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USW's new president eyes foreign trade, labor laws

Friday, December 15, 2000

By Jim McKay, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Leo Gerard was 11 years old when he first helped his father, Wilfred, a Canadian miner and union activist, pass out leaflets on the eve of a strike. He didn't know it then, but that was the start of a career in labor activism.

Leo Gerard will become the United Steelworkers of America's next president. (Tony Tye, Post-Gazette)

Gerard, 53, yesterday said his father, were he still alive, would be happily dancing to his neighborhood legion hall to buy a round of beers on the news that his son will soon be the president of the United Steelworkers of America.

Now the union's secretary-treasurer, Gerard will succeed the retiring George Becker, 72, as the union's international president on Feb. 28. He will be the second Canadian to hold the job after Lynn Williams, who was the union's president before Becker assumed the title in November, 1993.

Becker restructured the 750,000-member union into fewer administrative districts and oversaw mergers with the United Rubber Workers and the Aluminum Brick and Glass Workers unions. He spoke out against steel imports and fought to include labor rights and environmental accords in trade agreements.

Gerard said he expects to spend, as Becker did, much time and attention on the aspects of international trade that can hurt American and Canadian workers, particularly in steel, and on politics aiming to improve labor laws that he believes favor employers in organizing situations.

"It's just nuts," Gerard said. "There's nothing else in American society where you can so blatantly violate the law and be ignored for doing it. We've got a hell of a job explaining to Congress and senators that the labor laws they think they have don't exist. They exist only on paper."

The union will continue to rebuild an organizing program that was given new commitment and additional financial resources under Becker's administration. He expects no significant changes in programs or operations.

"The way I think about this is, we are the front runners in a relay race," Gerard said. "I just got handed the baton, and my job is not to drop it."

Becker applauded Gerard for implementing cost-saving measures that enabled the union to survive a financial crisis in the early years of his administration.

Gerard said he will take over a union that is financially sound and developing the capability to communicate electronically to all of its employees and local unions.

He said the union is training new talent internally with scholarship programs and a four-year leadership development program that has so far attracted 400 union members.

Gerard started out at the Inco Ltd. mill in his hometown of Sudbury, Canada.

His first job as a copper puncher, one of the hottest and dirtiest tasks in the place, was to open clogged tuyeres, or pipes blowing air into a huge furnace, with a sledgehammer.

He squeezed college around his work schedule, became a union shop steward, then chief steward. He joined the union's Canadian staff in 1977 and spent six years as the Ontario district director and three as national director for Canada.

Gerard, on Becker's recommendation, was unanimously chosen by the union's executive board. James English, 59, a former executive assistant to Becker and the union's general counsel, will succeed Gerard as secretary-treasurer.

Becker, twice unopposed for the presidency, could have stayed in office until his term expired at the end of next year.

His departure gives Gerard an obvious leg up on challengers -- if there are any -- in elections scheduled for next fall.

A second-generation steel worker who grew up across the street from Granite City Steel in Illinois, where he worked, Becker is a motorcycle rider who still wears his shop keys on his belt.

He was known for fighting so-called "renegade corporations" including West Virginia's Ravenswood Aluminum, where there was a bitter strike, and Bridgestone-Firestone, which locked out workers after the USW merged with the rubber workers union.

In the memo announcing his retirement, Becker said he has enjoyed leading the union more than anything else he has done, his health is good but he is mindful of his age.

"I know in my heart that it's time to make a change," he said.

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