It's hard for most delegates at this week's state AFL-CIO 50th anniversary convention to imagine the federation of unions without William George. But then, the labor leader has been a member of the organization for 50 years.
And, while he is retiring after 20 years as the state president, he is not leaving.
Mr. George will be named president emeritus and plans to keep doing the work he really likes, helping pro-labor candidates across the commonwealth.
Mr. George -- even at 68 just about everyone calls him Billy -- was 18 when he joined the United Steelworkers while working in the wire mill at the J&L plant in his hometown of Aliquippa. He came from a union household and grew up down the street from the United Steelworkers local.
Back then, he said, the union was the heart of the community. An example, he said, was when John F. Kennedy went to Aliquippa, the president didn't speak in front of city hall -- he stood in front of the union hall.
Mr. George, now of Mechanicsburg, Cumberland County, remembers the day he was sworn into the steelworkers in Aliquippa, with his former classmates looking on. He was given his union card and introduced to his first boilermaker -- the shot and beer kind, not the tradesman.
He quickly learned about seniority when he was laid off after four months. He was called back to work in the tin mill, then laid off again. Finally he took a job at the open hearth, a hot and dirty job that he kept for 14 years. He proudly says he never worked a double shift or a sixth day so that someone else would be denied a day of pay.
Unionism was part of the culture then. The mill was seven miles long and employed 11,000 people. Signs over businesses declared that they were union bars or union barbers.
In the early 1970s, Mr. George ran for the job of grievance officer in his local and won. In that capacity, he represented workers going to arbitration against management attorneys. He rose to president of the Steelworkers Local 1211 and won the presidency of the state AFL-CIO in 1990.
There were 1.2 million union members in Pennsylvania then. In the years since, that number has dropped as low as 720,000, then grown again to 890,000.
One of Mr. George's proudest accomplishments is something that didn't happen: When, nationally, the Service Employees International Union and other unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers broke away from the AFL-CIO, the organizations at the statewide level didn't follow suit.
Richard Trumka, the national president of the AFL-CIO, said that was a testament to Mr. George's leadership.
"It's because of the effectiveness of Bill [George] and [state secretary-treasurer] Rick [Bloomingdale] that UFCW locals, SEIU locals, locals throughout our great labor movement are here today, that we work together today," Mr. Trumka said.
"The effectiveness of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO in political, legislative and community action is something you don't walk away from. And I think that's a lesson we need to apply to the national stage."
Privately, Mr. Trumka said a good bit of Mr. George's effectiveness is his hard work, his sense of timing and his sense of humor.
In organizing drives and negotiations, Mr. Trumka said, Mr. George knows just when to say something funny. "Billy had the uncanny ability to break the tension."
Mr. George will be honored for his years of service at a dinner scheduled for tonight, during which Steelers owner and U.S. Ambassador to Ireland Dan Rooney will be given the Citizen of the Year award.
Ann Belser: email@example.com or 412-263-1699.