Incoming Steelworkers’ Chief Has Worker Style; He Started in Mill at 14 : Labor: George Becker is campaigning to represent USAir employees. His approach as head of 540,300-member union is less intellectual, more down to earth than predecessor, whom he salutes.
George Becker and hundreds of chanting airline workers wanted to deliver a stinging Christmas card to the chairman of USAir, but they had a problem: five security guards.
“I’m a USAir frequent flier,” Becker shouted to the stone-faced guards blocking the entrance to the airline’s headquarters in Arlington, Va. “You mean I’m not welcome?”
Becker is a card-carrying frequent flier. But he’s also a card-carrying officer of the United Steelworkers of America. He becomes president of the 540,300-member union on March 1 and intends to use his aggressive, plain-talking style to make organizing a top priority.
He led the march on USAir headquarters just before Christmas as part of the union’s campaign to represent about 17,000 USAir customer service workers.
“Those people acted as a union maybe for the first time, and the company didn’t do anything about it,” he said.
Becker’s working-man style--he says furlough is a “fancy word” for layoff--sharply contrasts with the more professorial demeanor of outgoing president Lynn Williams. Becker noted that Williams, who has a degree in economics and joined the union as an organizer, is regarded as a labor intellectual.
“I’m not that kind of guy,” he said.
Some rank-and-file members say that although Becker is less polished than Williams, his experience as a laborer helps him relate to workers.
“It gives him a better understanding of the problems we’re facing, the reality of it, more than the textbook approach,” said John Guy, an electrician at the USX Corp. Irvin Works steel plant in suburban Pittsburgh.
“For the average workers on the shop floor, sometimes Lynn Williams talked over their heads,” he said.
Becker, 65, grew up in Granite City, Ill., and began working at the age of 14 in the same mill as his father.
He joined the Marines in 1946 and later worked as a crane operator before becoming a full-time union employee at the age of 35. He has been the union’s vice president of administration since 1985.
The union’s leadership transition marks a difference in style, not a change in direction. Williams prepared Becker for the job, and the two share the same philosophies.
“Lynn gave the union a new focus, a new dimension,” Becker said. “I intend to build on that.”
Becker’s biggest challenge will be halting the union’s membership decline of the past decade. The union has fewer than half the 1.2 million members it counted in 1981 before the epidemic closings of steel mills and other plants.
About half the union’s members still work in the metals industry. Most of the rest work in manufacturing.
The union realizes it can’t look to the large steel mills for growth. In the last year, the union’s new members included bakery workers, nursing home employees and school bus drivers.
Increasingly, the USW and other unions are organizing in services. The USAir campaign has become a high-profile test for the USW, the Teamsters and the International Association of Machinists. All are vying to represent the workers.
Becker virtually shut down the union’s headquarters in Pittsburgh for an hour on one recent afternoon and called a meeting in the lobby. There he urged everyone, from secretaries to accountants, to knock on doors of USAir employees and urge them to sign union cards.
“He wants to make everybody an organizer,” said union spokesman Gary Hubbard. “These are folks that have never been asked to go out and organize.”
Becker said he believes most people in factories and on shop floors would like to be represented by a union--and could be if laws and regulations on organizing were changed.
For one thing, he said, companies should be punished more severely for unfair labor practices when workers consider union representation.
“The company can intimidate, coerce, threaten to fire, fire,” he said. “They can destroy your campaign in so many different ways.”
Under Williams, the union won innovative changes designed to give workers a greater voice, including the right to nominate a representative to the board of directors of the big steel companies.
Becker said he wants to continue pushing for changes that will give workers more control, such as employee buyouts of healthy, not just ailing, companies.
“We talk about worker empowerment,” Becker said. “This is just taking that one step further. This is bricks and mortar.”