Former Illinois AFL-CIO chief Robert G. Gibson dead at 93; services Friday

When he headed the state AFL-CIO, ‘Public sector workers won collective-bargaining rights, and major unemployment insurance reforms were implemented,’ the labor group said.

SHARE Former Illinois AFL-CIO chief Robert G. Gibson dead at 93; services Friday
Former AFL-CIO chief Robert G. Gibson.

Former AFL-CIO chief Robert G. Gibson.

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Robert G. Gibson, a steelworker from downstate Granite City who rose to be the head of the Illinois AFL-CIO, has died.

Mr. Gibson, 93, died of cardiac arrest in Pompano Beach, Fla., where he’d retired, according to his daughter Marsha.

He joined the Illinois AFL-CIO in 1958 as community services director, was elected secretary-treasurer in 1963 and was president from 1979 to 1989.

“Bob Gibson never forgot where he came from,” Illinois AFL-CIO president Tim Drea said. “He helped build the labor movement in Illinois into what it is today. His charisma and personality are legendary. And his contributions to making people’s lives better are undisputed.”

In the mid-1970s, he helped get the Illinois Legislature to approve “one of the biggest reforms of both unemployment insurance and workers’ comp” in a century, said Richard Walsh, a former president of the Illinois AFL-CIO. It increased workers’ compensation and expanded unemployment benefits to provide cost-of-living increases and other benefits for people with spouses and children.

In the 1980s, he pushed for legislation that “provided the right for public sector employees to negotiate wages and benefits for the first time in Illinois history,” Walsh said.

Mr. Gibson worked with both major political parties. He was a close ally of the late Gov. Jim Thompson, a Republican who got the AFL-CIO’s endorsement in 1982 over his Democratic challenger, former Sen. Adlai E. Stevenson III. In 1994, the labor leader backed another Republican, future Gov. George Ryan, when Ryan was re-elected secretary of state.

He was born in Missouri, where his father Glenn was a lead miner, his daughter said. His dad went on to be a steelworker at General Steel in Granite City, where young Robert grew up.

During World War II, he served in the Coast Guard and was on a troop carrier bound for San Francisco when word spread of the surrender by Japanese forces. He told the Chicago Sun-Times how his fellow sailors tossed their caps in the air in jubilation.

When they arrived in San Francisco, “We just literally roamed up and down Market Street all day and night,” he said, “ignoring the shore patrol announcements to go back to the base.”

After returning home, he worked as a steelworker in Granite City.

“He saw how hard people were working, and he also saw how people got injured,” his daughter said. “My dad wrote all of the workers’ comp laws that are still on the books today.”

In 1960, Mr. Gibson introduced John F. Kennedy when the future president spoke in Granite City, according to “Forty Gavels,” a biography of the late Illinois AFL-CIO chief Reuben Soderstrom.

In 1965, he was transfixed by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. when the civil rights leader visited Springfield.

“He was a spell-binder,” Mr. Gibson said in the book of King. “He preached a sermon rather than just a speech.”

After the Springfield police said they’d gotten a bomb threat targeting King, Soderstrom assigned Mr. Gibson to stay with him. According to the book:

“Bob looked at Martin Luther King, overwhelmed both by the stature of his guest and the situation at hand. He genuinely did not know what to do next.

“ ‘It’ll be all right, son,’ Martin Luther told Gibson soothingly, as if it was Bob’s life, not his, that was under mortal threat. ‘Now let’s see… Do you know how to get to the Lincoln Memorial?’

“Reuben immediately proceeded to the police station while Gibson nervously sat with their VIP guest and talked him out of a tour around Springfield.”

Mr. Gibson’s wife Martha died 15 years ago. In addition to his daughter Marsha, survivors include his daughter Billie, son Randy and five grandchildren.

Visitation is planned from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. Thursday at Sunset Hill Funeral Home in Glen Carbon, where a funeral service will be held at 10 a.m. Friday.

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