The State Folklorist’s Notebook is a regular column written by state folklorist Emily Hilliard for Goldenseal magazine. This article appears in the Summer 2021 issue.
When Sterling Ball got back to his hometown of Parkersburg after being discharged from the U.S. Army in 1971, his plan was to buy a motorcycle, grow his hair long, move to California, and become a hippie. He got to step one, but because he had purchased his bike through a loan from the credit union of his employer, Kroger, he needed to keep his job to make his payments. So instead of becoming a hippie, Sterling became a union organizer.
“While working at Kroger, I quickly became what the company referred to as a rabble-rouser,” he says. “I didn’t like how some management was treating the workers, and started to complain. I knew we had a contract, but in that day, no one had a copy, and no one knew how to get a copy, so I wrote to the international union [Food Store Employees Union, now United Food and Commercial Workers] and they sent me a copy.”
Sterling memorized the contract and began studying the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and the Bureau of National Affairs reports on collective bargaining, organizing, and grievance handling. Soon, he was filing grievances on his own of what he thought to be violations of the NLRA. Seeing that Sterling knew his stuff, and to make his grievances legal, the president of Local 347 made Sterling a shop steward.
As he learned more about labor laws, Sterling started organizing other businesses outside of Kroger, helping workers win union contracts at Dils Ford (which he believes was the first auto dealership in the U.S. organized by a non-auto union), a Foodland, and a Food Warehouse. He became a delegate to the Parkersburg Area Labor Council and held meetings at its facility. “Jack Brooks, then president of the local, decided—rather than Kroger firing me [resulting in] me saying something to a company person, let alone getting physical (which I probably would have in that day)—to hire me as a union organizer.”
In his more than 30-year career as an organizer with Local 347, Sterling organized thousands of workers at drugstores, grocery stores, furniture stores, and nursing homes across West Virginia, Kentucky, and Ohio. He’s a compendium of stories from the bargaining table, strike negotiations, and picket lines. Some are brutal, some are funny, and some he will tell only as alleged truths. Most campaigns started legitimately, with the union trying to organize an employer that was competitive with one of its union locations. Others, Sterling organized as a sort of moral payback.
“This restaurant—I was in there eating and this [manager] come over and was giving this waitress down the river in front of us, it was embarrassing. And I stood up and dressed him down. He told me I needed to shut up and if I didn’t like what was going on here I could leave. ‘I don’t want you causing me, quote, any trouble!’ he said. We got out to the car, and I told the other organizer and staff rep, ‘That’s exactly what we’re gonna do. We’re gonna come back, and we’re gonna cause him some trouble.’ So I started a campaign. Next thing I know, I had 95% of the people signed on cards, and we won the election, tried to get a contract, didn’t work, we ended up on strike. When we got to the election part of it, [the manager] said, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ I said, ‘Yeah, about probably two months ago, I was eating in your restaurant and you told me if I didn’t like things, to quit causing you trouble, to leave. Well, that’s why I’m here, friend.’”
In 1996, Sterling was elected Local 347 president, also serving as president of the Parkersburg Area Labor Council and as a member of the West Virginia University Labor Association Executive Board. He’s written numerous labor poems and songs; some were sung on the picket line during UFCW strikes and the Ravenswood Lockout. Despite all of this, when asked about his proudest accomplishments (and he’s reluctant to even call it “pride”) are those he shared with his union brothers and sisters. “It’s things that we did together. First by our membership supporting us, and secondly by the staff that I had being as dedicated as I am to serving members and doing what they needed to do.”
For him, this was exemplified in the changes that he and his staff brought to the local to make it more member oriented. In particular, he updated the Local 347 newsletter to include member profiles and recognition of shop stewards and the executive board. As a result of that shift, attendance at regular meetings picked up. He’s also proud of the union picnic he organized at Camden Park in West Huntington in 1997, which he made free for all 347 members, costing the union about $40,000. “I kind of got in trouble with the regional director and some other local union presidents [about that],” Sterling chuckles. “To this day, I don’t regret that at all. I think that keeping members strong, protecting them, doing something nice for the membership—that’s important.” While Local 347 has since merged with Local 400, Sterling is committed to preserving the history of 347 by personally archiving its newsletters, photos, stories, and related materials.
Though he retired in 2002, Sterling still considers himself that radical rabble-rouser he was back in 1971. At Sterling’s last union board meeting, the new UFCW president remarked, “I know one thing, he’s too ornery and he’s too radical to go away. He’ll always be there, and so he’s probably always gonna be a spur in some company’s butt!” Through the course of his career, Sterling always looked to heroes of past labor struggles. “As far as inspiration to organize and unite our members together, I think the Mine Wars were one of the best examples that the labor movement ever had in terms of solidarity.” He also cites John L. Lewis and Eugene V. Debs as important role models.
On the future of the labor movement, Sterling shares this wisdom, “If we don’t change from the top down, I hate to think that Eugene V. Debs is not gonna be right. First off, we need to change the image to the worker. The other thing I really strongly believe in is that the labor movement isn’t organizing like they should. You’ve got to go out and reach out to those that are non-union. They need our help. We’ve GOT to quit turning our back on these non-union workers. And the leadership has to recognize that the membership is the only reason that we have a union to begin with. The old cliché ‘the members are the union’ is just as true today as it ever, ever, ever was.”