Class Struggle in St. Louis, an Interview with Rosemary Feurer


Editor's note: Historian and union activist Rosemary Feurer is the author of the ground-breaking Radical Unionism in the Midwest, 1900-1950, University of Illinois Press, 2006. In this interview, Feurer discusses the inspiration and process of writing this history of the labor movement in St. Louis, as well as counters the notion that labor activism in the 1930s lacked a radical agenda.  

PA:  What inspired you to write Radical Unionism in the Midwest?  

ROSEMARY FEURER:  Well, there were many times I actually thought of dropping the project, which started as a dissertation. I almost took a number of union jobs, and I was really torn between the academic community that I was not really much a part of then – although I was still working on my dissertation – and labor activism. But every time I thought of dropping it, the people and their story, and the number of people I interviewed in particular, really made me go back to it and commit to it. 

I really felt compelled to honor those people who had contested that power. One person I mention in the book who really became a friend was Lloyd Austin. I was also very good friends with Herschel Walker, too, but he died fairly early on in the project. I had interviewed him once formally and wanted to go back and do some more, and but I had talked to him several times, when I saw him at activist events too. At any rate, Lloyd Austin lived longer than that – for a long time, and the words he said to me, “I hope somebody someday tells this story,” always rang in my head whenever I thought I would just drop this and go on to do other things.   I grew up a very poor person in a small town without any knowledge of the labor movement. My father was a John Bircher. He was a very poor person, but he was very class conscious. So I grew up very class conscious, but not understanding it as class consciousness. I think that is the case with a lot of people in the United States. He expressed his anger instead through the conspiratorial theories of the John Birch Society and the anti-communist threat. I think that is the other reason I stuck with this book, because it spoke to issues that had it turned out been directly relevant to my life.

When I found this story, it seemed almost the opposite of everything that my father had ever believed or told me when I was growing up, and that in itself was compelling as well. It was the really the flip side, the hidden side of American history, especially of St. Louis history. As I said, I was an activist in St. Louis, and nobody I talked to knew this story. I knew people who were working at the Emerson plant, where the sit-down had occurred, at plant even, and they did not know the story, except to say, “Oh, there were some communists who were here at some point.” So it was deeply hidden, and that made it also fun, recovering it. That was also what kept me focused on it.  

PA:  Your book details union activity in St. Louis, but it covers a rather extensive period of time, the first half of the 20th century. This is a period of huge upheaval and great transformation. The US emerges as a world power. There is the Great Depression and two world wars, and they all had a huge domestic impact in their own way. What in your mind really unifies this period and makes it a single story in the way you frame it in your book?  

FEURER:  When I began my research, I started out to research the history of the CIO in one city. I was also working on the St. Louis Labor History Tour, and I began to see that the period was in one sense unified by employer class organizations. Historians of labor honor and write about workers and their culture, but we haven’t done that as much as we should about what employer strategies were. Even when people look at one community or a series of communities, they see them in isolation from the political economy, from the strategies of capital. 

What I saw when I studied that earlier period was what capital was thinking about the terrain of the Midwest and how they organized. They organized just as they do across the globe continually, to make profit possible in that area. That is a unifying thread in that earlier period. They had to figure out how to do that. and even throughout the Great Depression that was still a concern. One of the ways was having more skilled labor and paying skilled labor better, in St. Louis or in Evansville at Maytag, but also by having access to a large number of unskilled swath of workers to use at will. I think that is something we are coming back to in this era.    That was one thing about why 1900-1950 matters. The other was that this was from 1900-1950. Another point about this period I tried to trace is the continuity between radical organizations across time, and how they learned across time about focusing on organizing and how to express radical ideals to workers, and how they learned to face repression. What I argue is that you cannot look at the radicals of the 1930s without recognizing them their connections at this to this earlier time period as well. The, and that the actions of employers and other from that earlier period had set the context a scene that did not allow radicals to make a revolution in the 1930s, but did allow them to open up the possibilities for radical thinking again. That is something that most labor historians have denied, that there was any kind of radical thinking going on in the 1930s.

