Joe Cook was the first and only president of Local 1029 from 1936 up until the time of his retirement in the early 1960s. Local 1029 represented employees at Valley Mould and Iron Company, a small plant located on 108th and the Calumet River on the East Side across from Wisconsin Steel. Cook, who was black, was born in 1892 in North Carolina to Mary and George Cook, who had formerly been enslaved. He was forced to leave school after 7th grade to help make ends meet. Cook worked first in a tannery in North Carolina, then as a miner in West Virginia, and, later, in Sharpesville, Pennsylvania at a Valley Mould and Iron foundry where he participated in the 1919 Steel Strike. In 1926, Valley Mould built up a new plant in Southeast Chicago, and Cook along with a handful of experienced co-workers travelled west to help. Cook would remain in Chicago for the rest of his life along with his wife Rosabell.
In 1936, Local 1029 was formed as one of the first locals to affiliate with the CIO union organizing drive in steel, and Cook was elected President. He was highly respected by co-workers as a strong leader and advocate for workers’ rights. According to African-American journalist George Schuyler writing in the Pittsburgh Courier in 1937, Cook was one of only a dozen blacks out of 250 workers at Valley Mould. Schuyler argued that Cook was “not only the elected, but the moral and spiritual leader” of the local. Schuyler contrasted the more inter-racial nature of CIO steel organizing in the 1930s in the Calumet region with that in Pennsylvania, a reality that some attribute to the strength of black organizers in the Calumet. Schuyler noted, “The Ku Klux Klan threatened to run Cook out of town. Immediately the union came and escorted him to the picket line. Not only that but they made the bartender in a saloon serve him although no Negro had ever been served there before.”
George Powers, a white steelworker at neighboring Republic Steel, wrote a booklet entitled, “The Legend of Joe Cook: Union and Community Crusader.” He recounts how in 1937, Cook was present as a sympathy striker during the Memorial Day Massacre at Republic Steel in which ten strikers were killed by city police and over a hundred wounded. When members of his local contemplated violence in retaliation, Cook, reportedly, calmed them and held up a picket sign, calling it the only “weapon” they needed. Powers also tells the story (based on Cook’s coworker Clarence Mabe’s account) of how a superintendent at Valley Mould hurled racial insults after Cook called attention to unsafe working conditions. Cook responded, “You will live to regret what you just said.” He filed a complaint with the newly established National Labor Relations Board and travelled to D.C. for three days of hearings, sleeping for two nights in a train station and munching on dry crackers due to lack of money.
Cook, whose co-unionists described him as a highly energetic and kindly man, also set up relief committees during the Depression. In later years, he was involved in other community civil rights struggles, including the integration of the South Chicago YMCA and local hospital. He also advocated for a public library at which he helped organize a speakers’ series for workers and other community members. Black steelworkers repeatedly nominated Cook for national leadership positions with the United Steelworkers of America union, but with the advent of the Cold War, Cook was considered by leadership to be too far to the left politically.