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After rubbing shoulders with U.S. presidents, Sudbury's Leo Gerard coming home for retirement

Veteran USW boss speaks of growing up in Lively, his long career (including dancing with Michelle Obama) and his lasting impressions of a historic strike in Sudbury

After a career in which he rubbed shoulders with world leaders – including U.S. presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama – Steelworkers International president Leo Gerard said he's retiring to his hometown of Sudbury.

He said he still has a home and a camp here, despite working out of Pittsburgh.

“My kids and my grandkids are getting old,” said Gerard in a recent interview with following the announcement last month he's retiring as of mid-July. "I've got a camp on Nepewassi. I didn't put my boat in for three years.”

The 72-year-old Gerard, who's served the Steelworkers for more than 50 years, has been the Steelworkers International president since 2001.

His successor is Tom Conway, who has served alongside Gerard as Steelworkers International vice-president.

“I think that we've got a really good team that was ready to step up if I either dropped dead or left,” said Gerard. “I think that it was a good time for me to go, and we're having a smooth transition.”

Gerard's dad, Wilfred Gerard, was a miner and one of the organizers of the Mine Mill union. One of Gerard's first memories of his father is helping him hand out union handbills to miners at shift end.

There were also union meetings held in the basement of their Lively home. He remembers his father's contemporaries fighting for things like safety glasses, and dying young from occupational disease.

At age 18, he went to work at the Inco nickel smelter.

“I worked for a few years getting myself demoted to yard labourer, which was a steady day job,” Gerard said. “I wanted a steady day job so I could go to night school at Laurentian.”

While attending university, Gerard became shop union steward at age 22, beginning his long career with the Steelworkers. 

“The guys knew I had a big mouth,” he said. “They got me to circulate a petition and I became a shop steward.”

Gerard quit Laurentian in 1977, just a few credits short of graduation, and took a job as a staff representative for the Steelworkers. Laurentian would award him an honorary doctorate in 1994.

He rose steadily in the union's ranks, elected director of USW District 6 in 1985, national director of the Canadian division of USW in 1991, secretary-treasurer of the international union in 1993 and, finally, the international president of the union in 2001.

Gerard said his decision to become a steward with the Steelworkers angered his father, an old hand with the Mine Mill union. 

“We didn't talk for quite some time,” he said.

But after he was elected District 6 director, Gerard's father said he was proud of him, and agreed to wear a Steelworkers pin. Wilfred Gerard died not long afterward.

As previously mentioned, Gerard has met many world leaders, but he had a special relationship with former U.S. president Barack Obama.

During Obama's 2008 run to win the Democratic nomination, Gerard had a heart attack. He said he knew Obama from his time as senator of Illinois, where USW has many members.

With Gerard at home in Sudbury recovering, Obama phoned three times to see how he was doing.

“That was pretty smart politics, as well as very nice of him, because then I was really committed to him without him ever asking … I became his ally,” he said.

Gerard, who worked with the former president on a number of issues, went on to attend both of Obama's inaugurations and even the reception after his 2012 swearing-in.

“I got to dance with Mrs. Obama,” he said. “In that room we were supposed to call him Barack, but I couldn't help but calling him Mr. President.”

It's an understatement to say he hasn't had this cosy relationship with current U.S. President Donald Trump, although the two have met. 

Gerard said he and the Steelworkers recently played a part in having tariffs dropped that had been imposed by Trump on the Canadian steel and aluminum industry.

Because it's an international union, the USW has credibility on “both sides of the border,” he said, and was able to make the case that Canada is not the enemy.

There's plenty more he's proud of, including the union's expansion, the development of global alliances with other unions, and USW's diversification to become more inclusive of women and develop young leaders.

Here in Sudbury, Gerard is proud of his role in founding the Centre for Research in Occupational Safety and Health (CROSH) at Laurentian University.

He plans to continue his work with CROSH after retirement, as well as play some role at the national and international level.

“So I'm not coming home just to cut the grass and go fishing, but I do want to spend time with my wife and kids and grandkids,” Gerard said.

Speaking of Sudbury, the 10-year anniversary of the historic, year-long Steelworkers-Vale strike is coming up next month, and we asked Gerard his lasting impressions of the labour dispute.The strike lasted from July 2009 to July 2010, eclipsing even the 1978-79 Inco strike in terms of length.

Gerard, who played a large role in the labour dispute, said the Brazilian company now known as Vale, which bought Inco in 2006, tried to impose a Brazilian model of collective bargaining in Sudbury.

“I remember (the now late Roger Agnelli, former CEO of Vale) saying there's only going to be one business model, one labour relations model, no matter where we are in the world,” he said. 

“I basically told him to go f*** himself, but I don't think you can write that.”

The way the Steelworkers have always bargained, Gerard said, is negotiations are constructive if management wants them to be constructive.

“But if the management wants to try to dismantle the local or the union, we settle in and have the longest, bitterest fight that could be there,” he said.

“The strike that happened 10 years ago should have never happened,” Gerard added. “It was the battle that didn't have to take place, because they weren't going to Brazilianize Sudbury, period.”

And today? In 2015, ahead of schedule, Vale and Steelworkers Local 6500 reached a five-year contract for production and maintenance workers in Sudbury and Port Colborne, meaning the contract expires in 2020.

Vale has recently made headlines for a tragic January dam collapse in Brazil that claimed hundreds of lives.

Gerard warns Vale against trying to “walk backward” with its members in Sudbury as a way of paying for its mistakes in Brazil.

“The best advice I could give Vale is to bargain constructively in an effort to maintain good bargaining relationship, and get an honourable collective agreement with the union,” he said.

“If they try to make our members pay for their Brazilian mistakes, they'll have to see what happens.”