When I interviewed these workers, it was really clear, and especially in the Sentner papers [William Sentner of UE], it was crystal clear that that is what these activists were doing. They were trying to make the case that a radical agenda is something that is possible in a union, that it isn’t something that workers would reject, but was something that would make common sense to workers – that they would have more power on the job, more power in their community, and that they were also facing the inherited strategies and methodologies that the employers had learned in that earlier period. So all of those things came home to me. The radicals, the people who were struggling for more power and alternative views to the dominant order, were really shaping things until the backlash of the 1940s and early 1950s.   The other thing I would argue is that for me the book was about trying to understand how the world that I inherited – I became active in the 1980s – had been shaped by the outcome of that period from 1900-1950. In 1986, the former head of the St. Louis Labor Council, who been a socialist in the 1940s and was now retired, suggested to me after I interviewed him that I write the history of the St. Louis Labor Council. So I went to see the current head of the St. Louis Labor Council, Bob Kelly, who wanted to talk to me about what I might research and what I might write. The first thing he said to me was that he knew there were a lot of socialists and radicals involved in St. Louis labor history, but we weren’t going to write about them. I think that was a very telling remark – that that heritage, which I felt was our heritage, was being systematically excluded. 

Workers in St. Louis did not have any knowledge of the role of socialists and communists in that earlier period, and that limited the possibilities for what they were thinking in the present. 1986 was the heart of the Reagan era, and people were facing all sorts of challenges that I felt could be informed by this earlier history, yet that knowledge wasn’t being presented to them. This was the outcome of basically putting blinders on about the period between 1900 and 1950. I also think that people actively hid their politics, if they did have politics, and even to the present people hide their politics. They say “I have left sentiments,” but they don’t use words that used to be common parlance in the American labor movement.  

PA:  You mention interviewing some of the important historical figures and how that played a big role in your research. How important is doing interviews directly with people and not relying on old newspapers, etc.?   

FEURER:  For me it was critical. I joke about this to people – because people thought of me as being far to the left of anybody they knew, and they think it is funny when I tell them this. But the truth is that before I interviewed Toni Sentner (wife of the key figure in my book, and an activist in the unemployed movement), I still had the notion that there was still a part of me that really did think that these people were some kind of conspiratorial band of infiltrators. There are even scholars now who suggest that the labor activists were some conspiratorial band whose main purpose was to infiltrate, that they were automatons who didn’t think on their own.

I think that actually interviewing Mr. Bill Sentner, Jr and his mother Mrs. Sentner and feeling their warmth and spirit, and getting to know Herschel Walker and understanding who he was and how he thought, made me understand what wonderful human beings they were, just to name those three. You can’t view them in that kind of detached way when they are just names on a sheet of paper.

Conversely, I really feel that I was fair and waiting to feel similarly when I was interviewing the anti-communists. I think it is important for us to do to treat both sides them with as much fairness as we can. I tried to approach my interviews with them from a pretty neutral stance, but some of the things they said, even thinking about it now, were shocking. They were shocking in their open racism and in the kind of gamesmanship they expressed. But I think I got a sense of them as human beings, too, and I had a positive sense of some of them in some respects. Some of them were good people, even religious people who, I think, made a mistake by attacking Sentner and others, and maybe never admitted it. In my book I make the argument that even people with principles decided to make the deal with the devil, and that is the responsibility you have to acknowledge. That personal context really made me frame the story in a more human way, and I wish I had had the chance to use even more of those interviews.

I still think I might do something with my interview with Mrs. Sentner. She was still being persecuted for her husband’s affiliations even when I interviewed her 50 years later. She had just heard from the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service). She was still being hounded by them, because she had never become a citizen, so she couldn’t travel abroad. Here was a person who was democratic to her soul, and yet she had to suffer this for the rest of her life.    That interview also gave me a window on how this movement was made. I would never have been able to see what I saw unless I had talked to her. It isn’t in the papers as much as it is in how people relate what happened. Lucille Logsdon (wife of union organizer, Robert Logsdon) told me stories about how people became activists, and nobody had ever written about that in the papers, even though these papers [the personal papers of Sentner and Logsdon] are extraordinary by comparison to anything else I have seen. They wrote down more than you can imagine about what they were thinking. But in the interviews you see there was a real personal contact among the activists. For example, Bill and Toni Sentner advised Ann and Karl Braden, a couple from Louisville, not to delay having children because they thought they would be better activists without them. They told them they had to live for the future, for the next generation.

