By Jennifer Rice
STREATOR — Its been said that in a lifetime, people have a ripple effect — the ability to knowingly or unknowingly touch the lives of those around you.
For Reuben G. Soderstrom, his ripple effect was expediential. This Labor Day weekend, people will see first hand Soderstrom’s ripple effect when they descend upon Streator to honor the man, who for decades, persevered for labor, unions and fought for the common man.
Reuben G. Soderstrom was one of Illinois’ most foremost labor leaders. He was the former President of the Illinois State Labor Federation from 1930 to 1958 and former President of the Illinois AFL-CIO from 1958 until his death in 1970.
A giant in the United States labor movement, Soderstrom lead the largest organized state from his offices in Springfield and Chicago through the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Era. His 1.3 million-strong constituency was a coveted voting bloc in statewide and national elections, and his legislative achievements in Illinois were formidable models for national policies adopted by the administrations of Roosevelt, Kennedy and Johnson.
Soderstrom lived in Streator for 70 years and will be honored there this Labor Day weekend with a plaza featuring a statue of Soderstrom. The statue, which will be erected in Streator’s city park, is in area where he used to speak and located two blocks away from his former home.
The monument will be dedicated Sunday, Sept. 2 in Streator. First, there will be a parade at noon, with the dedication to follow at 1:30 p.m. and special guests speakers such as Illinois AFL-CIO President Michael Carrigan. There also will be a picnic for all guests.
Soderstrom fought for child labor laws and later, as a State Representative, he passed original laws to help the impoverished working masses and elevated them to the great middle class.
He had a hand in eliminating child labor and encouraging higher education. He also fought for the 8-hour workday and 5-day workweek. Workmans’ compensation also was passed for the first time — allowing for monetary help to workers injured on the job.
The eldest grandson of Soderstrom, Carl W. Soderstrom, MD, is collaborating with author Chris M. Stevens to bring the life of the elder Soderstrom to print. Forty Gavels is a work-in-progress that will recount the life of Soderstrom. The name of the book hails from the fact that Soderstrom proudly earned and treasured 40 gavels – one for every year he served as president of organized labor in Illinois.
“A slew of labor laws were passed and my grandfather either wrote them, changed them or supported them. The middle class came on the backs of people like him, who suffered through child labor. He made it possible so millions of people could have a better life,” Carl W. Soderstrom said.
The statue that will make its permanent home in Streator has been in the works for more than two years and will depict Soderstrom holding a gavel in his left hand. World famous sculpture Lonnie Stewart created the statue from 65 different pictures of Soderstrom. There will be 12 Soderstrom quotes on plaques located around the statue.
The pose was inspired from a photograph of Reuben standing in the back of a pickup while speaking in Mendota in 1920, campaigning with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Inspiration also came from a photo of Reuben holding a gavel during a convention.
“The tradesmen and women who are giving their time and efforts to build this monument is really an important message,” said the Carl W. Soderstrom. “It’s a wonderful culmination of Reuben’s contribution to the city of Streator as well as to the entire state and country,” he added.
Giving back to Reuben G. Soderstrom’s legacy in the best way they know how, Marseilles Laborers’ Local 393, along with other La Salle County unions, are donating their time, equipment and manpower to complete the monument and plaza.
“This man was a hero to labor,” said former Laborers’ Local 393 Business Manager David Raikes.
Reuben G. Soderstrom’s name is at the top of Illinois’ labor leader list, and this Labor Day weekend — he will be honored forever.
Jennifer Rice’s e-mail address is Jen@foxvalleylabornews.com.