History of the Greater St. Louis Labor
The story of the
Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO -
one of the most progressive and respected
central labor organizations in the country -
began during organized labor's roughest era
in American history.
The labor unions of 1885 were opposed by
strikebreakers, state and national militias,
anti-union laws and courts that readily
issued injunctions and restraining orders in
behalf of companies.
Workers across the country were clamoring
for an eight-hour workday, and St. Louis - a
major industrial center - was a leading
center of support for the movement.
The eight-hour movement gave birth that year
to two umbrella labor organizations: The St.
Louis Trades Assembly and the Central Labor
Two years later, in 1887, the organizations'
farsighted officers merged the two groups to
form a strong, single voice for labor - the
St. Louis Trades and Labor Assembly.
The new central body also included leaders
from the Noble Order of the Knights of Labor
and, a few years later, the dissolved German
Arbeiter-Verband. The new assembly was
granted a charter from the American
Federation of Labor (A.F.of L.) in September
The Assembly changed its name a
decade later to the St. Louis Central Trades
and Labor Union, but it never changed its
focus of its constitution: To work for
the final emancipation of all workers from
the "bonds of slavery" through the
long process of organization and education.
The assembly was off to a good start.
Membership was up to 35,000 by 1893.
And the assembly could count among its
affiliates a union with a unique place in
labor history: The Cigar Makers' Union
of St. Louis claimed its cigar box label
gave birth to the union label movement.
The assembly gave financial and moral
support to strikes and boycotts in St. Louis
and across the country, and it tried to
settle many jurisdictional disputes among
its union affiliates. The assembly
worked diligently to draw workers together
in a sense of fellowship.
The Central Trades and Labor Union
persistently demanded that the city conduct
all municipal work under fair conditions,
and the assembly was outraged when the 1904
St. Louis World's Fair was built and
maintained with some non-union labor.
Does Labor Want?
Always on the
forefront of civic efforts for public
improvements, the assembly fought for child
and convict labor laws, women's suffrage, a
workmen's compensation law, a free bridge
over the Mississippi River, free textbooks
in St. Louis public schools and construction
of public high schools, especially in
Socialists - who had a social vision of
replacing the wage system with a new
economic and political order - were strong
within the assembly, but they were never
powerful enough to take control or establish
a competing organization. The
assembly, concentrating on wages and working
conditions, curbed political activism among
its officials by barring all unions whose
main activities were in the political field.
Thus, St. Louis was successful in creating a
stable A.F. of L. trades assembly before
such stability was accomplished in New York,
Chicago or Detroit.
Shortly before World War I, the Central
Trades and Labor Union approved a resolution
opposed to American involvement in the
conflict. The resolution accused the
"capitalist press" and commercial
interests of trying to stampede the United
States into the European War, and it opposed
conscription and the export of foodstuffs to
the warring nations.
However, once the United States officially
entered the war, the assembly took no formal
stance in opposition.
During the war, the federal government
ensured labor peace by forcing companies to
deal with labor unions. Thus, unions
in St. Louis expanded along with the
Immediately after the war, however, the
government dropped its support of unions,
and companies promptly mounted open-shop
drives in St. Louis and across the
country. Manufacturers fought
organized labor by infiltrating and
destroying unions from within, modernizing
their methods of production and importing
unskilled and semi-skilled workers to
replace skilled union tradesmen.
As a result, union membership in St. Louis
and elsewhere declined through the 1920's
and during the first few years of the Great
Depression. Many unions ceased to
Reborn, Then Split By Great Schism
The year 1933
was a watershed for the labor
movement. The Franklin Roosevelt
administration, in order to save the country
from a worker's revolution, forced businesses
to recognize their employees' collective
bargaining rights. St. Louis and the
nation saw a revival of militant unionism.
In June of that year, the Central Trades and
Labor Union appointed a committee to plan
for the organization of non-union
workers. By October, a total of 16 new
unions had joined the assembly.
The assembly became active in informing its
delegates of developments in government and
of legislation that concerned labor.
After the passage of the Wagner
Act of 1935 and the creation of a new National Labor
Relations Board, the St. Louis assembly
continued to grow stronger with an expanding
base of union members.
But the euphoria among labor leaders would
be cut short. Developments on the
national level set the stage for what became
the most serious schism in modern labor
Some A.F. of L. leaders argued that
only skilled tradesmen in the growing
mass-production industries should be
organized by individual crafts unions, while
others held that all workers in an entire
industry should be organized by a single
The feud led to the creation of the A.F. of
L.'s Committee for Industrial Organization
in 1935, but the advocates of industry-wide
unions finally split from the fold.
They formed the rival Congress of Industrial
In St. Louis, officials of the Central
Trades and Labor Union could not avoid the
question of ousting CIO unions from its
ranks. In 1937, the A.F. of L. ordered
the assembly's executive council to dismiss
all of its CIO-affiliated unions.
The Central Trades and Labor Union was left
with 178 union affiliates and about 60,000
members. The ousted CIO unions, with
almost as many members, formed the St. Louis
Industrial Union Council. The two
labor bodies often found themselves at odds
during the next two decades.
The Depression of the 1930s gave way
to the wartime economy of the 1940's, and
the leaders of both St. Louis labor bodies
cooperated in the war effort. During
World War II, as during the previous world
war, unions in St. Louis grew with the war
But even though unions had held off
demanding higher wages during the war,
pent-up needs and emotions resulted in a
rash of strikes in the post-war era.
This aroused the public's ire. In
1947, Congress passed the infamous
Taft-Hartley Act, which rolled back many of
the gains that had been made with the Wagner
Act and paved the way for anti-worker,
"right-to-work" campaigns on a
state-by-state basis. This action was
followed in 1950 by the Korean War and a
L. And CIO Reunite, St. Louis Follows Suit
labor leaders needed good news, which they
received when the A.F. of L. and CIO were
reunited under the new AFL-CIO.
