By CARL GREEN
Belleville, IL – Long years of service to the Labor Movement and the public are common threads between this year’s Labor Woman of the Year and Labor Man of the Year, as named by the Southwestern Illinois Central Labor Council.
• LeeAnn Gemmingen, a middle-school English teacher for 28 years and a leader in the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT) for more than 20, was named Woman of the Year.
• Jeff Collier, a business representative for United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 1899, was named Labor Man of the Year. They were honored at the annual awards ceremony Aug. 30 at Bel-Air Bowl.
UFCW REP, COMMUNITY LEADER
Council President Scot Luchtefeld noted that Collier, of Belleville, was hired by Schnucks as a bagger in 1999. After college, he joined the company’s Human Resources Department and later returned to clerking, also becoming a shop steward before becoming a Local 1899 business rep nine years ago.
Collier worked to promote the union to Walmart workers and has worked as an organizer throughout Illinois.
In the political arena, he worked for Barack Obama’s campaign in Wisconsin in 2012 and is now serving as a precinct committeeman and co-chair of the Stookey Township Democrats. He also serves on the Labor Council.
In social work, Collier has organized a group he calls the Spark of Hope to help agencies such as Project Compassion and Teen Moms in charity drives.
Luchtefeld said when he looks at Collier, he sees the future of the Labor Movement.
“Jeff Collier tries to impress upon Millennials that Labor still has a pulse and that it’s up to them to keep it progressive,” he said. “If the Labor Movement is not carried on by this generation of workers, then the sacrifice of those before us will all be in vain.”
In his remarks, Collier recognized some Shop ’n Save employees who were at the event, saying they have remained strong union supporters despite the company’s ups and downs and uncertain future.
“Even though the company is being sold, the workers have remained hard-working and dedicated – some of the hardest-working people I ever met,” he said.
He noted that when the first Collinsville store closed, the value of the union was demonstrated clearly. “Nobody lost a job, and it’s only because of the union contract,” he said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE: Schnuck Markets recently announced it has agreed to buy roughly half of the Shop ’n Save stores in the Metro St. Louis area – including 14 on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River and five in the Metro East. The Metro East locations include the Shop ’n Save locations in Alton, Belleville, East Alton, Edwardsville and Wood River.)
Collier also thanked Missouri voters for standing up against the so-called “right-to-work” proposal. “It just shows that Labor still has a role,” he said. “But if we don’t vote on Nov. 6, we can just forget about it.”
The 1999 Belleville Township High School West graduate also thanked his parents, L.V. Collier and Carolyn Collier.
LANGUAGE ARTS, BUILDING REP
Gemmingen, the Labor Woman of the Year, has been a language arts teacher at West Junior High School in Belleville for 27 years. Luchtefeld noted that she was a building representative for five years and served as IFT Local 6600 secretary for six years before she was elected president 13 years ago.
“She has negotiated and enforced the contract for her local for more than 20 years,” Luchtefeld said.
In 2004, Gemmingen was elected to the IFT Executive Board and serves as a state vice president of the 100,000-member federation.
In addition to union work, she has served on the Signal Hill School Board and taught Vacation Bible School. Under her leadership, her local awards $8,000 in scholarships to eight Belleville students each year.
“One of her favorite sayings, from Mother Teresa, reflects how she approaches life – ‘In this life, we cannot do great things. We can only do small things with great love,’ ” Luchtefeld added.
A GREAT MENTOR
Gemmingen was a student teacher 28 years ago at Belleville West, working with teacher Mary Ellen Struze, who previously received the Labor Woman of the Year award.
“In the semester we spent together, she planted a seed that she didn’t see come to fruition until many years later,” Gemmingen said. “Thanks to Mary Ellen, I joined the union and have since held local and statewide leadership positions. Not only did Mary Ellen plant that seed, but she also watered and fertilized it by mentoring me for many years.”
She thanked Labor Council delegates and past honorees Marcia Campbell and Joe Eble and her fellow executive board members in the local.
“The work of the union, as you all know, is not accomplished by one person but by a team of dedicated leaders and engaged members,” she said.
“Together, we have problem-solved, negotiated contracts, stood up for our rights, engaged legislators, and most of all, supported our members.”
PLANTING HER OWN SEEDS
She thanked her children, Katherine, a college sophomore volunteering in the Pritzker campaign, and Kristoph, in 8th grade. “Often, union obligations took me away from their events and our family time,” she said. “They have been very understanding all these years. I like to think that I have planted a seed in them to be activists and to stand up to social injustice,” she said.
“You can never underestimate the power of a planted seed, especially when you continue to provide it with what it needs to grow and flourish. I hope that all of us as union leaders and members continue to plant those seeds and nourish them as we fight daily battles to strengthen our unions.”