ST. LOUIS LABOR RETROSPECTIVE: Button collection shows union pride, history

By ZACHARY PALITZSCH
Archivist
Missouri State Historical Society

THE BEGINNINGS of Harry Von Romer’s collection of union memorabilia on display in 1951 at a meeting of retirees.

Union buttons were a symbol of pride for union members during the 20th century. However, in many industries, workers were often fired when caught displaying a union button.

While working with the St. Louis General Motors Plant in 1935, veteran unionist Harry Von Romer recalls in his autobiography that the superintendent of the plant instructed the guards at the gate

“To not allow any worker in who was wearing a union button, so some of the guys pinned them to their underclothes until they got through the gate.” Von Romer later lamented that, “I just don’t think union members nowadays care as much about buttons as they once did.”

UNION BEGINNINGS
Harry Von Romer was born in 1906. His father was a German immigrant who helped organize the Teamsters Local 600 in St. Louis in 1900.

Von Romer first joined a union, the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel, and Tin Workers in Granite City, Ill., when he became an apprentice millwright in September 1924. He began work at the St. Louis General Motors Plant in 1929. Workers at the GM plant organized under the American Federation of Labor in 1933, and Von Romer joined the federally chartered Local 18366.

IMPORTANCE OF BUTTONS
During the 1930s, Von Romer fell into a pattern familiar to working people during the Great Depression. He got jobs, got fired, went on strike, and agitated to organize workers.

His dedication to organization landed him the position of chairman of the St. Louis City’s Central Committee of the American Workers Union (AWU) in 1935 and 1936. Unemployed workers had organized the AWU in 1935 to work towards better welfare benefits.

When a fellow employee at the GM plant wore an AWU button to work, a plant supervisor, who had previously threatened to dismiss any employee wearing a union button, mistook it for a UAW pin. The employee lost his job, and two weeks of AWU picketing failed to get it back.

The incident inspired Von Romer to become a lifelong collector of union buttons. “If union buttons were so important,” Von Romer decided, “someone should start saving them.” Von Romer’s collection later expanded to include union badges, pins, convention delegate ribbons and other Labor memorabilia.

A GROWING COLLECTION
Von Romer continued to participate in strikes, walkouts and lockouts throughout the 1930s and 1940s. He was involved in strikes against GMC in 1934 and 1937, Laclede Gas in 1934, and the Kroger company in 1937.

In 1941, Von Romer supported his wife during the Luggage Workers Local 25 strike against the Gardner Pocket Book Company. Police beat and arrested both of them, but the union prevailed in the strike. All the while, collecting buttons and memorabilia from fellow strikers and workers.

A UNION CAREER
Von Romer affiliated with nine unions over the course of his 65-year career. He joined the Wire and Corrugated Glass Worker’s AFL Local 59 in 1942. The following year, he became a member of the United Steel Workers. The army drafted Von Romer in 1944, where he served as an artillery man in Europe.

After leaving the Army, Von Romer joined the Upholsterers International Union and became a member of the Carpenters Local 1596. He remained with that local until his retirement in 1970. Von Romer served as a delegate to the Central Trades and Labor Union, renamed the St. Louis Labor Council in 1957. He won elections as an alderman in Bellefontaine Neighbors for seven years and for 14 years, served as a member of the St. Louis County Council.

After his election as a Labor Council delegate, Von Romer’s collection of union buttons grew enormously.

As a delegate, he began to travel more and made a habit of collecting buttons, badges, and memorabilia from union halls in other cities. Von Romer added to his collection during his entire 22-year service with the Labor Council. He continued to collect buttons and memorabilia after his retirement. He died at the age of 86 in his home in Naples, Fla.

SOLIDARITY SYMBOLS
Von Romer told a reporter in 1979, “Historically, men have worn or used symbols to identify themselves with various issues. In the 1930s, to wear a union button in the auto industry was to show everyone, especially management, that you were proud to be a union member.”

Not only does the Von Romer button collection document union pride, but it also traces the history of Labor in the United States. The collection documents strikes, struggles to organize workers, union anniversaries and events, and campaigns over issues from collective bargaining to the defeat of the so-called “right-to-work(for less)”amendment. Buttons also signified eligibility and voting privileges at conventions.

The Von Romer collection also reflects Labor’s affirmation of rights of self-expression and solidarity with the union cause. The collection spans more than 100 years of Organized Labor history. It contains over 1,000 buttons, badges, ribbons, and other artifacts documenting the activities of over 53 unions.

(This ongoing series is being written by the archivists at the State Historical Society of Missouri St. Louis Research Center (SMSMO) to preserve and promote the study of Missouri’s history, including the history of the Labor Movement within the state. Contact archivists AJ Medlock, Zack Palitzsch or Erin Purdy at stlouis@shsmo.org for more information about this article, or to schedule an appointment to freely view one of the many Labor collections available to the public.)


 

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