Lynn R. Williams, a Canadian union organizer who led the United Steelworkers from 1983 to 1994 when the North American industry was in decline, has died. He was 89.
As the U.S. steel industry lost 350,000 jobs between 1981 and 1985, Williams took leadership of the Pittsburgh-based union and worked with managers and lenders to create restructuring plans for ailing mills. Often these included concessions on worker pay and benefits, which he negotiated in exchange for stock options and profit sharing.
In 1993, the year before he retired, the USW estimated it had put together 25 such worker-ownership plans.
“Lynn Williams held this union together through the worst of times,” Leo W. Gerard, United Steelworkers president, said in a statement.
Lynn Russell Williams was born on July 21, 1924, in Springfield, Ontario, to Waldemar Williams, a minister, and the former Emma Elizabeth Fisher.
His upbringing in a series of Canadian industrial towns led him to see the plight of workers firsthand and motivated him to pursue a career the labor movement, according to a 1984 profile in the New York Times.
He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1944 and then served a year in the Royal Canadian Navy.
Williams worked for several unions in Canada and also helped found the country’s New Democratic Party, according to the Times profile.
The first Canadian to lead the USW, he was appointed president in 1983 to replace Lloyd McBride, who had died in office. He won a special election the following year and re-elected to full terms in 1985 and 1989.
Williams described his years leading the union as a time of trials.
“If you can imagine an old mattress out in the junkyard with the springs popping up, I was like a guy lying on the springs trying to hold them all down,” he said, according to a 2010 article in USW@Work magazine, a union publication.
The United Steelworkers represents members in the U.S., Canada and the Caribbean.
In 1946, Williams married the former Audrey Hansuld. She died in 2000. In addition to his son, his survivors include two daughters, Judy Hocking and Barbara Williams; a second son, David Williams; and 11 grandchildren.
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