You can hear and learn about these networks when you interview to a much greater extent, and understand how social movements are built that way. You can see how they had built contacts across the Midwest and how vital that was to the movement, and how they thought they were building something for the long-term. So it was very poignant to me that so much of that was lost with the political repression of that era.  

PA:  Returning to the question of class consciousness, US historians typically deny that American workers are class conscious. They have conferences on the subject and publish papers and books about it. Your book describes something you call “civic unionism.” Could you explain what that is? Do you see civic unionism as an expression of class consciousness?   

FEURER:  In a sense it is, because it is the idea that the union is a counterpoint and a counterweight to capital, and I see that as an expression of class consciousness. That was the way Sentner and others in the union expressed it and how it became an effective idea.

The most important thing about civic unionism is that goes beyond just being industrial. We have this notion that the 1930s was the age of industrial unionism, and it was, but that is too exclusive. In the papers of Sentner and others, the difference between industrial unionism and civic unionism is very apparent. In the papers, as well as in the interviews I did, there is the idea that you needed to ask, “Who is in our community, and why aren’t they in the union?” It is a metropolitan and also a regional idea. It is the idea that the union should reflect workers’ interests, their class interests, and that it should also integrate race and gender issues as an extension of those class interests. 

I think it is really clear why, for instance, the UE organized war workers in the small arms plants. These were workers who were coming and were new to the area and to unionism; they are a mix of different races and ethnicities and genders. The UE will be a model for the future, they thought. They looked at organizing projects as addressing the local political economy of control. 

I know civic unionism is a mouthful, but that is the term I use. I wish I had thought of something more creative than that, but this was the recognition they gained from their organizing experience, that capital organizes at the local level, just as they do at the global level, that they need that spatial control. And they came to the conclusion that they had to use the concept of civic unionism, to say that we workers need to control our turf, and that I think is representative of class consciousness and of the power relationships.    In her seminal work on the 1930s, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939, Lizabeth Cohen makes an assertion that I really found unsupported in the evidence from the history of UE Local 8 – that the workers weren’t really engaged in that much of a power struggle, that they merely wanted to rebuild what they had lost from corporate pension plans going belly-up and so forth. I found that looking at what the managers were thinking was very telling. The managers recognized that they were in a power struggle, and they saw that what they needed was some kind of compromise situation so they could maintain their power. At one point one of them said to me directly, “I have never seen workers who don’t want more once you give them something.” In other words, once workers realize they had the power to get something, they might want more. I think that civic unionism makes that power struggle much more visible, when before it was invisible.

Another aspect of it is something that cannot be covered simply under the term “civic unionism” – that their conversations and struggles would make people recognize that their interests were with the union and with a long-term political movement. You had what some scholars call a “militant minority,” and you can see that being built up over time. A significant number of people moved beyond just being involved in the union to seeing the union as a project, as part of a larger struggle for power. That is what I think was happening during this period of radical unionism in the Midwest. Even if people are class-conscious at some level, if you can’t really understand it and express it, you will never act on it effectively. What the radicals were doing was trying to figure out a way to make workers successfully act in their class interests. That in large part was what made them “dangerous.” William Sentner in particular, and lots of the people he taught as organizers, were very good at the theater of protest and using that leverage.   For instance, one of the pivotal struggles in the book is the 1948 Evansville, Indiana Maytag Bucyrus-Erie strike. They had such community support initially even though the major capitalists in the area were trying to put the break on it and charging “communism” when the workers were on strike. The Evansville milk company actually wrote a letter of apology to the union, saying they were sorry that their driver crossed the picket line.

