Reuben T. 'Rube' Wood

From Neal Moore's Labor Unions in the Ozarks:

A Brief Biography of Reuben T. Wood

One of the outstanding Missouri labor leaders has been Springfield cigar maker Reuben T. Wood. With his brother, he joined the cigar makers union and immediately took an active role in trade union affairs, showing up as a delegate the Springfield Central Labor Council in 1901. In 1912 he was elected president of the Missouri State Federation of Labor, a position he held for the next 41 years, during which time he supported many issues of improvement for the union members and all the working people of Missouri. One of his major achievements was to gain passage of a state workmen's compensation law. It took 20 years of hard work on his part to overcome the opposition of Missouri voters. Finally, now, compensation for on-the-job accidents is an accepted fact of our industrial life.

An unusual feature of Wood's career was his election to Congress. Adequate research has not been done; but it may well be that Reuben T. Wood is the only man in the history of the United States who served in two positions, president of his state labor organization and as Congressman, at the same time.

In 1932 Missouri's representation in Congress had been cut from 16 down to 13. The State Legislature was unable to agree on a new redistricting plan (shades of 1981!) and as a result, in 1932 all Congressmen were elected at large. That year Springfield had two representatives, Reuben T. Wood and James E. Ruffin, a Springfield attorney.

By 1934 a new Sixth District had been established, consisting of the following counties: Cass, Bates, Vernon, Barton, Johnson, Henry, St. Clair, Cedar, Pettis, Polk, and Greene. In 1934, in this largely rural area, Wood defeated Ruffin for the Democratic nomination for Congress and went on to win the general election. He was re-elected in 1936 and 1938, serving for eight years, from 1933 to 1941, during the crucial New Deal years.

When Wood retired as president of the Missouri State Federation of Labor in 1953, he was succeeded by John I. Rollings, who was born and raised in Spokane. Rollings went to St. Louis where he joined the barbers union, became secretary of the St. Louis Trades and Labor Assembly, and from there went to the presidency of the State Federation.

Organized in 1891, the Missouri State Federation of Labor, now the Missouri State Labor Council, is over 110 years old. During much of that time the president's chair has been filled by somebody from the Ozarks.

A Farm-Labor Alliance in Troubled Times

A Paper Delivered at the Missouri Conference on History, Columbia, Missouri, 1987

As a result of the 1930 census, Missouri lost two Congressmen. The state's Congressional representation was reduced from fifteen to thirteen.

In the ensuing debate to redistrict the state, the State Legislature was unable to reach an agreement. As a result, in the 1932 election, all thirteen Missouri Congressmen were elected at large. It was a Democratic landslide that year, and all thirteen Democratic Congressional candidates won election. Reuben T. Wood, Springfield cigar maker and president of the Missouri State Federation of Labor, was one of those thirteen successful Democratic candidates.

By 1934, the State Legislature had reached an agreement on the boundaries of its new thirteen Congressional districts. Greene County, home of Reuben T. Wood, or "Rube" Wood as he was more commonly known, was on the southeast corner of the new Sixth District.

Wood's first hurdle was to win the Democratic primary in 1934, which he did, over two strong Democratic opponents, and then he went on to win in the 1934 general election. Wood continued to win re-election in 1936 and 1938, serving a total of eight years in Congress before his defeat in 1940.

And it was not as though Wood had suddenly abandoned his role as a Missouri Labor official and become instead a politician. During all of those eight years the Missouri State Federation of Labor continued to elect him president of the organization, and as part of the duties of that office, Wood continued to serve as chairman of the Federation's Legislative Committee, labor's lobbying organization before the Missouri State Legislature.

The question I would like to explore is: Why did the farmers of this very rural west-central Missouri region vote for this labor official to be their Representative in Congress? Prevailing wisdom has it that Missouri farmers are too independent to have anything to do with unions, and particularly with union bosses. They should have rejected Wood.

