Henry J. Kaiser and the New Economics of Medical Care

posted on March 13, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Funding for hospital construction may seem like a dry subject.  But it’s vital if you live in a community that doesn’t have adequate facilities for health care.  And that was the situation after the Great Depression and World War II, when hospital construction virtually stopped. In this stirring speech before the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. in 1954, Henry J. Kaiser appealed to the information influencers to promote passage of legislation for building more hospitals. In it, he uttered this bold challenge:

If we can build ships, and planes, and tanks, and guns, and bullets to protect our national security, can we not build hospitals, and clinics to protect the lives of our people?

This podcast explores many of the same themes as this one by Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician, Sidney Garfield, MD: the challenges of providing affordable, quality health care to a population that was new to the concept of a health plan. In this speech, Henry Kaiser artfully engages his audience by pointing out the economic similarities between prepaid health care and print journalism:

Your services are paid for monthly by the subscribers of the thousands of newspapers all over the country.  You offer comprehensive news coverage on a monthly payment basis. We do have that in common.

Health care for the people, a challenge in 1954 as it is today.


Short link to this blog and podcast: http://k-p.li/2FyXXk1

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Slacks, Not Slackers – Women’s Role in Winning World War II

posted on March 8, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Gladys Theus, welder in Kaiser Richmond shipyard #2 who won “fastest welder” contest, 10/15/1944. Photo by E.F. Joseph; courtesy Careth Reid collection.

March 8 – International Women’s Day.

Women played a vital role in the World War II home front. But advancements in workplace equality didn’t come easily. Women faced significant hurdles at the start, and then had to struggle for recognition afterward. Still, women who worked in the Kaiser shipyards helped lay the groundwork for a new era that included, among other advances, greater employment opportunities and child care options.

Breaking Down Employment Barriers

Women were initially excluded from membership in the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America, the largest union in the WWII shipyards and a gateway to employment there. So, on September 8, 1942, women welders and burners, representing hundreds barred from war production jobs in the new Marinship Corporation shipyards at Sausalito, stormed Boilermakers Local No. 6 offices in San Francisco, demanding the right to work. These white women were the first excluded group to win full admission to the Boilermakers Union.

The impact of women going into previously male-dominated occupations was the subject of heated public discussion. Just as they had during World War I, women in industry raised eyebrows as they donned trousers, overalls, and the more modern equivalent – slacks.

As National Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin points out, black women would later be allowed work, but only through a second-tier level of the union, and after black men had gotten jobs.

Medical checkup at Kaiser Oregonship child development center, circa 1944

First Steps for Child Care

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visited the Kaiser Company shipyard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington, on April 5, 1943 to personally launch the new aircraft carrier U.S.S. Casablanca. But Eleanor was more interested in the social programs affiliated with the massive shipbuilding projects, including child care, prepared meals for double-duty women, and health care.

President Roosevelt, at Eleanor’s suggestion, had supported the first government-sponsored child care center in the summer of 1942 under the Lanham Act. But this was private industry. Henry J. Kaiser listened to her and responded by introducing two controversial (at the time) programs for shipyard workers – model child care facilities near two of the shipyards and pre-cooked meals for working moms. These centers at the Kaiser shipyards in Richmond, California, and Portland, Oregon, yielded valuable research results that helped fuel the study of early childhood education for decades after the war.

International Women’s Day – a  time to reflect, a time to plan.


Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2G59epj

The Amazing True Story of Park Ranger Betty Reid Soskin

posted on February 22, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Podcast interview

Betty Reid Soskin is 96 years old yet lives her life with more energy and vitality than many people half her age. Over the course of her eventful life, she has been a staff member for the California legislature, a mother, an artist, a singer and an activist.

In her current role as a park ranger (she is the oldest national park ranger in the country), she gives weekly tours at the Rosie the Riveter World War II National Home Front Park in Richmond, California. Kaiser Permanente, through the Rosie the Riveter Trust, has been a major sponsor and champion of the park, which is the birthplace of our health plan.

In this podcast, Betty talks about her childhood and coming of age in Richmond, working for the union representing the African-American shipyard workers there during World War II, and finding her identity as an African-American woman.

She also shares her admiration for Kaiser Permanente co-founder, Henry J. Kaiser, who she considers to be a “great industrialist” and a man who forged ahead with audacity, both in building ships and creating a health plan for workers.

Path to Employment: African-American Workers in Kaiser Shipyards

posted on February 22, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


Before World War II, shipyards and unions made no special effort to hire women or people of color. But after Pearl Harbor, and all that was required to defend the home front, Henry J. Kaiser immediately understood that a diverse industrial workforce would be essential for defense production as white men went away to war.

By federal law the shipyards were closed shops, and could only employ union members. But the Boilermakers union, the largest of the shipyard unions, would not hire African-Americans as full members.

Kaiser was known for working well with organized labor, but in this situation the union’s hiring policies were an impediment to production. When Kaiser at first tried to hire workers directly without going through the union, he began one of the most fundamental struggles between management and labor during the home front period. At stake was the right of workers to gainful employment regardless of gender or race.

