Sherwood P. Kerker, a crusading editor for the rights of working families as editor of the St. Louis Labor Tribune, died June 16 at his home in O’Fallon, MO. He had been in failing health for several days.
Brother Kerker was a classic “fighting editor” who relished using the Labor Tribune to fight for workers and their unions.
He wrote articles and series about shoddy work on nonunion projects; he boosted strikes and boycotts, and he would drive throughout eastern Missouri and southern Illinois to take photos and write stories wherever union workers needed help in their struggles against employers.
Brother Kerker came close to changing the course of American history during organized labor’s fight against the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
When it was learned that U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt (D-St. Louis), then the majority leader in the U.S. House of Representatives, was leaning — along with the rest of Congress — toward passing the measure, Kerker composed an open letter to Gephardt urging him to oppose the measure, even though President Clinton was an ardent supporter.
Brother Kerker convinced a long list of top labor leaders in the St. Louis area to add their names to the open letter, which was published on the front page of the Labor Tribune.
Gephardt did an about-face. He became the highest-ranking opponent of NAFTA in Congress and led an impressive-but ultimately unsuccessful- fight on the floor of Congress against the anti-worker trade deal.
One of his proudest achievements included his tireless fight against the right-to-work (for less) campaign in Missouri in 1978, which voters overwhelmingly defeated that November.
He instituted an “honor roll” in the 1980s that publicly praised bars and restaurants for refusing to sell antiunion Coors beer.
Once he posed as a non-union contractor in order to get inside the office of the anti-union Congress of Independent Unions (CIU) in Alton. He obtained one of its blank contracts that allowed signatory CIU employers — without collective bargaining — to fill in the blanks themselves for the wages and benefits they would pay their employees.
BORN IN NEW YORK
Brother Kerker was born Jan. 18, 1931, in New York City and raised there and in Albany, N.Y.
He claimed to be related — on his mother’s side — to the Hopkins and Bradford families who came to America on the Mayflower.
Brother Kerker attended Oberlin College in Ohio, dropped out and was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served in the Korean War.
He started his career in journalism in 1956 at the now defunct Knickerbocker News in Albany, where he was elected as unit chairman of the American Newspaper Guild (now The Newspaper Guild-CWA). “It was my first experience with organized labor,” he said.
In 1967, he was hired by United Auto Workers Region 5, based in St. Louis, where he worked on public relations and organizing campaigns.
He rubbed shoulders with the likes of UAW President Walter Reuther and United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez.
HIRED BY LABOR TRIBUNE
In 1974, Publisher Ed Finkelstein hired Brother Kerker as editor of the Southern Illinois Labor Tribune.
That newspaper later was combined with the St. Louis edition to become the St. Louis/Southern Illinois Labor Tribune. He was named editor in 1987 and retired in 1997 when organized labor threw him a sizable going-away party.
But he remained an activisit. “I love to picket, handbill and demonstrate,” he said. “I like to do things on the street.”
Brother Kerker frequently attended rallies for political candidates, universal healthcare and Occupy St. Louis. He always had a sign in his hand and a yell or chant in his voice.
He carried a picket sign every day during the bitter winter cold of the 2004-2005 nurses strike at St. John’s Mercy Hospital.
In the summer of 2009, Brother Kerker was driving to his O’Fallon, Mo., home when he noticed a loud group of Teabaggers demonstrating against healthcare reform at the southeast corner of the busy intersection at Highways K and N.
The 78-year-old promptly went home, put together his own sign and began a counter-demonstration for the benefit of motorists on the southwest corner. He was a hard-nosed advocate of universal healthcare — and a sworn enemy of Republicans.
His one-man show inspired countless other citizens and union members from throughout the metro area to join him at the O’Fallon intersection for what became an every-Saturday affair.
Brother Kerker’s stand for healthcare reform was no surprise to anyone who knew him. “I’m a product of the Great Depression and a Roosevelt Democrat — and damned proud of it,” he said. “Now, the Republicans are dead-set to kill off the New Deal — everything we’ve lived with all our lives — by privatizing Social Security and killing off Medicare and Medicaid.”
Brother Kirker believed strongly in the worth of the labor press — especially the weekly labor newspaper in St. Louis.
“The Labor Tribune is a key, a vital link, to keeping St. Louis a strong union town,” he said in a 2011 interview.
“The Labor Tribune has created a bond among all workers — in manufacturing, in the building trades, in the service sector,” he said. “It may be the only thing to form such a bond.
“I think any union that does not subscribe to the Labor Tribune for its members is doing a disservice to the labor community,” he said.
“Working at the Labor Tribune was the best job I ever had.”
Brother Kerker is survived by three daughters, Kathleen Patrico of O’Fallon, Jennifer Kerker of Steamboat Springs, CO, and Julia Kerker of Kingston, PA. He had seven grandchildren.
Visitation and funeral services were Wednesday, June 19 at Stygar Funeral Home. Brother Kerker’s body was cremated. He was interred at Jefferson Barracks National Cemetery.
‘The union man’s union man’
If there were one phrase to describe Sherwood Kerker it would simply be: “He was a union man’s union man!”
If there was a picket line, Sherwood was carrying a sign; if there was a union brother or sister in trouble, Sherwood was there with help; if there was a company giving a union grief, Sherwood was there kicking ass in the Labor Tribune. And he didn’t just “kick” it, he emasculated it!
Sherwood was more than a union man; he was, in the truest sense of the word, a sincere, heart-felt-to-the-core “activist.” And he was proud of it.
At times, I would have to have “the talk” with him about his often over-the-top phraseology about a company or an issue in a story. He would simply scoff, “ok” he would say quietly, and then when the occasion would arise again because of some company abuse, he was at it again. I had to smile, understand his motivation; we’d have the “talk” all over again, for all the good it would do.
For lesser men, discharge could have been an option. But you couldn’t do that to Sherwood. His love of the Union Movement, his sincerity, and his guts to fight for justice made him an invaluable part of the Labor Tribune family.
I had admired Sherwood from afar for a long time when he was an editor at the UAW. When we needed a new editor, he was the first one I turned to. The Labor Movement was fortunate that he accepted. I was honored he did so with pride.
We have all lost an incredible man, father, grandpa, friend. There will never be another Sherwood Kerker.
If there’s ever a Labor Media Hall of Fame, Sherwood Kerker should be its first inductee.
Goodbye old friend. May your Soul Rest In Peace…but the souls of those few bad employers who somehow managed to get into heaven won’t…. because you’ll have a picket sign up in front of their clouds in no time! And the Good Lord will only smile, and shake his head. But he too will understand!
– Ed Finkelstein, Publisher