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Steel Man

July 17, 2012

How a Canadian rose to the top of the United Steel Workers of America

Williams, Lynn. One Day Longer – A Memoir, Toronto: University of Toronto Press/Ithaca, N.Y.: ILR-Cornell University Press, 2011, 320 pp., $39.95 (hard cover).

Lynn Williams broke new ground in 1983 when he became the first Canadian to lead the 1.2-million member United Steel Workers of America. Now he shares his journey in a memoir brimming with insider details about what it’s like to be a top union official with a life-long commitment to organizing the unorganized.

From his earliest days in the labour movement, starting in 1947 with a job on the famous Eaton department store organizing drive in Toronto, until his retirement in 1994, Williams worked as union educator, organizer, campaigner and free trade fighter. It was a long trek for the son of a Methodist preacher from Ontario who once considered entering the ministry himself.

Instead, Williams chose the picket sign over the pulpit and eventually guided the Steel ship through one of the most difficult decades since founding president Philip Murray’s day. From the mid-1980s Steel and labour in general faced corporate structural readjustments leading to mass layoffs, free trade creating the ‘race to the bottom,’ and massive downturns in the economy.

Given this volatile period, no doubt there are some well-buried skeletons in the Steel closet. While Williams disinters some of the old bones and revisits some old battles, for some readers there may be too few bones exposed.  For example, there could have been much more behind-the-scenes glimpses of the left-leaning Ed Sadlowski’s challenges to Steel leadership in the 1970s. The same could be said of Williams’s retelling of the infamous Northern Ontario raids on Mine-Mill. He touches on both but much more space is devoted to praising fellow staff members, past union directors and mentors than to a more critical examination of events. Then again, Williams never shies away from admitting when a campaign failed and he does an admirable job of explaining why.

Memoirs don’t have to be exposés, of course, but they do need to feed reader curiosity by revealing some hidden places. Williams does some of this work. His sections on the internal strategies and debates regarding organizing campaigns, electoral battles, and disagreements on issues are all informative. But in the main his memoir doesn’t reveal any trade union secrets. That is not its strength.

Rather, this is the story of a life committed to trade unionism and to social democratic politics in Canada and the United States. As part of an ‘old boy’ network of union leaders, Williams shares the campaign war stories, peppering them with humour and some insightful afterthoughts. He also offers readers a unique window into the running of an international union. Williams knew it all intimately and he makes a sincere effort to portray it accurately.

Labor educators will find One Day Longer full of examples of how union education programs work and can succeed. Williams was a true believer in such programs throughout his career and he made good use of them in his many campaigns. “Education programs have a noble history in the United Steelworkers,” he writes, (165) noting the “enormous relevance” of political education. (268) Union staff members will find much to relate to and some union leaders might take some lessons from Williams’s humility and his leadership style as he describes it.

Perhaps the main flaw of this remembrance is what it leaves out. For example, there is too little about the impact of Steel’s anti-communist role during the Cold War. Williams didn’t join the Steel staff until the mid-1950s but sections of the book cover this period. Regrettably, he gives it short shrift. Other sources have painted a different picture of Steel in those years. The recently deceased historian David Montgomery and Steelworkers in America author David Brody, for example, saw that history in a more critical light. So might David Metzgar, the author of a memorable reminiscence about of his father’s experience during the 1959 U.S. Steel strike.

This is not to dismiss Williams’s memoir, for he expresses a true dedication to unionism and a belief in its ability to bring about social justice and economic equality. As he states, “I believe more than ever that nothing would bring more fundamental improvement to the mess our North American society is in.” (p. 265) One Day Longer serves as one guide out of that mess. There is grave need for others.

Review – Lynn Williams memoir – Labor Studies Journal – June 2012

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