Three-volume set tells incredible story of the ‘progressive beacon’ and ‘guiding light’ of the Illinois Labor Movement
By CARL GREEN
For forty years, 1930 to 1970, Reuben G. Soderstrom stood at the top of the Labor Movement in Illinois as president of the Illinois State Federation of Labor and its successor, the Illinois AFL-CIO.
His tenure ranged from the Great Depression through World War II and deep into the era of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam. Labor’s importance grew enormously during that time, and it was Soderstrom who kept things moving forward in the Prairie State.
AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka says Soderstrom was a “progressive beacon” and Illinois’ “guiding light” as that random, scattered movement evolved into a powerful, united force for working people.
Yet most people these days have never heard of Soderstrom, much less know of his accomplishments for Labor and in the Illinois House of Representatives. His tenure with the Illinois AFL-CIO ended shortly before his death in 1970 at age 82.
Soderstrom’s story is also the story of the rise of Labor in Illinois in those crucial decades. And now it has been told, in one of the biggest and most thorough biographies ever written.
Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO has been released by CMS Publishing and can be purchased on its website, fortygavels.com for $295 or from Amazon.com for $315. The website offers a 20 percent discount for union members.
HOW IT HAPPENED
Chris Stevens, a veteran writer for The Labor Paper, a Peoria-based, twice-monthly newspaper for central Illinois, said the process began in 2008 when the Illinois AFL-CIO dedicated its headquarters in Springfield, 50 years after it was formed by merger.
Labor Paper Editor Sharon Williams noticed then that the president in 1958 was named Soderstrom, just like a dermatologist in Peoria, Carl Soderstrom.
Williams contacted the doctor and learned he was Reuben Soderstrom’s grandson – and very proud of it, so much so that he had always wanted to write a biography of his grandfather.
Williams put Carl Soderstrom together with Stevens, and that laid the foundation that became the project that became the book.
Stevens soon found out that Dr. Soderstrom was ready to create a really big book.
“Doc always wanted to tell his grandfather’s remarkable story. In addition to his vast memories, he had a handful of photos and a couple of newspaper articles about Reuben,” Stevens told the Labor Tribune. “He also had the gavels from Reuben’s years as president. He hired me, and we started doing research.
“We went through the convention minutes of the 40 years he was president. We found a huge number of newspaper articles, which of course then lead us to more information.”
Stevens made several visits to the Richard J. Daley Library at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and he and co-author Andrew Burt spent two weeks at University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library, official repository of AFL-CIO records.
“Doc is a scientist by nature, training and education, so he insisted upon accurate information and citations,” Stevens noted.
A BOY’S HARD LIFE
The story of Reuben Soderstrom’s childhood, as related in the first volume, is a microcosm of American history, reflecting a wholly different way of life from what we know now. He was born in 1888 in rural Waverly, Minn., the second of six children, to immigrant parents John and Anna Soderstrom.
The family’s story could be a book itself as they try to live the American dream only to run into crop failures, poverty and infant death. John, born a Swede, pursues farming and preaching careers and works as a laborer as well. But it’s not enough.
At age nine, Reuben is sent to work and stay at a blacksmith shop to help pay off family debts. Three years later, in 1901, he is sent to Streator, IL, a coal mining town southwest of Chicago, to find work and send his earnings home to support the family, while living with an aunt, the wife of a coal miner.
After hauling water bottles for work crews for $3 a week, the boy moves to a bottle factory, where he joins in his first strike in 1903 but gets nothing to show for it.
Reuben’s sister Olga later wrote a detailed description of these early years and concluded they explain well the impulses that pushed her brother into becoming a Labor leader.
“He knew poverty firsthand,” she wrote. “He experienced child labor. He knew the loneliness of separation from his family at such an early age. These were his formative years, and they were not happy years.”
SELF-EDUCATED AND INNOVATIVE
The young man discovers the library, studies the words of Abraham Lincoln and Alexander Hamilton, and uses his new language skills to build a career as a union linotype operator. He remains a member of the International Typographers Union for 60 years.
His union work leads the young man to win a seat in the Illinois House in 1918, lose it in 1920 and win it back in 1922, and he pushes through important Labor legislation including the 1925 Injunction Limitation Act, which gave unions the right to peacefully assemble and go on strike.
Soderstrom develops the idea of “agreed bills,” in which adversaries agree on what they will accept in advance, allowing the legislation to become law smoothly. He eventually serves 18 years in the Legislature.
LANDMARK PENSION BILL, PATRIOTISM, WORKER PROTECTIONS
As Volume 2 takes over the story, the now-veteran legislator gets a landmark pension bill passed and is elected president of the Illinois State Federation of Labor in 1930. During World War II, Soderstrom takes the patriotic approach, working to keep his member unions from striking against wartime production.
In the 1950s, he helps bring about the national merger of the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Occupations to form the mighty AFL-CIO, including the Illinois AFL-CIO, where he continues as president. He battles in the Legislature to strengthen protections for Illinois workers.