To give the summary of this paper now - the answer is, I don't know. As for a farm-labor alliance, an extensive survey of the records in the Ozarks Labor Union Archives, Wood's home territory, suggests very strongly that such an alliance never existed. Only part of the records of the Missouri State Federation of Labor for that period have been preserved, stored in the Western Manuscripts Collection on the campus here, but they tell no different story. And I have not been able at this point to locate records of farm organizations or of local county Democratic political organizations of that period, which might throw light on the activities of the time. The newspapers of these counties during the 30's likewise did not go into the kind of detail that would provide information about a farm-labor coalition.

With just a few qualifications, it would seem that Reuben T. Wood just happened to be the right person, in the right place, at the right time, under the right circumstances, to be elected.

Reuben T. Wood was born on a farm north of Springfield August 7, 1884. He did not graduate from high school but was educated, rather, by his parents. His father was a graduate of the University of Virginia, and his mother graduated from the Piedmont Female Academy near Cobham, Virginia, according to the Missouri Manual of 1935 (p.48).

"Rube" Wood, along with his brother and two sisters, became a cigar maker. He first showed up as a delegate to the Springfield Central Trades and Labor Assembly in 1902. Charles Wilkerson, a Springfield Molder, was president of the Central Labor Council at that time. It was ten years later that Wilkerson, by that time a vice president of the Molders International Union, nominated Rube Wood for the office of president of the Missouri State Federation of Labor.

Wood's opponent in that 1912 labor office contest was James B. Conroy, business agent for St. Louis Firemen & Oilers Local No. 6, of St. Louis. It was a close contest, but Wood won.

Wood served as head of the State Federation for the next forty-one years. These years covered a large and significant period of American labor history-the highly active and controversial years preceding World War I, the declining years of the 1920s, the years of the Great Depression, and then the revival of the trade union movement after the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, followed by the restrictive legislation after World War II.

As an aid to understanding the reasons for the votes for Wood for Congress, rather than list the individual events of his career at that time, I rather would like to put more emphasis on the role of the culture of this area and of these rural people as a determining factor in the continued support for Wood.

Gary M. Fink, in his book, Labor's Search for Political Order, The Political Behavior of the Missouri Labor Movement, 1890-1940, offers the best detailed description of the events of that period that I have found, and his listing of primary documentary material is exhaustive. Referring to the need for more study yet to be made, he said: "The importance of this working-class contribution to the Progressive movement has been the subject of considerable study and comment, but its significance to a better understanding of the political behavior of the American labor movement has been virtually ignored." (p.169)

As a background, we should first examine the political structure and voting records of these counties during this period.

Fairly consistent voting patterns show up. Election results from year to year were not particularly different from those in other parts of the country. In 1928, when Herbert Hoover ran against Al Smith, all of these counties, without exception, voted for Hoover.

By 1932 the country was wracked by depression and that year these same counties voted just as consistently for Franklin Delano Roosevelt. That was the year the whole slate of thirteen Democratic candidates, which included Reuben T. Wood, was elected to Congress.

The relative strength of the Republican and Democratic parties in each of these counties is the most obvious and probably the most important political factor in the election results of these years. In some counties, one party or the other showed consistent strength. In other counties there was a great deal of fluctuation in the political response.

Henry County, Clinton as the county seat, seems to have been the most consistently Democratic. Even in 1928, when the voters favored Hoover, it was by a considerably smaller majority than in neighboring counties.

Cass County, on the northwest, and Pettis County, with the railroad town of Sedalia, the home town of Knights of Labor leader Martin Iron during the 1886 Great Southwest Strike, also were Democratic.

More inclined toward the Republican column were three counties on the southern border of the district, Barton, Cedar, and Polk. St. Clair was more of a swing county, as was also Greene County.

The voting patterns of the respective counties make an interesting study, but do not throw any particular light on the reasons for these votes going to the president of the Missouri State Federation of Labor.

Of all the elections during Wood's career as a Congressman, the 1934 primary election probably was the most crucial, for here he was competing with two other strong Congressional incumbents whose voting records were quite comparable to his. Wood's position as a top union official apparently was no serious handicap in this election.