What the union was able to do there was to start to divide the capitalist class and get people to ally with the union’s goal of raising workers’ wages and other goals the union was involved in, such as lowering bus fares. People saw the union as being active in the community and doing things that they really approved of. The union had such power in the community that the company had to apologize for the milk truck driver crossing the picket line. It wasn’t the milk truck driver who apologized, it was the owner of the milk company who wrote to apologize because the driver crossed the line! I think that that is one of the functions of radicals, to try to figure out how to make people commit themselves, to have people commit themselves beyond just union consciousness.  

PA:  In other words, civic unionism moves beyond just a particular struggle or issue; it’s about building a community, not just about organizing a group of workers in a particular work place.   

FEURER:  Yes. Sentner said that we need to make the power struggle visible. He said that even when you lose, you usually create another activist who understands and commits to the future. That is something we have forgotten. I think it is really awful that we don’t have these workplace struggles today, the kinds of things that people experienced in District 8 on a regular basis, the struggles over things like work rules and group grievances. This was a regular thing which they understood and saw as their class interests. Most importantly, they realized that they could stand together. They might lose sometimes, but they wouldn’t lose everything, and if you could keep people intact and keep people feeling that that power struggle was worth it, they would live to fight another day. In other words, you had made another activist. That is what I think what was happening in the UE struggles. People got to know each other, and a core of activists was created.    The other thing that informs my book, which I think a lot of labor historians don’t understand, is a recognition of the role of social movement theory and social movement activism. When I was writing the book, I was reading a lot of that material, and I really saw that this was the key ingredient of social movements, having experienced people who for instance can stand up to the police, who have figured out ways of dealing with repression over time.

I experienced this myself. During the 1990s, I was very involved in the A.E. Staley workers’ struggle in Decatur, Illinois, and I saw how much the confidence to take risks came into play in the heart of the movement. I don’t think that is something that always comes spontaneously. Sometimes, I suppose, in history it does, but so often you find that beneath the surface you have people who make these choices, take these risks. I found during the Staley strike that there was enough experience in that group of workers to take those kinds of risks, and that their long experience and even the failures – the failures of the unemployed movement and earlier radicalism – gave these activists an experiential base that they used, and it came into play over and over again during that time.

That is certainly what Mrs. Sentner communicated to me over and over. She talked about how she grew up in a radical coal town, and how all of that came into play in the unemployed movement of the 1930s, those kinds of strategies and struggles, so that people weren’t just starting off brand-new. I have argued about this with other scholars, but I do think that that was the role of the Communist Party and the Popular Front during this time, that it was the base for that information. These activists knew their history and they met with people across time.

Alfred Wagenknecht is a good example. He had been a socialist and became very active in the coal mine strikes of the 1920s. He wrote extensively about it, and he also educated a lot of activists who became involved in District 8, especially about relief struggles and the role of relief issues in strikes. That material isn’t usually seen. It is something behind the scenes, where people really see that there is a transference from one generation to another about how you do struggle. That was also based on trust, and a lot of that was really wiped out because of the people’s affiliations with the Communist Party. People rejected some of that, so it was a problem. But this was a long-term project.   To get back to the “periodization” issue. You need to look at this history from a longer-term perspective. If you start the story in the 1930s, you are starting it at the wrong time, because you really need to see that longer period of struggle, how radical ideas continued to generate strategies and tactics and connected them to the American context in this period. On the other side, there are also effective strategies.

You really see it now in the health care debate. You The right wing can just start making up lies. This is another other aspect of American culture. There is a very effective redbaiting style that is traceable to what Michael Rosen Rogin calls the “counter-subversive narrative,” which really goes back to early American history. In the 20th century context, there is this idea that there is some outside force that is so scary. They are going to kill your mother or your grandmother! We are seeing that now in the health care debate.

This is exactly what went on in the period I cover in my book. They could lie about Sentner, they could make up stories, and the media wouldn’t question it. They would just repeat the lies as though they were true. So in the end this very democratic person was accused of totalitarianism, and it is the most absurd thing you can imagine. It’s like what I heard the other day about people’s grandmothers being killed in Great Britain if they have a terminal illness. It’s absurd, but people believe it.   

