In the face of the tornado, the Rock of Labor stood strong

Berry Craig
Berry Craig

The powerful tornado that ravaged Mayfield on the night of Dec. 10 left the 1880s-vintage Graves County courthouse in shambles, tearing away the cupola and most of the second floor.

But the “Rock of Labor,” a 14-year-old rough-hewn brown sandstone memorial to old United Steelworkers Local 665, weathered the violent storm that scourged western Kentucky and left 21 people dead in Mayfield and Graves County.

“The ‘Rock of Labor’ stood for the people that worked at General Tire,” said Wayne Chambers, the local’s last vice president. “We survived a plant closing, and the ones of us that are still here survived this natural disaster."

General Tire and Rubber, an American company, started the plant in 1960, but ultimately sold it to Continental, one of the world’s largest tire makers. “Continental, based in Hanover, Germany, has been cutting costs by moving production of tires and car parts to countries where wages are lower,” Bloomberg News reported in 2004.

At one time, the Mayfield factory provided jobs for about 2,200 union and 400 salaried employees.

Continental gradually shut the plant down, with all operations ceasing in 2007. Afterwards, the county government approved the "Rock of Labor's" placement on the courthouse lawn.

Kentucky State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Wiggins, also a Steelworker, sees symbolism in the Rock's resilience, too. “That rock shows that unions are rooted in solid ground,” said Wiggins, who has been friends with Chambers for many years. “You’re not going to move us. We’ll always be there.”

The tornado toppled a large tree onto the monument. But when workers used chain saws to cut away the debris, they discovered that the Rock was virtually undamaged. “When I heard about the tornado hitting the courthouse, I said to my wife, ‘I wonder if that rock is still there?’” recalled Wiggins, who lives in Reidland, a Paducah suburb.

Wiggins, headquartered in Frankfort, has been back in his native neck of the Kentucky woods, teaming up with consultant Jerald Adkins of Frankfort to survey and record storm damage and to help coordinate union relief efforts.

“A lot of union volunteers are helping bring truckloads of food and other needed supplies down to Mayfield and other communities the tornado hit,” he said.

Workers voted to bring in the union shortly after the General Tire plant opened, manufacturing car and truck tires, mainly for auto makers in Detroit. Local 665 was part of the United Rubber Workers until the URW merged with the Steelworkers.

Wiggins was president of the Paducah-based Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council when he worked with Chambers and Terry Beane, Local 665's final president, to get the memorial established. Union memorials are rare on courthouse lawns in Kentucky and elsewhere.

The 3,000-pound, rectangular “Rock of Labor” occupies the northeast corner of the court square.

Chambers lined up a Mayfield monument company to engrave the stone. “ROCK OF LABOR,” the inscription reads. “IN HONOR OF THE MEMBERS OF UNITED STEELWORKERS LOCAL-665 SOLIDARITY FOREVER.”

Vowed Wiggins, “That rock withstood a tornado, and we will withstand the right-wing war on labor.”

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Want to help union members in need because of the tornado?  Click here.

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Berry Craig

Berry Craig is a professor emeritus of history at West KY Community College, and an author of seven books and co-author of two more. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)


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