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 member of 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 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, Calif., auxiliary was “A36”), 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, Ore. Kaiser’s eldest son, Edgar, was in charge of three Oregon shipyards, 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 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 eight black shipyard workers from common laborers to skilled tradesmen.

The Daily Oregonian on November 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, Wash., 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, Wash., 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, Wash., yard charged that the auxiliary union was “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 fired 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, 3.5×2.5″, 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 FEPC 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. It 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

 

 

Discriminatory Aspects of the Segregated Boilermaker’s Auxiliary Unions

posted on February 22, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

Boilermakers Union A-36 auxiliary, Richmond Calif., circa 1943. Photo by E.F. Joseph, courtesy National Park Service, RORI #686.

Auxiliary unions were a separate-but-unequal tactic by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America to expand membership to black workers. The massive expansion of the industrial workforce during World War II wasn’t the first time the union had to reckon with black workers at their gates; a proposal for the auxiliary concept had been floated at their 1920 national convention, but failed because of light voter turnout. The union’s Executive Council raised it again at the next convention in 1937, where it passed. By 1942, over 1,500 black workers were members. After Pearl Harbor the numbers climbed, eventually reaching more than 12,000.

The first Boilermakers auxiliary was established in Memphis, Tenn. on May 11, 1938.

In the regions where Kaiser operated shipyards, Local A-26 (Oakland, Calif) was established on Feb. 2, 1942; Local A-33 (San Francisco, Calif.) on Jan. 22, 1943, and Local A-36 (Richmond, Calif.) on Feb. 4, 1943. The Portland, Oregon area Local A-42 (Vancouver, Wash.) was established on January 2, 1943.

On November 15 and 16, 1943, the President’s Committee on Fair Employment Practice held hearings on the discriminatory nature of the Boilermakers union auxiliary system, and outlined 10 separate ways that the system hurt African-American workers.

Cover of Boilermakers conference proceedings 1944

Labor scholar Herbert R. Northrup summarized these findings in 1974:

  • Each Negro local was subservient to the nearest White local.
  • The auxiliaries had no democratic participation in the control of the International Brotherhood of the union. In fact, its members were not admitted to the International Brotherhood.
  • Negro locals were denied the right to have business agents. White local agents represented the auxiliaries.
  • Auxiliaries were denied their own grievance committees, having to accept the committee of the nearest white local to which it could send but one representative.
  • A severe limitation was placed upon the ability of the Negro to advance from helper to mechanic; such advancement requiring the approval of the auxiliary, the governing white local, and the International president.
  • Insurance programs paid lower benefits to the Negro, and they could not subscribe to increased insurance as could whites.
  • Negroes were denied the right to transfer except to other auxiliaries.
  • Negro apprenticeships were excluded.
  • Negroes were punished for creating disturbances in lodge rooms; no such restriction appeared in the white by-laws.
  • Negroes were discriminated against due to age; whites could be admitted between 16-70 years of age, while Negroes could be admitted between 16-60 years of age.

Source: Rubin, L., Swift, W. S., & Northrop, H. R. (1974). Negro employment in the maritime industries: A study of racial policies in the shipbuilding, longshore, and offshore maritime industries. University of Pennsylvania Press.

The complete list of findings was earlier published in the “Proceedings of the … Consolidated Convention of the International Brotherhood of Boiler Makers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America, 17th Consolidated Convention,” 1/31/1944-2/9/1944.

Also see: “Path to Employment: African American Workers in Kaiser Shipyards”

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Dust to Dust: Kaiser Oakland Hospital Deconstructed

posted on February 16, 2018

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

 

Kaiser Oakland hospital demolition, Macarthur Boulevard entrance

Just as the country launched its defense effort during World War II, the Permanente Health Plan built a low cluster of buildings on Oakland’s Macarthur Boulevard to serve a growing population of Kaiser shipyard workers. A block of unremarkable buildings, where these workers received remarkable care, will be gone forever by the end of the year.

The original four-story, 70-bed Fabiola hospital was opened August 1, 1942. A year later, a two-story “Unit A” added 54 beds, followed by 120-bed “Unit B” in January 1945. Major remodeling in 1961 sheathed the sprawling low structures (located between Howe Street and Broadway) in aluminum siding for a modern look.

Other expansions followed over the years, culminated by the 12-story hospital tower which opened in 1972. Because this was added within a small footprint of available courtyard space among the low buildings, massive, custom “X-beams” were fabricated and installed.

Oakland Permanente Foundation Hospital, June 1944

The “topping out” ceremony for the tower was a gala affair, with physicians and nurses signing the big steel beams at the top of the building.

I managed to snag a visit to the demolition on a recent tour of the site. Not only did we see the base of the exotic “X-beam,” but we also looked at what appears to be the topping out beam, emblazoned with a bold “KAISER STEEL” logo.

Now, dust returns to dust in the difficult and tedious process of deconstruction. A humble facility that served thousands of home front workers during World War II has completed its mission, and the hospital and specialty care facility across the street has picked up the scalpel.

 

Short link to this article: http://k-p.li/2Ewv7w2

Dropping custom X-beam into Oakland Tower, January 1970

X-beam at ground level of hospital under demolition, 2017

RNs Pat Bayliss and Madeline “Tex” Ruffato signing “topping out” I-beam for Oakland Hospital, 1971

“Topping out” I beam, Oakland hospital, 2017