Published Sep 25, 2023 06:07PM ET Updated Sep 25, 2023 10:01PM ET
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Thomas Conway, United Steelworkers International president, in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., August 8, 2022. REUTERS/Erwin Seba/File Photo
(Reuters) -Thomas Conway, international president of the United Steelworkers (USW) union that represents 850,000 North American steel, paper, health, education and oil workers, has died at the age of 71, the USW said on Monday.
Conway joined the union in 1978 at a Bethlehem Steel plant in northwestern Indiana and became its top negotiator and later president in 2019.
The son of a union member and a U.S. Air Force veteran, Conway immersed himself in operational details, finances and economics when he entered negotiations, said Michael Wright, a retired USW official who was involved in contract talks with Conway.
“Any company that had gone up against Tom in negotiations knew they would not get away with any B.S.,” said Wright. “He was a brilliant negotiator, but he also knew that a good contract was more than wages and benefits. A good union did a lot more for its members and society in general than just negotiate contracts.”
Most recently, Conway was outspoken in the union’s support of Cleveland Cliffs’ bid to purchase rival U.S. Steel. Steel rejected the Ohio-based company’s proposal last month, calling it “unreasonable.”
Conway died after falling ill earlier this year. The Pittsburgh-based union’s executive board is due to meet later this week to name a successor, said USW spokesperson Jess Kamm Broomell.
U.S. President Joe Biden called Conway “an extraordinary champion” and “great friend”, describing him as a confidante and someone who would, on occasion, challenge him to “do better.”
“He put every ounce of his energy and intellect toward making sure American workers got the best possible deal, every time,” said Biden, who will join autoworkers striking against the Big Three automakers on the picket line in Michigan on Tuesday.
“No one out-worked him. No one out-bargained him. And while he was deeply kind and generous, he also never backed down from a fight,” Biden said.
The 6-foot-tall (183 cm) Conway was a chain-smoker with a reputation as a bulldog during contract talks.
U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai said she consulted closely with Conway and benefitted from his “unique, thoughtful and informed perspective” while developing the administration’s “inclusive, worker-centered trade agenda” in 2021.
Conway advocated for government to enforce anti-dumping laws and prevent subsidized products from damaging domestic industries and stem a decline in union membership by pushing into clean energy, electric vehicles and retail industries.
In 2017, he told a union convention that workers must be prepared to act on their demands.
“Be ready for it, because the fights will come whether we want them or not. But when the fights do come, we can win those fights,” Conway said.