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Lynn Williams was the first Canadian to lead United Steelworkers

Lynn Williams, United Steelworkers of America Union leader, March 8, 1984.

Erik Christensen/The Globe and Mail

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."

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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.

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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.

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.

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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.

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.

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