The Sunday Magazine

Canadian labour legend Leo Gerard on the past, present and future of unions

The veteran labour leader talks about his life in the labour movement and the future of unions in an age of globalized trade, a collapsing manufacturing sector and precarious employment.
Leo Gerard, former international president of the United Steelworkers Union. (Markus Schwabe/CBC)

Leo Gerard was 11 years old when he handed out his first union leaflets. That was in 1958, and he was living in Sudbury, a mining town. The leaflets were for the Mine Mill, the union his father belonged to. 

What Gerard didn't know then was that he would spend much of the rest of his life as a labour leader and activist. 

He began as a staff representative at the United Steelworkers (the USW) and moved quickly through the ranks. This summer, he retired as international president of the USW, a position he held for 18 years. 

Gerard spoke to The Sunday Edition's Michael Enright about his life in the labour movement and the future of unions in an age of globalized trade, a collapsing manufacturing sector and precarious employment.

Leo Gerard's interview has been edited and condensed. To hear the full interview, click 'listen' above.

What was it like growing up in Sudbury in those days, in a mining family and a mining town?

The thing that has stayed with me the most from my time in Lively, just outside of Sudbury, was we had an Inco clinic, run by the company doctors and nurses. When my younger brother was feeling ill, my mom called the clinic and said that she was going to send me over to get some medicine.

When I walked in, I saw three miners sitting on the bench and they were coughing and hacking. One of them went to the window and got his bottle and his envelope. Then I got called up and I went up and got my bottle and my envelope. That was homemade cough medicine that they gave us.

Later when I became active in the union and became older and a little bit wiser, I learned that those miners were suffering from silicosis, and they were getting homemade cough medicine – the same thing that my brother was getting to fight off a cold. I have never forgotten that.

Your dad was a member of the Mine Mill, a very militant union at the time. It eventually merged with Steel. But it was an awful, bitter struggle, wasn't it?

It was a bitter battle. When I decided to become a shop steward in 1969, my dad was still livid. The merger was in '67 and he felt that his union had betrayed him by merging with the Steelworkers. In fact, he told me I wasn't welcome in the house when I put up my stewards' badge. He thought the Steelworkers was not militant enough. That fight went on for quite some time.

When I got elected to being a district director, and we were getting sworn in … my dad said in his raspy voice, "You know kid, I'm proud of you." I said, "Dad if you're proud of me you will put this pin on." I took my Steelworker pin and gave it to him. He put it on and by the time we got to where we should be, we all shook hands, hugged each other and dropped a tear.

What was the state of labour unions generally at that time in North America?

If I go back to the time we're talking about — the Canadian industry and Canadian unionism was growing. Public sector and the private sector were both growing. We were at about 34-35 per cent. In the U.S. it  gained fairly substantial numbers, 28-29 per cent. 

In the two decades after that, the unionization rate in the U.S. is down below 12 per cent. And a large part of that is bad trade deals, bad development companies. The worst labour law in the industrial world comes from the United States.

The way I characterize the labour law in the U.S. is: workers have a right to try and join a union, the company has a right to do anything they can to stop them. 

Once there's a union, the workers have a right to try and bargain a collective agreement and the management has the right to do anything they want to stop them. Once we get the collective agreement, we have a right to try to influence that collective agreement and corporations do everything they can to stop the enforcement.

It's a battle between those that want to make money by manipulating money and those that want to make money by building things.- Leo Gerard

Why is the private sector so anti-union?

When I became a district director, I was 38 years old. I sat down at one of our board lunches between meetings. Our chief economist at time, a guy named Phil Smith, said, "You know guys, we're in a battle that nobody understands.

"It's a battle between those that want to make money by manipulating money and those that want to make money by building things. If the people that want to make money by manipulating paper win, we're in big trouble." 

That was 1986. And that's really what happened. The economies have been driven to reward just one participant in the system. And that's the stakeholder being the shareholder. The rest of us are left by the wayside.

Is this the reason that manufacturing in the U.S. and to a certain extent in Canada has been hollowed out? Companies are moving to Mexico or China, taking the unionized and good-paying jobs.

That's a key component of this. I'll give you an example. We've had a longtime relationship with Goodyear Tire and Rubber. They had a financial crisis about eight years ago. We helped them get through that. But now they've decided they're going to build a brand new tire plant in Monterrey, Mexico. 

