Reuben G. Soderstrom
Reuben George Soderstrom (March 10, 1888 – December 15, 1970) was an American leader of organized labor who served as President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor (ISFL) and Illinois AFL-CIO from 1930–1970. A key figure in Chicago and statewide politics, he also played a pivotal role in American labor history, helping to define national labor policy after the merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955. Soderstrom advised and was courted by multiple U.S. Presidents seeking his endorsement (and the votes of the over 1.3 million laborers he represented). The longest-serving state federation chief in American labor history, he passed seminal labor legislation and grew his organization's membership five-fold, transforming it into one of the most powerful labor bodies in the United States.
Reuben G. Soderstrom
Soderstrom speaking in 1954
|1st President of the Illinois AFL-CIO|
|Preceded by||new organization|
|Succeeded by||Stanley Johnson|
|22nd President of the Illinois State Federation of Labor|
|Preceded by||R.G. Fitchie|
|Succeeded by||organization dissolved|
|Member of the Illinois House of Representatives|
|Preceded by||Ole Benson|
|Succeeded by||John Wylie|
|Preceded by||John Wylie|
|Succeeded by||Jeremiah Wlash|
Reuben George Soderstrom
March 10, 1888
Waverly, Minnesota, U.S.
|Died||December 15, 1970 (aged 82)|
Streator, Illinois, U.S.
|Political party||Bull Moose (before 1918)|
(m. 1912; died 1951)
|Occupation||Linotypist, labor leader|
Reuben Soderstrom was born on March 10, 1888, on a small farm west of Waverly, Minnesota. He was the second of six children born to John Frederick Soderstrom and Anna Gustafava Erikson, immigrants from Småland, Sweden, and Jämtland, Sweden, respectively. John, a Free Church preacher and cobbler by trade, attempted to become a farmer. He leveraged the family's assets in 1886 to purchase land, seed and equipment. His efforts met with failure, and within ten years the Soderstrom family was mired in debt.
In 1898, John sent ten-year-old Reuben to work for a blacksmith in neighboring Cokato, Minnesota, to pay the family's arrears. Two years later, Reuben traveled alone to the mining town of Streator, Illinois, in search of better wages. He labored on the trolley lines and in the glass factories, which proved formative experiences. “People often ask me what moved him, what things in his life made him choose to devote his life to the Labor Movement,” his sister Olga later wrote. “He knew poverty, firsthand, he experienced child labor. He knew the loneliness of separation from his family at such an early age. These were his formative years, and they were not happy ones."
Eventually, Soderstrom earned enough money to move his parents and siblings to Streator. At age 16, he became a “printer’s devil” at the Streator Independent Times. There he came under the tutelage of John E. Williams, a columnist and early leader of the labor movement in Illinois. He introduced Soderstrom to the works of many organized labor theorists, economists, and activists including John Mitchell, Richard Ely, and William U’Ren.
Soderstrom pursued a career as a union linotypist, apprenticing throughout the Midwest from St. Louis, Missouri to Madison, Wisconsin to Chicago, Illinois. He returned to Streator in 1909, establishing himself professionally and marrying Jeanne Shaw on December 2, 1912. He also assumed full financial responsibility for his mother and sister after his father's death that same year.
Soderstrom joined Streator ITU Local 328 and soon became a fixture in the city's labor movement. In 1910, he was elected to his Local's Executive Committee, and was nominated as a delegate to the city's Trades and Labor Council. In 1912, he was elected President of both his Local and the Streator Trades and Labor Council. After retiring from the Presidency in 1920 he became the Labor Council's Reading Clerk, a position he held until 1936.
In 1914, Soderstrom made his first run for public office, campaigning for Illinois State Representative as a member of President Theodore Roosevelt's Progressive Party. Although ultimately unsuccessful, the race introduced Reuben to the state political scene. Four years later he was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives as a member of the Republican Party. After a 1920 loss (largely attributed to his opposition to prohibition), Soderstrom reclaimed the office in 1922 and held it without interruption for 14 years.
Soderstrom soon earned a reputation as organized labor's strongest advocate in the Illinois House. He authored and shepherded a series of pro-labor bills through the legislature, including the Injunction Limitation Act (1925), the Anti-"Yellow Dog" Contract Act (1933), the One Day Rest in Seven Act (1935), and the Old Age Pension Act (1935). He increased education funding, and helped found the University of Illinois Institute of Labor and Industrial Relations, known today as the Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations. He also secured favorable amendments to the workmen's compensation, occupational disease, and pension laws.
