Celebrating Wheeling’s Labor Heritage

Heroes come in many forms. Firefighters. Medics. Educators. Mentors. For us, Wheeling labor activist Walter Reuther (1907-1970) and worker-friendly business owner Augustus Pollack (1830-1906), sit near the top of our hero lists. These men from different eras of history not only gave voice to thousands of workers but made it possible for them to achieve solidarity and strength to combat unsafe working conditions, low wages and unfair labor practices as well as to become advocates for women’s rights, civil rights, education, healthcare and so much more.

To celebrate their legacies, Wheeling will be holding its first-ever Reuther-Pollack Labor Heritage Week from Aug. 27 through Sept. 1. All events will be held at The First State Capitol at 1413 Eoff St. and at the Ohio County Public Library at 52 16th St.

Why Wheeling?

But why should Wheeling play host to a labor heritage week?

“The Levee.” Close-up from “Wheeling, West Virginia,” drawn by Charles Graham for the publication “Harper’s Weekly,” June 21, 1890, pg 489. (from the collections of the Ohio County Public Library Archive)

As a rough-and-tumble frontier outpost, a brawling transportation and manufacturing hub, and the rebellious host city for the “secession from secession” that led to West Virginia statehood, Wheeling has always been a hard-working, hard-playing, tough and defiant city. And nothing epitomizes that spirit more colorfully than Wheeling’s labor history. The city attracted droves of migrant laborers and immigrants in search of opportunity in industries making products like iron and steel, nails, glass, pottery, stogies and beer. Others sought work on the wagons, trains and steamboats endlessly hauling such products, and the raw materials needed to produce them, into and out of town.

Led by large numbers of German immigrants (like Reuther family patriarch, Valentine), influenced by socialist theory, Wheeling’s workers organized for better pay, hours and working conditions. By the turn of the century, Wheeling was home to an array of labor unions representing every trade and profession from butchers and bartenders to brewers, bricklayers and horseshoers. From the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers to the International Union Brewery Workmen of America and the National Stogiemakers’ League, most of these organizations were represented in West Virginia’s largest central labor union, the (still extant) Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, membership of which was comprised of 4,000 Wheeling workers from 40 different unions.

“We unite because we must. It is not a matter of sentiment or charity. It is one of business. True, the blood tingles on beholding the brutalities of our industrial chaos; but while this is an incentive, it is not the foundation of our unionism. We are trade unionists because there is no other agency that will secure for us good wages, a short workday, partial independence in the present, and sometime, we hope, complete.”  — History of the Ohio Valley Trades and Labor Assembly, 1902

Led by the OVT & LA, these unions organized to reject a free library for Wheeling from a business owner they disliked (Pittsburgh’s Andrew Carnegie), while raising the funds to build a huge monument to a business owner they loved (Wheeling’s Augustus Pollack).

This real photo postcard depicts a group of Pollack Stogie factory workers holding a sign for “German Day” posing in front of the former Pollack Stogie factory on Eoff and 17th streets (more commonly recognized as the Ott-Heiskell building), circa 1908. (from the Real Photo Postcard Collection of the Ohio County Public Library Archives)

And most of these union members supported the only American presidential candidate ever to be arrested and imprisoned for expressing his political beliefs, the candidate whose ideas influenced popular leaders from the Reuther brothers to FDR to Bernie Sanders — the candidate nominated by the Socialist Party of America.

Debs, Pollack and the Roots of Labor Advocacy

Wheeling’s labor history week opens at 7 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, at the First State Capitol with the Wheeling premier of the new documentary, American Socialist: The Life and Times of Eugene Victor Debs, from First Run Features and filmmaker Yale Strom. It traces the history of American populism, with the man (Debs) who inspired progressive ideas — from FDR’s New Deal to Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign. In fact, the film’s tagline is “Bernie Sanders inspired a generation — but who inspired him?”

