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Former Steelworkers' president, Lynn Williams, dies at 89

| Monday, May 5, 2014, 2:09 p.m.

Lynn R. Williams, who led the United Steelworkers of America through a difficult period when the nation's steel industry collapsed in the early 1980s, died on Monday, May 5, 2014, in Toronto at 89.

He was union president from 1983 to 1994 and the first Canadian to head an international AFL-CIO union. He is credited with holding the union together by bringing dissident factions back in and using strategies to fight companies with its pocketbook in addition to picket lines.

Williams become interim president of the Steelworkers upon the death of Lloyd McBride. He won a special election to complete two years of McBride's term, and was elected to two subsequent terms.

Williams faced steel industry consolidation, bankruptcies and steel imports. Between 1981 and 1985, the basic steel industry lost 350,000 jobs in the United States, with a wave of early retirements and threats to 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.”

In a statement, Steelworkers President Leo Gerard said: “Lynn showed that he was a leader of great compassion and ingenuity, securing deals to help save as much of the industry as possible.”

In a forward to Williams' autobiography, fellow Canadian Gerard described Williams as “intelligent and wise, thoughtful and even-tempered, invariably willing to listen to all sides in a debate and never vengeful or mean-spirited. Lynn always wanted to make decisions that were the best for the members and our union.”

John Russo, former director of labor studies for Youngstown State University, said Williams “brought the union back together, which had not happened in some time.”

He said Williams used pension funds to fight companies with corporate campaigns “that targeted voting and legislative issues, bringing a new type of militancy to the Steelworkers.”

Williams' leadership in bargaining resulted in establishment of the Institute for Career Development, where he advanced proposals to promote training and trade policies, and the adoption of Voluntary Employee Benefit Associations, trust funds financed through employer-union contracts, according to the union. He was instrumental in securing corporate board positions for Steelworkers' representatives.

The son of a Canadian mill-town minister, Williams became a member of the union in 1947 when employed at John Inglis Co. in Toronto. He became a staff representative in 1956. He moved through the ranks and, in 1977, was elected secretary of the international union and moved to Pittsburgh.

A private funeral service for family will be held, and a public memorial service will be scheduled.

John D. Oravecz is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7882 or joravecz@tribweb.com.

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