In 1923, he led the campaign in Streator against the National Association of Manufacturers' anti-labor “American Plan.” The historically organized city became a central front in the NAM's bid to end unions in America, with Illinois Manufacturers' Association (IMA) chief J.M. Glenn leading the charge. Under his direction, the LaSalle County Sheriff flooded the streets with deputized IMA-funded armed "patrols." While ostensibly charged with keeping the peace, these "imported thugs" were accused of intimidating striking workers and breaking up peaceful demonstrations by force. When Soderstrom and his fellow Labor Council members protested, they were issued injunctions and charged with conspiracy. While the sanctions and threat of prison were severe, Soderstrom's resistance earned him statewide and national attention. During this course of events he was introduced to American Federation of Labor leader Samuel Gompers, who encouraged him to persevere, counseling him “Young man, you know you can climb the highest mountain if you’ve got the patience to do it one step at a time."
In 1936, Soderstrom threw his full support behind President Franklin D. Roosevelt. When polling showed FDR losing Illinois to challenger Alfred Landon 52% to 48%, he helped organize an unprecedented rally at the Chicago Stadium for the President, later dubbed the “Meeting at the Madhouse.” While Roosevelt won Illinois, Soderstrom lost his re-election—a defeat generally attributed to his support for the Democratic President. Though no longer a state representative, Soderstrom continued to serve as President of the ISFL and Illinois AFL-CIO.
From that point forward, he generally pursued the unaffiliated, non-partisan approach favored by AFL founder Samuel Gompers (popularly known as "elect our friends"), endorsing both Republican and Democratic politicians throughout his tenure. Soderstrom became an advisor to several administrations on both the state and national level. He worked closely with Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins on President Roosevelt's National Conference on Labor Legislation during the Great Depression and World War II. He focused on workplace and public safety during the Eisenhower administration, joining the President's conference on highway safety during the planning of the nation's interstate system. President John F. Kennedy aggressively sought Soderstrom's endorsement, inviting him to the white house. In 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson became the first U.S. President to address a state labor convention in person at Soderstrom's request.
In 1930, the Illinois State Federation of Labor (ISFL) faced a crisis when its largest union, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA), broke apart under the heavy-handed leadership of John L. Lewis. ISFL President John Walker, himself a UMWA member, was forced to resign after he and his Progressive Miners of America (PMA) withdrew from the UMWA and claimed to be the “legitimate” miners’ union. As many as 85% of Illinois UMWA miners sided with Walker, and ISFL membership plummeted to under 200,000.
With no clear successor, the ISFL Executive Committee approached the 42-year-old Soderstrom, hoping his political acumen could help stabilize the crisis. He accepted, and was named interim president, pending a formal vote. Soderstrom acted decisively against the PMA (despite his friendship with Walker), refusing to seat them at the 1930 ISFL Convention. The move marginalized the PMA and helped stabilize the UMWA at a critical moment. Soderstrom was formally elected ISFL President soon thereafter.
The Great DepressionEdit
Just as the miners’ crisis began to abate, a larger threat emerged: The Great Depression. By 1933, one out of every four laborers were idle. Reuben combated the crisis with a mix of legislation, agitation, and recruitment. He fought for relief legislation, including unemployment insurance and a shorter work week, declaring every laborer had a “right to work which must not be taken away.” He strengthened union efforts on the ground, traveling across Illinois to give support to strikes and organizing efforts. He also ran a relentless recruitment campaign, focusing not only on unorganized workers, but on established unions not previously affiliated with the ISFL. As a result, Soderstrom saw his membership surge despite the Great Depression and the formation of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO), a rival organization to Reuben's American Federation of Labor (AFL).
Soderstrom also undertook efforts to combat organized crime and its influence on labor. Working closely with Chicago Federation of Labor President John Fitzpatrick, he sought to identify and arrest "labor racketeers" who falsely claimed to be representatives of organized labor in order to extort illegal "fees" from workers and businesses alike. His efforts earned him the ire of Illinois gangsters, who sabotaged his car and attempted to kidnap him.
