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USW president retiring, new leadership taking over

United Steelworkers President Leo Gerard speaks at the memorial and rally commemorating the 1937 Memorial Day "massacre" at the Republic Steel plant in South Chicago. Gerard is retiring, effective Monday.

Longtime United Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard is retiring after nearly two decades at the helm.

Gerard, who's in his 70s, presided as international president of the union that represents more than 1.2 million active and retired workers nationwide, including thousands in Northwest Indiana. He took that executive role with the USW in 2001 after a lengthy career that included stints as a local union activist, a shop steward, district director, national director of Canada, and secretary-treasurer.

He will be succeeded by Thomas Conway, who has served as the USW's vice president for administration since 2005, effective Monday.

Gerard grew up in a company town in Ontario where nickel producer Inco Limited "never succeeded in owning the souls of the men and women who lived and worked there" because they were "union men and women, self-possessed, a little rowdy and well aware that puny pleas from individual workers fall on deaf corporate ears."

"As I prepare to retire in a couple of days, 54 years after starting work as a copper puncher at the Inco smelter, the relationship between massive, multi-national corporations and workers is different," he wrote in a farewell blog post. "Unions represent a much smaller percentage of workers now, so few that some don’t even know what a labor organization is — or what organized labor can accomplish. That is the result of deliberate, decades-long attacks on unions by corporations and the rich. They intend to own not only workers’ time and production but their very souls."

Nearly one in three workers in the United States belonged to the union when Gerard started his career in the 1960s. It's been plummeting since 1980 and now stands at just 10.5% of the total workforce in America.

"Between the end of World War II and 1970, during the rise of unions, workers’ incomes rose with productivity," Gerard wrote. "Income inequality declined, and North America became home to the largest middle class in history. After 1970 and the Chamber effort to implement the Powell manifesto, unions declined and workers’ wages stagnated. Virtually all new income and profits went to CEOs, stockholders and the already rich. The middle class dwindled as income inequality rose to Gilded Age levels."

Companies have been focusing only on shareholders, exporting jobs to countries with "low wages and lax environmental laws." Imports flooded in as the United States started to see trade deficits in the 1970s.

"Congress’ failure to heed this alarm resulted in the collapse of the U.S. textile and shoe industries and many others. It very nearly killed the steel industry, which has suffered tsunami after tsunami of bankruptcies, gunpoint mergers and mill closures," Gerard wrote. "Tens of thousands of family-supporting jobs were lost and communities across both the United States and Canada hollowed out. In 1971 and 1972, the trade deficit totaled $8.4 billion. Last year it was $621 billion. Every imported toy, shoe, bolt of cloth and ingot of steel means fewer U.S. factories and jobs and more struggling towns."

To counter the rise of multinational companies, Gerard got the USW to participate in three global unions that represent 82 million workers in 150 countries worldwide, and expanded the union to include new sectors. He said the union made workplaces safer and "beat back unfair trade deals" during his tenure.

Gerard's administration is stepping down along with him on Monday. Secretary-Treasurer Stan Johnson, Vice President At Large Carol Landry and Vice President Jon Geenen are leaving their positions. The international executive board named Conway international president, John Shinn international secretary-treasurer, David McCall international vice president/administration, Roxanne Brown international vice president at large, and Leeann Foster international vice president.

In his final missive as international president, Gerard called for solidarity among workers everywhere.

"Now, for labor to secure gains, in the United States or Canada or anywhere, workers must mobilize," he wrote. "We have to bring everyone together, women, men, poor people, people of color, gay people — all working people. None of us is big enough or developed enough to win this fight alone. If we fight together, I can’t guarantee we will win. But if we don’t fight for justice, I can guarantee we will lose."

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.