In Memoriam: Lynn Williams

Lynn Williams—president of the United Steelworkers of America from 1983 to 1994—died on May 5 at the age of 89.

Lynn was an extraordinary union leader—smart, compassionate, and a visionary. His strength and creativity helped protect and expand his union through the crisis years of mass layoffs, bankruptcies, and industry consolidation. He was also an enthusiastic and loyal supporter of EPI from the very beginning.

I first met Lynn in the mid-1970s when he was USWA’s Secretary-Treasurer. I was involved in an effort to revive a shut down steel mill in Youngstown, Ohio under worker and community ownership. The Steelworkers in Youngstown were of course totally supportive, but there was skepticism and even some hostility from the international union in Pittsburgh. But Lynn saw something important in the effort, and he helped steer me through some political land mines.

The Youngstown project failed, but the idea did not. And when Lynn became union president he aggressively and successfully used worker ownership—including seats on company board of directors—to negotiate agreements that kept at least 25 steel companies from disappearing.

A decade later, when I described the vision of EPI to Lynn, he immediately signed on. He said progressives desperately needed a credible source of ideas and information to combat the reactionary trend in the debate over economics. “I’ll do whatever I can to help,” he promised.

And so he did. He was one of the small group of union presidents that provided EPI with its start-up financing.

A year later, when the group met to review EPI’s progress, Lynn said that EPI “was the best thing that I’ve ever supported.” Given the respect that the other union presidents had for Lynn, his remark helped ensure their long-term commitment. Among his many legacies is the strong support for EPI by his successors the late George Becker and current president Leo Gerard. We were moved and honored that, as ill as Lynn was, he insisted on traveling from his home in Canada to Washington for EPI’s 25th anniversary celebration.

I had another personal connection with Lynn. He told me that he cut his teeth as an organizer in the historic steel strike in Hamilton, Ontario, right after World War II. Canadian industrialists had provoked the strike as part of a campaign to break the labor movement there. My late ex-father-in-law was a skilled worker in that mill, and his family vividly remembered the struggle to put food on the table during the long and bitter conflict, which the union eventually won.

I always thought that Lynn’s roots in Canada, where the social contract was, and still is, more generally accepted than in the United States, gave him an especially strong sense that people who worked for a living had a moral right to decent pay, job security and dignity at work. He certainly committed his life to making it happen.

His life is over, but it remains an inspiration for us all.