World War IIEdit
During World War II, Soderstrom took the lead in helping to organize the home front. He joined and helped enforce organized labor's no-strike pledge within defense industries. Illinois became a seat of the nation's wartime manufacturing, producing more than 246,845 planes, 75,000 tanks, 56,696 Navy vessels, 15,454,714 firearms, and over 37,000,000,000 rounds of ammunition. Reuben helped oversee these efforts as a member of the War Production Board, the War Manpower Commission, and Illinois State Planning Commission. He placed special emphasis on worker safety, pushing back hard against overwork in the legislature and as a member of the Illinois Health and Safety Committee and the Advisory Committee for Industrial Safety. He raised money for the war, promoting War Bonds and serving on the Federal War Savings Committee. Near the war's end, he helped shape post-war planning efforts as a member of the AFL's Peace and Postwar Problems Committee.
After the War, Soderstrom advanced labor interests in Illinois at a time when anti-labor sentiment was rising nationwide. He passed pro-labor legislation including affordable housing, increased workmen's compensation and unemployment benefits, as well as the founding of a Labor Institute at the University of Illinois. He also thwarted repeated attempts to pass the model "right to work" legislation that swept through 16 other states. This was accomplished in part through an organized effort to curb strikes within the state and a new political alliance with onetime opponent Governor Green (who was considering running for the Republican Presidential nomination).
Soderstrom's influence continued to expand in the post-war era. As a direct result of his efforts, Illinois was one of the only states not to be consumed by the wave of anti-labor legislation that shook the country in the late 1940s. Nationally, he exerted influence as Secretary of the AFL's powerful Resolutions Committee. He gained the personal confidence of national AFL President William Green, who repeatedly dispatched Reuben as his personal representative to resolve internal disputes across the country and represent the AFL abroad. When George Meany, Green's successor, began talks with his CIO counterpart to merge the two labor organizations, Soderstrom was one of the handful of leaders—and the only state president—selected to travel to help craft the agreement in Washington, D.C. When his own Illinois State Federation was merged with its CIO counterpart in 1958, Reuben was elected to be the first President of the new Illinois AFL-CIO.
In the Civil Rights era, Reuben worked to bring equality into the workplace. He supported the Illinois Fair Employment Practices Committee (FEPC) Act and other legislative efforts to end discrimination. He strongly supported Jewish rights at home and efforts to organize in the nascent nation of Israel, for which he was formally honored by the Jewish Labor Committee in 1953. When the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., led a Rally for Civil Rights in Chicago in 1964, Reuben served as an Honorary Chairman, welcoming him to Illinois. After the event, Reuben personally invited Dr. King to come and deliver the keynote address at the Illinois AFL-CIO Convention, which he did the following year. Multiple Civil Rights leaders spoke before the Illinois AFL-CIO at Reuben's request, including Dr. King' successor, the Rev. Dr. Ralph Abernathy.
Soderstrom was the primary provider for his family since childhood and continued to care for his mother until her passing in 1959. He was close to his siblings, especially his sister Olga and brothers Paul and Lafe (whose own career in labor politics was cut short when he was killed by a drunk driver in Chicago in 1940). He married Jeanne Shaw in 1912, and together they had two children — Carl and Rose Jeanne. Carl followed in his father's footsteps, winning the Illinois House seat his father had held in 1950. His daughter Jeanne was a teacher and counselor at Streator High School. In 1941, Reuben's son Carl Soderstrom married Streator native Virginia Merriner. The pair had five children: Carl Jr., Virginia Jeanne, Robert, Jane, and William Reuben.
He was committed to the city of Streator, and chose to commute to his offices in Chicago and Springfield rather than leave his adopted hometown. On September 2, 2012, the city honored him with the dedication of the Reuben G. Soderstrom Statue and Memorial Plaza.
Death and legacyEdit
On September 12, 1970, Soderstrom was named president emeritus of the Illinois AFL-CIO. He died three months later on December 15, 1970, in his hometown of Streator, Illinois, at the age of 82.