PA:  You mention a couple of important figures in your book, William Sentner and Herschel Walker. Could you talk a little bit about them and give us some details about their impact on the St. Louis labor movement?  

FEURER:  To mention Herschel Walker is to mention somebody who was such a critical figure in St. Louis labor history, but who has really not received as much attention as he should. I really regret the fact that I was not able to interview him more than I did. What I found was that he was someone who was an extraordinary African American activist in his own right, but he also represents something else that I think makes St. Louis so important. I argue that St. Louis was really a kind crossroads of radical activism. This is reflected in the music and songs that were brought from the South. A lot of the people who came to St. Louis were forced out of the South by repressive terror regimes. Others, like Herschel Walker, came for economic reasons. He was also influenced by his brother who brought him into the unemployed movement.

In the book, Herschel recalls the moving effect of “Black and white demonstrating together before city hall, going to jail together, and getting food to eat together” in a city that was still fully segregated. That is why the unemployed movement was so important in St. Louis, because it was about more than just organizing for bread, it was about breaking down racial lines. Toni Sentner mentions that too. She said it was so powerful for people to go into the black communities and to break bread together. The Unemployed Council did a lot of activism around racial justice issues in the early thirties, and it has just never been credited to the extent it should be. It was extraordinary what happened in that period. Herschel experienced all that, even though he told me everything was a failure until July, 1932, when workers were killed in a demonstration in St. Louis. They were basically demonstrating against the end of the relief services. The authorities said they were going to cut everybody off who wasn’t fundable. So about 15,000 families were due to be cut off.    What they did was just so clever, and it was part of their strategy of community organizing. They would just start parading down the streets of working-class neighborhoods after school. Their goal was to march in various parades to the center of the city. Before that point, they also held all these hearings in the community, in the local neighborhoods, about what kind of suffering would happen if relief services were cut off, so it wasn’t just parading. People were already informed about the various community activities that were going on in the neighborhoods. There was a relatively small demonstration, from 3,000 to 3,500, although some estimates had it much larger, up to 10,000, but at any rate the repression of the police, who fired on workers who were peacefully demonstrating, brought down a rain of criticism. 

Again, part of this had to do with the alliances the Unemployed Council was making. So even though people got killed, they reversed that decision, and it seemed to workers like a victory. At any rate, Herschel really dedicated himself to the worker’s movement, especially after that demonstration. It was just such a powerful thing. He was one of the people who went into the plants at the local level to try to organize Black workers into the union at Wagner Electric, and he spent years doing that. It wasn’t something where he just went in; he dedicated himself to that project, and it took him until about 1942 before he really had an organized group in there that was solid enough to start winning some battles. That was from 1937 to 1942 – a long period. He was one of the stalwarts of the union. 

Herschel never became a UEn organizer, and I asked him about that, why he was not an official organizer, and he said that he just really felt committed to staying in St. Louis, and there were people who were better equipped to be organizers for UE District 8. Even though UE District 8 only had a small percentage, 10 percent, who were Black workers, it was the first district in the UE to hire a Black organizer. Herschel really impressed me with his thoughtfulness. He was very interested in connecting the community and union struggles, and he did that for the rest of his life. Of course, he went on to be chair of the Communist Party in the St. Louis area.   The other thing I write about in the book, which Herschel thought was an amazing victory for the 1950s, was the winning of jobs for Black women at Sears in St. Louis, which was part of the National Negro Labor Council effort at Sears in the 1950s. For Herschel, this showed what was possible if working-class people stuck together. Even after all these unions had been torn apart, he was just still struggling. A small group of railroad workers and electrical workers and people on the left organized a nine-month protest at Sears day after day, and it looked like they weren’t going to win, but Sears got so tired of this group picketing in front of their stores that they asked them to negotiate. The most interesting thing about that action, and again it is one of the beauties of oral history, is that none of this is in any newspaper. There is no record of it.  Someone gave me a photograph of this protests, but there was no newspaper that covered it in St. Louis, not one mention.    The official histories of the Civil Rights Movement in St. Louis begin with some efforts in the 1940s, but then they leap to the 1960s, as though not much happened in the 1950s, but Herschel told me these stories of how they kept struggling at bus companies and at Sears, and how they were winning some of these struggles even in the heart of the 1950s. Again, he was somebody who just kept struggling no matter what, and living for connecting the union to the community. He died when while he was organizing. He was crossing the road and somebody ran him down. It was a hit-and-run accident. He was distributing leaflets against Shell in St. Louis. That’s how I came to know him, as somebody who was always there on the picket lines. Whatever picket line it was, or any struggle, he was there.   

