The Higgins Labor Studies Program at the University of Notre Dame promotes justice and dignity for workers through education, outreach, and research. 

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The Higgins Program is a part of the Center for Social Concerns at the University of Notre Dame. 

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Leo Gerard, President of United Steelworkers,
receives Higgins' Social Justice Award

Leo Gerard at Higgins Award Dinner

The Higgins Labor Studies Program is proud to present its Social Justice Award to Steelworkers International President Leo Gerard.  The Social Justice Award is given infrequently and only to an exceptional individual who embodies strong leadership in the cause of workers’ rights and social justice.

Leo Gerard is a strong union leader and comes from a strong union tradition.  His father was a miner and a key organizer with the International Mine Mill and Smelter Workers’ Union, which merged with the Steelworkers in 1967.  As a youngster, he would listen to shop-steward meetings in his family’s basement.  At age 11, he handed out leaflets in support of a strike and, at age 13, accompanied his father on a union organizing drive. 

He is the kind of leader who knows from first-hand experience the conditions of work of his union members.  After graduating from high school, he worked for 12 years at a nickel smelter in his hometown of Sudbury, in Ontario, Canada.  His first job was as a copper puncher, one of the hottest and dirtiest tasks in the smelter.  He had to open clogged tuyeres with a sledgehammer.  (Tuyeres are pipes that blow air into a blast furnace.)

While working at the nickel smelter, he enrolled at night in Laurentian  University.  He studied economics and political science and planned to become an economics professor.  Fortunately for the labor movement, he decided to become a union leader instead.

The workers at the nickel smelter recognized Leo Gerard’s leadership abilities and elected him steward, and then chief steward, of their local union.  He was then offered a job as a staff representative for the international union in 1977 and the rest, as they say, is history.  He was elected director of Steelworkers District 6 in 1985 and re-elected in 1989, and then was appointed national director of the Canadian division of the Steelworkers in August 1991.  In 1993, he was elected Secretary-Treasurer of the international union and then re-elected in 1997.  In 2001, he was appointed by the Steelworkers’ Executive Council as International President to fill the vacancy created by the resignation of former President George Becker.  He was elected to the Presidency later in 2001 and re-elected three times since then.

As the Steelworkers’ International President, Leo Gerard has continued his fight for workers’ rights.  He is known as a fierce critic of unfair trade agreements that destroy union jobs in America and exploit workers abroad.  He has worked to build an international union movement by creating strategic alliances with unions in other countries, such as the International Metalworkers’ Federation.  He partnered with the Sierra Club and other organizations to create the Blue Green Alliance, which demonstrates how we can both create good jobs and protect the environment by expanding clean energy industries.

Leo Gerard is a tireless campaigner for social justice.  He agitates for a much-needed increase in the minimum wage, supports immigration reform, promotes equality and leadership opportunities for women and minorities, rails against the unfair accumulation of wealth and power by the top 1%, and demands an economy in which workers’ voices are heard and workers’ dignity is protected.

So, in recognition of a lifetime of dedicated commitment to the dignity of workers and the cause of social justice, it gives me great pleasure to present the Higgins Program’s Social Justice Award to Leo Gerard.  

Presented on May 5, 2014 by Dr. Marty Wolfson, Director of the Higgins Labor Studies Program

Photo courtesy of Steelworker Sarah Leidy, Local 6787