Tom Conway, the president of the United Steelworkers union and a friend and unofficial adviser to President Biden, died Monday at his home in Pittsburgh. He was 71.
His sons Justin and Philip said the cause was lung cancer.
Mr. Conway, who joined the union as a 26-year-old millwright in 1978 and was named its president in 2019, lived through a tumultuous time in his industry, as the once mighty U.S. steel sector struggled under the twin pressures of deindustrialization at home and cheap imports from abroad.
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, 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 workforce.
“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 U.S. manufacturing.
“He was not only a true rank-and-file union leader,” Jason Walsh, 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 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 Biden in 2020.
After the first Biden-Trump debate, in 2020, Mr. Conway accompanied 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.
A year later he accompanied Marty Walsh, the secretary of labor and former Boston mayor, on a bus campaign to promote Biden’s pandemic recovery efforts, including the CHIPS and Science Act, the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act — all of which, thanks in part to Mr. Conway’s input, included significant investments in steel-friendly infrastructure.
“Tom was someone I confided in,” 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.”
Thomas Michael Conway was born Feb. 14, 1952, in Newark, New Jersey. His parents were both union members — his father, Thomas, worked for the operating engineers union, and his mother, Eleanor (Hadden) Conway, worked as a secretary for a trucking company and helped organize her office under the Teamsters.
His marriage to Linda Conway ended in divorce. In addition to his sons Justin and Philip, he is survived by his partner, Carol Murphy; another son, Tommy; and six grandchildren.
Mr. Conway spent four years in the Air Force as an aircraft mechanic, work that he continued after he left the service in 1974. Four years later, Bethlehem Steel recruited him to work as a millwright in the company’s Burns Harbor coke plant in northwest Indiana. He soon became involved in the steelworkers union, joining Local 6787.
There he met David McCall, a fellow young union member. They realized that they shared the same birthday and many of the same interests. They rose through the union ranks together, with McCall replacing Mr. Conway as vice president in 2019. On Tuesday, the Steelworkers announced that McCall would succeed him as president.
Mr. Conway’s work as a union leader began almost immediately. When Bethlehem Steel tried to lay off workers during the economic downturn of the late 1970s, he helped his local push back, persuading the company to first cut nonunion contractors. In the end, no union members lost their jobs.
He moved from the local to the union’s international staff in 1987, and in 2005 he became its vice president for administration. He also served as the secretary of the union’s Basic Steel Industry Conference, which designed negotiating strategies and set policy agendas for local and state lobbying efforts.
Mr. Conway saw the Biden administration’s infrastructure agenda as the culmination of decades of efforts on the part of unions like his to reinvigorate U.S. manufacturing through large-scale public investment.
Even before the president signed the legislation, Mr. Conway was working the phones for his locals, lining up companies behind potential projects. Among other things, he arranged for US Wind, a renewable energy company, to manufacture turbines at a former Bethlehem Steel plant near Baltimore, creating 500 jobs.
“Tom Conway helped build unions all across the country,” the president said in his statement. “He made our nation fairer. He made our nation stronger. And I will miss him dearly.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.