The East Bay Economic Development Alliance will present its 2014 Legacy Award to Henry J. Kaiser today (Feb. 13) in a gala event at the Fox Theater in Oakland.
Kaiser is being remembered for the spirit of enterprise and economic development he nurtured during his lifetime in the East Bay community. He is well known for his work on Western dam projects, including the Hoover Dam in Nevada and the Bonneville and Grand Coulee dams built in Washington State in the 1930s.
But he is best known as co-founder with Sidney Garfield, MD, of the Kaiser Permanente Health Plan.
Barbara Crawford, Vice President, Quality & Regulatory Services in Northern California will accept the award on behalf of Kaiser Permanente.
Industrial giant of the mid-20th century
Henry Kaiser is one of America’s great business leaders of the 20th century. In name recognition he ranks among the likes of steel man Andrew Carnegie, oil magnate John D. Rockefeller and auto industry pioneer Henry Ford.
A man “greatly restless and restlessly great, one of America’s last real Horatio Algers,” the Oakland Tribune said of Kaiser in 1958.
In the 1940s, Kaiser was called the “patriot in pinstripes” for revolutionizing shipbuilding during World War II. His global enterprises included automobiles, steel, cement, aluminum, engineering and mining, to name a few.
Today, he’s remembered most for his socially responsible approach to business, better wages and pensions, a collegial approach to working with labor unions, one of the 20th century’s greatest experiments in workplace childcare, a devotion to honesty in business, and the health care delivery system that bears his name.
He was inducted into Modern Healthcare’s Health Care Hall of Fame in 2011.
“He was a powerful and complex man who charged full bore and seemingly without rest through the best part of the 20th century, generating big ideas, mastering big projects and projecting an endless supply of big dreams,” wrote Michael Dobrin, curator of a 2004 Oakland Museum of California exhibit on Kaiser’s life.
“Henry Kaiser was a pioneer in the new breed of responsible businessmen,” is how President Lyndon Johnson described him. “I was constantly startled at the adventure and compassion and the social consciousness and (his) willingness to extend a hand to the working man.”
Henry Kaiser’s health care legacy
Henry Kaiser was a champion of prepaid, group practice medicine at a time when innovation in health care delivery was frowned on by the American medical establishment.
With Dr. Sidney Garfield as the visionary of the Health Plan, the program was conceived to serve Kaiser’s workforce during the hardscrabble years of the Great Depression at the Grand Coulee Dam construction site in Washington State.
The Health Plan matured in Kaiser’s World War II shipyards and was converted to a public plan in 1945 with 27,000 members.
Today Kaiser Permanente has more than 9 million members and 17,000 physicians and operates in eight regions around the country.
Follow this link to view a video on the growth and development of Kaiser Permanente:
By Lincoln Cushing
First in a series
How was it that Henry J. Kaiser, a successful international industrialist, became a friend of labor? Much of his position can be traced to acceptance of stronger labor legislation such as the Wagner Act of 1935, as well as to his heavy investment in government contracts.
Also, recent research has revealed the crucial influence of a previously little-known employee – Harry F. Morton.
Morton wryly and accurately described his unique position in a speech before a labor audience:
“I am a lawyer – God help me. . . Not only that but I am a lawyer who represents capital, and I am standing on a platform in a hall where there are only representatives of organized labor, and I have lived long enough to have them stand up and applaud me.”[i]
Author Stephen B. Adams noted that “Kaiser went well beyond both the spirit and the letter of the law to take a leadership role in industrial labor relations.”
Kaiser himself said in 1939: “I didn’t believe in unions at all many years ago. I wouldn’t hire union men on the job. (But) when the government decided that the men should be organized and that we should have collective bargaining, I decided I should abide by what the government wanted to do whether I agreed with it or not.”[ii]
Between the time Henry J. Kaiser helped build Grand Coulee Dam in 1938 and his death in 1967, his labor credentials became quite impressive. Examples include:
- In 1944 the wartime steel mill in Fontana, Calif., was the first basic steel-producing unit in the country to sign a union contract with the United Steelworkers of America – Congress of Industrial Organizations.
- In July 1946, the contract between the Permanente Foundation hospitals (Oakland and the Richmond Field Station) and the upstart Nurses’ Guild of Alameda County was among the first collective bargaining agreements for nurses in California.[iii]
- In 1950 the International Longshoremen and Warehousemen Union and the Pacific Maritime Association requested the Kaiser Foundation Health Plan to provide health care for all 22,500 of their workers up and down the West Coast; the plan soon covered 80 percent of members.
