Thomas M. Conway

Thomas M. Conway

International President

Thomas M. Conway was elected by the International Executive Board to succeed retiring International President Leo W. Gerard as leader of the United Steelworkers (USW), the largest industrial union in North America, effective July 15, 2019.

Previously, Conway served as International Vice President (Administration), a position he held since March 1, 2005, when he replaced Andrew “Lefty” Palm, who retired. Conway was re-elected four times, most recently in November 2017.

Conway grew up in a union family in New Jersey. His father was an active member of the International Union of Operating Engineers. His mother worked in a brush factory, where she successfully organized a union and negotiated labor contracts.

After serving four years in the U.S. Air Force and attending a trade school for airframe and power plant mechanics, Conway was recruited by Bethlehem Steel in 1978 to work at its Burns Harbor Works, along Lake Michigan in Northwest Indiana. He joined Local 6787 and quickly became a union activist.

Conway was working as a millwright in the coke plant and acting as a union griever for maintenance workers in 1979 when Bethlehem, pummeled by imports in an economic downturn, announced its first plant-wide layoffs at Burns Harbor.

Having noticed work crews were heavily stacked with non-union contract employees, Conway devised a plan to reorganize work to avoid layoffs of union maintenance workers in the coke operations.

“The use of contractors in the mills was excessive. I was stunned by it. I couldn’t figure out who worked for Bethlehem Steel and who were contractors. We were all just mingled together. Finally I got down to a core group of guys,” he recalled.

“The industry was turning, and they were all talking about this layoff. I remember saying the company has two work forces, us and them. And when the time comes to go, it’s not going to be them that goes. It will be us – unless we do something about it.” 

The company agreed to implement Conway’s plan to preserve union jobs. Conway also sought help from the International and former General Counsel Bernie Kleiman, who put together a longer-range strategy to use grievances to recover jobs lost to outside contractors.

When the layoff came that year, no union members in the coke operations got pink slips. The story that Conway saved jobs roared through the rest of the mill like wildfire.

“That to me was a real turning point,” Conway said. “I sort of cut my teeth on contracting out.”

In addition to grieving, Conway served on the safety committee and chaired the contracting-out committee. He worked closely with International Vice President Dave McCall, who was then vice president of the local and chair of the grievance committee.

Conway joined the union’s International staff in 1987, and again in 1989 after a brief return to the local. As a staff representative, he serviced Burns Harbor and other steel facilities and got involved wherever he could at national bargaining tables, notably with National Steel, Bethlehem and U.S. Steel.

In 1995, former International President George Becker appointed Conway to serve as Secretary of the Basic Steel Industry Conference (BSIC). In that position, Conway was responsible for developing bargaining strategy and directing the union’s trade and legislative efforts at the state and local levels. He was the union’s lead voice in collective bargaining efforts during turbulent steel cycles for more than two decades.

An Asian economic crisis at the turn of the century led to massive dumping of unfairly and illegally traded foreign products into the U.S. market, which, in turn, forced nearly 50 steel companies to seek protection in bankruptcy courts between 1998 and 2002. Conway played an important role in the humane consolidation and restructuring of the industry, including the merger of National Steel into U.S. Steel in 2003. His efforts saved jobs and pensions.

For nearly a quarter century, Conway has demanded that the government enforce U.S. trade laws to prevent importation of unfairly traded, subsidized and dumped products that damage American industries and destroy good-paying American jobs.

Conway has lobbied leaders in Washington, D.C., and testified numerous times before Congress and the International Trade Commission (ITC) in pursuit of stiffer penalties for trade violators and infrastructure investment that would create jobs by requiring contractors to use American-made products.

In 2003, Conway testified on behalf of USW members who work in the rebar industry and in 2015 for members who work in the hot-rolled steel industry. He has also testified before the House Steel Caucus about China and other trading partners overproducing steel, dumping their illegally subsidized products in the United States and devastating the American steel industry. 

Conway has worked with domestic steel producers to achieve tariffs that have rescued many companies from bankruptcy and liquidation. He has worked for the antidumping and countervailing duties that protect American jobs in steel, aluminum, rubber, mining, paper and other major sectors. And he has fought trade agreements that put the interests of corporations and millionaires ahead of workers.

Conway directed “Stand Up for Steel” lobbying campaigns in cooperation with the industry that later evolved into the Alliance for American Manufacturing (AAM), founded in 2007 with the mission of strengthening American industry. AAM collaborates with employers and lawmakers to fight unfair trade, create jobs and support domestic production.

During his 14-year tenure as International Vice President, Conway became the union’s most experienced contract negotiator in steel, aluminum, oil and other major industries where USW members work, often directing bargaining during crises.

“Bargaining is really the heartbeat of the union. Everything else we do is in furtherance of getting a collective bargaining agreement for our members, and that is our core work,” he said.

“But a trade unionist should grow outside the two covers of their contract book to understand the importance of things around them. PAC (the USW Political Action Committee), Next Gen, Women of Steel and the other programs all come together to make sure you can get decent labor agreements. That’s the key to growing the union.”

Conway chaired negotiations with ATI, a specialty steel company that locked out 2,200 Steelworkers at 12 mills in six states on Aug. 15, 2015. Under his leadership, the USW ran a successful “fight back” campaign and reached an agreement to end the labor dispute seven months later, after the NLRB issued a complaint declaring the lockout illegal for its duration.

Conway also has directed USW negotiations with AK Steel and Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. since 2006. He played a central role in achieving the Trade Act Section 421 tariff relief in the tire industry against the flood of unfairly traded tires from Asia.

Conway led talks with U.S. Steel in 2008, 2012 and 2015, when the industry was on the verge of crisis again because of illegally traded steel. In 2018, with the industry improving, USW members under Conway’s leadership successfully fought off concession demands and ratified a new four-year agreement covering 16,000 workers that significantly increased pay and included a signing bonus.

After settling with steel, Conway turned to negotiations with the oil industry. With Conway’s guidance, the USW oil workers reached a three-year contract in January 2019 that advanced wages, health and safety, and fatigue management. Quality health care was maintained, and the deal contained no retrogression on contract items the union had gained over the years. 

Also in 2019, Conway is leading bargaining in the troubled aluminum sector, including with Alcoa and spinoff Arconic, as well as bargaining efforts in specialty metals such as titanium. 

Conway was instrumental in developing the Institute for Career Development (ICD), a contractually negotiated benefit for eligible members and participating employers. 

Established in 1989, the ICD is a joint labor-management training program in which members can participate in self-directed learning opportunities on their own time.

The ICD offers a wide range of courses at 65 locations in the steel, tire and rubber, glass, container and utility sectors. Currently 16 companies participate. 

Conway is the eighth President of the USW.