George L. Berry was president of the Tennessee-based International Pressmen's and Assistants Union (1907-48), a prominent labor leader and advisor who served on several New Deal labor committees during the 1930s, and U.S. senator from Tennessee (1937-38). Born in Lee Valley, Hawkins County, on September 12, 1882, Berry was self-educated and became independently wealthy and politically influential through hard work and perseverance. Fatherless at the age of three, he worked at a variety of jobs, both within and outside the printing industry, before his election as president of the International Printing Pressmen's and Assistants Union (IPPAU) at the age of twenty-five.
As IPPAU president, Berry took the struggling union with its small membership and barren treasury and made it a successful and influential labor organization. By the time of his death in 1948, the IPPAU had a membership of eighty-six thousand and assets of nearly five million dollars. A major part of Berry's legacy as president was the construction of the Pressmen's Home, Sanitarium, and Technical Trade School for printers near Rogersville.
Berry's reputation and influence extended beyond the IPPAU. As a member of the American Federation of Labor, he served on several national committees and for a brief time as executive officer of the union. In 1913, after a trip to Europe at the invitation of European labor leaders, he published a book, Labor Conditions Abroad. In 1918 President Woodrow Wilson named him as a liaison to his staff at the Versailles Peace Conference.
A lifelong Democrat with an interest in politics, he sought both elected and appointed office. He ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in Tennessee in 1914, competed for the Democratic vice-presidential nomination in 1924, and headed the party's labor division during the presidential campaigns of 1924 and 1928. During the 1930s Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed him to a number of New Deal labor committees established under the National Industrial Recovery Act, including the coal arbitration board, cotton textile board, and National Labor Board.
In 1936 Berry headed Labor's Non-Partisan League, which proved influential in securing Roosevelt's reelection. In 1937 he was appointed to the U.S. Senate by Governor Gordon Browning to complete the term of Nathan Bachman, who had died in office. As senator, Berry supported the cause of labor, but broke with Roosevelt over personal and political issues. In 1938 he campaigned as an anti-Roosevelt candidate and lost in the Democratic primary for senator.
Following his brief tenure in the Senate, Berry continued to head the IPPAU and speak and write publicly about cooperation between labor and management. In 1946 Berry incurred serious financial and legal problems as a result of back taxes owed the Internal Revenue Service. Subsequent investigations by congressional labor committees questioned his leadership and handling of union funds, although such inquiries stopped short of outright condemnation of his leadership. Berry died of a gastric hemorrhage on December 4, 1948, in Pressmen's Home.