When Lynn Williams took the helm of the United Steelworkers union in 1983, the domestic steel industry seemed to be in a death spiral.
From 1981 to 1985 – a period Williams later called a “frightful time” for the union, its members and its retirees – the basic steel industry shed some 350,000 jobs in the United States, triggering a wave of early retirements and, in many cases, putting retiree health benefits and pensions in jeopardy.
Williams, who died on May 5 at age 89 in Toronto, had the unenviable task of navigating a seemingly endless series of bankruptcies and consolidations. “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 recalled 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.”
Nonetheless, by leveraging employee stock holdings, Williams mediated bailouts that saved 25 steel plants from closing between 1985 and 1993, according to the New York Times.
As labor leaders go, in fact, Williams was seen by many as a visionary. In 1985, for example, he was a driving force behind the creation of the Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees and later became its president emeritus. SOAR, which now has more than 230 local chapters and 70,000 members, gives retired steelworkers a voice in contract negotiations and engages in political activism to protect retirees’ benefits and rights.
“Lynn’s vision was that the union should be there to help people – not just when they are at work, but when they are out of work and retired,” USW International President Leo W. Gerard, who considered Williams his lifelong mentor, said in a statement.
Here’s a talk that Williams gave at the 2011 USW convention:
Photo: United Steelworkers
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