Wood went on to win an easy victory over his Republican opponent in the 1934 election, then repeated the performance in the 1936 election.

1938 was another story. Wood won the primary race easily but squeaked by with less than 100 majority in the November vote. Interestingly, it was the bottom four counties of the district, Barton, Cedar, Polk, and Greene, that voted against the state labor official with an 8,000 majority for Wood's Republican opponent, Phil Bennett. All the counties to the north continued to give their support to Wood with enough votes to overcome the southern county Republican majority.

Again, lack of records make it difficult to determine the reason for this large majority against Wood in these bottom four countries in the 1938 election. Possibly the union organizing efforts in the grain mills and processing plants, and the resulting strikes, were producing a negative reaction against union and union officials in these rural communities.

Preceding the 1938 election, the strike at the Lipscomb grain mill in Springfield had been going on for about a year. An effort to organize the MFA Mill in Springfield, with large numbers of farmer members on management side, came to a head just a few days before the 1938 election, with the mill defeating the union organization drive. A very bitter organization drive at the grain mill at Aurora, just south of the Sixth District, had finally been resolved by recognition of the union and the negotiation of a contract, but then, just as the workers were ready to return to work, the mill burned down.

Again, when the Carnation Milk Company in Mt. Vernon forcefully stopped a union organization drive there, the Springfield Labor Council successfully organized a nationwide boycott of the Carnation Milk Company.

Since these companies were directly involved in the farm trade, any study of farmer-union relations during this period must of necessity locate the necessary sources of information about the reactions and attitudes of both the farmers and the union workers in this area - a task made more difficult by the fact that the farmers and the union workers all came from the same farms.

In discussing Wood's career as a Congressman, one cannot ignore his Republican opponent who nearly defeated him in 1938, and defeated him decisively in the 1940 election - Phil Bennett. A publisher of the Buffalo Reflex, he later made Springfield his home and had an active career in politics, serving as state committeeman, delegate to the national Republican convention, State Senator, and later held the office of Lieutenant Governor.

One other factor that should be considered in Wood's career is the possible effect of the Pendergast machine in Kansas City. Available records, however, do not spell out the extent of Pendergast's control of the vote in these eleven counties that made up Wood's Sixth District. Gary Fink, in his book, Labor's Search for Political Order, gives the Pendergast support for Wood considerable credit for Wood's electoral success. Control of patronage was an important part of this coalition, according to Fink. A series of articles in the Springfield Leader and Press, later reprinted by the Greene County Young Republican Club, described the whole Greene County Democratic organization as "Little Tammany," beholden to Pederast in Kansas City, and embroiled in petty squabbling over control of patronage. It may have been more than a coincidence that Wood's political career declined at the same time as Pederast's.

This brings us to the central question of a farm-labor coalition. Although Wood himself on occasion referred to his record as being for the working man, the farmer, and the small businessman, any cooperative effort between the farmers and the trade union members of the district and of the state seems to have been non-existent.

This is not the way American trade union movement functions! During this time, the 1930s, other events relating to the American working people were being made known to the people in Springfield, often asking for assistance, and some of these events were occurring in the South.

There were letters from Chattanooga Printing Pressmen and Assistants' Union, the Sheep Shearers' Union in Butte, Montana, the Nashville Typographical Union, the Salt Mine Workers of New Iberia, Louisiana, and dozens of other organizations all over the United States.

Another example of the kind of national support that could be generated was the Springfield Labor Council's efforts to put the Carnation Milk Company, of Mt. Vernon, Missouri, under a national boycott. This was taking place at the same time that Congressman Wood was meeting defeat in the 1940 election. Letters notifying the Springfield Labor Council that they were joining in the boycott came from Freeport, Illinois; Sacramento, California; Roanoke, Virginia; Sitka, Alaska, Albuquerque, New Mexico; and many other places.

Through all of this correspondence there appears almost a myopic preoccupation with union organization and union recognition - very little of any interest in the broader social issues of the time, and practically no evidence of cooperation with other groups, other then trade unions, to develop broad social goals that were coming into being at the time.

