IN MEMORIAM: Former Illinois AFL-CIO president Robert Gibson

One of Illinois’ most respected Labor leaders, Robert G. Gibson, a Granite City native and president of the Illinois AFL-CIO from 1979 to 1989, died Aug. 2 of cardiac arrest in Pompano Beach, Fla. He was 93.

Gibson started his career as a steelworker. He joined the Illinois CIO staff as its first community services director in 1958, and was elected secretary-treasurer in 1963, after the 1958 AFL-CIO merger.

He was known for helping put in place the state’s collective bargaining law for public sector workers and for negotiating major reforms to unemployment insurance. He also developed the Committee on Political Education (COPE) system.

The Illinois AFL-CIO has named its annual Community Service Award after Gibson, honoring members who support their communities.

“Bob Gibson never forgot where he came from,” said current Illinois AFL-CIO President Tim Drea. “He helped build the Labor Movement in Illinois into what it is today. His charisma and personality are legendary, and his contributions to making people’s lives better are undisputed. His legacy of focusing on service to our communities lives on.”

A visitation was held on Thursday, Aug. 12, at Sunset Hill Funeral Home in Glen Carbon with burial there on Aug. 13. He was placed next to his wife, Martha, who died 15 years ago.

Gibson was born Sept. 8, 1927 in Flat River, MO, to Glenn and Viola Gibson. His father was a lead miner and became a steelworker at General Steel in Granite City. Gibson grew up with eight siblings and was father to three children, Marsha, Randy and Billie. He had five grandchildren and 60 nieces and nephews.

Gibson became a steelworker when he returned after serving with the Coast Guard during World War II. He had graduated from Granite City High School.

When he retired in 1989, Gibson said it was because he had fought for better retirements for steelworkers.

“When I worked in the mill, I was active in the ‘30 and Out’ movement to win decent pensions and allow a worker to get out of the mill,” he said in an interview. “Well, I have been here 30 years, and it’s time to get out.”

In a different era for Illinois politics, Gibson was known for supporting two Republican governors, Jim Thompson, who had the AFL-CIO endorsement in 1982 over Adlai Stevenson III, and George Ryan, who was endorsed in 1994 when he was re-elected secretary of state.

Gibson was there in 1983 when Thompson signed the law allowing public-sector unions, which they had supported along with then Chicago Mayor Harold Washington.

Other highlights of Gibson’s tenure at the AFL-CIO were testifying before the U.S. House Judiciary Committee in support of the Equal Rights Amendment and holding rallies to support ERA as a Labor issue. In 1982, he helped organize 40,000 union members to join in Chicago’s first Labor Day parade in 41 years.

Gibson was entered into the Illinois Labor History Union Hall of Honor, and his description there describes the fight for public sector unions, including a massive Labor rally at the Capitol.

“Under Bob Gibson’s leadership, Illinois Labor union members mobilized an effort to talk to every legislator in Springfield,” the report states. “Then, on June 2, 1981, 20,000 angry union workers poured into Springfield on buses and trains, and held the largest-ever rally at the Illinois State Capitol.”

The report adds, “This growth of public sector unionism became even more important as attacks on private sector unions mounted during the 1980s and beyond. Today the public sector accounts for half of all union membership in the United States, and public sector unionism is a bedrock of the Labor Movement, especially in Illinois, and this is in part Bob Gibson’s legacy.”

Memorial donations may be made to Tunnel to Towers Foundation, 2361 Hylan Blvd., State Island, NY 10306.

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