A statue of Reuben Soderstrom, part of a new labor history plaza dedicated last week in front of the state AFL-CIO headquarters in Springfield, shows the advocate for labor and civil rights pointing skyward.
Soderstrom, a state lawmaker who went on to become president of the Illinois State Federation of Labor and state AFL-CIO from 1930 to 1970, struck that pose as he campaigned in Mendota in 1920 from the back of a flatbed truck with then-vice presidential candidate Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Dr. Carl Soderstrom, 77, grandson of the late labor leader and a Peoria dermatologist and founder of clinics in Illinois and Iowa, was at the dedication, and called his grandfather “a great humanitarian.” And he said the plaza “will be a destination for Illinoisans to learn about the significant contributions working men and women have made to this state.”
“President Soderstrom … left a legacy of tremendous accomplishments and progressive ideals that our generation is working to build on today,” said Tim Drea of Springfield, the current AFL-CIO president.
Drea said in an interview that the plaza cost about $200,000, roughly split between the Soderstrom Family Foundation and money raised by the AFL-CIO – much of it from member organizations.
The plaza includes not only the statue, but two 8-by-11-foot digital sign boards – made by Ace Sign Co. in Springfield. The one on the south side of plaza presents a 15-minute video about the history of Reuben Soderstrom. The other board, on the north side of the plaza, is also on a 15-minute cycle, telling more of the labor story of Illinois. Drea said the videos can be updated from time to time, and are currently activated from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Illinois is rich in labor history, Drea said, with work of people including Mother Jones (Mary Harris Jones, a union and community organizer buried at Mount Olive); and A. Philip Randolph, who organized and led the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters – the first predominately African American union that represented workers at the Pullman company, in the passenger rail car business.
Illinois also was home to the Haymarket affair in Chicago in 1886 – a demonstration that turned violent and put a spotlight on labor struggles. And there was the Cherry Mine disaster, a coal mine fire in 1909 at the Bureau County town, where 259 men and boys died.
Robert Soderstrom, a great-grandson of Reuben Soderstrom and co-founder of a company in Los Angeles, spoke remotely at the dedication ceremony. He’s also one of four authors, including his father, of a three-volume book called “Forty Gavels: The Life of Reuben Soderstrom and the Illinois AFL-CIO.”
Robert Soderstrom said his great-grandfather was 21 and working in the shop of a newspaper in Streator, where he lived, when the Cherry Mine disaster occurred.
That “underground coal mine inferno,” he said, “left a local population, that Reuben witnessed, of impoverished widows and fatherless children to struggle without workmen’s compensation or death benefits.”
“Because of that, he would throw himself into the rough and tumble world of local politics.”
Soderstrom was 30 when first elected to the Illinois House in 1918, Robert said, and on his first day in Springfield, introduced a bill to make clear the right for workers to assembly. He didn’t win a second term in 1920 – but did get elected to the House again in 1922 – and finally passed the legislation in 1925.
“He did that partly by breaking with Statehouse orthodoxy at the time,” Robert said, “and he joined with four African-American legislators (from) Chicago to get this bill passed. Before … laborers could be arrested for conspiracy if there were six or more of the gathered together.”
FDR lost for vice president in 1920, when Reuben, then 32, campaigned with him. A photograph that shows Reuben in the stance used for the new statue also showed Roosevelt looking at him as he spoke, Robert said.
The sculptor is Lonnie Stewart, who is internationally known and has studios in Peoria and Charleston, S.C.
Reuben Soderstrom was elected as a Republican, but broke ranks with his party and endorsed Democrat Roosevelt for president in “a rousing speech” in Chicago, his great-grandson said.
“He was on the right side of history with remarkable accuracy, probably because his commitment was not to party or politics, but to people and their needs,” Robert said.
As head of the statewide labor group, Reuben was courted by a series of presidents, including Roosevelt, for their support of what was at the time 1.3 million members.
Soderstrom was also a card-carrying member for nearly 60 years of the International Typographers Union – and he worked even when a legislator at the Streator Free Press newspaper until he was 43.
Among his roles in the labor movement, he helped steer the national merger between the old American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which joined to become the AFL-CIO.
Reuben also introduced a comprehensive civil rights bill in the Illinois House in 1952 – 12 years before the national civil rights bill was passed in Washington, D.C., when Lyndon Johnson was president.
Robert said it is inspiring to read about the outpouring of support that Soderstrom got at the time from African-American and Jewish leaders, ministers and priests.
“He was truly ahead of his time,” Robert said.
That was also shown by his invitation to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the state AFL-CIO convention in Springfield on Oct. 7, 1965. The dedication of the new labor plaza – which also featured speeches by Secretary of State Jesse White and Springfield Mayor Jim Langfelder – came on the 55th anniversary of that event.
“This space will be a constant reminder of the decades of hard work and positive impact of the AFL-CIO, its leadership, its partners and workers have had on this community, our great state, and this nation,” Langfelder said. “AFL-CIO is the true definition of progress. It’s efforts have brought gender equality, immigrant rights, workplace safety, civil rights and workplace rights. …” He noted that the location is across from the Capitol complex, and just blocks from Abraham Lincoln’s home.
Already on the Statehouse grounds, along Monroe Street, is a 1992 “Illinois Workers Memorial” statue dedicated to workers killed and injured on the job. There is also a 1964 statue, along 2nd Street as is the AFL-CIO building across the street, called “The Coal Miner.” Police and firefighter memorials are also on the Statehouse grounds.
Drea said the new plaza helps give a broad view of labor history and personalities.
“Illinois has a rich labor history,” Drea said. “And while there are monuments all across the state, from Chicago to Carbondale, there wasn’t one central location that told all of labor’s story. So … when we were approached from the Soderstrom Family Foundation to put the statue on the plaza, we thought it would be a great idea to go ahead and make it a labor history plaza.”
Robert Soderstrom said his great-grandfather, who died in 1970 at age 82, was humble.
“I think if he were to walk up here today, he’d be stunned,” Robert said. “He’d almost certainly demand that his statue be replaced by one of a nondescript Illinois worker. But he was a remarkable man and despite his humility, we are honoring him in bronze today.”
Information about Soderstrom and the book is at fortygavels.com. Video of the dedication ceremony can be seen on the Illinois State AFL-CIO Facebook page.
Contact Bernard Schoenburg: Bernard.firstname.lastname@example.org, 788-1540, twitter.com/bschoenburg
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October 10, 2020 at 04:00PM