PA: Tell us a little about William Sentner and his role in District 8 of the United Electrical Workers.  

FEURER: Sentner struck me as somebody who had a great sense of humor. He also had a certain degree of ego, but in all the best traditions of really good organizers, he recognized that it was very important to be able to replace himself. I think that he got that in part, Toni Sentner told me, from feminist ideals that came the Unemployed Council period and the Communist Party pushing him. There was a woman activist and feminist named Caroline Drew, and Mrs. Sentner said that he became a feminist during that period. So that played an important part in his way of looking at the world. It wasn’t a “great man theory” of history; it was the idea that you have to organize and mobilize and that everybody has potential. I think that helped to frame Sentner’s conceptualization of civic unionism, and it also helped him to stave off things like the idea of the heroic communist leader riding to the ramparts. I don’t think that characterizes how he looked at things at all. He was very much into non-violence, but he was also interested in confronting power. I think he struggled with the idea of how to mobilize as well as organize, because he thought you had to both, mobilize and organize, and I think that is something that is very important in the present. 

Sentner was very democratic. In the book I discuss the characterization of communists as using patriotic rhetoric. Logsdon called Sentner a St. Louis patriot, in the sense that he just loved that community. He was part of the community, and he loved the dark side of its history too. He liked knowing about the fight against slavery. I think those were his greatest virtues. It took a great deal of effort for me to characterize Sentner in the book. One of the people I interviewed, who was a vehement anti-communist, “You know, it just tore me up to think of Sentner as a Communist. He was such a good man.” He just hated to think that he was a Communist, because for him it was very important to make Communists into villains. With Sentner that was very hard to do. When he said that to me, it showed Sentner’s character, because he said it was just extremely hard to vilify him.

Sentner made a lot of overtures even to his enemies. He was very hard to dislike, I think, and to paint in a way that people tried to do. When I interviewed James Click – he didn’t remember this because it was years later – but it is all in the papers, his papers as well as Sentner’s papers. Sentner tried to bring Click, this arch anti-communist who really helped bring the UE down, planning it with “labor priests,” and used all these nefarious connections, including goon squads, to help make that happen. But Sentner tried to bring him into the UE by making him an organizer. Click denied that years later and said “he would never have brought me in, that’s crazy; I was too independent for him to bring me in.” But it’s right there in the papers that he did try. Click was pretty much an opportunist and decided to make his bed with the anti-communist/anti-UE movement, even as much he was afraid of it and later came to regret it. Those I think are the most important things about William Sentner. He tried to build a movement that was democratic, and I think it is highly ironic that he was taken down by anti-democratic forces who pulled no punches and used fear of totalitarian government to take him down.   

PA:  Lastly, what scholarship and research are you currently working on? 

FEURER:  I have a film on Mother Jones that is part of a larger project on considering an epic event in labor history that has long been forgotten by most historians. I didn’t see it this way when I started out, but I can now understand why I am going in this direction a little bit. I did a public history project to commemorate the Virden Massacre in 1998. The “so-called” massacre happened when African Americans were brought into central Illinois to break a coal miners’ strike in 1898. In 1998 a group of us did a commemoration of it, and I thought that would be the end of it. But I became involved in the Mother Jones Foundation, and I ended up getting pulled into this project on Mother Jones and starting to do a write a book about the Virden conflict and the larger arena in which it was a major factor. Virden is one site of the basis for American radical ideals and the connection between the strategies of the labor movement and radicalism. The project also seeks to restore the memory of the activism of Black miners.