But the mass movement of low-wage workers, fighting for better wages and working conditions and the right to organize, is helping show the way out of the morass.
Delegates adopted a multi-point action platform for coming years to battle what President Gerard called "shrewd, greedy and powerful" forces out to destroy workers.
BROOKLYN, Ohio - When Republicans in the Ohio legislature passed Senate Bill 5, designed to wipe out public workers' pensions, in 2011, it was personal for young Marc Bukszar.
On June 19, 1937, police in Youngstown, Ohio, used tear gas on women and children, including at least one infant in his mother's arms, during the historic strike at Republic Steel.
A weeklong company lockout at Milbank Manufacturing, a Kansas City, Mo., electrical parts producer, ended when Steelworkers ratified a new contract.
The Republic Steel mill in south Chicago is sacred ground for the American labor movement.
With the presidential campaign in full swing following President Obama's formal re-election announcement, two top unions jumped in hard.
Leo Gerard, president of the Steelworkers, described over breakfast his recurring nightmare.
"This is the right time to do the right thing for a man who proved he is right for the job," said Steelworkers President Leo Gerard.
The first-ever group of unionized carwash workers won a $1 million back pay settlement.