Forty Gavels BiographyEdit
Soderstrom's authoritative, three-volume biography Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO was released on February 28, 2018. Named after the ceremonial gavels Soderstrom received at the annual state labor conventions, Forty Gavels spans a century of history and examines its subject in documented, year-by-year detail. The biography also features more than 2,250 photos and images from several historical archives. Forty Gavels was written by Carl W. Soderstrom, Robert W. Soderstrom, Chris M. Stevens, and Andrew W. Burt, with graphic design by Kevin Evans. To date, the biographical series has won several awards including the 2019 Next Generation Indie Book Awards for Biography and Overall Design, the 2018 American BookFest Best Book Awards for Biography and Interior Design, and the 2018 National Indie Indie Excellence Award for Biography. In 2019, the full text of the book was released online.
Reuben G. Soderstrom PlazaEdit
The Reuben G. Soderstrom Plaza was dedicated in Streator, Illinois on September 2, 2012. The date, officially proclaimed “Reuben Soderstrom Day” by Illinois Governor Pat Quinn, featured a day-long celebration and Labor Day Parade in which Soderstrom was posthumously honored as Grand Marshall. The Plaza features a bronze statue of Soderstrom by Peoria sculptor Lonnie Stewart, and is adorned by 12 plaques containing selected quotes from Soderstrom. The plaza was built through labor donated by David Raikes and the men and women of Laborers’ Local #393, Bricklayers #6 and #21, Electricians #176, Plumbers #130, Operating Engineers #150, Cement Masons #11 and the Illinois Valley Building Trades. Landscaping was provided by Jeff Berfeld.
Reuben G. Soderstrom FoundationEdit
The Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation, an organization “dedicated to preserving and promoting the work and vision of Illinois AFL-CIO President Reuben G. Soderstrom,” was founded in 2017. The foundation hosts an expanding digital archive of textual and audiovisual records, and promotes works and endeavors commemorating the life and legacy of Reuben Soderstrom.
In 2017, the Streator Public Library, where the unschooled Reuben educated himself as a teenager, received a generous donation from the Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation. The funds are being used to finance an extensive renovation of the library's reading room.
University of Illinois School of Labor DedicationEdit
On September 13, 2019, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign officially opened the Soderstrom Plaza, an outdoor commons connected to the School of Labor and Employment Relations (LER) featuring a statue of Reuben Soderstrom. The statue and plaza, as well as an endowed professorship, were gifted by the Soderstrom Family Charitable Trust. The Petry Kuhne Co. also donated their time and work to set the statue in the plaza.
- Hodgson, Olga (1974). Reuben G. Soderstrom (PDF). Kankakee, IL. pp. 17–18.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 3. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 221–222, 237–238. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Lewin, Robert M. (March 10, 1966). "Soderstrom: Labor's One of a Kind" (PDF). Chicago Daily News. Retrieved May 10, 2018.
- Hodgson, Olga (1974). Reuben G. Soderstrom (PDF). Kankakee, IL. pp. 3–5.
- Bennett, Dale Lee (1966). The Labor Movement of Streator, Illinois, 1868 to 1933. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois. p. 18.
- Soderstrom, Reuben. Interview by Milton Derber. Transcript, May 23, 1958. University of Illinois Archives. p.7.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 1. Peoria IL: CWS Publishing. p. 105. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Illinois, Office of the Secretary of State (1915). Blue Book of the State of Illinois, 1915-1916. Danville, IL: Illinois Printing Company. p. 720.
- Illinois, Office of the Secretary of State (1919). Blue Book of the State of Illinois, 1919-1930. Danville, Illinois: Illinois Printing Company. p. 663.
- "Soderstrom Defeated". Streator Independent Times. September 20, 1920.
- "Streator Honors Soderstrom". Illinois State Federation of Labor Weekly News Letter. July 25, 1925.
- "Corporate Tax Bill is all but Killed by House". The Chicago Tribune. June 30, 1933.
- "Horner Vetoes Teachers' Bill". The Decatur Daily Review. July 9, 1935.
- Douglas, Paul (June 25, 1935). "Illinois Belatedly Aids Aged". The Decatur Herald.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 2. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. p. 42. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 1. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 165–167. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Reuben. Interview by Milton Derber. Transcript, May 23, 1958. University of Illinois Archives. p.13.
- Storm, Frederick (October 14, 1936). "Roosevelt Address Tonight Last Opportunity to Swing Illinois' 29 Votes Into Line". Oakland Tribune.
