Obituary: Frank Cedervall, 94, union orator

Frank Cedervall in 1978
Frank Cedervall in 1978

A 1996 obituary of Frank Cedervall, an organizer for the IWW involved in the union's efforts around Cleveland and Detroit during the 1930s.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on May 29, 2016

Frank R. Cedervall was walking through Public Square one day in the early 1930s, when he saw a woman perched on a platform lauding the work of unions.

Mr. Cedervall's wife, Jennie, said the soap boxer's name and the specifics of her speech have dulled with time, but not the impact her message had on her husband. A few years after hearing her, Mr. Cedervall and his younger brother, Tor, would be the chief union organizers in Cleveland for the Industrial Workers of the World . It was in this capacity, that Mr. Cedervall, of Willoughby, distinguished himself as a "soap boxer."

Throughout union circles, his oratorical gifts proved legendary.

In a March 1995 "Esquire" magazine article on Jimmy Hoffa, the former Teamster head is quoted as having said he learned some of his speechmaking skills from Mr. Cedervall: "I was with the IWW, and I followed Frank Cedervall around and learned how to make speeches from him. You spoke on a table top in a park, and you had to holler loud enough to be heard."

Mr. Cedervall, 92, died Monday at LakeWest Hospital in Willoughby.

Born Frans Reinhold Cedervall in Sweden, he lived there and in Norway and England before immigrating to the United States at 12.

The height of his organizing efforts were in the 1930s, when he and Tor, who died in 1989, helped make Cleveland an IWW stronghold with a peak membership of 3,000.

Even after his organizing days were long over, Mr. Cedervall remained a soap boxer, whether it was addressing antiwar protest rallies of the 1960s or joining student protesters at Kent State University in 1977 demonstrating against a gym being built on the site where students were slain in 1970.

Even into his twilight years, Mr. Cedervall continued to bill himself as the "Last Great Soap Box Orator."
"Being a soap boxer was in his blood," said Mr. Cedervall's daughter, Patricia Lewis of Willoughby. "He kept thinking there was always some shop we [the union] could organize," she said.

Lewis said union organizing - especially speechmaking - was like religion to her father, who described himself as an "unattached radical."

"He was more or less an agnostic, so he believed in making heaven on earth, instead of an afterlife," she said. "He had a dream of making life better for people. He saw unions as a way of doing this."

But organizing for Industrial Union 440, the IWW local, proved to be anything but heavenly for the Cedervall brothers.

Most notable was the charwomen's strike of 1935, in which the IWW attempted to organize female custodial workers at Terminal Tower. For more than five months, 80 women walked the picket line in a protest that proved especially violent.

As the Cedervall brothers left union headquarters one day during the strike they were ambushed and beaten by a mob they said had been sent by the custodial workers' bosses. Tor Cedervall ended up hospitalized after the bloody encounter.

Despite their efforts, the Cedervalls were not successful in organizing the women.

The Cedervalls also endured several legal battles during their years of organizing. Frank Cedervall was acquitted in 1935 of a blackmail charge related to his organizing efforts at National Screw & Manufacturing Co. He had been accused of threatening a company employee with personal injury if she did not join the IWW.

By 1938, Mr. Cedervall decided to curtail his work in Cleveland.

"After seven years of being beaten up and kicked around, I left active IWW work," he said in an interview for a local magazine article in 1980. "But I always kept up my membership."

Still, his legacy remained.

Roy T. Wortman, a Kenyon College professor whose doctoral thesis was on the IWW in Ohio, said part of the reason the Cedervalls were successful in Cleveland was that they were able to merge the union's idealistic roots of "one big union of all the workers" with practical "bread and butter" issues.

A plasterer by trade for 65 years, Mr. Cedervall spent much of the 1940s as a business agent in Detroit for the Plasterer's Union. He was a member of the Operative Plasterers and Cement Masons, Local Union 80, in Cleveland for more than 50 years.

Mr. Cedervall plastered many private homes and commercial buildings, including the Fox Theater in Detroit. He later started and ran Willoughby Plastering Service.

In addition to his wife of 63 years and daughter, his survivors include two sisters.

Services will be at 11 a.m. tomorrow at Davis Funeral Home, 4154 Clark Ave., Willoughby.

Originally appeared in the Cleveland Plain Dealer (June 28, 1996)