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Is Becker a dinosaur?

At The Age Of 67, AFL-CIO President Is Still Fighting

Almost a decade ago, J. Bill Becker joined a slow-pitch softball team.

Becker, 58 at the time, had not played softball in years, although he swam daily to stay in shape. Becker, in his first time at bat, lined a sharp single into the outfield and took second on a poor throw. The next batter also lined a single.

Becker, the bald, bespectacled president of the state AFL-CIO, rounded third base and headed for home.

"He knew he was going to get thrown out at home," says Jim Clark, the state AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. "He hit this huge, young catcher head-on."

When the dust cleared, Becker jumped up, leaned over the 20-ish, flat-bellied catcher and asked, "Boy, are you OK?"

The catcher had dropped the ball.

Becker was safe.

"He won," Clark says. "He won. Period."

Friends and enemies agree on one word to describe Bill Becker.


He has been called worse.

In a 1979 Arkansas Gazette story, Becker was described as downright "dangerous, like he's ready to stop talking and start kicking tails, if it comes to that."

In a 1986 Arkansas Business profile, Becker was dubbed "an angry man."

"I'm still angry," he said at the time. "I stay mad most of the time."

A native of Chicago, Bill Becker looks the part.


A union man all the way.


No Retirement Plans

Now 67, Becker appears just the same as he did in photographs 10 years ago. Part of that, no doubt, is due to his trademark shaved head and timeless black horn-rim glasses.

He's fit from those almost-daily swims.

He's articulate.

He's outspoken.

He dresses sharply.

Still, one begs to ask, "Is J. Bill Becker past his prime?"

He will turn 68 on Feb. 25. Most men are three years into retirement by then.

He has spent almost 30 years as the visible, aggressive president of the AFL-CIO in a right-to-work state.

And he is a man with a quadruple-bypass heart operation on his resume (although he was back at work three weeks after the surgery).

Union leaders dance around the issue of Becker's retirement. Most refuse comment on how much longer they believe Becker will be in power. Or whether he should still be in power.

"That's not for me to say," is the sharp reply of one union leader.

"I have no idea," says another. "But I have no problems with Bill staying another 10 years."

Becker greets the question with an unstifled yawn and a long pause.

Finally, he says, "I will work as long as I am capable."

Later, pressed again on the issue, he takes a firmer stance.

"I do not have the financial resources that would enable me to retire," Becker says.

Issue closed.

He'll keep running every couple of years and see if the membership keeps electing him. Becker became president of the Arkansas AFL-CIO in 1964. He has been re-elected without opposition ever since. The next election will be in May 1993. Expect Becker to be back.

Many think Clark, a former steel worker who has worked with Becker for more than nine years at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Little Rock, is the natural successor.

Clark isn't holding his breath.

"If I were Bill Becker, I would have no plans to retire," Clark says. "Where else could the organization get someone with his years of expertise? There are no words to describe his ability to do that job. No person in the state of Arkansas could do the job Bill Becker does."

Chicago Born, Southern By Choice

Becker calls himself an adopted Southerner.

Born and raised in Chicago, he graduated from the University of Illinois and then made his way south 42 years ago. He was a union activist from the start.

Becker worked in several Southern states, eventually landing in Arkansas as a union organizer, first for the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America.

When Becker was elected state AFL-CIO president in 1964, union membership in Arkansas was about 70,000. Almost three decades later, there are almost 80,000 members. But there has been a decline of about 10,000 members during the past 15 years.

The decreasing number of cut-and-sew operations, shoe factories and aluminum plants in the state has taken its toll.

Still, the argument that Arkansas is not a strong union state irks Becker. "Compared to what?" he fires back. "Percentagewise, we have more organized labor here than in Texas. Considering the degree of organization, we are third in the South |behind~ Alabama and Florida."

But the fact Arkansas is a right-to-work state makes organizing labor unions a difficult task at best.

Gov. Bill Clinton has supported right-to-work laws, Becker says. Such laws generally ban both:

* Closed shops -- establishments in which employers agree to hire only union members in good standing.

* Union shops -- establishments in which employers hire non-members on the condition that they will become union members within a specified time.

Becker made headlines again recently.

He told the media Clinton had "stuck it" to labor during his 11 years in office. He said a review of Clinton's labor record would prove his point.

That review was sent to state AFL-CIO offices across the country. Becker prepared the 70-page report last fall.

At the time, he issued this statement: "I have been asked and I have advised the AFL-CIO of Clinton's past record and his degree of support of the objectives to which the AFL-CIO is dedicated. If Mr. Clinton receives the endorsement of the AFL-CIO, I will work hard to help him become the first president from the state of Arkansas. I will have no further comments until the AFL-CIO makes a decision."

