, Heritage writer
Can heavy industry be a good neighbor? That was one of the challenges facing the Kaiser Steel plant in Fontana, California, in 1972.
Steel for shipbuilding and other industries was in heavy demand during World War II, and no integrated mills (those capable of all phases of steel production, from making iron through rolling shapes) existed on the West Coast.
Henry J. Kaiser was a man of action, so he built a state-of-the-art plant in then-rural Fontana, 55 miles inland from Los Angeles. It fired up its first blast furnace, “Bess No. 1” (named after Kaiser’s wife), on December 30, 1942, and boasted numerous technologies to reduce air and water pollution.
Additional steps were taken over the years to be a model facility, but the plant struggled to adopt increasingly stringent environmental safeguards as the surrounding community developed.
The first national “Earth Day” in 1970 was an indicator of increased national environmental consciousness, and community relations with the steel mill grew tense.
In February 1972 the United Steelworkers of America Local No. 2869 started a 43-day strike that shut down the sprawling facility. Implementing Henry J. Kaiser’s famous proclamation that “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes,” management saw the situation as a way to help dispel one of their most persistent criticisms – Kaiser Steel’s perceived role as the primary source of local air pollution. They embarked on a project to document Fontana’s skies when the “variable” of an operating steel mill was absent.
Here is the explanatory text from the 32-page booklet, Aerial Photographs During the Strike, published by Kaiser Steel immediately following the work stoppage:
And The Smog Stayed On
Even though virtually all authorities agree that less than 15 percent of photochemical smog comes from stationary sources, it is often contended that the elimination of industrial plants in San Bernardino County would make a dramatic reduction in the area’s air pollution problem. Kaiser Steel was recently placed in the position where the results of such an action could be observed.
A strike idled the Fontana Plant beginning February 1, 1972. It brought to a halt all production from the blast furnaces, open hearths, oxygen furnaces, and rolling mills.
During the first three weeks of the strike, aerial photographs were taken to record atmospheric conditions in the vicinity of the Fontana Plant. Of course, this is the clearest time of the year and there were many days, and particularly mornings, of good visibility and little or no photochemical smog. On the other hand, most of the days there was a very visible bank of photochemical smog in the area, much of which appeared to be brought by afternoon winds from the west.
This booklet is a collection of pictures taken during the first three weeks of the strike. While it is not possible to make exact comparisons for any given day, it is evident that even with the steel mill shut down, the area suffered some of its worst smog for this time of year.
California author Mike Davis, in his critical book City of Quartz, noted Kaiser Steel’s strike-based environmental documentation in the chapter “Fontana: Junkyard of Dreams” and made these observations:
Many ex-steelworkers still vehemently believe that the Kaiser pollution scare was purposely manufactured by developers who regarded the plant—smog-spewing or not—as a huge negative externality to residential construction in the Cucamonga-Fontana area.
As San Bernardino County’s West End fell under the “urban shadow” of Los Angeles and Orange County, developable property values came into increasing conflict with the paycheck role of the mill as leading local employer.
Inevitably the pollution debate reflected these divergent material interests.
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By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
The Kaiser Foundation Health Plan’s first beachhead in Southern California was a modest hospital for workers at the Fontana Steel Mill.
The plant was built by Henry J. Kaiser in 1942 as the first West Coast source of the rolled steel plates needed to build Liberty and Victory ships for World War II.
After the war the Health Plan in Fontana went public, and with the strong support of labor unions like the Retail Clerks International Union and the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union it began to grow throughout the region.
The first facility outside of Fontana was established in Harbor City in 1950 when the entire West Coast ILWU signed up for the plan.
The next year the Retail Clerks International Union signed on and facilities were founded in Los Angeles, at an inauspicious clinic on La Cienega Boulevard; the state-of-the-art Permanente Foundation Hospital on Sunset Boulevard would not be built until 1953.
On January 1 of that year 13 physicians signed the Southern California Permanente Medical Group’s first Partnership Agreement with Raymond Kay, MD, as Medical Director.
Special thanks to Cathy Romero, Communications Production Specialist, Pasadena, for providing the Heritage Resources archive with scans of the Southern California Planning for Health newsletters.
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by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Kaiser Permanente has often been an early adopter of technologies which reduce pollution – from cleaner steel mill stacks in Fontana to cleaner fleet vehicles in San Francisco.
By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Garfield’s design of ‘dream hospital’ features unconventional and efficient layout
1953 was a big year for expansion in Kaiser Permanente. The fledgling Health plan opened state-of-the-art hospitals in three communities – Los Angeles and Fontana in Southern California and Walnut Creek in Northern California.
The Los Angeles Medical Center (on Sunset Boulevard) was the first to open, on June 16, 1953. The dream hospital design was inspired by Kaiser Permanente founding physician Sidney Garfield who worked with architect of record George M. Wolff.
