By CARL GREEN
Alton, IL – The Madison County Worker’s Memorial Day observance each year has a rhythm and a sequence all its own, with earnest speakers followed by the playing of taps and a reading of the names of more than 150 fallen workers to the accompaniment of a ringing bell.
If it’s good weather, a crowd fills the memorial site at Gordon Moore Community Park amid budding flowers. If it rains, a community building across the park road fills the bill. The event is sober, somber, and shows some of the best of the Labor Movement, with surviving members recalling those who came before them and died tragically. It’s a beautiful ceremony.
This year’s event had a variation on that rhythm and sequence that brought even stronger emotions to the fore when two of the speakers gave heartfelt eulogies to an inspiring leader, Cathi Gitchoff, president of AFSCME Local 799 and secretary-treasurer of the Greater Madison County Federation of Labor, who died unexpectedly in a household accident on April 5 at age 66.
‘SHE HAD MY BACK’
Federation President B. Dean Webb, hosting the event, recalled how the usually calm and thoughtful Gitchoff could turn into a tiger when her union or the Federation were threatened.
“One thing about Cathi that I loved was that she had my back,” Webb said. “Even if she didn’t agree with what we were doing, she was there. If someone crossed me, she was there. She was my enforcer.”
He recalled how her organizing skills served well for annual events such as the Labor Day picnic, Christmas party and the Workers Memorial, for which she was already missed.
“This event is Cathi,” he said. “We were panicking. We looked at pictures of what she put together over the years. All I could think was, ‘What am I going to do? What are we going to do? What’s the Federation going to do, and what’s AFSCME going to do?’”
He answered his own question. “We’re going to step up. Somebody’s going to step up to the plate to take her spot,” he said.
He recalled how she would serve as the enforcer, making people follow the rules at the 4th of July picnic, and sometimes he would recognize her for it.
“She would tilt her head, and she would give me that little smile as if to say thank you,” he said. “We’re really going to miss her. We’re going to get through it because somebody’s going to step up like we always do. But she’s truly going to be missed.”
SOUL OF THE UNION
Eddie Caumiant, southern Illinois regional director for AFSCME Council 31, worked closely with Gitchoff for many years.
“Cathi was my colleague, and she was a member, but fundamentally, Cathi was the soul of our union,” he said. “Yeah, she fought, and yeah, she’d let you know when you were at ‘the other end of that stick.’ She was fierce – not just fighting your fights for you, but loving you through whatever was happening.”
But she would never acknowledge her own importance in the union, he added.
“For the 15 years that I knew her, nobody knew Cathi was the power behind that throne. She never let anybody know. She was able to step into that role herself,” Caumiant said.
“If you knew her, you know she was demure to a fault. She didn’t want anybody singing her praises. The only reason we get to do this tonight is because she’s not here. She would not let us celebrate her the way that we need to celebrate her.”
He recalled building a working relationship with Gitchoff when he arrived on the scene.
“I thought I understood solidarity when I got here. I’d kicked around a bunch of different labor councils for a long time, and I felt pretty good about that. She let me know really quickly who was in charge of Local 799, whatever office she held.
“We negotiated our way to a relationship there at first. But we didn’t have disagreements, we had discussions about what was good for the union and where our members needed us to go. I was so very fortunate to ride at her side – not in front of her, and often behind her, but she didn’t let anybody know that.”
She could be as welcoming as she could be tough, Caumiant said.
“While she taught me what I needed to know about Labor, Cathi never met a stranger. Everybody she met, she gave a fair shake. Anybody who crossed her, she gave an opportunity to get back on the right side of that stick, and she kept doing it over and over again.”
At one point, he was considering reinstating some former members who had crossed the picket line in a major strike.
“They’d hurt our union,” he said. “She let me know that we would sign up those scabs over her dead body, because that was the right thing for the union and because she understood that. And together, we found our path there. It’s a testament to Cathi and her strength and who she was.”
DO IT FOR EACH OTHER
Caumiant frequently referred to Gitchoff as his sister.
“When I call Cathi my sister, I’m not saying that the way that we sometimes say that,” he added. “I’m saying that because she let me know that she loved me. I know her local feels the same way.
“So for me, this event is wonderful, it’s beautiful and thank you for coming out, but the charge that Dean laid down is really the call,” he concluded. “If we want to honor her memory, if we want to do for Cathi what she did for us, we need to be able to give boundlessly like she did.
“We need to be able to step into any situation and do what’s required, and not do it for ourselves, but do it for each other. That’s what I learned from Cathi,” he said. “Rest in power, sister.”