By CARL GREEN
East Alton, IL – Labor folks here were doing good work back in 2019, long before being sidetracked by a pandemic. Now with signs emerging of a return to normal, six were honored last week for their pre-pandemic accomplishments.
The Greater Madison County Federation of Labor presented its 2020 Labor awards on March 25 – its second meeting since resuming regular monthly gatherings. Last year’s annual awards banquet had to be canceled, as was this year’s banquet.
The 2020 Labor Leader of the Year is Randy Virgin, an officer in Steelworkers Local 1899, who plays the vital role of helping members get their benefits.
LABOR LEADER OF THE YEAR
In the steelmaking world, Randy Virgin is known as the guy who knows what to do, be it a pension issue, unemployment benefits, health care or other matters. He is called the USW Joint Efforts Coordinator in a message on the local’s website helping members deal with the pandemic. He is recording secretary on the local’s executive board.
The decision to honor him was made more than a year ago, but nobody at the local or with the Federation broke the news until the March 25 meeting.
“Even though it was a year ago, I had no idea this was coming,” he said in accepting the honor. “Those who were responsible did a good job of keeping it a secret. I am very honored to receive this award.
He added, “I am so proud to be a Steelworker, it’s sometimes hard to explain. I’ve been so fortunate in being involved in the union and being able to do what I do – helping our members and their families. I really want to thank the Federation for this award and recognition, and I appreciate it.”
In presenting the award, Federation Vice President Mike Fultz described how Virgin has been a strong, steadying influence both prior to and during the pandemic.
“Looking back over the past two years, several folks have stepped up and been involved in offering guidance and direction to our members impacted by layoffs, downturns and closing,” he said. “Over the years we have seen our recipient for this award grind through these events time after time…. making endless calls helping members with layoff benefits and guiding them through that process.”
FRIEND OF LABOR
Madison County Circuit Judge Sarah Smith, who was honored with the Friend of Labor Award, thanked the Federation and all of Labor for its steadfast support in her spirited but unsuccessful run for a southern Illinois seat on the Illinois appellate court last year.
“I’m very honored to be here with you guys,” she said. “We didn’t make it in the last campaign, and that’s OK, but I have to tell you that the one group that came out hardest for me in all 37 counties was the union members.
“More than any other organizations, and more than the Democratic Party, you guys stood by me strong, and you helped me out, even in the pandemic. So, I just want to say thank you.”
Smith is taking a step back from politics for a while, but said she plans to stay close to her Labor friends.
“You guys have been the backbone for me, coming from a Labor family,” she said. “You’ve gotten me to associate judge, you’ve gotten me to circuit judge, and I will never forget where I came from. So from the bottom of my heart, I appreciate all of you guys.”
Federation President B. Dean Webb, who presented the award, said Smith has proven her commitment to Labor since her first campaign for associate judge.
“She was at a every fundraiser; she was at every union or democratic function. She’s been there with us through thick and thin,” Webb said.
Machinists District 9 Business Representative Roy Collins presented the award for Special Recognition to a friend of Labor, Chrystle Spillari-Gilman, for her help during the Machinists’ strike in 2019 at Laura Buick in Collinsville.
After seeing the workers picketing, and learning from them that their pensions were threatened, she began posting videos on Facebook explaining the workers’ position. The videos were widely seen in the community, helping build support for the union.
“Chrystle is someone who took matters into her own hands,” Collins said. “She recognized a need for the public to be educated on an ongoing issue and took the initiative to do something right, even though it may not have directly involved her or her family.”
The strike ended and the pensions were saved, Collins said, thanks in part to her help. As a new mother, she was unable to attend the awards program, but the Federation gave her an enthusiastic round of applause.
ODELL FOX AWARD FOR SERVICE
This year’s Odell Fox Award for Service to the Labor Movement went to Don Degonia, business manager and 25-year member of Plumbers and Gasfitters Local 360.
In presenting the award, United Way Labor liaison Terry Biggs recalled how the award’s namesake, a Carpenters Local 377 leader, made a difference in the Labor Movement. For one thing, he increased the Clark Refinery contribution to United Way from $89 in 1990 to more than $30,000 in 1991
“Odell’s methodology was one of honesty, fairness and integrity toward his co-workers while encouraging them to support the United Way,” Biggs said.
He noted that Degonia is also known for lending a hand to fellow union members. “He has been a United Way campaign co-chair and encouraged his members to be active in the community and in Labor where possible.”
Degonia has recently served on the United Way auxiliary board and increased his local’s contribution to United Way tenfold, Biggs said.
Degonia thanked the Federation, crediting United Way Labor Liaison Nick Dodson with helping the local get involved with the United Way.
“Everybody who does anything in this room, you keep everything going,” Degonia said. “It’s great for the community, and we’re proud to be a part of it.”
HEART OF THE COMMUNITY AWARD
Biggs also presented the Karen Brown Heart of the Community Award for 2019, a United Way award, to Wyatt Roberds, director of bands at Granite City High School.
“While under his direction, the program has more than tripled in size and has received numerous awards and honors at local, state and national competitions and festivals,” Biggs said. “The band has achieved a reputation for excellence, having performed at New York City’s Lincoln Center, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall, the NFL Hall of Fame Parade, the Illinois Music Educators All-State Conference and most recently at Walt Disney World’s Magic Kingdom.”
Roberds is a graduate of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. The award is named for Karen Brown, a longtime leader in the Tri-Cities United Way.
GEORGE MEANY SCOUTING AWARD
Mike Fultz presented the George Meany Scouting award to Steelworkers Local 1899 President Dan Simmons for the union’s long sponsorship of Boy Scout Troop 1899.
Meany, the first president of the AFL-CIO, was also dedicated to the Boy Scouts of America (now Scouting BSA). The Federation gives this award to recognize union members’ contributions to local Scouting programs. This year’s award went to Local 1899 for its continuing sponsorship of a troop started by member Dan White and continued by his successors.
In addition to regular scouting activities, the troop cooks hot dogs ever year at Labor Day festivities and supports other fundraisers.
“Many of our award recipients here tonight do not do what they do for any reward. They do it for the benefit of others,” Fultz said. “That’s their reward.”