Picturing the workers of Kaiser Permanente

posted on August 7, 2013

by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

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“Lena Horne signing autographs for Black shipyard workers at launch of S.S. George Washington Carver,” 1943. Photo by E.F. Joseph.

A version of this article appeared in the Summer 2013 issue of the LMP magazine Hank.

Traditionally, the photographic historical record of an organization usually boils down to a few standard subjects – founder head shots, major buildings, award ceremonies. But a really rich organizational archive also includes images of the ordinary people who work there, those who cumulatively contribute to the operation and impact of businesses large and small.

The mighty Kaiser shipyards during World War II were an unprecedented undertaking during an unprecedented period in U.S. history. Almost 200,000 people came together in those seven West coast yards to stop Fascism and bring their loved ones home from battle. As with any war, even one with broad public support as this one, the government needed media to maintain patriotic participation in the face of hardship and despair. The Office of War Information (1942-1945) was the principal agency responsible for that task. In addition to generating media such as newsreels, posters, and radio (the OWI established the Voice of America in 1942, still the official U.S. government radio agency) they hired photographers.

Previously organized as a photographic unit under the Farm Security Administration in 1939, in 1942 the OWI shifted gears from documenting the agricultural and economic impact of the Great Depression to documenting the Homefront. They took pictures of the country’s mobilization during the early years of the war, concentrating on such topics as industrial production at aircraft factories and shipyards. The combined units produced approximately 1,600 color photographs and about 171,000 black-and-white photographs.

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Janet Doyle (“Wendy Welder”) at the Richmond shipyard in California. February, 1943. Photo by Ann Rosener, courtesy Library of Congress.

Two of those photographers – one, a woman, the other, a Black man from the West Indies – witnessed the crucible of new workers in the Kaiser shipyards. Ann Rosener (1914-2012) was a San Francisco Bay Area local whose OWI assignment included writing and photography. Emmanuel Francis Joseph (?-1979) was born on Saint Lucia, a former French/British colony in the Caribbean. He studied photography and settled in Oakland in 1924, becoming the first professional Black photographer in the Bay Area. Both artists brought a keen eye to the history unfolding in the shipyards and chronicled the working lives of women and people of color. Examples of work by both photographers can be seen at the online archives of the Library of Congress and the New York Public Library. Just this year a major collection of photographs by Emmanuel F. Joseph were acquired by San Francisco State University.

The tradition they began is carried on today, with contract photographer Bob Gumpert documenting the work lives of the frontline staff, managers and physicians who are the backbone of Kaiser Permanente’s Labor Management Partnership. He started his career in 1974 in Harlan County, Kentucky, documenting what turned out to be the last three months of the epic United Mineworker’s strike. Other projects have included producing a traveling exhibition on the conditions of garment workers (1998), serving as contract photographer for the California Department of Industrial Relations, and mounting a text/photo exhibition on “Field Work” at UC Berkeley’s Institute for Research on Labor and Employment (2003). He has documented economic, social and worker issues in a number of countries.

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Ontario (California) Medical Center. Environmental Systems (EVS) department. (L-R) EVS Housekeeping EVS Ruth Gomez. LU 7600; EVS Manager Gary Morganstern. Management; EVS Attendant Louis Migneault. LU 7600; EVS Attendent Maria Gonzalez. LU 7600; EVS Martin Talamantes; and EVS Guillermina Garcia. LU 7600. August 29, 2012. Photo by Bob Gumpert.

Bob’s relationship with the LMP since 2003 has resulted in thousands of photos documenting the work lives of every worker in the KP cosmos – clerks, drivers, doctors, pharmacy technologists, RNs, housekeepers. His photos illustrate all of the LMP’s media, including the quarterly magazine Hank, flyers and posters about the Unit-Based Teams, and the National Agreements. Currently cataloged in a database, these images will eventually serve the same function as those of pioneer documentarians Rosener and Joseph – putting a human face on a dynamic American industry, and representing its workers with dignity and compassion. More of Bob’s photography can be seen at Take A Picture, Tell A Story.

 

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