The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America had created a “separate but unequal” membership tier for African Americans in 1937. These were called “auxiliary” unions (the Richmond, California, auxiliary was “A-36”), and limited members’ job opportunities, grievance procedures, and voice in union affairs. By 1942, over 1,500 black workers were working in auxiliaries, but as wartime employment increased so did racial tension over these limitations.

Kaiser shipyard worker hires from New York en route to Portland; The Oregonian 9/30/1942

The first skirmish in this battle took place in Portland, Oregon. Kaiser’s eldest son, Edgar, was in charge of three shipyards there, and he sought help in hiring as many people as he could. He found a responsive official in Anna Rosenberg, the New York regional director of the War Manpower Commission, who authorized the United States Employment Services to support the recruitment of Kaiser’s workers in early September 1942. They signed up at the rate of 400 an hour, then headed west to the Kaiser shipyards in Oakland and Portland areas.

On September 8, 1942, women – the other group affected by the Boilermaker employment policies – were finally allowed to join the Boilermakers after picketing their office in San Francisco.

Tom Ray, secretary and business agent for Portland’s Boilermakers Lodge 72, threatened that the union would “take matters into its own hands” unless Kaiser revoked the promotions of 8 black shipyard workers from common laborers to skilled tradesmen.

The Daily Oregonian on September 30 announced “’Magic Carpet’ Special Bearing Kaiser Crews Approaches Vancouver”:

Out of the east and into the far west rolled the “Henry J. Kaiser magic carpet” tonight, bearing 490 enthusiastic, happy, future shipyard workers from New York, the first contingent of a new movement over the new Oregon trail… [to] the Kaiser shipyard at Vancouver, Washington, where they will work.

Buried in the article was the single mention that “in the train are 30 Negroes.”

Telegram from John P. Frey (president of the American Federation of Labor’s Metal Trades Department) about labor issue involving black workers in Portland yards, 10/22/1942

On that same page was an article about citizens of Portland’s Albina district meeting to “protest further influx of Negroes into the area” and demanding federal housing authorities “halt construction of dormitories for Negro shipyard workers.”

The Boilermakers pushed back for control. Lodge 72 refused to hire the 30 New York black workers except for menial jobs. They complained, and the conflict forced Anna Rosenberg to withdraw USES from Kaiser’s hiring program. After further negotiation, the Boilermakers seemed to consider hiring black workers.

It wasn’t until October 7, 1942, that the Portland Kaiser shipyard and the Boilermakers union agreed to permit black workers to be employed at the shipyards, “…making use of ‘their highest skills’ in all departments.” But that interpretation was up to the union.

The situation proceeded to get uglier.

The Oakland Tribune announced October 21, 1942, “The Henry J. Kaiser Company shipyard at Vancouver, Washington, stood firm today behind a decision to use Negro workers in skilled jobs despite protests by A.F.L. unions.”

By mid-December 1942, resistance mounted. A representative for 150 black shipyard workers at Kaiser’s Vancouver, Washington, yard charged that the auxiliary union represented “downright open discrimination.” In California, 18 black shipyard workers petitioned a federal judge for a permanent injunction restraining the Bechtel’s Marinship yard in Sausalito from discharging them for failure to pay dues to the auxiliary union.

Hamstrung by Boilermaker intransigence, the Oregon Kaiser shipyards were forced to fire more than 300 black workers in July 1943 for refusing to join the auxiliary. The Fair Employment Practices Commission held public hearings and issued a “cease and desist” order, with little result. So, in November 1943, virtually all black workers at Marinship stopped working after the Boilermakers said they would fire 430 black workers for failure to join the auxiliary.

“Pioneer for Union Rights: Joe James, Welder at Marinship, Sausalito, CA” RORI NPS trading card, 2016.

The Marinship workers went to court. The plaintiff was Joseph James, on behalf of himself and 1,000 others. James had claimed that black workers at their shipyard were forced to join the auxiliary union, without gaining union privileges.

Intervention by the Fair Employment Practices Commission resulted in a favorable ruling in early 1944, later upheld by the California Supreme Court. By then, the war, and shipyard production, was almost over.

It’s now 2018. Betty Reid Soskin, the country’s oldest national park ranger who works at the Rosie the Riveter World II Home Front National Historical Park on the site of the bustling Kaiser Richmond shipyards, was a clerk for the all-black Boilermakers Union A-36, and appreciates how the union has come a long way toward correcting past injustices. Today, the union is a major supporter of the park and actively recruits women in the trade.

Kaiser Permanente, Henry J. Kaiser’s sole remaining institutional legacy, follows good business practices in hiring a diverse and inclusive workforce. We are proud to have been part of the struggle to achieve equal opportunity, led by disenfranchised workers eager to do their part for America and supported in that effort by an enlightened business leader – Henry J. Kaiser.


Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2CBP6Ie