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 as a copper puncher at the Inco nickel smelter in Sudbury, Canada. He subsequently studied economics at Laurentian University but quit school in 1977 when he was just 12 credits short of graduating, and he took a job with the Canadian staff of the United Steelworkers of America (USW). He then proceeded to spend six years as the USW’s Ontario District Director, and three years as its National Director for Canada.
Gerard continued 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); and then as its International Secretary-Treasurer (1994-2001).
In 1996 Gerard recruited Ron Bloom, who would later become future President Barack Obama‘s “Manufacturing Czar,” away from Wall Street, to USW, where Bloom initially served as an adviser to then-USW President George Becker.
In 1997 Gerard and three fellow USW leaders signed an ad in Democratic Left, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) publication, emphasizing the bond that existed between DSA and USW: “Together stronger than steel,” read the headline. The ad then boasted that the two organizations were dedicated to “reaching out to progressives and building a coalition for economic and social justice to benefit working families.”
In 1999 in Seattle, Gerard was one of approximately 1,400 USW members who participated in the chaotic anti-globalization demonstrations which devolved into violent riots and caused the shutdown of the World Trade Organization (WTO) meetings in that city. 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.
On February 28, 2001, Gerard was appointed as USW’s seventh International President, succeeding the recently retired George Becker. 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 wrote in the spring of 2001: “The [USW] has a long tradition of militant, good mostly leadership. Now they have someone both militant and radical.” Ron Bloom, meanwhile, became an adviser to Gerard.
In November 2001, Gerard was elected by acclamation as USW President in the union’s regularly scheduled election.
In 2002 Gerard chaired the Second World Rubber Industries Conference in Sao Paulo, Brazil. In 2003 he co-chaired the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) World Aluminum Conference in Montreal.
In his early years as President 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. And 25 months later, he became Chairman of the AFL-CIO’s Public Policy Committee, a position he would hold until 2019.
Gerard also 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.
Viewing unionization as a global venture, Gerard, in his role as USW President, signed strategic alliances pledging mutual support with unions in Australia, Canada, Mexico, Brazil, and the United Kingdom.
In 2005 and again in 2009, Gerard was reelected, without opposition, to four-year terms as President of USW.
In May 2007, the Chicago DSA honored Gerard with its annual Debs – Thomas – Harrington award, citing his “lifetime of service to [his] union and its members”; his “leadership in building working class solidarity across borders”; his “advocacy of fair trade over free trade”; and his “commitment to finding a better way to run the economy for working people everywhere.” The award was named after the famed American socialists Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, and Michael Harrington.
In 2009 as well, Gerard served on the Board of Directors of Healthcare-Now! – along with such notables as Quentin Young, Medea Benjamin, and Lucius Walker. In September 2009, Gerard said of his healthcare-related goals: “[W]e’re going to continue the fight for single-payer. I’m not in favor of universal insurance, I’m in favor of universal healthcare. We are going to fight to make sure every single American gets high quality healthcare.”
That same year, Gerard was a guest speaker at the annual conference of Netroots Nation. Emphasizing the importance of using new technologies to promote the dissemination of leftist ideas, he said, “The progressive blogosphere is in the front lines of changing our society. We certainly can’t count on the mainstream media. We need to get our industrial policy message out beyond the traditional base.” Gerard also challenged those in the steel industry who criticized China: “We shouldn’t blame the Chinese. They are doing what we should be doing. They have an industrial policy. They aren’t stealing our jobs. Our trade policies are giving them away.”
In 2010, Gerard was a Board of Directors member with the Progressive States Network, alongside Wes Boyd, David Brock, Anna Burger, Adriano Espaillat, Steven Kest, Robert McChesney, John Podesta, and others.
Speaking at the Pennsylvania Progressive Summit in January 2011, Gerard emphasized the importance of engaging in radical, confrontational activism: “We better face up to the fact that we have to hit the streets, kick some ass, and mobilize to do something about it.”
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. “You’re damn right Wall Street occupiers speak for us,” Gerard proudly told left-wing radio host Ed Schultz in November 2011. “They do in Pittsburgh, they do in Chicago, they do in Oakland, they do in San Francisco, they do all across the country. And I think what we need is, we need more militancy.”
Gerard complained that the economic policies of the Obama Administration were not sufficiently statist. “In my own naiveté I was dumb enough to assume that a Democratic Congress and a Democrat in the White House would put us on a different path,” he said, claiming that massive government spending on clean energy and green technology would reduce unemployment.
Arguing that labor unions had a responsibility to combat the evils of the free market, Gerard in 2011 stated that unions should view themselves as “instruments of social and economic justice” aiming to undo the economic “inequality” that “leads to instability and violence.”
