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United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard addresses forestry workers, families and supporters on the picket lines in front of a Port Alberni, B.C., sawmill on Aug. 9, 2007.

Rafal Gerszak/rafal gerszak The Globe and Mail

Las Vegas in August is hot – as in its temperature, a ripping 40 degrees outside, as 4,000 or so delegates assembled here this week for an international convention of the United Steelworkers. My own union is an affiliated partner, so a few from our bunch joined this convention as observers and guests.

The USW is one of Canada's untold success stories. Specifically, the story of the prominent role played in that international (Canada-U.S.) union by its president, Leo Gerard of Sudbury.

Mr. Gerard is a relentless defender of industrial and other workers. He has led the USW into numerous international alliances, to try and match globalized employers with a globalized union. He has waged a particularly determined campaign in defence of Mexico's miners and steelworkers union, which confronted a politically well-connected set of mine owners after a disgraceful (and fatal) industrial accident, and were rewarded by a determined Mexican government campaign to intimidate and jail its leaders. Mexican union leader Napoleon Gomez had to flee the country in the face of this campaign, and has received sanctuary in Canada.

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Mr. Gerard is no stranger at the White House. He put on a pretty good show this week for his delegates, on the theme "stand up, fight back".

There was, however, a more telling highlight at this convention, I think. It came when a committee of young emerging union leaders were introduced at the podium, and a resolution was put forward calling for a commitment to develop the next generation of leaders.

This drew a parade of speakers to microphones across the cavernous meeting hall, each to tell stories about the brutal working and bargaining environments they were facing back home. Again and again, in almost every conceivable regional accent across North America (Louisiana, Quebec, New Jersey, B.C., Chicago, etc.) speakers noted that employers were bargaining, mercilessly and relentlessly, to strip pay, health coverage (a big issue in the United States) and pensions from new – read "young" – workers. It's creating two-tier workplaces, and gross inequities aimed squarely at young workers entering the workplace.

This was frank talk about another aspect of the great inter-generational theft being implemented in the United States and across the industrial world in recent years. Mounting public debt to pay for tax cuts for rich people being the central element.

Delegates urged young workers to step up to the defence of their rights. "Stand up, fight back." A daunting challenge, in this environment. But as Mr. Gerard said at the convention in a familiar quote: "If not us, who? If not now, when?"

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