Asked why he made the film, Strom replied, “I think the American public needs to know what socialism is and how it came to be a part of our consciousness as a country. Also, I wanted to take back the word socialist/socialism and make it something that is positive to talk about, and not something with a negative connotation. …”

Debs (1855-1926) was one of the founding members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or the Wobblies) and ran for President of the United States five times as the candidate of the Socialist Party of America. After giving a speech denouncing the participation of the U.S. in World War I, Debs was arrested and convicted under the Sedition Act of 1918 and sentenced to 10 years in prison. The Sedition Act, which was actually an amendment to the Espionage Act of 1917, made it illegal to use “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” about the U.S. government or its symbols or that in any way encouraged contempt of the government. Debs was held in the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary from April 13, 1919, until 1921 when Congress repealed the law. President Harding commuted Debs’ sentence to time served, and he was released on Christmas Day of that year. Debs served the first few months of his sentence in the West Virginia Penitentiary in Moundsville, where he was visited by a Wheeling man, Valentine Reuther, and his two sons, Walter and Victor. This visit would leave a lasting impression on 12-year-old Walter, who would later become a Debsian socialist and contribute greatly to labor organizing in West Virginia and throughout the U.S. (See more about the Reuthers below.)

But long before Debs and the Reuthers, a German Jew named Augustus Pollack led the way for fair labor relations. Pollack, a fancy goods merchant turned “Stogie King,” founded Crown Stogies in 1871 in Wheeling. Crown Stogies would become West Virginia’s largest cigar manufacturer. Indeed, when it was built, his factory was one of the largest cigar factories in the world.

Unlike his contemporaries — the Vanderbilts, Rockefellers and Carnegies — Pollack was a Gilded Age anti-Robber Baron who practiced the “radical” idea of simply treating his employees with fairness and respect. Pollack worked just as hard as his employees. He paid them well for the period and maintained an open-door policy regarding employee concerns over work conditions, hours and wages. While his contemporaries in other industries fought regular and often violent struggles over labor issues, Pollack worked with his employees to ensure fairness, safe working conditions and livable work hours. As a result, the majority of his employees remained loyal to Pollack. When he decided to retire, he refused to entertain buy-outs from potential owners who would not honor the agreement he had with his employees regarding communication with management over labor issues.

Pollack’s policies might appear as common sense to most thoughtful people, but they were indeed groundbreaking in an era in which labor unions were battling just to exist. A true testament to his commitment to fair labor relations still stands at Wheeling Heritage Port. Following Pollack’s death in 1906, the Garfield Assembly of International Stogie Makers collected more than $8,000 to erect a monument honoring Pollack’s memory. Depicting an employee and employer shaking hands, the monument is one of the only known statues erected by workers dedicated to their employer.

The Pollack monument’s inscription reads: “Erected by Trade Union Members of United States in Memory of Augustus Pollack Whose Business Life and Actions Were Always in Sympathy with Organized Labor.”

“Going West Virginia on You”

In many ways, the inspiration for Labor Heritage Week came from the 2018 West Virginia teacher’s strike. In February, West Virginia teachers and public employees disrupted national narratives about “red state politics” when they went on strike for higher wages and a fix to the state health insurance plan. This successful movement inspired similar strikes across the country and reshaped national conversations and developments around austerity and neoliberalism.

As participants will learn at noon on Tuesday, Aug 28, at Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library, this was not the first time West Virginia laborers stood at the forefront of working class politics and industrial democracy. Jack Seitz, lead educator at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, will present: “A Brief Sketch of West Virginia Labor History in Modern Context or: The Long History of ‘Going West Virginia on You,’” examining these longer threads of labor militancy in the state and their connections to national politics and global economics while offering some thoughts on where labor politics might go from here.

Seitz is the lead educator at the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum in Matewan, W.Va. In this capacity, he develops and delivers curricula for public schools in West Virginia and works to help tell the story of the Mine Wars beyond the four walls of the museum. He holds a master’s degree in Central Eurasian studies from Indiana University and is a doctoral candidate in the history department at Iowa State University.

Labor Organizing and the Rise of Neoliberalism

“Since all the workers in the industrial community get the benefits of these services performed by the union, made possible by the union, we believe that since all the workers share in the services all the workers ought to share in the cost of providing those services.” —Walter Reuther

The courage of West Virginia’s teachers was made all the more remarkable by the fact that they took such a stand in a so-called “Right to Work” state, one with a deceptively named law designed to undermine collective bargaining by prohibiting companies and unions from bargaining labor agreements under which all workers who benefit must pay union dues. When some workers benefit from union bargaining without paying dues, the resulting financial burden can bankrupt unions. Such laws are products of a political philosophy known as “neoliberalism,” a free market ideology that calls for cuts to taxes and social spending, deregulation, increased competition in the labor market, fewer union protections and, above all, free trade between nations. Far from failing to achieve their goals in Appalachia, these policies have functioned as intended, spurring innovation in some sectors of the economy, increasing worker productivity and lowering some consumer costs. But the costs have been high in this region: hollowed out mine and mill towns, the decline of the labor movement, and great inequalities of wealth, health and power.