The new hospitals debuted the concept of separate corridors for visitors and staff. Visitors could enter a patient room from an outside walkway, staying out of the way of busy medical staff moving along the interior corridor.
Garfield’s design called for decentralized nursing stations with one for every four rooms (one nurse per eight patients) instead of one per floor. Patient rooms had an individual lavatory with hot, cold, and iced water.
The futuristic concept of the “baby in a drawer” – a sliding bassinet that let a tired mom pass her newborn through for care in the nursery – was also introduced in the 1953 dream hospitals.
LA Times touted new medical center
The Los Angeles Times gushed about the $3 million facility, describing it as “sorely needed.” It also noted: “The Kaiser Hospital, operated by the non-profit Foundation, is open to the public, a fact not generally known. In addition to Health Plan patients, it also accepts private patients and charity patients referred by social welfare agencies.”
But that public aspect did not sit well with the Southern California medical establishment whose members resisted the arrival of prepaid, group practice medicine. The next month the Los Angeles County Medical Association sent out a questionnaire to its members with the header caption “This is the most important notice ever sent to you by the LACMA.”
Medical association resisted group practice
The cover page made clear the medical association’s concerns:
“Points have been raised as to whether this (Kaiser Permanente) is really a corporation practicing medicine, whether the ‘captive’ patients of the plan forced to join by their union is good for the welfare of the people, whether the patients receive adequate medical care, whether it is proper for a layman to control physicians, etc.”
Opposition reached a fever pitch in August 1953 when Paul Foster, MD, president of the medical association, condemned the Kaiser Permanente program as “unethical.”
These were difficult times for the fledgling Permanente group. The successful practice of high-quality medicine in gleaming new facilities like Sunset eventually wore down the opposition. By 1960, the local medical society attacks on the program had come to an end.
Opening a Prepaid Health Plan to the Public 65 Years Ago this Month, Kaiser Permanente Begins Its Post-World War II Lifeposted on July 22, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Sixty-five years ago this month the curtain was about to fall on the dreadful years of World War II, and Dr. Sidney R. Garfield and industrialist Henry J. Kaiser were raising the curtain on their plans to expand their prepaid Permanente Foundation Health Plan—later renamed Kaiser Foundation—beyond Kaiser’s employees to the general public.
So it was, in July 1945, that they announced that the “first large extension of the family health plan” beyond Kaiser workers would be in Vallejo, California, about 30 miles northeast of San Francisco.
The idea of going to Vallejo with a Kaiser Foundation Health Plan and Hospital resulted from a grassroots invitation from citizens there—a sort of populist request for prepaid medical care. That should come as no surprise. The new medical care program—nicknamed “a Mayo Clinic for the common man” by one writer of the era—had been a hit with workers in the wartime Kaiser Shipyards in nearby Richmond and was getting nationwide media notice.
“I don’t see why this can’t be done everywhere, for everyone,” said one shipyard worker. “This should be for everybody,” added another. “We must organize and demand this not only for us workers but for all their families. It should be for everybody in America.”
Against that backdrop, Kaiser Permanente was invited to town by a tenants’ council of the Vallejo Housing Authority to provide care for residents of eight large wartime public housing dormitories. A doctor was assigned to each dormitory and a clinic was set up within an existing public health service infirmary.
Meanwhile, with the cooperation of local physicians, a citizen’s committee had unraveled wartime bureaucracies to get the government-sponsored Vallejo Community Hospital opened in 1944. It was needed because the Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo and the nearby Benicia Arsenal ordnance facility had drawn thousands of wartime civilian workers. The city’s few doctors had been swamped by a flood of new patients.
However, with the war ending, the government was no longer willing to support a community hospital. The military-style facility—long, low buildings spread over 30 acres—closed after the war ended in August, leaving thousands of civilian families without medical care.
Before long, the not-for-profit Kaiser Foundation Health Plan needed a full service hospital in Vallejo. So, on April 1, 1947, Kaiser Permanente re-opened the 250-bed Vallejo Community Hospital as its own, having first leased it as surplus property from the Federal Works Agency. Later, it bought the hospital at the site where Kaiser Permanente’s Vallejo Medical Center remains to this day.
“This…marks the beginning of efforts now underway by the Kaiser organization to offer Permanente Foundation facilities to all groups interested in complete prepaid medicine,” the July 1945 announcement read. The existing facilities were those on the Home Front of World War II serving Henry Kaiser’s shipyards and steel mill. They were in Richmond, Oakland, and Fontana in California and in Vancouver in Washington state.
A few days later, Clyde F. Diddle, administrator of the Oakland Medical Center, told the San Francisco Chronicle that the Oakland hospital was being opened to the public under four principles: prepayment, group medical practice, adequate facilities, and “a new medical economy.”