- In 1965, Henry J. Kaiser was the first businessman ever to receive the prestigious AFL-CIO Murray-Green award, for his achievements in health and welfare.
Harry F. Morton’s untold story
So who was Harry F. Morton? Few books or articles on Henry J. Kaiser mention him, or they do so only in passing. But recent research has revealed that he worked for Henry J. Kaiser as his labor specialist from 1936 into the early 1950s.
Documents have yielded a picture of him as a powerful negotiator with a good heart who brought Kaiser’s organization through a few minefields in the war years and earned praise all around – from his union contacts as well as his Kaiser colleagues.
Like many Americans, Morton’s own children were part of the war effort. His daughter, Myrtle, was the assistant woman’s coordinator in the Richmond Kaiser Shipyards. His son, Jack, was a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
Around 1936 Morton, who had been working as head of a division of the Treasury Department in Washington, D.C., was approached by Henry J. Kaiser with a tax case. Kaiser was so impressed with Morton that every month for five months he tried to hire him away as his tax man, and he eventually succeeded.
Morton soon became Kaiser’s point person on labor, just as Kaiser was getting ready for the huge Grand Coulee Dam project near Spokane, Wash.
Kaiser’s conversion outlined
Kaiser, a partner in the Six Companies construction consortium, had recently finished building the mighty Hoover Dam (Boulder Dam), a project plagued by labor strife and industrial injuries. Years later, Morton gave a speech to a labor audience in which he described the situation:
“Kaiser was not always the idol of the working man. He was at one time as tough an employer as any in the United States. That is all any of them knew in the construction game. Kaiser’s people built Boulder Dam (in the early 1930s), an open shop job.
“A few years later they built Grand Coulee, the tightest closed shop job you ever saw. We spent four days in conference on the labor contract at Spokane. We sat down with the Building Trades Unions and made a contract in about three hours.
“We sat down with the butchers, the bakers, the candlestick makers, and we were there three days making that contract. The laundry workers, the operators who run the moving picture machine, the service station attendants, the store clerks – everybody at Coulee Dam belonged to a union.
“And here is the interesting thing. We did not get ‘religion’ just because we liked you people. I am speaking of management now. We learned this: The cost per yard of concrete poured at Grand Coulee was less than it was per yard of concrete in Boulder Dam.
“The cheaper job was the closed shop, the union shop. The more expensive job was the open shop job. There is your beginning and reason for us getting religion, and when we got it we went all the way.”[iv]
But as Depression-era projects wound down and World War II loomed, Morton’s career as Henry J. Kaiser’s “labor man” (his formal titles included “Permanente Legal Advisor” and “Industrial Relations Counsel”) would encompass increasingly higher profile labor issues on a national scale.
Special thanks to Lynda DeLoach, archival consultant to the National Labor College, for research assistance in this story.
Short link to this story: http://bit.ly/LPvmH7
[i] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.
[ii] Stephen B. Adams, Mr. Kaiser Goes to Washington
[iii] Labor news roundup, This World, October 13, 1946; “Unions here sign nurses contract,” Oakland Tribune, July 26, 1946.
[iv] Speech by Harry F. Morton, in Proceedings of the 35th Annual Convention of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO, September 27, 1943.
“Some years ago I stood at the base of the Boulder Dam looking up at that seven-hundred-foot monolith, and thought of the countless thousands of men who had made it possible: the excavators, the fabricators of tools and machines, the engineers, the designers, the master mechanics — the whole gamut of skill from genius to manual labor. I remembered the manifold precisions that had to be exerted; the numberless obstacles that rose in the mines, the fields, the forests, the laboratories, the factories. Here was a monument, which from first to last was a work of the Divine Architect who we call Faith.”
—Henry J. Kaiser, September 30, 1942
By Lincoln Cushing
The Golden Gate Bridge, which opened May 27, 1937, is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year with a myriad of community events around the Bay Area. The iconic Golden Gate span that connected San Francisco to Marin County and the North Bay area has been called the “most photographed bridge in the world” and from the vantage point of history it is an architectural and engineering marvel.
