By CARL GREEN
East Alton, IL – The indefinite closing of the U.S. Steel plant in Granite City was an underlying theme at the awards banquet of the Greater Madison County Federation of Labor:
Despite the awards, the battle isn’t close to being over, with much of the plant still shut down and a majority of its workers still laid off.
But the awards show how determined the union has been at trying to help the workers cope with their long layoffs.
The fourth award was for Most Active Retiree, and it went to Bill Hagene, an IBEW 309 member who has performed a long list of community services since his retirement seven years ago.
The annual event was the Federation’s 28th, held as always at Julia’s Banquet Center in East Alton on March 23.
LABOR LEADER OF THE YEAR
Federation President B. Dean Webb introduced Simmons by reading from a nomination statement that was actually written by Virgin.
“Dan has worked tirelessly on behalf of the members since their layoff at Granite City Works in December 2015, and he has been there for members, providing assistance, advice and support nearly every day,” Virgin wrote.
He added that Simmons worked with Hoffman on the benefits extension, testified in Washington D.C. against illegal steel imports and pushed for the International Union to pressure U.S. Steel to re-open the plant. Locally, he has promoted fundraisers and organized holiday giving events.
“The bottom line is, Dan Simmons is truly a Labor leader who has done all he can to make these difficult times better for his members and their families,” Virgin wrote. “He has definitely made a difference, not only in their lives but also in that of the community of this strong steel town.”
Simmons said he was both honored and humbled to receive the award and noted that many other union leaders also were deserving.
“It seems a little awkward to be accepting an award for just doing your job – for doing things and making decisions that your gut feelings are telling you are the right thing to do,” he said in a brief acceptance speech. “They are not popular at times, but they are the right decisions. We all know Labor and the working middle-class are under attack, and we as leaders can either sit back and accept it or we can stand up, speak up and let them know we aren’t going to take this anymore.”
BRINGING ALLIES TOGETHER
Simmons called on Labor and its political allies to come more closely together, noting how Hoffman, Representative Dan Beiser (D-Alton), Senator Bill Haine (D-Alton) and others helped get the benefits extension passed.
“We all have to work harder to keep these guys in office, and we’ve got to work to surround ourselves with more elected officials just like them,” he said.
Simmons recounted the union’s efforts in Washington D.C. with Congress and the Commerce Department to fight against illegal imports. “I’m proud to say we’re winning these cases, handily,” he said. “It’s easy to prove cheaters – mostly China, but there are plenty of other countries too. But the system is flawed. It takes us too long to win and ultimately receive the remedy in the form of tariffs.
“We slowly are pulling ourselves out of the hole being dug for us. You know what they say – what doesn’t kill you will make you stronger. If that holds true, we will come back stronger than ever.”
OUTSTANDING SERVICE AWARD
United Way Labor Liaison Terry Biggs introduced Randy Virgin by noting that he has 20 years of service as a steel worker and a member of Local 1899. He handled grievances, served as trustee and then as recording secretary of the Executive Board. In 2003, he was appointed joint efforts coordinator on contracts for Locals 1899, 50 and 68 and continues in that capacity.
But since the plant shutdown in December 2015, his work as a benefits expert has been vital, helping hundreds of workers and their families.
“Members rely on him to assist them when they are making final decisions about retiring from U.S. Steel,” Biggs noted. “His knowledge about the pension plan and benefits and health care for retirees is vast – and vital to USW members.”
Virgin accepted the award by giving thanks to his union and the movement.
“I would like to take this occasion to thank Organized Labor and the United Steelworkers as the union that has done so much and provided so much for me – a good job with safe working conditions, family-supporting wages and benefits, a middle-class standard of living with the ability to provide higher education to both my son and daughter, the opportunity to help others, and the belief that I am part of something more important than just myself,” he said.
“I’m sure many of you feel the same way about your union, and that is why, now more than ever, we need to reaffirm our beliefs and pass on to the next generation – to our children – the values of unionism.”
FRIEND OF LABOR
Webb introduced Hoffman by describing his vital role as chairman of the House Labor and Commerce Committee, which controls the legislative progress of any Labor-related bills.
“Jay has been leading the fight to stop the attack on workers rights by Governor Rauner, and he passed legislation to extend unemployment benefits for the laid-off steelworkers in Granite City,” Webb said. “He is truly the firewall against ‘right-to-work’ for us.”
Hoffman has also played a large role in advancing projects that keep union workers on the job, Webb noted.
“Jay has fought hard for capital construction projects, bringing back much-needed state funds to build new roads, schools, the new McKinley Bridge, and the Mississippi River bridge,” Webb noted. “He helped pass the state’s first capital construction plan in more than a decade, which created jobs and provided hundreds of millions in construction work.”
Hoffman recalled how his course was set when he was first elected to the House at age 28 in 1990.
“I got elected because of Organized Labor, and I made a commitment,” he said. “The commitment was that every day I would go to Springfield, I would work for working families, I’d support Organized Labor, and I would work to be on the Labor Committee.”
DEMOCRAT VS. REPUBLICAN
Then he drew a strong distinction between working with a Democratic administration and the current Republican governor.
“When we were in charge, we were doing good things – we were passing prevailing wage, passing project-labor agreements, making sure we had a capital bill to put people to work, the new Mississippi River bridge, buildings at SIUE, buildings at Lewis & Clark, putting electricians to work, putting laborers to work, putting ironworkers to work, putting all the building trades to work, and making sure we said to teachers, ‘We value your work; we don’t want to take away your pensions.’ Those all were things that we were able to do.
“Unfortunately, the last two-and-a-half years is about one thing – to make sure the governor doesn’t take away everything that we worked for over the last 20 years. It’s been a fight.”
He described 50 bills that he has bottled up in a subcommittee, never to see the light of day.
“All of those bills were introduced by Republicans,” he said. “All of those bills want to either have ‘right-to-work’ in Illinois or take away pensions or take away prevailing wage, to say, ‘If you work hard, you’re not going to be able to make a decent wage.’”
MOST ACTIVE RETIREE
David Hays, a retiree from Machinists Lodge 660 and a Federation delegate, introduced Bill Hagene by saying the vote by the retirees’ board was unanimous to honor the electrician for his extensive charitable work.
“He’s currently working with the Habitat for Humanity projects. They’ve completed one house in East Alton and they’re working on a second one in Collinsville,” Hays noted. “He’s repaired the motors in a Madison County school greenhouse so students can grow their plants for food for the neighborhood. He’s repaired the electrical service at Partners for Pets, a no-kills animal shelter in Troy. He continually offers his services and experience for those less fortunate.”
Hagene credited his union and his good health with being able to keep going.
“This has been my pleasure,” he said. “It’s been one of the most rewarding things I could do, with the support of my local, the executive board, and more than that, the guys who’ve helped me out on this program.
“I’ve got two guys who from day one have helped me with all these endeavors. Without them I wouldn’t be able to do that, and they are Scott Nicholson and Danny Sullivan.”
All three got a nice hand from the crowd.
“I just can’t say how much more rewarding it could be for me,” Hagene said. “I’m glad my local supports me in this.”