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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)


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

The family’s feeling of security in those dark years received a jolt from which his mother never fully recovered. At the age of 16, Ross went to hospital for what promised to be a routine procedure on his appendix. He died, possibly from an allergic reaction to anesthetic. The sudden death led to the mother’s mental breakdown; for years after she suffered from paranoid schizophrenia, for which she received electroshock treatments. “She was terrified of the treatments,” he said in his memoir. “It was like dragging someone off to the electric chair to have her take them.” The procedure provided temporary relief, but the voices returned and she sank back into despair.

The family moved to Hamilton in 1938 and, three years later, Lynn began studying English and philosophy at McMaster University, intending to follow his father’s path. In the summer he turned 18, he preached at a church and at a resort on Lake Erie, learning how to deliver a message to a receptive audience. He was paid $7 for a morning service and got to keep the collection at the evening service.

He joined the University Air Training Corps, intent on becoming a pilot, but his eyesight disqualified him. He then signed up with the navy and was assigned to be a telegraphist. After training at Quebec City and Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., He was posted to the fishing village of Harbour Grace, Nfld. The port overlooked Conception Bay and beyond it the North Atlantic, treacherous even without the presence of German U-boats. He monitored the airwaves, listening for wireless reports from enemy submarines.

Back home after the war, he got a job on a labour gang at Stelco. “It was real work,” he wrote, “shovelling slag in front of the furnaces, unloading raw materials such as manganese and brick …” The factory job was short-lived and he soon became a community organizer with the YMCA. The steady paycheque meant he could marry Audrey Hansuld, the daughter of a manager in a meatpacking business whom he had begun dating in high school.

Less than a year later, in August, 1947, he was hired by the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, which was launching a campaign to organize 13,000 Eaton’s workers in Toronto. The Eaton’s card-signing drive lasted more than four years. Mr. Williams rode the streetcar to visit as many as five Eaton’s workers each evening, giving his pitch as to why they would benefit from union representation. But the long, slow and intimate campaign – conducted in bedsits, attic rooms and basement suites – ended in defeat. In the end, The union was unable to overcome the large employee turnover, as well as the allegiance many workers felt to a paternalistic employer.

Mr. Williams rebounded by successfully organizing employees of a department store in Windsor, Ont., a smaller city with a more receptive attitude to unionism. He next began to sign up workers at a mail-order house operated by Simpsons-Sears in Regina. While in Saskatchewan, he was hired by the Steelworkers to work in the company town of Kitimat, B.C. The union was conducting a raid of workers, many of them immigrants, represented by construction unions and the Aluminum Workers of America. The Steelworkers were successful in becoming the certified bargaining agent. (Later, the Kitimat workers came to regard the Steelworkers as little more than a dues-collecting agency. They pulled away to form the Canadian Association of Smelter and Allied Workers.)

Shortly after returning to his home in Toronto, Mr. Williams ran unsuccessfully for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the forerunner of the NDP, in a provincial by-election in York West. He got only about half as many votes as the Progressive Conservative candidate, Leslie Rowntree, a marine lawyer and Second World War naval veteran. In defeat, Mr. Williams took solace in having received more votes than the Liberal. He lived in Welland, Ont., for the next eight years, learning the service side of working for a union, a time during which he was also active in encouraging unionized workers to contribute more than $1-million toward the construction of Brock University in St. Catharines.

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