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At 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 28, Lou Martin, associate professor of history at Chatham University and founding board member of the West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, will present a Special Edition People’s University at the Ohio County Public Library called “Appalachian History and Politics Since the 1970s,” an exploration of the real impact of neoliberalism in our state and region.

The Reuther Family Legacy

Labor Heritage Week continues at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, at the First State Capitol with a free screening of the documentary Brothers on the Line. Narrated by Martin Sheen, Brothers on the Line is an award-winning documentary created by Victor Reuther’s grandson Sasha. It incorporates archival footage, a pulsating soundtrack and first-hand accounts from labor, management and political personalities to explore the extraordinary journey of the Reuther brothers (Walter, Roy and Victor) — prolific union organizers who led an army of laborers into an epic struggle for social justice.

According to the film’s website, Walter Reuther’s United Autoworkers “provided support to a burgeoning civil rights movement and farmworker campaigns, forging a deep alliance with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Cesar Chavez” while making a frightening list of enemies. As Sasha Reuther has said, “The odyssey of the Reuther brothers resonates far beyond their era. It remains an influential and often controversial 40-year crusade that contributed to building a robust middle class while compelling American democracy to live up to its promise of equality.”

Mother Jones and West Virginia Miner Rebellions

Mary Harris “Mother” Jones was one of the most influential labor organizers in American history. (courtesy Library of Congress)

Injustice boils in men’s hearts as does steel in its cauldron, ready to pour forth, white hot, in the fullness of time.”  — Mother Jones

“Pray for the dead and fight like hell for the living.”  — Mother Jones

Of course, many of the most important labor leaders were women. And standing head and shoulders above the rest was a diminutive but fierce woman from Cork, Ireland, named Mary Harris “Mother” Jones (1837-1930). Known as “the most dangerous woman in America” to her enemies and as the “miners’ angel” to those who loved her, she used her formidable skills as an orator to fight for the rights of coal miners and their families to organize against the severe abuses of mine owners and their company towns and their hired thugs. She also organized a march to expose the evils of child labor and co-founded (with Debs — see above) the Industrial Workers of the World, an international labor union.

Lon Savage, author of Thunder in the Mountains: The West Virginia Mine War, 1920–21, a highly influential popular history now considered a classic, was working on a book manuscript about a lesser-known Mother Jones crusade in Kanawha County, W.Va., when he died in 2004. Now, many years later, Lon’s daughter, Ginny Savage Ayers, drew on her father’s notes and files, as well as her own original research, to create the book, Never Justice, Never Peace: Mother Jones and the Miner Rebellion at Paint and Cabin Creeks. Published by WVU Press, it is the first book-length account of the Paint Creek–Cabin Creek Strike of 1912–13. Dr. Lou Martin (see above) wrote the introduction to this important new book that Savage Ayers will discuss for the first time in Wheeling at noon  Thursday, Aug. 30, at a special edition Lunch With Books at the Ohio County Public Library.

About the book, John Sayles, director of Matewan, said, “Lon Savage and Ginny Savage Ayers have written an account of one of the seminal confrontations in the history of the American labor movement that is both exhaustively researched and a real page-turner. Especially compelling is their insight into Mother Jones, that human detonator in constant search of dynamite.”

Brewing the Songs of Rebellion

Not all of the events during Labor Heritage Week are lectures or movie screenings. Given the incredible importance of protest songs during the history of labor organizing, at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 30, at the First State Capitol, Pittsburgh-based singer/songwriters Tom Breiding, Jason Kendall and Mike Stout will present “Songs of Protest and the Working Class.” For a $10 cover charge (all proceeds go toward event expenses), attendees will enjoy an evening of original compositions, working class ballads and familiar protest songs. Breiding, a Wheeling native, is musician-in-residence for the United Mine Workers of America. Kendall’s introspective and melodic songs are influenced by artists such as Chet Baker, Bob Dylan and the Beatles. Stout is a songwriter of stories about working class heroes.