In Volume 3, readers see an older Soderstrom coping with the fast-changing world of the 1960s. He works with both presidents, Kennedy and Johnson, as they sometimes support and sometimes oppose Labor interests, and he becomes a friend of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in championing the Civil Rights Movement.
But he also finds difficulty, as a lifelong Republican who supported FDR, in building the kind of consensus that had been his way of getting things done.
There’s much more to tell, but that’s why they wrote the book.
CELEBRATION OF LABOR MOVEMENT, WORKING CLASS STRUGGLES
Carl Soderstrom, the co-author and publisher of the book, says in his preface that the book is rare in the way it celebrates a working class man’s difficult life instead of the usual stories of thriving economies and titans of industry.
“The book you are holding is important because it is an unapologetic celebration of the Labor Movement, its colorful and committed laboring men and women, and a singular man, my grandfather, Reuben George Soderstrom, who steadfastly and charismatically churned through the decades as its fearless leader.
“For me, this project has been a study of a great man doing great things.”
This region’s prominent Labor historian, Mike Matejka of the Great Plains Laborers District Council and vice president of the Illinois Labor History Society, managed to sum up the three volumes in two succinct sentences:
“A child of rural immigrants who started work early, Reuben Soderstrom quickly grasped that his situation was not unique but shared by millions. With a strong moral foundation from his religious family, he became a life-long workers’ champion – a visionary with the patience to struggle relentlessly to bring change.”
The 12 Pillars
Forty Gavels describes what it calls the “12 Pillars” of Soderstrom’s life and work – beliefs that he worked for and that sustained him through his long career. They are:
• Abolishing child labor – He’d been there, and he knew what it was like, so when he could, Soderstrom helped develop the national Fair Labor Standards Act that set minimum ages.
• Workmen’s compensation – He’d seen the plight of injured workers and their families and worked as both as legislator and Labor leader to improve the Illinois Workmen’s Compensation Act.
• Right to strike – We take this for granted, but it had to be won and protected in Soderstrom’s early years, when court injunctions were routinely used to block work actions.
• Credit unions – Workers needed an alternative to loan sharks as a way to get financing for their homes and families, and Soderstrom answered the call in 1925 by passing the Illinois Credit Union Act.
• Ending unemployment – Soderstrom learned before he was even a teen-ager that everything depended on someone in the family getting a job, and he fought for many ways to increase the number of jobs, including his proposal – which didn’t get anywhere – for a six-hour workday.
• Pensions – People could work hard all their lives and wind up in poverty for lack of a pension. Soderstrom’s Illinois Old Age Pension Act of 1936 brought dignity and comfort to countless retirees.
• Workplace safety – Employers often tried to save a few bucks by shortchanging safety – at the great expense of injured workers. Soderstrom passed the Occupational Disease Act to protect the workers.
• Women’s rights – Soderstrom started out at a time when women had few rights of any kind, and he knew that had to change. He joined with the Women’s Trade Union League in 1937 to protect women from abusive overtime work.
• Religion – Soderstrom never forgot his preacher father’s Lutheran faith, and he declared that religion and Labor shared beliefs in equality, fairness and justice.
• Civil rights – He battled any discrimination, and in 1961 helped pass the Fair Employment Practices Act. When honored for his commitment, he answered, “Regardless of race or religion, we address each other as brothers. Discrimination against any person because of his or her race or creed is wrong, because discrimination itself is wrong.”
• Family – Having been separated from his own family as a boy, Soderstrom made sure his own family grew and remained close over the generations. The book states, “He set out in life to keep families together, and his Labor policies flowed from that principle.”
Incredible undertaking to tell Soderstom’s
story and history of Illinois Labor Movement
More than just a tome, Forty Gavels is split into three volumes, each a large coffee-table style book full of pictures, voluminous text, side stories and references. Total pages number 968, and the number of photos is just about incalculable.
It’s not only the story of Soderstrom, but in its way, it’s a history of Illinois and the Labor Movement here.
Everything about the book is big, as seen in these numbers:
• 4 – That’s the number of authors it took to tell the story, including Soderstrom’s grandson Carl Soderstrom, great-grandson and Writers Guild member Robert Soderstrom, researcher Andrew “Cass” Burt and veteran Labor writer Chris Stevens.
• 10 – The number of years the group spent collecting information, photos and artifacts and turning them into the book.
• 13 – The number of prefaces, forewords and notes it takes just to get the story started.
• 18 – The number of years Soderstrom also served as a state representative, passing legislation that included prevailing wage and right-to-strike issues, and establishing free textbooks in the public schools.
• 59 – The number of chapters it takes to tell this story.
Beyond the numbers, it is a beautiful piece of publishing. Many of the historical photos are necessarily in black and white, but overall the volumes are full of vivid color and images.
You don’t have to sit down and read it in one long sitting, but rather, you can find interesting topics in the Table of Contents and choose the parts you want to see. You could spend years looking at this book.