On the origins of the St. Louis Labor Council

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ORIGINAL MEETING PLACE for the Central Labor Council and the 1888 AFL Convention, Turner Hall, 16-18 S.Tenth Street in downtown St. Louis. – Missouri Historical Society archives

As we pass another historic moment in local Labor history with the defeat of Prop A, a look back at other historic firsts in St. Louis’ impactful labor history

By JOHN KAHROFF
Business Representative
IBEW Local 1

Early in the “right-to-work” campaign as we waited for the Secretary of State to approve the petition to stop it, I scheduled a vacation day. I was hunting for information on Charles Kassel, a 19th century AFL organizer for the St. Louis Central Trades and Labor Union, predecessor of today’s St. Louis Labor Council.

Retired Council President Bob Kelley pointed me toward the University of Missouri. “We donated all those records John,” he said.

The helpful staff at the State Historical Society arranged for the files to be transported to St. Louis. Initially, there was only one brief mention of Kassel — he was upset that everyone he organized wanted to form their own Labor Temple.

Looking closely further down at the online catalog file, I noticed a listing, this one from 1937. It was well beyond my target date and I wasn’t hopeful Kassel would appear. For a lover of labor history, it was about to get a whole lot better.

BLUE LABEL of the Cigar Makers Union.

TREASURE TROVE

In the mix of that last folder was, “Golden Jubilee Recollections,” a chronology of the first 50 years of the St. Louis Labor Council under its former moniker, the St. Louis Central Trades and Labor Union, written by its President and Business Manager of Cigar Makers International Union Local 44, David Kreyling.

St. Louis had four central labor bodies: The Central Labor Union, the St. Louis Trades Assembly, the German Arbeiter-Verband, and District Assembly No. 4 of the Order of the Knight of Labor. At the urging of local labor leaders and the newly formed American Federation of Labor, these groups would merge in 1887 and become the St. Louis Central Trades and Labor Union, AFoL.

THE ORIGINAL UNION LABEL of the Cigar Makers International Union of American.

The planned merger would be announced in the Local News section of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on December 24, 1886:

“Representative Delegations from the Central Labor Union and the St. Louis Trades Assembly met last evening and effected a consolidation of the two organizations under the name the St. Louis Trades and Labor Assembly.”

In a beautifully written telling, Golden Jubilee Recollections, author Kreyling paints a narrative portrait of our city’s powerful contributions to the American Trade Union Movement, much of it lived first-hand during his 47-year tenure as president and then secretary of the Council.

VISIONARY leader: David Kreyling – Missouri Historical Society archives

From Kreyling’s account, a few points about the St. Louis Labor Movement few know:

• Gave birth to the protective, “union label,” a product trademark that guarantees equitable worker standards during production (See related story: St. Louis: launching pad for today’s Union Label movement.)

• How the Labor coalition would feed the hungry workers of “General Kelly’s army,” (the western section of the historic Cox’s Army) as they passed through our City on their journey to Washington.

• Supported the women’s suffrage movement.

• Fought for the eight-hour workday – all during a time when Pinkertons were instructed to, “Shoot, and shoot to kill,” striking workers.

• A clear indication of St. Louis’s powerful influence is evidenced as we learned that more than 25 percent of the 51 delegates to the 3rd AFL Convention in 1888 called St. Louis home.

Many of these early struggles are still recognizable today. Efforts to protect and promote pro-labor legislation, attempts to quell jurisdictional squabbles, support of public education and infrastructure, on and on.

It’s fun to imagine the jubilance of our forefathers in 1937, just two years after President Roosevelt signed the original, unencumbered version of the National Labor Relations Act.

THE BIRTH OF THE LABOR TRIBUNE AS ‘BEACON OF LABOR UNITY’

And as our forefathers from the St. Louis Central Trades and Labor Union toasted Labor’s triumphs on their 50th anniversary (in 1937) they also welcomed an infant St. Louis Labor Tribune, destined to chronicle their future, come what may.

In the Official Book of the American Federation of Labor, written for the 11th Annual Convention in Birmingham, Alabama, Treasurer John Lennon in his column, The Duty of Organized Labor Toward the Labor Press, writes:

“That the people need a powerful labor press will scarcely be debated by any member of the great army of organized labor. That with such a press our march forward to industrial equality would be wonderfully accelerated none can be so blind as not to see…The men who have tried and are trying to build up a labor press are entitled to the fullest support of organized labor. No set of men have suffered or sacrificed more. They are willing to and do serve our cause for a bare living…Do your duty each and every member of organized labor toward the labor press, and…many of the burdens you now unjustly bear will be removed, and the sunlight of a new era will dawn for all humanity.”

Never did these words ring truer than during our recent struggle against “right-to-work.”

It should come as no surprise that a good portion of Gus Lumpe’s 1978 archive included the work of our Labor Tribune. A weekly beacon of unification, their staff traverses our boundaries in an effort to shore our bonds, promote our cause, and chronicle our story.

Thank you to them and to all the men and women of our Movement for your efforts to defeat Prop A. As my mentor and friend Jim Singer said to me, “Please take time to savor your victory!”

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