Posts Tagged ‘discrimination’

Henry J. Kaiser confronts labor practice of “colored laborers in bondage”

posted on February 12, 2015

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer


The Mississippi River flood of 1927 has been called “the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States,” and major efforts were launched in the following years to rebuild levees. The Warren Brothers contracting firm invited Henry J. Kaiser’s company to share in a minor portion of the extensive levee repair and maintenance work between Tennessee and Mississippi.

At first Kaiser hoped to use his powerful LeTourneau earthmoving machinery, but the Mississippi mud stuck to the equipment in a most uncooperative manner. The project ended using human and animal labor, which frustrated Henry Kaiser’s “get things done quickly” style. But accepting the forces of nature and people would be a good lesson for his road-building projects in Cuba from 1928 to 1930.

Kaiser Le Tourneau earth movers

LeTourneau heavy construction equipment at Philbrook Dam (near Paradise, Calif.) circa 1926.

Working in the South was uncomfortable for Henry Kaiser for ethical reasons as well. He was an unconventional employer who believed that “labor relations were nothing more than human relations” and was one of the most progressive industrial leaders of his time regarding equal treatment of women and people of color. Those values were challenged during this contract.

Leonard Blaikie, labor writer for the Oakland Tribune, wrote this vignette for a special insert on the opening of the Ordway Building (currently the main headquarters of Kaiser Permanente) on Feb. 28, 1971. Alonzo Benton (“A.B.”) Ordway was Henry J. Kaiser’s first employee and longtime and trusted operations manager.

Kaiser and Ordway ran into another practice which went against their grain while building small levees along the Mississippi River, between Memphis and Natchez, in the late 1920s. In addition to lacking the right equipment for the job, Ordway said they found they were at a disadvantage because they believed in paying their laborers their hourly wages in cash.

“Most of the Southern contractors, to all intents and purposes, held the colored laborers in bondage,” he explained.

“By this I mean the workers had to purchase all food and supplies on credit from the contractors at prices higher than the going rates. Therefore, the labor costs for the Southern contractor were nowhere near ours.

“None of us liked the area and we were glad to get out in 1929.”


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Breast cancer isn’t just a woman’s issue

posted on October 8, 2014

Lincoln Cushing
Heritage writer

Kaiser Permanente physician Monte Gregg Steadman (1921-2010) enjoyed a prestigious career as an outstanding head and neck surgeon and teacher. Throughout this conventional career, he also struggled against conformity, militarism, and prejudice in many ways, and made his mark as a committed humanitarian as well.


“Breast cancer isn’t just a woman’s issue” poster, 2005

For a former military physician and athletic male who had played football at UCLA, perhaps being tackled by a potentially fatal disease revealed his bravery best. In 1966, Steadman was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a radical mastectomy, which he wryly noted “Ended his chance to be a world-class handball champion.”

This 2005 poster featuring Dr. Steadman was a stunning public education message about the disease few men think will affect them; that warning still rings true.

Confronting and overcoming obstacles

In 1954, when he was appointed chief of Head and Neck Surgery at the new Kaiser Permanente hospital on Geary Street in San Francisco, he was denied membership in the SF County Medical Society because he worked at KP. “It was felt at the time that we were a threat to private practice,” he later said.

In 1969, he met and mentored a young plastic surgery resident at Stanford Medical Center, Dr. Robert Pearl, now the executive director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group. TPMG’s 8,000 physicians serve KP in all of Northern California. Steadman retired from Kaiser in 1982.

An item in the December, 1959 staff newsletter KP Reporter described another way in which he defied conventional norms:

Drs. Monte Steadman and John E. Hodgekiss came down from San Francisco to help us out in ENT clinic. Dr. Steadman’s method of transportation fascinated us to no end as he arrived on his dashing motorcycle equipped with crash helmet and suede jacket. Behind him rode his briefcase and necessary charts, neatly tied to the seat with nylon cord. Ah, how wonderful it is to be young!

Dr. Steadman was equally outspoken about social injustice. In 1962 his strong anti-war beliefs drew him and two other men to sail into an atomic test zone off Johnson Island in the Pacific Ocean in an attempt to stop the test and draw international attention to nuclear disarmament.

The following year a KP Reporter article described further his commitment to social change:

Dr. Monte Steadman at KP SF, KP Reporter May 1963.

Dr. Monte Steadman at KP SF, KP Reporter, 1963.

Dr. Monte Steadman, of ENT at Geary, appeared on TV station KQED recently. As a speaker on the program “Dissent,” he urged society to reject force and violence whose use we freely condemn in our enemies. He praised the Negroes of the South who, with their Northern supporters, are resisting injustice without retaliating in kind for the mindless violence done to them.

We salute the fearless physicians like Dr. Steadman who have contributed to the mission of Kaiser Permanente, which exists to “provide high-quality, affordable health care services and to improve the health of our members and the communities we serve.”

Kaiser Permanente continues to be a leader in tackling breast cancer, especially early detection. In 2012 the National Committee for Quality Assurance reported that KP breast cancer screening rates for women were the best among health care providers in all the regions KP served.


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