George Becker, 78, former president of the United Steelworkers (USW), died Feb. 3 at his home in West Deer, Pa. Twice elected USW president, Becker served from 1993-2000, taking him through some of the most intense union battles of the late 20th century in the United States.
Becker followed his father into the Granite City Steel Mill, near St. Louis, at the tender age of 15, joining a labor gang on the open hearth. “He told me that when you were on his front porch you could feel the heat from the mill,” said current USW President Leo Gerard.
Becker enlisted in the Marines near the end of World War II and was drafted into the Army during the Korean War.
A champion of workers’ safety, Becker led a tough struggle to protect workers at Dow Chemical when that company tried to save money by cutting off systems to protect workers from lead poisoning and arsenic exposure. He wrote the lead standard adopted by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), under which workers must be removed from exposure with no loss in pay, and not returned until safe blood lead levels are reached.
Becker brought the Steelworkers into the front lines of union struggles, mobilizing rank and file workers as part of the new Rapid Response network he created to involve steelworkers, families and allies in the difficult legislative struggles of the period.
A real union fighter, Becker was assigned to lead the Steelworkers’ fight during the 1986-87 USX lockout. Breaking new ground, Becker set up rank and file union teams to bring pressure on Marathon and other non-steel USX holdings. The USW’s broad solidarity effort won gains in pensions, health care and contracting out.
Becker’s historic impact on our nation’s labor movement was assured in 1990, as he developed the international campaign in solidarity with 1,700 striking aluminum workers in Ravenswood, W.Va. Ravenswood Aluminum Corp., led by international criminal financier Marc Rich, fired the union workers and brought in scabs. Becker, applying lessons learned during the USX and other union fights, developed flying squads of steelworkers. They followed Rich across Europe, Australia and Latin America, mobilizing labor and allied support that proved crucial in winning the Ravenswood fight. In doing so, Becker broke down the decades-old Cold War barriers that had stopped U.S. unions from working with left-led unions across the globe. The USW won the Ravenswood battle, and Marc Rich remained on the run until given a last-minute pardon by then-President Clinton.
Soon after becoming USW President, Becker faced another crisis. The Rubber Workers union (URW) was being broken by Bridgestone Corp., threatening a major defeat for all of labor. Becker engineered a merger between URW and USW, taking on the Bridgestone-Firestone fight. The USW mobilized its membership in a national and international solidarity drive that won a decent contract for the rubber workers.
These struggles helped inspire the entire U.S. labor movement in the need for a more class-struggle-oriented leadership, leading to the watershed victory of John Sweeney/Linda Chavez-Thompson in AFL-CIO elections. Becker played a crucial organizing role in this historic step forward for the U.S. labor movement.
Becker set up the Stand Up For Steel movement and played an important role in the struggle against NAFTA, GATT and FTAA. “The thing that George did better than anyone was being the voice of the anxious industrial worker on the loss of jobs and foreign trade,” said Leo Gerard.
George Becker strengthened the USW, and in the process helped bring class struggle, fighting unionism back to the entire U.S. labor movement. His struggles have brought hope to us all. He will be sorely missed.
Becker is survived by his wife, Jane, three sons, a sister, 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.