unless forced by collective action. The other was that labour unions were instruments of both economic and social justice.”

The lessons of those formative years led Gerard into an extraordinary, five-decade career of labour activism, including 18 years as United Steelworkers International President.

Gerard’s retirement this summer cemented an undeniable legacy as one of his era’s most accomplished and influential labour leaders on the international stage.

“There are few labour leaders who can match Leo Gerard’s record and commitment in leading the fight for good jobs, for workers’ rights and for social justice in Canada, the U.S. and throughout the world,” says USW Canadian Director Ken Neumann.

Gerard began his career at age 18 at Inco’s mining operations in Sudbury. His blunt advocacy for fellow workers led to his first elected union position, as a shop steward within Steelworkers Local 6500.

In 1977, Gerard was hired as a Steelworkers staff representative and several years later he  began his ascent through the union’s elected leadership positions – District 6 Director, National Director for Canada, International Secretary-Treasurer and finally in 2001 as the seventh USW International President.

Gerard became the second Canadian Steelworker to lead the international union, following in the footsteps of his mentor Lynn Williams, who served as International President from 1983 to 1994.

Gerard was a constant, strong and credible voice for the USW in both Washington, D.C., and Ottawa, advocating on behalf of the union’s membership and their jobs, families and communities.

Under Gerard’s leadership, the USW formed the first global union, Workers Uniting, and built several other labour alliances around the world.

Gerard retired as International President on July 15 and has been succeeded by Thomas M. Conway, who served as a USW International Vice-President for 14 years.

Under Conway’s leadership, the USW is well-positioned to build on its unmatched legacy of standing up for our members, our communities and for economic and social justice for workers around the world, Gerard says.

“If we fight together, we can’t guarantee we will win every battle. But if we don’t fight for justice, I can guarantee we will lose,” he says. “For labour to secure gains, we have to mobilize. We have to bring everyone together.”

 

This article appears in the October 2019 edition of USW@Work.

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