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Why a labour leader who backed Hillary Clinton is now drawn to Donald Trump’s side

United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard shakes hands with U.S. President Donald Trump.

AARON P. BERNSTEIN/REUTERS

What's wrong with this picture from the White House Thursday?

There's President Donald Trump, sitting at his Oval Office desk, the iconic yellow curtains behind him and a group of American grandees, including the Commerce Secretary, surrounding him. And at the centre of the picture is Leo Gerard, who's not even an American and who is president of a union that backed Hillary Clinton in the November election.

That picture – capturing an unusual, even uncomfortable president-to-president moment – is a glimpse of how the isms have become wasms in American politics. Mr. Gerard, who grew up near Sudbury in Lively, Ont., and is the chief of the 1.2-million-member United Steelworkers, was plainly uneasy in the Trump White House. But on a day in which the 45th President also launched an unscripted attack on Canadian dairy-trade practices, Mr. Gerard felt he had a vital role to play.

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"The important thing for my being there is that Canada's not the problem that the United States has in the steel industry," Mr. Gerard said in an interview Friday in his office, a 12th-floor aerie with a spectacular view of Pittsburgh's three rivers. "The problem with the steel industries of both countries – Canada and the United States – is the onslaught of unfairly traded steel, primarily from China but also from Japan, South Korea and India."

The occasion for Mr. Gerard's White House appearance was Mr. Trump's signature on a memorandum calling for an investigation that could lead to barriers to steel imports from China and other nations with steel industries – a move that pleased Mr. Gerard and that Mr. Trump said was aimed at helping the American workers who he said were "one of the primary reasons I'm sitting here today as President." Mr. Trump cited national security and invoked half-century-old statute for the basis of his initiative.

Mr. Gerard's union may have opposed Mr. Trump's election, but its members supported many elements of the Trump political appeal – not so much a contradiction as a commentary on the impatience and frustration that blue-collar workers have in the second decade of the 21st century.

"In the industrial heartland – and I refuse to call it the Rust Belt – a number of our members voted for Trump because he talked about doing the things they believed needed to be done, especially rebuilding manufacturing," Mr. Gerard said.

"No one really was as aggressive or assertive as he was. He spoke directly to their concerns." Then he added: "Part of the difficulty is that he's got to deal with a Republican majority in Congress that over the time I've been around has never really lifted a finger to make life better for workers. In fact, they've done the opposite."

The route from Mr. Gerard's youth, as the son of an Inco Limited miner and volunteer labour organizer, to Mr. Trump's office took him through negotiations involving Wilbur Ross, now the Commerce Secretary in Mr. Trump's cabinet. Labour leaders such as Mr. Gerard sometimes are exceedingly wary of commerce secretaries – Herbert Hoover was perhaps the most famous – and often are more congenial to labour secretaries.

But Mr. Gerard considers Mr. Ross, who has a history of rescuing bankrupt manufacturing companies, as a vital ally.

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"Back in the start of the 21st century, we had a huge crisis in the steel industry – again – and we worked with Wilbur Ross and were able to save the majority of LTV and Bethlehem Steel," said Mr. Gerard. "I can remember they were going to close LTV's Cleveland operations, and we got support to keep it going from Wilbur Ross. Today, that Cleveland mill is one of the most modern, efficient mills in the world – and they were going to bulldoze the thing."

It was the involvement this spring of Mr. Ross, and the contemporary crisis in the steel industry, that drew Mr. Gerard to Mr. Trump's side, at least for a signing ceremony.

"Part of the reason I was willing to go to the thing with Trump was to make it understood that it's not just steel," Mr. Gerard said. "The same thing's happening in aluminum, cement, glass. The trade laws don't work. On both sides of the border, we have to fix the trade laws. The American and Canadian worker should not have to pay this price.

"Don't tell me we can't compete," he continued. "We can't compete against cheaters." Mr. Gerard, who during the 2016 campaign criticized Mr. Trump's companies for using imported steel, isn't the only North American labour leader to find himself by the new President's side. Leaders of the United Auto Workers and the Building Trades Union have favoured Trump initiatives in his first hundred days on behalf of the automobile industry and energy-pipeline interests, respectively.

In his youth, Mr. Gerard, now 70, sat on the basement stairs listening to stewards' meetings conducted by his father. He signed on with a contractor doing work in the local nickel smelter one summer. Eventually, he abandoned his dream of becoming an economics professor. He first visited Toronto when he began to advance in the Canadian labour movement.

Mr. Gerard, whose Northern Ontario accent would be unremarkable in Sudbury but is a colourful presence in Pittsburgh, knows he is playing a difficult role in Mr. Trump's United States. But as the president of the largest industrial union in North America, he is an experienced political hand and believes he has both a strategy and a tactic.

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"What we did, after the election, was to indicate that if the President wanted to renegotiate NAFTA and have a big infrastructure program and re-energize and rebuild the manufacturing base, we would be ready to help him," he said. "But at the same time, if and how it gets done is important. If [Mr. Trump] is going to rebuild infrastructure by having toll roads and all that jazz, that would shift the cost back to workers, that would not be the best way to rebuild the infrastructure." But Mr. Gerard speaks as much as a Canadian as a labour leader.

"Part of my role is to make sure I'm a voice for our members on both sides of the border," he said. "Steel, rubber, cement, glass – I make it clear Canada is not part of the problem."

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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