“This ‘new economy,’ strongly opposed in part by some factions favoring the traditional family physician-patient relationship, follows the old Chinese practice of paying the physician while you are well,” the Chronicle said.
Added Diddle, “We offer medical service from nasal spray to surgery—and all under one roof. The important thing is that there are no barriers to early treatment. …Patients are encouraged to come in early…”
The Chronicle article also reported that Henry Kaiser was preparing a proposal for Congress to establish a nationwide system of voluntary prepaid medical care. This would be the first of many continuing efforts to support Sidney Garfield’s dream of health care for all Americans that have continued to the present day.
These historic events are honored today by the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, which includes historic sites of the wartime medical care program. Notes National Park Service interpretative materials: “Today, prepaid medical care is central to American culture—it is a legacy of the WWII Home Front.”
Forecasts in 1945 projected eventually serving about 25,000 people in Vallejo. Today, the Vallejo Medical Centers serves about 10 times that number in California’s Napa and Solano counties alone. The entire Kaiser Permanente multi-state program serves 8.6 million members.
The “official” date for Kaiser Permanente’s opening to the public became Oct. 1, 1945, but the work got under way in earnest starting in July.
Henry Kaiser’s Respect for People of All Races Dates from African-American Worker Who Was One of First Employees Ever Hiredposted on June 15, 2010
By Tom Debley
Director of Heritage Resources
Little Edgar Kaiser, 5, would call out to a gregarious black laborer named James A. Shaw with those words.
Jimmy Shaw would hoist the lad up onto his shoulders and carry the boy, all the while raking asphalt on a road-building project for Edgar’s father, Henry J. Kaiser.
The year was 1913. The site was a work camp where the toddler would often live, sleeping in a car or a tent, with his parents, Henry and Bess Kaiser. Little Edgar’s affection for riding on Shaw’s shoulders, calling out “Tote, Tote!” when he’d see Shaw, earned Jimmy the nickname “Tote,” or sometimes “Totem,” for the rest of his life.
This was in the early years of Henry Kaiser’s fledgling road-building business—long before he became the great 20th century industrialist who gained fame building highways, dams, and World War II ships.
And Totem Shaw’s story, as recorded in historic archives, helps shed light on both Henry and Edgar Kaiser’s later reputations as businessmen who understood the value of workforce diversity and, in their personal lives, moved beyond racial divides decades before the rest of the country.
Born in 1879, Shaw was not quite two years older than Henry J. and represents the earliest documented friendship between the Kaisers and a person of African heritage. Shaw’s is a powerful story that helps explain why Henry Kaiser was open to hiring minority workers.
Shaw was Kaiser’s first black employee, hired several years before Kaiser even formed his own company. He actually was hired by A. B. Ordway, Kaiser’s very first employee, when they were working for another company paving part of Post Street in Spokane, Wash., about 1909. Kaiser was general superintendent and Ordway was foreman.
One day Shaw walked up to the Post Street paving gang and asked Ordway for a job. According to Gordon Barteau, a Portland Oregonian newspaper reporter who wrote a profile of Shaw in 1943, “Ordway sized Tote up and said he thought Tote looked kind of runty for a job like that.”
In a style reminiscent of Kaiser himself, Shaw offered to work for free for a week on trial.
“Well … the first day he wore out two men and the next day Ordway told him he was on the payroll,” the Oregonian reported.
“Tote” worked in a variety of jobs on just about every big Kaiser project – from road building in Cuba to the Grand Coulee Dam, the Vancouver Shipyards in World War II, and the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, Calif., before he retired. It was during the war years in Vancouver, according to Barteau’s article, that whenever Henry Kaiser “comes to town he always looks up Tote and they hash over the old days.”
Clearly, it was Shaw’s relationship with Edgar and his ability as a skilled laborer with problem-solving skills that made him a lifelong, unforgettable friend of Henry Kaiser.
During construction of the original Highway 99 between Redding and Red Bluff in Northern California, in 1921, Kaiser was having trouble keeping a muddy detour open. He’d sent in a work crew of six men, and they had failed.
Kaiser summoned Shaw. “Tote,” he said, “every truck on the job is stuck in the mud. …You go down there and see what you can do.”
Shaw grabbed an axe, a pick, and a shovel. In short order, he had all of the trucks out of the mud and running.
“How did you do it?” Kaiser asked him.
“Mr. Kaiser,” he replied, “when you do things, you mixes brains and money. Well, sir, I mixes mud and brains.”
“Kaiser loved the phrase,” wrote one of his biographers, Mark Foster. “It became a company slogan.”
Shaw lived his final years in Fontana. They had a big party for him when turned 85 in 1964. In addition to cards, gifts, and a huge birthday cake, a teletype arrived from the giant Kaiser Industries headquarters in Oakland—birthday greetings from A. B. Ordway, who had known “Tote” since the day he had walked up to Ordway on Post Street in Spokane and asked for a job.