In the 1950s and ‘60s, two labor leaders were influential in St. Louis through their involvement with a new kind of ideology: the “total persons” movement. Both were involved with Teamsters Local 688, forming a political alliance that would shape public services, civil rights and economic justice in the region. Their names were Harold Gibbons and Ernest Calloway.
On Monday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” host Don Marsh spoke with Robert Bussel, a historian and associate professor at the University of Oregon, about his book, which highlights the interracial duo: “Fighting for Total Person Unionism: Harold Gibbons, Ernest Calloway, and Working-Class Citizenship.”
Back in the 1970s, Bussel was working as a union staffer, doing community work, when he read a book by journalist Steven Brill called “Teamsters,” which had a small chapter devoted to Gibbons.
Twenty years later, Bussel said he recalled the story and went to Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville to research it. There, he found 90 boxes about Gibbons. It was enough for a biography in and of itself, but the archivist led him to another labor leader that had an active partnership with Gibbons — Calloway. Bussel finished his research on Calloway at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and decided to do a dual-biography.
The two bonded through their background in coal workers unions in Chicago initially, but were also drawn together by a shared background at independent labor schools, as socialists and advocates of racial justice. They wanted to see workers use the things they learned as members of the union, “conflict resolution, power and pressure,” Bussel said, to better the quality of life in their communities and become effective citizens.
“Calloway would talk about [the ‘total persons’ movement] this way: Workers were not only economic beings, they were also social beings,” Bussel said. “You worked eight hours a day to put bread on the table and for the intrinsic reward of work but there was another sixteen hours a day living as a person in the community.”
That fit in well with Calloway’s simultaneous work as president of the NAACP in St. Louis during the 1950s. He combined work advocating for civil rights with union ideals to bring “total person” ideology to the African-American community in St. Louis.
They realized that workers could have huge political clout, in civil rights and labor issues, should they become involved outside of the workplace.
“Back in the 1950s, unlike today, St. Louis was more a swing-type place politically in terms of relative balance between Democrats and Republicans,” said Bussel. “They were able to play an independent political role, being able to use their political muscle and ability to mobilize member votes, and work on behalf of candidates to swing elections in their favor and levy concessions from candidates.”
Unions had much more of a hold on St. Louis, and across the nation, in the 1950s. Around 33-34 percent of Americans were members of a union. Today, that number is below 12 percent, Bussel said.
As movements like Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for Fifteen, and efforts to guarantee paid family leave come to the forefront to protest the levels of wealth and income inequality, Lessons from the time of Calloway and Gibbons become more poignant.
“When there was more effective collective bargaining and stronger unions, we had much less inequality and wages and productivity mirrored each other much more closely,” said Bussel.
Another big difference between that era and today was that unions were able to take wages out of competition — creating national agreements to make sure wages and working conditions were pretty much equal across the country. Today, with globalization and capital flight, unions just don’t function the same way. Strikes are also much harder to sustain today as an effective mode of organizing.
Bussel said that Gibbons and Calloway’s work either directly created or inspired local institutions like the Metropolitan Sewer District, the Bi-State Development Agency, St. Louis Community College System and public housing for seniors.
He also said that a more philosophical level of influence is held by the two even today:
“This idea that workers could use their expertise, knowledge and insight from the workplace to inform and enhance their lives as citizens to be active and effective in the community — not just voting but to really be involved as active, civic participants is a critical part of their legacy that speaks to us today,” he said.
"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.