No further comments?

The AFL-CIO has not yet made its decision.

But Becker has had some comments.

Shortly after he began sending copies of the report to other states, Becker fueled the fire by saying the governor rarely takes labor's side.

The Feb. 10 issue of Business Week called Becker's report a "scathing review of Clinton's years in office."

"Sometimes we get a good appointment out of him, but more often than not we don't," Becker says. "I listed 10 or 11 things he has done |for labor~, but that's not a very good record for 11 years in office."

Becker blames Clinton for Arkansas' No. 47 national ranking in per-capita income. The average state wage is $8.89 per hour. The national average is $11.20 per hour.

Clinton Backers

When Becker's review of Clinton's labor record became public, some union leaders took exception to his statements.

In fact, state AFL-CIO Vice President Tommy McFalls released a statement defending Clinton.

"When Bill Becker criticized Gov. Clinton's labor record, he was not speaking for all the leaders of the individual unions or for all the rank-and-file members," McFalls said in the statement.

McFalls says Arkansas labor organizations are "in |Clinton's~ corner."

Roy Spann, president of Local 647 of the Arkansas State Electrical Workers Association, says his group voted last month to endorse Clinton. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers has yet to make a national endorsement.

Spann says the ASEW's endorsement was not in reaction to Becker's report.

"Bill Becker is president of the AFL-CIO, and he's the spokesperson for them," Spann says. "That's their stand, and that's the way he feels."

Becker is quick to point out it's not the official stand of the AFL-CIO.

Opposition to Clinton is not even his stand, Becker says.

"This office is neutral," he says. "I am talking about the governor's record ... I have done a chronology of Clinton's record back to 1974 ... They asked all state federations to do it. California did it. Nebraska did it. They're putting |the information~ into some sort of summary.

"... A lot of people have been calling and asking about it. The internal stuff, I have not given to anybody ... I am secure that my facts are right. No one has said I am lying about his record. I just documented it from our records."

And commented on it.

"I assume I still have the right of free speech," Becker says.

In Demand

Becker sandwiched an interview with Arkansas Business between interviews with the Houston Chronicle and CBS News.

Clark says journalists call the AFL-CIO on a daily basis to ask about Clinton's labor record.

David Wilhelm, Clinton's campaign manager, dropped by to give Becker the governor's perspective.

"A courtesy meeting," Becker calls it.

In essence, Becker and some other Arkansas labor leaders have agreed to disagree.

"There are differences between labor unions in the state," Spann says. "I have nothing against Bill Becker. I still work with Bill on items."

Dave Menace, president of United Auto Workers Region 5, says his organization has made no endorsement. But he supports Becker's right to speak out.

"Bill gave that statement based on his personal knowledge," Menace says.

"Bill simply released a record," agrees Benny Dollar, president of Local 425 of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, the largest local in Arkansas. "I didn't check every aspect of it. That's what he was asked to do, compile a record. And he did it."

Critics say Becker angered Clinton's labor supporters by commenting so publicly on the report.

Others, however, applaud Becker's statements.

"He stated Gov. Clinton's record accurately," says James Conner, president of Local 6508 of the Communications Workers of America. "I don't think his action |angered other union leaders~. Some of the actions by the other unions did."

The point-counterpoint exercise among the state's labor leaders wasn't a shining moment for solidarity.

"The friction within the organization is a creation of the press," Clark argues. "It is really unfortunate that the reporting ... has given the appearance of our organization supporting or opposing a candidate.

"... Disagreements between unions have been misconstrued. If there have been disagreements, we'll weather that storm. We've sure survived a hell of a lot worse."

Becker sits in the eye of this storm, taking all comers in his small, dark office just south of downtown Little Rock.

And he has no intention of leaving the cramped quarters for good. He brushes off the "Clinton stuff" with a wave of his hand.

He yawns again.

The walls of his office are cluttered with political cartoons, photographs of state and national dignitaries and a haunting black-and-white print of brothers John and Robert Kennedy. The Kennedys are heroes of Becker's.

Yet it is a picture that hangs in Becker's home that gives him the most strength.

It features a troubled old man standing alone. The caption reads, "If I remain silent, who will speak?"

There is no indication Bill Becker will silence himself anytime soon.
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Title Annotation:includes related article on Democratic presidential candidates; AFL-CIO president J. Bill Becker
Author:Webb, Kane
Publication:Arkansas Business
Date:Feb 17, 1992
Previous Article:Big, bad debts: 20 bankrupt Arkansas businesses had debts of more than $1 million each.
Next Article:Are they covered?

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