The same preoccupation with trade union matters shows up consistently during Wood's tenure in Congress. Although there was an occasional reference to his support for the workers, the farmer, and the small business, his message to Missouri trade unionists was the need to advance legislation beneficial to the trade union movement.

The State Federation convention call of March, 1938, over the signature of R. T. Wood, said nothing about farm legislation and suggested nothing about developing a cooperative farm-labor program. The convention call closed with a long paragraph discussing the National Labor Relations Act and its guarantees of the right to organize, along with the threat to AFL organizing being created by the newly organized CIO.

The 1939 call for the convention to be held in Springfield devoted itself almost entirely to the status of the National Labor Relations Act.

In searching for an answer for the reasons for the rural vote for Reuben T. Wood in the 30's, perhaps we should look to the nature of the farmers themselves.

In many ways the American labor movement has been, and is today, much more a rural labor movement, with an agrarian background, than historians generally have acknowledged.

Mr. Suggs alludes to this in his story of the 1935 Tri-State area mining strike, noting that because of emphasis on the labor problems in the large industrial centers, the Tri-State strike had gone largely unnoticed. The WPA Missouri Guide to the 30's is another illustration of tendency to see labor unions as a phenomenon only of the large urban centers. In discussing labor in Missouri, the Guide described the very violent street car strike in St. Louis at the turn of the century, when a number of people were killed, and noted that the St. Louis workers finally achieved an organization in 1918. The article specifically mentioned the non-union character of the rural out-state part of Missouri. Unknown, apparently, to the authors, was the 1914 report of a new contract negotiated by the Electric Street and Railway Workers on the interurban line between Joplin, Missouri, and Pittsburg, Kansas, or of the successful 252-day street car strike in Springfield in 1916-17.

The radical nature of early American politics and working class economic philosophy shows up as a constant factor in the development of the frontier west.

Jonathan Garlock's Guide to the Local Assemblies of the Knights of Labor shows some 75% of the new organizations, after the 1886 strike, occurring in towns with less than 8,000 population. The rural nature of these organizations was demonstrated in the counties we are considering here, in the old Sixth Congressional District.

Cass County had one local assembly of the Knights of Labor. Over a period of a few years, Bates County had seven local assemblies. Vernon County had five. Barton County, with its mining interests, had ten local assemblies of the Knights of Labor. Johnson County had six. Henry County had ten local assemblies. St. Clair County had three. Cedar County had two. Pettis County, with the most of the local assemblies in Sedalia, had seven. Polk County had six. And Greene County had nine local assemblies, one less than Barton County and Henry County.

During the Great Southwest Strike of 1886 against New York financier Jay Gould, it was from Pettis County that the leader of that strike, a railroad worker named Martin Irons, came.

There are other examples of resistance and reaction to the culture of the new advancing industrial culture with its Gilded Age values as it developed on the American frontier.

In Kansas a strong Populist movement put one of their members in the Governor's chair in the 1890s. In Missouri a few years later Rural Missouri gave George Folk strong support for governor in his fight against crime and corruption and big business domination in St. Louis.

In the turbulent years before World War I Girard, Kansas, was home for The Appeal To Reason, the largest circulation Socialist paper in the United States. In 1914 Oklahoma had more dues paying members of the Socialist Party than any state in the Union. At the same time Joplin elected a former Carpenter's business agent to the office of mayor, on the Socialist ticket.

In Springfield, the most unusual thing about the 1916-17 street car strike was not the strong, unified union action, which was rather typical of any strong, well organized union strike, but rather, the position of the Springfield elected public officials, especially the mayor and the chief of police. Mayor J. J. Gideon was a member of a family with roots all the way back to the Civil War, with many of its members active in the political affairs of Greene, Christian, and Taney counties. Chief of Police Barney Rathbone was the brother of the founder of Rathbone Hardware Store on Commercial Street.