- Storm, Frederick (October 15, 1936). "Roosevelt Given Tumultuous Reception by Chicago Crowd". Marshall Evening Chronicle.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 2. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. p. 116. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 2. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 127. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 3. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 81-82. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 3. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 220–223. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 3. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 234–238. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Dubofsky, Melvyn; Van Tine, Warren (1986). John L Lewis: A Biography. Urbana IL: University of Illinois Press. pp. 116–118. ISBN 0-252-01287-9.
- Soderstrom, Reuben. Interview by Milton Derber. Transcript, May 23, 1958. University of Illinois Archives. p. 17.
- "Labor Convention Bars Insurgent Miner Delegates". Alton Evening Telegraph. September 16, 1930.
- Crafts, Nicholas; Fearon, Peterr (2013). The Great Depression of the 1930s: Lessons for Today. Oxford: Oxford University Press. pp. 75, 330.
- Proceedings of the 1936 Illinois State Federation of Labor Convention. Chicago, IL: Illinois State Federation of Labor. 1936. p. 22.
- Soderstrom, Reuben Soderstrom. Interview by Milton Derber. Transcript, May 23, 1958, University of Illinois Archives. p. 34.
- Soderstrom, Reuben. “Essay: The Federation Is Growing,” August 1952. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
- "Illinois Labor Federation Head Defends His Work". Freeport Journal-Standard. August 7, 1941.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 2. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 237-238. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Hodgson, Olga (1974). Reuben G. Soderstrom. Kankakee, IL. pp. 17.
- Taft, Phillip (1959). The A. F. of L.: From the Death of Gompers to the Merger. New York, NY: Harper & Brothers. pp. 219–220.
- "Our Production Miracle is Told". Illinois State Federation of Labor Weekly News Letter. March 10, 1945.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 2. Peoria IL: CWS Publishing. p. 295. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- Soderstrom, Carl; Soderstrom, Robert; Stevens, Chris; Burt, Andrew (2018). Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO. 2. Peoria, IL: CWS Publishing. pp. 291, 310, 24, 322. ISBN 978-0998257532.
- "Green Remains GOP Darkhorse". The Edwardsville Intelligencer. October 17, 1947.
- Soderstrom, Reuben, and George Lawson. “Report of Los Angeles Central Labor Council of A.F. of L. Central Labor Committee,” May 1943. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
- Johnson, Stanley. “Soderstrom A Franternal Delegate,” August 1954. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
- Woll, Matthew. “Letter to Reuben Soderstrom,” August 1, 1955. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
- Soderstrom, Reuben. “Letter to George Meany,” July 25, 1955. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
- "State AFL-CIO Elects Soderstrom President". The Decatur Herald. October 8, 1958.
- Kramp, Larry (April 11, 1961). "Fair Employment Passage Bolstered In Springfield". Freeport Journal-Standard.
- "Jewish Labor Unit to Honor Soderstrom". Chicago Daily Tribune. March 8, 1953.
- Miller, Jay. “Letter to Reuben Soderstrom,” June 18, 1964. Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
- "Address of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr". Illinois AFL-CIO News Letter. December 4, 1965.
- "Address of Rev. Ralph D. Abernathy". Illinois AFL-CIO Weekly News Letter. December 14, 1963.
- "Address of the Hon. Corneal Davis". Illinois AFL-CIO Weekly News Letter. January 4, 1964.
- Hodgson, Olga (1974). Reuben G. Soderstrom. Kankakee, IL. p. 13.
- "Streator Statue Memorializes Labor Leader". News Tribune. September 4, 2012. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
- Proceedings of the 1970 Illinois AFL-CIO Convention. Chicago, IL: Illinois AFL-CIO. 1970. p. 228.
- "Reuben Soderstrom, Illinois Union Head," New York Times, New York, December 16, 1970, p.50
- "Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO". Forty Gavels. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
- Quinn, Pat. Illinois Governor’s Proclamation. Signed August 16, 2016.
- "Statue Dedication: Streator Celebrates "Reuben G. Soderstrom Day" In Illinois". Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
- "About the Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation". The Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
- "Reading Room Dedication". The Reuben G. Soderstrom Foundation. Retrieved May 11, 2018.
- Madigan, Nell (May 9, 2019). "LEP News". Retrieved September 16, 2019.