It’s with a great deal of sadness that we report the passing of Jack Valenti, 89, the beloved retired president of UFCW Local 655 on Tuesday, April 12. He retired April 1, 1989. He had been in ill health for some years.
Funeral services were held last Monday. Burial was in Bellerive Gardens Cemetery.
“Jack was a leader among leaders,” said Local 655 President David Cook. “He was a 21st Century leader in the 20th Century. He was quiet in his normal demeanor but ferocious when it came to fighting for his members. He was respected by his members and management alike, setting a standard of leadership that everyone since has used as a guidepost.”
And then, reflecting with emotion in his voice, Cook added: “My goal as Local 655’s president is to be the leader that Jack would be proud of. That would mean I’m doing my job right. I truly hope, and believe in my heart, that Jack is proud.”
Added Bob Kelley, retired president of Local 655 and the Greater St. Louis Labor Council, a Local 655 member who Brother Valenti hired as an organizer. “From the early days of our Labor Movement, he was a good friend, had a great sense of humor and above all, was a great leader.”
AN INCREDIBLE CAREER
A Local 655 member for 69 years, 20 of them as the local’s president, Brother Valenti made his mark:
- For his members: increased paychecks by 223 percent, won equal pay for women, health and welfare benefits for part-timers, retiree pension increases of more than 400 percent, doubled life insurance benefits and won the first first-in-the-nation food industry guarantee of 40 and 25-hour jobs.
- For the Labor Movement: became the first local union president to become a UFCW International Vice President, vice president of the St. Louis Labor Council and the Missouri AFL-CIO, a founding member of the United Labor Committee of Missouri that coordinated the overwhelming state-wide defeat of right-to-work in 1978, and a member of the national AFL-CIO Committee On Political Education’s sub-committee on marginal districts.
- For his community: served on a myriad of boards including the United Way of Greater St. Louis Advance Campaign, the Regional Commerce and Growth Association (now the Regional Chamber), St. Louis University’s Presidents Council, and was a founding member of the industrial/service industry labor-management committee SPIRIT.
At his retirement ceremony, Brother Valenti noted, “The labor union was my life. …everybody’s standard-of-living rose because of what Labor did.”
His career in the food industry began in 1946 after coming off a three-year stint in the Navy during World War II. He started as a clerk at Kroger earning $26 a week. He joined Local 655 in 1947.
In March 1949 he was hired by the union as an organizer/business representative, and that began his rapid rise in the union, a testimony to his incredible work ethic and his leadership skills: Director of Organizing in 1955, executive assistant to the president in 1965 and in 1969, elected president and re-elected every three years for 20 years until his retirement at 62 in 1989.
Through it all, he was considered to be fair and reasonable with his employers. While he was a tough negotiator he realized that companies needed to be profitable in order to hire and pay his members. With that concept, he grew the union from 3,000 to 12,000 members while winning precedent-setting contracts.
Noted National Foods at his retirement: “…he has demonstrated time and time again that he is truly a uniquely fair individual…earning the respect of management and organized labor.”
Described at one time or another as “a unique man,” “a one-of-a-kind trade union leader,” “a pioneer in the Labor Movement,” “walked softly but carried a big stick,” “quiet in his own way, but with an Italian temper if you mess with his members,” and “he made a real difference,” it’s clear Brother Valenti was both loved and respected by his members, his community and the food industry.
He is survived by two sons, Michael and Robert and seven grandchildren. His wife and a daughter preceded him in death.
May Brother Valenti’s Soul Rest In Peace. He certainly deserves it.