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Leo Gerard, seen here on March 25, 2014, earned respect from business leaders in his years as international president of the United Steel Workers.

JIM WATSON

Canadian labour activist Leo Gerard recently retired after 18 years as international president of the United Steel Workers (USW) – the largest industrial union in North America. The onetime smelter worker devoted his career to battling the wealth gap.

Mr. Gerard faced numerous headwinds as a labour leader. He has grappled with declining rates of union membership. He has taken on leaders of both U.S. political parties, whose free-trade orthodoxy collided with his members’ concerns about imports of steel and other products. And he has struggled with members of his own union who have little in common culturally with U.S. President Donald Trump, but are nonetheless drawn to the Manhattan tycoon because of his populist approach and his nationalistic rhetoric.

The discord roiled Mr. Gerard’s union and placed him in a difficult political position. He argued just after the Trump triumph that the new President was elected “by stealing our agenda.” But he found much of the Trump program – tax cuts that benefitted the rich, an assault on the Obamacare health-care program, the appointment of anti-labour officials throughout the new Cabinet – distasteful. And yet, he was photographed with Mr. Trump at the White House and praised the President for sending “a signal that he’s going to help us get a level playing field” with the Chinese steel industry.

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Mr. Gerard earned respect from business leaders. James Rohr, the former chair and chief executive of PNC Financial Services Group, one of America’s top 10 banks, describes Mr. Gerard as “a unique man with a global and local perspective.”

Even so, for Mr. Gerard – a native of Creighton Mine, Ont., the son of a mining-union organizer, the protégé of Canadian labour leader Lynn Williams, a youthful fan of the Sudbury Wolves hockey team who became an ardent partisan of the Pittsburgh Penguins – the fight for economic justice and for a place at the bargaining table is his life’s work and he vows to continue it, even if it is conducted from a cottage near Sudbury, Ont.

Mr. Gerard battled the NAFTA trade deal and helped sink American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Gino Donato/The Canadian Press

‘’The future of the labour movement is something we should all worry about,’’ Mr. Gerard, 72 years old, said before decamping for Nepewassi Lake, Ont., where the emphasis is on pickerel and not politics. “Things are slightly better in Canada than they are in the U.S., where the extreme right wing of the Republican Party is determined to weaken the labour movement. Part of the reason we have so much income inequality is because the anti-union movement in the U.S. is stronger than it is in almost any other country.”

Mr. Gerard has straddled the Canadian-American border for decades, particularly in his years as the president of a labour union with footholds not only in steel but also in paper, forestry products, steel, aluminum, tires, rubber, mining, glass, chemicals and petroleum. “He has given us the ability to be reckoned with,” said Ken Neumann, the USW’s national director for Canada. “We come across giants. He made us competitive with them.”

In his time atop the USW, Mr. Gerard battled the NAFTA trade deal, helped sink American participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, created international alliances – and, much to his and local business leaders’ surprise, became an important civic leader in Pittsburgh, where the USW head office sits a block from the site where French and British colonists battled for control of the Ohio River at the centre of 18th-century North American trade routes.

Mr. Gerard struggled with members of his union being drawn to U.S. President Donald Trump.

AARON P. BERNSTEIN/REUTERS

“There have been times when unions were unreasonable and times when employers were unreasonable, but Leo could always make a deal,” said Mr. Rohr, the retired head of PNC bank, which, like Mr. Gerard’s union, has its headquarters in downtown Pittsburgh. “Coming from Canada was a great advantage for Leo, because he understands international economics and international trade. But most of all, he understands the needs of the community he lives in and the communities his members live in.”

The two have worked together to fight juvenile diabetes and to find jobs for low-income teens.

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Mr. Gerard was born to the union movement. His father was an organizer in the old Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers’ union at a time when new mines were being opened throughout Ontario. He lived in a company house, his father bought his rubber coveralls in a company store, and the family went to a company doctor. His earliest memories were of sitting on the stairs listening as his father conducted union meetings in the basement.

But his most vivid memory is of the day his mother sent him to the company clinic to get cough medicine for his brother.

“When I was there, three miners – two of them looking pretty haggard – were coughing like mad. I later understood these guys had silicosis, but the clinic gave these men the same homemade cough medicine that they had for my brother’s cold. I can close my eyes right now and see exactly where they were sitting in those chairs.”

Mr. Gerard believes 'where there is global capitalism, there needs to be global unionism.'

Chip Somodevilla

As a young man, Mr. Gerard worked in a Sudbury smelter, careful to assure that his union contract book was visible in his pocket. Before long, he was punished for his union activism by bosses who made him rake rocks that had fallen off mine trucks.

He became a shop steward and fell under the influence of Mr. Williams, who later became the president of the USW, and the first Canadian to head a major North American industrial union. Mr. Williams recommended that Lloyd McBride, like Mr. Williams and Mr. Gerard, a future union president, hire the young labour official from Sudbury.

Mr. Gerard, who had entertained dreams of becoming an economics professor, moved to Toronto. His rise up the union leadership ladder was meteoric.

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“No one believed more in workers and their ability to make change through collective bargaining,” said Richard Trumpka, like Mr. Gerard, the son of a miner who for nearly a decade has been the president of the AFL-CIO, the federation of 55 American and international unions. “He made fair trade, safe work places and an economy that works for all his life’s mission. Every worker – every worker – was his brother and sister and he fought to protect them and help them make progress.”

Mr. Gerard leaves office with the conviction that “where there is global capitalism, there needs to be global unionism” and, though in retirement, he remains a strong voice for the need for labour itself to have a strong voice.

“Unions have always been necessary, but now they are more necessary than ever,” he said. “It’s not just about collective bargaining. It’s about the environment and the future of work, too. If the labour unions weren’t worrying about these things, who would?”

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