In a choice between supporting the local union workers on strike, or the New England financiers and owners of the Springfield Traction Company, these public officials chose to support the local union workers. The Springfield Traction Company reacted by suing Mayor Gideon and Chief of Police Rathbone for $200,000 damages, charging failure to protect company property. In addition, to effect a final coup d'etat, 3,000 Springfield citizens, centered primarily in the south side business community, signed petitions calling for a recall election to remove Mayor Gideon from office.

At this point the recall election became critical to the success or failure of the street car workers strike. Faced with the adamant refusal of the Traction Company to make any concessions. Striking workers were beginning to lose heart; many were leaving the picket line to find other jobs. Public support was slowly eroding. A slow increase in charges against union members was beginning to show in the court system. A change to hostile city administration would have made continuation of the strike impossible.

As soon as the date for the May, 1917, recall election was set, Charles Wilkerson, vice president of the Molders International Union and a native of Springfield, returned to Springfield, and with Missouri State Federation of Labor President Reuben T. Wood joined Mayor Gideon on the platform as Gideon opened his campaign to stay in office. In the working class districts of Springfield's north side voters rallied in large numbers, and when the votes were counted, Gideon had a 149-vote margin to stay in office.

Faced with a hostile city government, the Traction Company capitulated and agreed to open negotiations with three people representing the company, three representing the union, and three representing the city government. A month later a contract was signed. According to attorney Fred Moon, who was city attorney at the time, one of the provisions of the agreement was that company would drop its $200,000 damage suit against Gideon and Rathbone.

It was fifteen years later that some of these same people were voting to send Reuben T. Wood to Congress.

Other evidence of the rural nature of the American labor movement is the origin of much of the state and national trade union leadership. In addition to Reuben T. Wood and Charles Wilkerson, a graduate of Republic High School is secretary of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. Holding positions as vice president in their respective international unions are Ray Edwards, Jack McCann, Ron Dean, and Lowell Cantrell. Wayne King is AFL-CIO director for the state of Missouri.

What meaning can this hold for us today?

In 1978 the promoters of the Right-to-Work Amendment counted on rural Missouri to pass this anti-labor legislation for them. They miscalculated. Many of these counties gave a two-to-one majority for the union position, against right-to-work. Of the eleven counties in the old Sixth District that sent Wood to Congress, seven voted with the unions.

Today in Southwest Missouri there is a great deal of labor conflict. Union members have been forced to take $2,000 to $4,000 a year cut in pay and purchasing power, unions have been locked out and decertified, and plants are being closed.

Although a large majority of these union workers are from the farms and small rural towns of the Ozark region, there seems to be a widespread lack of sympathy by the general public for these union workers. Instead there is apparent strong support for and commitment to the needs of the industrial and business community. The history of rural Missouri has shown, however, that this is at best tenuous.

In speculating about what might happen today, it is well to remember that in the 1930s the farmers of west-central Missouri, when pushed hard enough, voted for the top labor union official and one of the chief lobbyists for all the unions of Missouri, to be their Representative in Congress.

In closing I would like to have three suggestions that would help throw light on the working class culture of rural Missouri.

The first simply would be to list all of the union organizations in these Ozark counties, much as Jonathan Garlock has listed the Knights of Labor local assemblies. No one in Missouri today has seen such a list, and there is no place to go to get it. In compiling such a list one question that should be considered is whether or not the National Education Association should be considered a working class organization as defined in the concept of a working class culture.

The second would be to do an in-depth study in social-psychology to identify the cultural attitudes, values, and goals of five classes of people: workers who join unions, workers who are opposed to joining unions, workers whose sense of social value is based on upward mobility, entrepreneurs and business owners, and of owners of property. These values are not the same in all groups, and much of today's industrial conflict has at its heart conflicts between these varying cultural values.

And third, I would like to see an aggressive campaign to preserve the records of Missouri trade unions. Generally, working people are not familiar with the nature and purpose of an archival collection. They need to be shown that if their history is to be remembered, the records of their organizations need to be collected and preserved.