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Lynn Williams, United Steelworkers of America Union leader, March 8, 1984. (Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)
Lynn Williams, United Steelworkers of America Union leader, March 8, 1984. (Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail)

Obituary

Lynn Williams was the first Canadian to lead United Steelworkers Add to ...

Lynn Williams, a preacher’s son, witnessed the deprivations of the Depression first-hand as his father served an impoverished, working-class flock. Though the boy once dreamed of following his father, he abandoned the pulpit for the factory gate as a union organizer.

Mr. Williams, who died May 5 at the age of 89, ascended slowly up the United Steelworkers of America ladder as an organizer and administrator until, in 1984, he won a bitter election, becoming the first Canadian to head an international industrial union.

As president, he ran a desperate, and sometimes innovative, rear-guard action to protect members’ wages and benefits at a time of crisis for the steel industry. His 10-year presidency coincided with, in his words, “the biggest, longest, most destructive downturn in steel industry history, with mills closing everywhere, enormous restructuring, thousands of jobs lost, and communities devastated.”

In exchange for concessions, he negotiated seats at the board table, so workers would have some influence on the operation of companies on the brink of insolvency.

More a pragmatist than a utopian, Mr. Williams was a cautious and even conservative figure among labour leaders. He was not one for fiery rhetoric, or salty language, nor was he one to rouse the rabble. University educated and a conciliator by nature, a trait he inherited from his minister father, he was an effective one-on-one organizer, as well as a peerless navigator of the perilous waters of union politics.

He saw his role of international president as being comparable to a CEO of the companies with which he negotiated. His job in those troubled times was to find “a balance between pushing hard for your workers and knowing when to make compromises that would protect their jobs in the long term,” he wrote in his 2011 memoir, One Day Longer.

His decade as president also coincided with a series of prominent defeats. For example, he opposed the North American Free Trade Agreementand he and his union backed the Democratic presidential candidacies of Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis.

A social democrat and a long-time official with the New Democratic Party, Mr. Williams was a prominent figure in the move to purge the radical Waffle wing from the party in the 1970s. He also figured in two legendary and bitter struggles within the labour movement – raiding locals of the rival Mine Mill and Smelter Workers union, and fighting a defensive action against some steel workers who wished to break away to form independent, Canadian unions.

Lynn Russell Williams was born on July 21, 1924. His father, Waldemar Williams (the family name earlier anglicized from Wilhelm) met Emma Fisher while doing missionary work as a German Methodist in Medicine Hat, Alta. His first of several congregations in Ontario was at a Methodist church in Tilbury, where son Ross was born in 1919. The family then moved to rural Springfield, near London, where Lynn was born. Soon after, they moved again to nearby Aylmer, where daughter Carol, was born in 1930.

In 1931, the family settled in Sarnia, an industrial city where the Depression was keenly felt by most parishioners. “My father’s church was in the south end, near the railroad yards and shops and the Imperial Oil refinery, in the heart of the working-class area of town,” Mr. Williams recounted in his memoir.

Young Lynn joined his father in delivering Christmas baskets to the needy, getting a close-up look at poverty. The family’s home, owned by the church, became a destination for hobos and tramps, who received food and clothing. He noted his parents had different approachesto the politics of the time, seeing in his minister father a conciliator and in his mother a “Robin Hood socialist.” Meanwhile, the maternal branch of the family in Alberta had taken up the Social Credit creed.

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