Kentucky ‘Rock of Labor’ memorial survives tornado, symbolizing workers’ resolve
Berry Craig

The powerful tornado that ravaged Mayfield, Ky., 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. Yet, 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.

“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 an estimated 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” placement on the courthouse lawn.

Kentucky State AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Jeff Wiggins, also a Steelworker, sees symbolism in the Rock’s resilience. “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 chainsaws 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.

Wiggins, who now lives in Frankfort, Ky., has been back in his native neck of the woods of Mayfield, teaming up with consultant Jerald Adkins, 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 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.”

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

If you want to help union members in need because of the tornado, click here.


Berry Craig
Berry Craig

Lifelong Kentuckian Berry Craig is an emeritus professor of history at West Kentucky Community and Technical College in Paducah and a freelance writer. He is a member of American Federation of Teachers Local 1360, recording secretary for the Western Kentucky AFL-CIO Area Council, webmaster-editor for the Kentucky State AFL-CIO, and a member of the state AFL-CIO Executive Board. His ninth book on the history of his state, “Kentuckians and Pearl Harbor: Stories from the Day of Infamy,” was published by the University Press of Kentucky in November 2020.