Valentine Kenney Webster literally grew up in the Women's Protective Union. At age four, she accompanied her mother and other WPU members to the funeral of Frank Little, the union organizer who was infamously lynched during the Butte miners strike in 1917.
Born to Irish immigrants in Butte in 1913, Val left school once the Great Depression hit and washed dishes at the Silver Bow Cafe. She joined the WPU in 1929, at age 16.
Webster later worked as a cook and waitress at the Union Grill on Park Street, a 24-hour restaurant catering to the many single miners in Butte. The restaurant served meals in-house and also provided miners with “bucket lunches” to take to work.
The restaurant prepared buckets for as many as 500 miners a day. Contents typically included two meat sandwiches (not cheese or egg, but beef, pork, or ham), cake, pie, fruit and coffee or tea.
For many single miners, a favored restaurant became like a second home. Newly arrived and grateful miners relied on the restaurant to stake them until their first paycheck, and tipped the restaurant workers accordingly on payday.
Early on, learning from her mother, Webster was devoted to the WPU and enjoyed the camaraderie of the young members who felt like they had a say in creating a protected work environment. After union meetings, they went to Gamer’s Cafe for ice cream or to the Lockwood Cafe.
By 1936, in awe of the union’s ability to enforce its will in the workplace, Webster became recording secretary for the WPU’s Executive Board. Married to a miner but without children, she eventually took on the labor-intensive position of Business Agent, a paid staff position which she held for 16 years.
Webster was a big believer in the informal approach to problem-solving. If a particular employer was a source of problems, she liked to sit over a cup of coffee and work things out.
With only minimal formal education, Webster was involved with the WPU for more than 50 years, serving in every office. She had a lasting impact on the women she was dedicated to serving. She also lived long enough to witness the decline of unions in Butte, including the WPU. Webster died in 1983 at the age of 80.