In 1972, Mr. Williams won election as director of District 6, the second-largest in the United Steelworkers with 130,000 members, a first step on his climb toward the international presidency. His rival disparaged him as a “pencil pusher” – a barb with some sting since it had been 25 years since Mr. Williams had worked on a shop floor.
He spent several years on the executive council of the Canadian Labour Congress until 1977, when he was elected international secretary on a slate headed by Lloyd McBride. When Mr. McBride died six years later, the union’s executive board surprised many by voting 16-12 in favour of Mr. Williams serving as acting president. An international referendum in 1984 pitted Mr. Williams, a long-time union administrator, against treasurer Frank McKee, an American who spent two decades sweating in front of a steel-mill hearth before climbing the union ladder.
The McKee campaign made naked appeals to American patriotism, insisting that a Canadian such as Mr. Williams had no business leading an American-dominated union in an U.S. presidential year. “Vote American,” the McKee literature insisted. In the end, Mr. Williams claimed a handy victory, thanks to overwhelming support from Canadian steel workers. His prize was a union under siege, both from a changing global economy and a White House determined to weaken organized labour. He also had to contend with a movement within his union for greater Canadian control of Canadian locals.
Soon after becoming United Steelworkers president, Mr. Williams appeared before a hearing of the U.S. International Trade Commission, blaming imports of steel for the decline in the domestic industry. “What we are experiencing in steel is the export of unemployment from Brazil, Korea, Europe, Japan and elsewhere to the United States,” he told the commission.
He retired from the union in 1994, and was admitted to the Order of Canada in 2005and, two years later, a street in a formerly industrial neighbourhood of Toronto was named for him.
Mr. Williams died on May 5 in Toronto. He leaves four children, 11 grandchildren, and his sister. Audrey, his wife of 53 years, died in 2000.