In a November 2014 panel discussion at the University of Chicago, Gerard openly identified himself as a socialist: “There is no such thing as a free market. All markets are managed by a set of rules. It’s a question of for whom they are managed. I’m not a raving socialist… well, I am a socialist, but I’m not raving. But what most people want is to work with dignity, to retire with dignity.”
In 2016, Gerard supported Senator Bernie Sanders‘ campaign for U.S. President. “The Democratic Party would be well advised to listen to the Bernie Sanders’ campaign,” said Gerard, adding that “Bernie’s agenda is a vision that could create a better America.”
From 2017-2019, Gerard wrote numerous articles on a variety of subjects for the leftwing website CommonDreams. In May 2017, for example, he penned a piece titled “Trump Budget Makes America Land of No Opportunity,” which claimed that President Donald Trump’s proposed budget was designed to further empower the wealthy while impoverishing and suppressing opportunity for everyone else. Some notable excerpts:
“A few hundred billion cut here, a few hundred billion slashed there, and the Trump budget proposal adds up to real crushed opportunity. The spending plan slices a pound of flesh from everyone, well, everyone who isn’t a millionaire or billionaire. For the rich, it promises massive tax breaks.
“There are cuts to worker safety programs, veterans’ programs, Social Security, Medicaid, Medicare, food stamps, vocational training, public education, environmental protection, health research and more. So much more. The list is shockingly long.
“Each incision is painful. But what’s worse is the collective result: the annihilation of opportunity. The rich can buy opportunity. The rest cannot. What was always special about America was its guarantee of opportunity to everyone. […]
“Trump’s $4.1 trillion budget redefines America. No longer the land of opportunity, it would be a place of welfare for the rich in the form of million-dollar tax breaks and subsidies for exclusive private schools. For the rest, hope would be extinguished. For them, Trump’s budget would convert America the beautiful into America the hellish hole.”
The January 11, 2019 edition of CommonDreams contained an article by Gerard titled “Tax Dollars Can Buy Happiness,” which: (a) derided capitalism as a breeding ground for economic inequality, and (b) proposed, as a remedy for that inequality, the massive redistribution wealth by means of tax hikes on the rich. Some excerpts:
“[I]n capitalist America, there are summer homes and pleasure boats for the wealthy, but no rest for the weary and worried. The rich and corporations get massive tax breaks, and the 99 percent, well, they get stagnant wages, growing bills and constant angst. […]
“By contrast, year after year, the denizens of Denmark are found to be among the happiest people in the world. In Danish, the word hygge describes the feeling of well-being a person gets when surrounded by friends and family, supportive and caring neighbors and co-workers, all participating willingly in a tax-supported system that provides the safety and security of high-quality basic services such as health care and education for all. Hygge can’t be individually purchased and produced with scented candles or home security systems. It’s a common good.
“Americans don’t have hygge. They have anxiety. […] In Denmark, hygge is achieved in part with tax rates that are consistently among the highest in the world. These levies provide a sense of safety and security for Danes that is unimaginable for most Americans. That includes free university tuition, universal health care, generous unemployment benefits and 52 weeks of paid leave shared by new parents. Collective social spending buys happiness.”
In March 2019, Gerard wrote a scathing piece accusing Republicans of seeking to deny health care to millions of needy Americans. Some excerpts:
“This week, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, a Republican, announced that his predecessor, Jeff Sessions, just hadn’t gone far enough when he asked a federal judge to kill the Affordable Care Act’s (ACA) protections for people with pre-existing medical conditions. […]
“Barr told an appeals court that he does not want it to merely murder that one provision but, instead, will insist that it massacre the ACA’s entire 1,990 pages—death to every clause protecting patients from insurance company abuses, every portion devoted to containing costs, every phrase extending health care to the nation’s young adults and working poor.
“It is essential, Barr contends, that the court rip insurance from 21 million people covered by the ACA health insurance marketplaces and Medicaid expansion; that the court deny insurance to 2 million young adults covered by their parents’ plans; that the court foreclose substance abuse treatment to 800,000 Americans suffering opioid addiction. […]
“Barr is not an outlier. He is the face of a Republican Party that has done everything in its power to rob Americans of ACA benefits every minute of the nine years that the law has existed….
“All of this is blatantly mean-spirited because the GOP never produced a plan to replace the ACA health insurance guarantees. In medical terms, it is the opposite of the physician mission to heal. It is Republican machination to harm. […] [T]o Republicans, health care is a right only for the rich; the rest can suffer and die. The GOP Hippocratic oath is: Do vast harm.”
Over the years, Gerard has had key alliances with numerous influential leftwing organizations:
Gerard stepped down from his role as USW President in July 2019.