Profile: Man of Steel Union leader Leo Gerard looks at clean energy and sees good jobs
By Joan Hamilton
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ON THE FIRST DAY of their clean-energy tour, Gerard and Pope met with media, workers, environmentalists, and the Twin Cities mayors at the United Auto Workers Hall in St. Paul. Across the street is the sprawling plant that once provided 2,000 high-paying jobs making Ford Ranger pickups. Ford turned down workers' entreaties to convert it to building high-mileage hybrid vehicles and announced the plant's closure in 2008. Gerard was not pleased. "Don't tell me that a car made in America can't get 30 or 40 or 50 miles per gallon," he said. Gerard and Pope's appearance made the local papers that day, as did the alternative they support: converting the old Ford plant into a wind tower and turbine factory.
That night, at a gathering of labor activists and environmentalists in Minneapolis, Gerard railed about national politics. "We're living in an upside-down society where even Richard Nixon would look like a liberal," he said. "You want to make a list of thieves? Tom DeLay, Bob Ney, and Duke Cunningham--Old Dukie Boy. What did they do? Put your mind back. Don't get amnesia."
When a woman in the audience yelled, "Don't forget Abramoff!" Gerard shouted back, "Abramoff? That son of a b---- will be swingin' pretty soon." Looking slightly sheepish, he added, "My language gets a little salty when I'm upset. But, sisters and brothers, this isn't about us anymore. This is about the kind of future America deserves to pass on to its kids and grandkids."
After a standing ovation, Gerard sat down, put his hands in his lap, and bowed his head. The fireworks were over. At that moment, in soft brown trousers and a neatly pressed blue Steelworkers shirt, he looked more like an altar boy than a gladiator. When the rank and file approached the stage, he rose for a hearty round of backslaps and hugs. "I'm glad he's on our side," one woman said.
Two days later, enthusiastic steelworkers thronged a lawn near Independence Hall in Philadelphia. A banner proclaimed "The Road to Energy Independence: Renewables Now!" next to a photograph of two children walking near a wind turbine, with Old Glory waving in the background. Gerard, Pope, and Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell (D) were lined up to speak. As Gerard approached the microphone, some of the steelworkers in the audience chanted, "Le-o! Le-o! Le-o!" Smiling fondly, he said, "You guys embarrass me."
Gerard married his high school sweetheart, Susan, 38 years ago. When he's on the road, he calls her every day. She was the superior athlete in high school, he says: "She's a bit more of everything than I am--more militant, more impatient, more environmentally friendly." He's also on the telephone almost daily with his two twentysomething daughters, Kari-Ann and Meaghan.
Says the Steelworkers' Ohio chief, David McCall: "He's a big, heavyweight teddy bear."
ALTHOUGH THE BARNSTORMING TOUR focused on clean-energy jobs of the future, the union is still working hard to clean up existing workplaces. "Roughly 60,000 workers die each year in this country from workplace accidents or from diseases caused by workplace chemicals," says union environmental specialist Diane Heminway. Steelworkers remember the "death fog" from local zinc and steel plants that blanketed Donora, Pennsylvania, in 1948, killing 20 and injuring 6,000. They learned from the time the Provo, Utah, mills shut down for six months during a labor dispute in the 1980s, and hospital admissions for children with pneumonia, pleurisy, bronchitis, and asthma declined by half. More recently, a mill in Pueblo, Colorado, was releasing so much pollution inside the plant that "our members couldn't see their hands in front of their faces," says Heminway. A Steelworkers lawsuit in 2000 forced the company to invest more than $25 million in pollution-control equipment.
In 1990, the Steelworkers published a 34-page manifesto called "Our Children's World." Its message was simple: "We cannot protect Steelworker jobs by ignoring environmental problems." Ahead of its time, the report also warned of the "catastrophic consequences" of global warming. When the document was presented at the Steelworkers' annual meeting, it was not an easy sell. Some of the workers from the coke ovens (where the raw material for steel is processed) feared that too much environmental purity could threaten their jobs. "Some guys from Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Gary tried to storm the stage," Gerard recalls. "But we went at them. We said if you don't clean up, you won't be there. And if coke isn't there, the steel mill isn't there."
"We don't say there is never a jobs-versus-environment conflict," says Michael Wright, the Steelworkers' director of health, safety, and environment. "Conflicts may exist, but fighting cleanups is not the way to solve them. Our job is to find solutions that protect both jobs and the environment."
More recently, the union's environmental policies have been questioned by some members of the Paper, Allied-Industrial, Chemical and Energy Workers International Union (PACE), which merged with the Steelworkers in 2005. Paper workers, including loggers and mill workers, are still smarting over environmentalists' efforts to protect the spotted owl in the Pacific Northwest in the 1980s. They don't think much of the Sierra Club's stand against commercial logging in national forests either.
Gerard is undaunted by such squabbles. "We aren't going to be united with the environmental movement on every issue," he says. "But we are going to be united 80 or 90 percent of the time. Let's work on that unity rather than let our enemies exploit the divisions."
Pope admires the Steelworkers as one of "maybe a dozen large organizations in this country that actively promote small-d democracy--the idea that ordinary people, given information, can make better decisions than the elites." The union encourages its members to participate in the political process by staffing phone banks and walking precincts, and even excuses its staff from ordinary duties on election day, when the organization goes on "hot idle" (a term that usually refers to a steel furnace on hold).
Gerard sees his alliance with the Sierra Club as a step toward a new political majority. "There's a vacuum of leadership in this country," he told a group of Club leaders last year. "The Democratic Party has lost its way. Carl and I are forming a strategic alliance, getting people to talk with each other."
BOTH GERARD AND POPE WERE DELIGHTED with the outcome of last fall's election: a congressional majority that is far friendlier to both their causes. In February, they reunited in Washington, D.C., to meet jointly with the newly elected Democratic senators. "These guys wanted us to help them develop clean-energy legislative proposals," Pope said. "This is part of their vision of how to get the country moving again."
More heartening news followed. In late February, the Minnesota legislature passed a law that will bring thousands of megawatts of wind power--and a blast of new jobs--to the state's windy rural areas. The Twin Cities mayors set up a joint green manufacturing commission, backed by their economic development offices, the Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, and a local paper mill. And Pennsylvania is now a clean-energy hub, with Spanish wind-turbine maker Gamesa establishing three plants on the site of an old U.S. Steel works in Bucks County.
Gerard's dream of a thriving U.S. clean-energy industry has moved a few steps closer to reality. He is not surprised. "We are not promoting some kind of fuzzy, left-wing, feel-good stuff that Rush Limbaugh will love to attack," he says. "This is sound social and economic policy. This gives my grandkids a shot."
Joan Hamilton stepped down as Sierra's editor in chief in March to become a freelance writer and editor. She is based in Berkeley, California. Contact her firstname.lastname@example.org.