Leo Gerard was born in Creighton Mine, Ontario in 1947. His father was a Canadian miner and union activist. After graduating from high school, Leo took a job at the Inco nickel smelter in Sudbury, Canada. He thereafter studied economics at Laurentian University but quit school in 1977 when he was just 12 credits short of graduating, and took a job as a United Steelworkers of America (USW) staff representative.
Gerard proceeded to rise through USW’s ranks, first as a director of its Sixth District in Ontario (1986-1991); then as a national director for the union’s Canadian operations (1991-1994); then as its international secretary-treasurer (1994-2001); and finally, on February 28, 2001, he became the union’s seventh international president, succeeding the recently retired George Becker.
Nine months later, Gerard was formally elected USW president by acclamation in a union-wide vote. Lauding Gerard for his ties to the Canadian New Democratic Party (Canada’s counterpart to the Democratic Socialists of America), Bob Roman of the Chicago DSA said: “The [USW] has a long tradition of militant, good mostly leadership. Now they have someone both militant and radical.”
In 1997 Gerard and three fellow USW leaders signed an ad in Democratic Left, a DSA publication, emphasizing the bond that existed between DSA and USW: “Together stronger than steel.”
Gerard was one of approximately 1,400 USW members who participated in the chaotic 1999 anti-globalization demonstrations which devolved into violent riots and caused the shutdown of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in Seattle. At one point, Gerard and USW vice president Tom Conway illegally dragged two large concrete planters into an intersection near the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, where the meetings were being held, in an effort to block access to the facility.
After assuming the presidency of USW, Gerard was instrumental in the formation of the AFL-CIO‘s industrial union council. In February 2003 he earned a spot on the AFL-CIO’s executive committee as well as its executive council. Twenty-five months later, he became chairman of the AFL-CIO’s public policy committee, a position he holds to this day.
In 2005 and again in 2009, Gerard was reelected, without opposition, to four-year terms as president of USW. During his first two terms, he oversaw a significant number of USW mergers with other unions, including the 12,000-member American Flint Glass Workers Union in 2003; the 50,000-member Industrial, Wood and Allied Workers of Canada in 2004; some 3,000 former members of the Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees in Canada in 2004; and the 1,150-member Independent Steelworkers Union in 2007. But the most significant merger — with the 250,000-member Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union — took place in 2005 and made USW the largest industrial union in North America.
In 2009 Gerard served as a co-chair on the board of directors of Healthcare-Now! – along with such notables as Quentin Young, Medea Benjamin, and Lucius Walker. The following year, he was a board of directors member with the Progressive States Network. In September 2011, Barack Obama appointed Gerard to serve on the President’s Advisory Committee on Trade Policy and Negotiations.
In June 2011, Gerard was a guest speaker at Netroots Nation‘s (NN) annual conference.
In the fall of 2011 Gerard, asserting that “it’s Wall Street and the banks [that are] blocking [America’s economic] recovery and shipping our manufacturing abroad,” openly supported the newly formed Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement. In late October he urged OWS to demonstrate “more militancy,” emphasizing that: “We ought to be doing more than occupying parks. We ought to start occupying bridges. We ought to start occupying the banks, places themselves.” Two days later, serious violence and vandalism (much of it directed against local banks) erupted at an OWS protest in Oakland, California.
Today Gerard serves as the international president of the Blue Green Alliance. He also sits on the board of directors of the Economic Policy Institute along with such notables as Bob King, Julianne Malveaux, Robert Reich, and Richard Trumka.1 He is a board member of the Campaign for America’s Future, alongside Eli Pariser and several others. And he sits on the advisory committee of Wellstone Action — a self-described “national center for training and leadership development for the progressive movement” — with Robert Borosage, Julian Bond, Heather Booth, Peter Edelman, Keith Ellison, Russ Feingold, Al Franken, Tom Harkin, John Lewis, Frances Fox Piven, Robert Reich, Mark Ritchie, Andrew Stern, and Antonio Villaraigosa.
An advocate of protectionist tariffs on imported steel, Gerard takes pride in the fact that the New York Times has called him the “No. 1 scourge of free traders.” Arguing that economic “inequality … leads to instability and violence,” Gerard views labor unions as “instruments of social and economic justice” to combat the inequities of the free market.
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