Heritage Week continues with a pairing of history and beer — a combined tribute to the spirit of defiance epitomized by those who risked everything by meeting in Wheeling to create a new state during the Civil War and Wheeling’s fascinating barons of beer brewing (like Reymann, Balzer, Uneeda and Schmulbach, for whom Valentine Reuther drove a delivery truck).

At 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 31, at the First State Capitol, The Francis Pier-Pint Historic Brew-Off, will feature Travis Henline, Hal Gorby and Ryan Stanton sharing fun facts and mostly true stories about Wheeling’s history, including the statehood struggle, working class people and neighborhoods, and beer history.

Members of the “Wheeling Alers” home-brewing club will create six historically themed brews: Jim Chaney’s Reuther’s Smoked Wheat Gratzer; Sam Moore’s Waitman Willey Rye Ale; Larry Pernell’s First State Capital Cream Ale; Scott Fletcher’s Augustus Pollack Pale Ale; Aron Massey’s Pierpont’s Porter; and Kurt Reed’s A. I. Boreman 1863 Pre-Prohibition Lager.

A $30 admission ticket buys a commemorative Francis Pier-Pint pint glass. Attendees will sample the six beers for free and vote for their favorite historic brew. The winner will receive a custom trophy. T-shirts, custom coasters and other merchandise will be available for purchase.

Proceeds benefit educational programming for both the WALS Foundation and the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation, partners on this fundraising event.

Wheeling Labor History in Context

Reuther-Pollack Labor Heritage Week will conclude with a labor history symposium from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 1. The event will feature presentations from five dynamic speakers including: Fordham history professor Steven Stoll, author of Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (a progressive answer to J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy); Appalachian historian Benjamin Bankhurst of Shepherd University; Boston College professor of history Kevin Kenny who will speak about the Molly Maguires; Mark Bulik, a senior editor for the New York Times (also Molly Maguires); and United Auto Worker archivist Gavin Strassel from the Walter P. Reuther Library of Labor and Urban Affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit, the largest labor archive in the U.S., who will discuss how Walter Reuther transformed the labor movement into a social one.

During the lunch break, after a birthday celebration for Walter Reuther with cake and refreshments, symposium attendees will have the opportunity to join a walking tour, led by Dr. David Javersak, to view the Pollack and Reuther monuments at Heritage Port on the Wheeling riverfront and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ monument recently moved from Wheeling Park to the grounds of West Virginia Independence Hall. The event also will feature door prizes, a raffle of a framed photo and autograph of Walter Reuther, a basket of labor history books and much more.

Registration is $20 and includes a box lunch. All proceeds go toward event expenses.

Come out and learn about the Ohio Valley’s long history of fighting for labor rights. It’s your heritage! To RSVP for the concert, brew-off or the symposium, send an email to spd@walslaw.com or call 304-905-1690. For more information about Reuther-Pollack Labor Heritage Week, visit the WALS Foundation Facebook events page. For library events, check out the library’s website calendar of social media pages, email lunchwithbooks@yahoo.com or call 304-232-0244.

Special thanks to the Wheeling Academy of Law and Science (WALS) Foundation, through its Reuther-Wheeling Library and Labor History Archive,  and the Ohio County Public Library through its adult programming department, for organizing the events. Sponsors include the West Virginia Humanities Council, Wheeling Heritage and Bishop Whelan Div. 1, Ancient Order of Hibernians. Heritage Partners for the events include the Battle of Homestead Foundation, West Virginia Mine Wars Museum, West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation, West Virginia Independence Hall Museum and WVU Press.

• Christina Fisanick, Ph.D., is an associate professor of English at California University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches expository writing, creative non-fiction and digital storytelling. She is the author of more than 30 books, including her most recent memoir, “The Optimistic Food Addict: Recovering from Binge Eating Disorder.” She has been a Weelunk contributing writer since 2015. Christina is a 1996 graduate of West Liberty University and a member of Ohio Valley Writers. She lives in Wheeling with her family. 

• Seán Patrick Duffy is the adult programming coordinator at the Ohio County Public Library and the executive director of the Wheeling Academy of Law and Science (WALS) Foundation at the First State Capitol in Wheeling. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history and an MBA from Wheeling Jesuit University and a JD from the Washington College of Law at the American University. He is the author or editor of four books and numerous articles on local history. One of the founders of ArchivingWheeling.org, Duffy is vice president of the West Virginia Independence Hall Foundation Board.