By CARL GREEN
Pontoon Beach IL – It was a time of great pride for Metro East Steelworkers when one of their own, George Becker, was elected the union’s international president in 1993.
Becker served through 2001, and he remains highly regarded for leading the union through mergers, reorganization, tough bargaining and safety improvements, years after his death in 2007.
But people here have also been proud of the efforts of his wife, Jane Becker, who died on July 19, 2013. She was an organizer and mentor for union and political workers, was active with charities, and played a vital role in helping to found Steelworkers Organization of Active Retirees (SOAR), the national retirees group.
So at its well-attended Christmas luncheon on Dec. 9 at the Venice Social Club in Pontoon Beach, the Retirees’ Local Chapter 7-34-2 honored Jane Becker by naming its scholarship program for her, just when the program is in an expansion mode.
The group’s scholarship chairman, Norma Gaines, said she thinks of Jane Becker whenever the group gets together each month.
“A lot of the people remember her efforts to form SOAR,” Gaines said. “It was an idea that was a long time in coming.”
Having the group has been important to members, she said. “Everybody still likes to see each other. It’s a great thing.”
One retired Steelworker, Bob Means, stood up at the luncheon to recall Jane Becker’s kindness when Means and his wife moved to Pittsburgh in 1984 to work for the international union staff.
“We didn’t know anyone there or what to do,” Means recalled. “Jane took us under her wing and helped us get housing. She was extremely humanitarian. Thanks, Jane.”
LEADERS WHO MADE GOOD
Attorney Gregory Becker, senior partner of the Granite City firm Becker, Schroeder & Chapman, was present for the luncheon that honored his parents.
He recalled that his father was elected a shop steward at Dow Chemical in Madison, then became Local 4804 president in 1961. He was hired by the union as a staff representative in 1965. In 1975, he became director of safety and health, working at the international headquarters in Pittsburgh. He was elected vice president for administration along with President Lynn Williams in 1985 and 1989, and was himself elected president in 1993 and 1997, serving until 2001.
“He is the local guy who made good,” Gregory Becker recalled.
He recalled how his mother not only helped to form the retiree group, but was also active in politics, leading both Congressional and Senate campaigns.
“She was an activist wife, there’s no doubt about it,” Gregory Becker said.
Jane Becker was also honored recently by Just Harvest, an affiliated group that works to stem hunger and poverty and that she helped to organize.
At a ceremony on Oct. 22, the current USW International President, Leo Gerard, described her this way: “She was a leader in her own right, a great activist for working and retired men and women who was always willing to volunteer and always willing to advance the cause of workers.”
The luncheon program was led by the SOAR chapter President Jeff Rains, who said the scholarship program began as the beneficiary of a golf tournament. At first, the scholarship was worth $1,000, and one was given each year to a student related to a Steelworker.
Then, he recalled, it seemed like every other union was holding a golf tournament, so the scholarship team decided to switch to something else – an August barbecue that uses an advertising book to raise money. The scholarship amount was raised to $2,000, and this year, Gaines, the scholarship chairman, wants to give out more than one.
“That’s what I’m hoping for – with the donations coming in today,” she said at the luncheon. The biggest donor was the Madison County Democratic Party, which gave $2,500.
A retired steelworker, Virginia Ohren, was one of the drawing winners, and she started a little trend by turning her cash back to the scholarship fund, followed by a couple of other winners.
The group also plans to incorporate an essay contest into the scholarship program.
“We’re always looking to get young people involved in union activities,” Rains said.
Also attending the luncheon were:
• Ann Callis, the former chief judge of Madison County who is running for Congress in the 13th Congressional District.
• Cullen L. Cullen, the Venice school superindent who is the Democrat running against state Rep. Dwight Kay, an Edwardsville Republican, in the 112th House District.
• State Rep. Jay Hoffman, the Democrat from Belleville who is chairman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee.
• Marleen Suarez, the Democratic candidate for Madison County Treasurer. She challenged Kay in the legislative election two years ago and came close to an upset victory.