A steelworker or a rubber worker in Toronto or in Akron would make about $28 dollars an hour plus benefits. A tire maker in Monterrey, Mexico makes $2.20 an hour if they're at the top of the heap. If they're a new employee, they start off at 99 American cents per hour. Don't ask me to compete with that. Don't ask me why a government lets that occur. 

It happens because the financial powers in developed countries, as well as the United States and Canada, have influence over the economic model.

This is not a gift from God. This is an economic model that was designed by those planning to make money by manipulating paper and maximizing their return. The hell with the community, the hell with the workers, the hell with my social responsibility. And for some of them still, the hell with the environment.

Why would a company like Goodyear, who's an established name brand company, feel that they need to pay somebody $2.20 an hour? You know why? Because they can get away with it.

I have two words for you: Donald Trump. You had to deal with him. You had a role in getting him to lift the steel tariffs on Canada. Tell me about him. Tell me about that. 

It was very clear to me and some others that the Trump move on steel and aluminum tariffs on Canada was a move to try and leverage Canada as he was attempting to negotiate NAFTA 2.0. It had nothing to do with the Canadian economy, old steel and aluminum being competitive, cheating or anything else.

America has the most anti-worker organizing structure in the advanced global economy.- Leo Gerard

What has been the impact of President Trump on the labour movement in the U.S.?

Here's some statistics. While he's trying to pretend he's negotiating a trade deal with China, America's trade deficit with China has gone up during that period of time. In fact the statistics were just out. 80,000 factories have closed in America during Trump's first two and a half years.

These are a lot of mom and pops that were put out of business because of the tariffs and because of other stuff that was done. 

The Steelworkers Union is for tariffs but we're for tariffs on those countries that cheat. Those countries that don't play by international trade rules should not get a free ride into the market in Canada or in the United States or any advanced democracy.

The nature of work itself has changed radically since you and I started out. There are more and more non-standard, precarious forms of work, especially in what they call the gig economy. Why have unions been slow to organize these people?

I would say the reason that we've been slow is the gig economy has been so fast. The rules on organizing trade unions are so antiquated. These are the rules that were brought after the Second World War. During that period of time, industry has learned to slow down the application of the rules or roll them back or make them unenforceable. 

I keep repeating it because that's the reality: America has the most anti-worker organizing structure in the advanced global economy.

We will have to fight, as I call it, the Ubers — the Ubers of the world. I don't care if they're existing as long as they have to play by the same rules as the other transportation organizations. But when Uber doesn't have to, that gives them an unfair advantage.

Labour in the U.S. — AFL-CIO, independent unions — have come out against the so-called Green New Deal, which was designed by its sponsors to bring down emissions and to do something about climate change. Why is labour against that?

That's an inaccurate statement. We're not against all the things you just raised. What we're against is the way that the new deal popped out. It popped out by tying a whole bunch of things together that we can't do while we're fighting for a cleaner environment. 

The Steelworkers Union held their first anti-pollution conference in 1963. Sudbury was the centre of pollution for most of North America. The union played a great role in driving Inco to clean up. I'm the co-chair of an organization I helped create called the Blue Green Alliance, which collectively has about 14 million lives attached to it.

Call me whatever you want as long as you give me national healthcare and a right to a union.- Leo Gerard

What do you say to your members in Alberta though? They're saying if we can't get the pipelines built we're screwed.

There's been a gap in the campaign. The safest way to move any liquid is by pipeline. The reality is that you're going to need fossil fuels for at least the next hundred years. What we need to do is, do it in a way that's going to reduce emissions, capture carbon and be healthy to the environment.

We need a strong North American agenda and a strong global agenda for that. When I hear people say, "Ban mining, we shouldn't be mining," like they did in the last U.S. election in Minnesota, that shows a lack of knowledge. You can't build a wind turbine without one to two tons of copper and cement to hold it down. You can't do solar panels without aluminum and glass, which is made with sand. You have to mine sand. 

So there needs to be an honest dialogue. We're not running away from the fact that the climate is in crisis. But so is industrial manufacturing. And we need a joint effort to save both. The reality is not one or the other. We will either have both or we'll have neither as our kids grow up.

There will be people listening, who will say, 'Well there you go. He's nothing but a communist.'

There are some folks in the U.S. who will say, "Well there he goes. He's nothing but a capitalist." And they don't know what either is. I don't put a label on the fight for the right of workers to have access to good healthcare. I don't put a label on the fact that workers should have the right to join a union of their choice. 

Bernie Sanders is a socialist and they seem to like him. Call me whatever you want as long as you give me national healthcare and a right to a union.


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