Two years later, to the delight of national
AFL-CIO leaders, the two St. Louis central
labor bodies followed suit. On October
31, 1957, the Central Trades and Labor Union
and the Industrial Union Council came
together to form the St. Louis Labor
The local merger resulted in the council's
having a jurisdictional area that covered
only St. Louis and St. Louis County.
In 1969, the AFL-CIO approved an expansion
of the council's jurisdiction that added the
counties of Jefferson, Franklin and St.
Charles. This expansion led to a name
change that year for the council, which
became the Greater St. Louis Labor Council,
By 1973, the council's area also covered the
counties of Phelps, Crawford, Washington,
Ste. Genevieve, St. Francois and Warren, and
by 1979, the counties of Lincoln and Pulaski.
The local merger also opened a new chapter
in the history of the St. Louis labor
movement, as the St. Louis Labor Council
effected many social and labor-relations
improvements that benefited the entire
On the social front, the council
promoted greater opportunities for
minorities and women in unions and in the
workplace. The council took the lead
in endorsing and supporting school bond
issues, tax levies and other projects aimed
at improving the quality of life for
everyone in the community.
The Labor Council pushed for better
education, and it was instrumental in the
creation of a junior college district for
St. Louis and St. Louis County.
The Greater St. Louis Labor Council, AFL-CIO has
many educational programs of their
own. First, the Labor Council
sponsors a Committee On Political Education
(COPE) that informs voters on public issues
and political candidates.
On the labor front, the Labor Council has
served as an effective buffer between its
affiliated unions and management.
Through both direct and behind-the-scenes
negotiating assistance, the council has been
able to avert - and has helped settle - many
strikes across the metropolitan area.
The Council was instrumental in
creating the Regional Industrial Development
Corporation (RIDC). For the first time
in the community's long history,
representatives from labor, management,
industry, government and education joined
forces to promote the industrial growth on
both sides of the Mississippi River.
After several years, the RIDC was merged
with a third entity to form today's St.
Louis Regional Commerce and Growth
Few industrial unions have had jurisdiction
on both sides of the Mississippi River, as
opposed to the bi-state jurisdiction of a
number of building trades unions. As a
prelude to the creation of the RIDC, the
Labor Council helped form the Regional Labor
Council Assembly, the first organization to
attempt formal regional cooperation among
labor groups in Missouri and Illinois.
The assembly, although no longer
functioning, fostered an understanding among
unions separated by the river that continues
to this day.
Finally, the Greater St. Louis Labor Council
was a prime mover in the creation of the
United Labor Committee of Missouri - the
AFL-CIO, Teamsters, United Auto Workers and
United Mine Workers - to address issues
of statewide concern.
The United Labor Committee was formed
because of the greatest threat ever posed to
organized labor in Missouri: the
infamous "right-to-work" campaign
Right-To-Work Committee targeted the state
in 1977 for passage of a law that would have
outlawed union shop agreements and would
have taken away the rights of workers to
vote democratically on whether they wanted a
union shop mandated in their contract.
Labor successfully lobbied against a
proposed bill in the Missouri Legislature
that would have placed a
"Right-To-Work" proposal in the
form of a constitutional amendment on the
The anti-worker forces then mounted an
initiative petition drive to force the issue
onto the ballot.
Realizing the do-or-die threat to worker
democracy, officials of all organized labor
throughout the state rolled up their
sleeves. The Greater St. Louis Labor
Council was chosen to focus the efforts and
coordinate the activities of organized labor
in the metropolitan St. Louis area.
An army of volunteers that comprised
a cross-section of the community fanned out
to warn people of the dangerous, misleading
anti-worker issue contained in the
petitions. By the summer of 1978,
after the petitioners collected enough
signatures to have the issue put on the
ballot, the Greater St. Louis Labor Council
again called on the volunteers.
These volunteers - union members, labor
officials, housewives, clergymen, retirees -
formed a grassroots organization that worked
incessantly to spread the campaign's new
battle cry: "Right-To-Work is a ripoff!"
That phrase, which was created in St. Louis,
has become the rallying cry throughout the
United States, wherever the evil law is
Because of the Greater St. Louis Labor
Council's years of building bridges of
cooperation between the unions, industry and
the community, St. Louis businesses stayed
neutral during the bitter campaign. In
stark contrast, the Kansas City business
community was in the forefront of the
Kansas City businessmen actually held
fundraisers to try to crush the union
movement in Missouri.
Early polls showed that workers and
their unions would lose the battle, a fact
that only intensified their
efforts. Men, women and children -
union members and non-union members alike -
were informed about the issue by organized
labor's massive educational campaign, which
included advertising, direct mail,
door-to-door neighborhood canvassing and
intensive phone banking to targeted
audiences throughout Missouri.
When the smoke cleared on election day -
November 7, 1978 - Missouri voters had
rejected the dreaded measure by a 3-2
margin. The darkest fears of working
people became the joy of their finest hour.
Toward The Next Century
organized labor had little time to bask in
the victory. The 1980 election of
Ronald Regan to the presidency ushered
in an unprecedented era of union-bashing,
unfair foreign competition and high
unemployment. As a result, labor has
been forced to become leaner and more
Nevertheless, through good times and bad,
the Greater St. Louis Labor Council
continues to stand in the forefront of
community affairs on behalf of its union
affiliates and members.
The Greater St. Louis Labor Council, which
can point to a proud history of helping
build the physical, economic and social
structure of the community, foresees an even
greater role of organized labor this new
millennium. The Labor Council will
continue to play its vital role in the
never-ending struggle of working people.