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August 26, 2019

Labor Day 2019: Remembering Valentine Reuther
By Region 8 Director Mitchell Smith

The dog days of summer are upon us and as we endure these hottest days, thankfully Labor Day is just around the corner. Summer is slipping through our fingers like the sand on the beach, and Fall is approaching hopefully with cooler temperatures.

Fall is actually a month away and is considered the “social season”. We will all try to fit in one more summer event before the weather changes. Those of us who are involved in the labor movement understand that Labor Day is more than a day off, but also a day to remember the sacrifices that have been made by our forbearers in the field of social justice. In this season I would like for us to remember Valentine Reuther.

In 1903, the city of Wheeling, West Virginia was a flourishing town of 40,000, with a large industrial base and primed for expansion. The city fathers decided the town needed a library and decided to approach industrialist turned philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie. By that time Carnegie had retired and was using his fortune to “help communities.” Carnegie told the leaders of Wheeling he would build the library if they put up $50,000 to buy the land, provide the staff, and buy books. The city council, educators, the mayor, along with the  business leaders all bought in and started the process and placed a blind initiative on the ballot to build the library.

While the business leaders liked the idea, the blue-collar workers of Wheeling did not . Andrew Carnegie had a reputation among the workers in Wheeling, but it was not a good one. In 1892 Andrew Carnegie owned the Homestead Steel Mill located on the banks of the Monongahela River, outside of Pittsburg. The workers in the mill were represented by the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers, with their contract set to expire in the summer. Carnegie wanted higher profits from the mill and demanded pay cuts from the workers. Carnegie was determined to break the union and locked out the workers before the expiration of the contract. The workers camped outside the plant protesting as Carnegie tried to bring in scab replacement workers. He then sent the Pinkerton Detective Agency (known striker breakers) up the river by barge to attack the workers and a fight broke out. In the end, nine of the workers and seven of the Pinkertons lay dead. Hundreds of the locked-out workers were arrested and the ensuing legal action eventually weakened the union.

Valentine Reuther was born in Germany in 1881 and then immigrated  to America in 1892. Young Valentine came to America the same year Carnegie was breaking the union at his mills. In 1899, Valentine joined his older brother Jake in Wheeling, landing a job in the steel mill making good money as a member of the Amalgamated Association of Iron Steel and Tin Workers. After an unsuccessful strike at the mill in 1902, Valentine lost his skilled job at the mill, taking the beer wagon driver job at a much lower wage. He learned firsthand issues that workers faced by Carnegie’s greed.

Valentine Reuther spoke to workers on street corners, in churches, and anywhere people would listen. When the vote was held in January of 1904 on the $50,000 bond issue for the library, Carnegie was defeated. Eventually, the City of Wheeling built their own library without naming it for a man who swindled workers.

Later in 1904, Valentine met another immigrant, twenty-two-year-old Anna Stocker, the daughter of an immigrant wagon maker. Anna worked in the kitchen at one of the city’s many saloons and Valentine delivered beer there. The two were wed that year and later had five children; Theodore in 1905, Walter Philip in 1907, Roy Louis in 1909, Victor George in 1912, and Christine in 1922. Born on September 1, 1907, Labor Day Eve, Walter Reuther would go on to become the President of the UAW and one of the architects of the American middle class. Time magazine later would name Walter Reuther one of the 50 most important people of the 20th Century.

Valentine would work tirelessly organizing workers across the state and led the campaign to end child labor in the West Virginia coal mines. "The ballot is the strongest weapon that working men and women have if you just exercise it,” Valentine Reuther would tell those whom he organized.

At home he would assign the children topics on the issues of the day and would send them off to research it. Then, around the kitchen table in the evenings the group would debate the issues, building each of them into a social activist. In the years to come the Brothers would make their mark as pioneers in the labor movement, using the tools they learned at the supper table with their father.

Valentine Reuther never forgot losing his skilled position at the steel mill in Wheeling and insisted his boys all learn a trade to insure they could always find decent employment. He drove the wagon for the brewery until it closed in 1914. Eventually he ended up selling insurance to provide for his family, but never stopped fighting for West Virginia’s workers.

Great leaders are not born, they are made. While we often recall the accomplishments of Walter Reuther, we should never forget the person who molded him into the man he became. This Labor Day may we all recall the Reuther Family and the role they played in building our union. May we all follow in the footsteps of Valentine Reuther and educate a new generation to carry on the cause of labor long after we are gone.

Enjoy your day as one of America’s workers and never stop striving to keep our movement strong. On behalf of the entire Region 8 leadership and staff, we wish you and your family a Happy Labor Day.

Mitchell Smith
UAW Region 8 Director



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