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A Major Progressive Leader Dies


A major leader in the nation’s liberal/progressive movement died yesterday. No, I am not talking about Dianne Feinstein, who was major but not particularly liberal and extremely not progressive. No, I am talking about United Steel Workers president Tom Conway. Conway was not a spotlight hogging guy. He mostly worked with his membership and behind the scenes in Washington and in the labor movement. So you probably don’t know who he is. But he did get a nice Times obit that is a good introduction to the man:

Today the steel industry is stable and profitable, and the union has 850,000 members — a situation attributable in no small part to Mr. Conway’s leadership.

Before becoming union president, Mr. Conway made his name as a pugnacious but pragmatic negotiator, sitting down with management as partners in problem solving and not opponents. While prioritizing wages, jobs and benefits, he also understood that the long-term health of the industry was in everyone’s interest.

In the late 1990s, as a result of the Asian economic downturn, millions of tons of cheap steel flooded into the United States, leading to a wave of steel-mill bankruptcies. Mr. Conway helped negotiate a series of corporate loans and consolidations, which helped stabilize the industry and ensure its growth.

“He was very keen on mastering and being able to help shape the future rather than being shaped by the decisions that others were making,” Scott Paul, the president of the Alliance for American Manufacturing, a trade organization, said in a phone interview.

United Steelworkers has long been among the most progressive industrial unions, going back to its lobbying efforts in support of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Mr. Conway continued that tradition, telling his members at the union’s 2022 convention that their future lay in building a more diverse and inclusive work force.

“Corporations try to exploit our differences,” he said. “But what they get instead is relentless, unwavering solidarity.”

He was also a founding board member of the BlueGreen Alliance, a coalition of labor groups and environmental organizations, and a strong advocate for the transition away from fossil fuels — a transition that, he understood, would need new equipment provided by American manufacturing.

“He was not only a true rank-and-file union leader,” Jason Walsh, the executive director of the alliance, said in a phone interview. “He was an environmental leader.”

Even while many of his union’s members voted for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 presidential election and again in 2020, Mr. Conway remained a steadfast supporter of the Democrats, endorsing Hillary Clinton for president in 2016 and Mr. Biden in 2020.

After the first Biden-Trump debate, in 2020, Mr. Conway accompanied Mr. Biden on a train trip to Pittsburgh from Cleveland, where the debate was held. Along the way, they discussed infrastructure and the need to invest both in high-profile, shovel-ready projects and long-term efforts that might not come to fruition for decades.

“Tom was someone I confided in,” Mr. Biden said in a statement after Mr. Conway’s death. “He had my absolute trust. I knew that if I was doing a good job, he’d tell me — and if I needed to do better, he’d tell me that, too.”

Here you have a guy who combined political pragmatism with a far-reaching agenda that included making major alliances with the environmental movement, resisting xenophobia, and seeking a way forward in American industrial relations that would create good jobs for working class Americans. What on earth more do you want from a labor leader?

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