As the largest and most enduring locally based health plan, Kaiser Permanente shares space in mid-century Bay Area history with the bridge. From its beginnings as a public plan in the East Bay in 1945, Kaiser Permanente quickly spread to San Francisco in 1946 and crossed the bridge to San Rafael in Marin County in 1958.
KP is a sponsor of “Bridging Us All,” a free community event on Sunday, May 27, seeking to honor this amazing landmark in a way that reflects the “ingenuity, inclusiveness, and creativity of the entire San Francisco Bay Area.” For details of the festival: http://goldengatebridge75.org
When the Golden Gate and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridgeswere planned, San Francisco was the largest American city still served primarily by ferry boats. The project was controversial, the technical challenges were mighty, and the stakes were high. Just the sort of project one would expect Henry J. Kaiser to step in to.
Did Henry Kaiser’s companies work on the Golden Gate?
Henry J. Kaiser was a man of indomitable spirit and energy, considered one of “America’s boldest, most spectacular entrepreneurs.” By the mid-1940s he helped build the Hoover (Colorado River, Nevada/Arizona) and Grand Coulee (Columbia River, Washington) dams, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and over 700 ships during World War II. But did he ever contract to work on the iconic Golden Gate Bridge?
The answer is yes . . . and no, and reveals some interesting aspects of the enormous construction boom of the mid 1930s.
At approximately the same time as the Golden Gate project was getting underway, the American West was experiencing a frenzy of public infrastructure projects that we are still benefitting from today. To name a just a few, tax dollars were building the San Gabriel Dam #1 (“the world’s largest rock fill dam”), the Grand Coulee Dam, Hoover Dam, Bonneville Dam, Hetch Hetchy Dam (San Francisco’s water source), the Colorado River Aqueduct, the “highest voltage transmission line in the world” (on the line from Boulder Dam to Los Angeles), and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
During that period Kaiser Companies construction entities often operated in short-term partnerships, a common practice to ensure that necessary resources and skill specialties could be applied to a large and complex project. Boulder Dam (later called Hoover Dam) project was built by the “Six Companies” (although always called that, the number grew to eight). These were Utah Construction Company, Morrison-Knudsen, Pacific Bridge Company, J. F. Shea, McDonald and Kahn, Bechtel Company, Henry J. Kaiser Company, and Warren Brothers Company.
In 1931 Henry J. Kaiser assembled Bridge Builders, Inc., as a consortium when contracts were being posted for the two huge bridge projects in San Francisco Bay.
Kaiser gets contract to build substructure for the Bay Bridge
One of the main authoritative sources describing the vast scope of Kaiser Industries and construction companies is Alma Lindbergh’s succinctly named “History,” an unpublished two-volume record of all Kaiser projects and businesses through 1934. Lindbergh’s document describes two projects under “Bridge Builders, Inc.,” both for the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge – the contract to build the East Bay Substructure (the 21 piers between Yerba Buena Island and the Oakland shoreline, completed 12/24/1934) and painting the bridge (completed 1/11/1934).
The East Bay Substructure was no simple task, and included digging E-3, “the deepest pier known to man,” located 1,400 feet west of Yerba Buena Island and embedded 242 feet below the surface of the bay.
“History” includes details such as the 143,000 tons of paint used to protect the San Francisco – Oakland Bay Bridge under “Painting Contract number 9” and how many coats (“West Bay Towers – last 2 coats; Cables & Accessories – paste on cables, 4 coats of paint on balance; West Bay Spans – last three coats; East Bay Spans – last three coats”).
The partners and partnership involvement of “Bridge Builders, Inc.,” for the Bay Bridge project were:
Henry Kaiser’s group withdraws from Golden Gate project
We know that in 1932 Bridge Builders bid against former Six Companies ally Pacific Bridge Company for work on the Golden Gate Bridge. Pacific Bridge won the larger substructure contract, but Bridge Builders got the approach work.
Bridge Builders, Inc., a syndicate of contractors, bid low on anchorages with $1,859,854. The bid was contingent on the syndicate receiving awards of the other features of the project and was withdrawn. Barrett & Hilp, San Francisco, with a bid of the same figure, was given the contract. Other awards [included] San Francisco and Marian [sic, “Marin”] county approach spans, Bridge Builders, Inc., $934,800.
– “San Francisco Span Contracts Awarded,” The Bulletin (San Francisco) November 4, 1932
One would assume that a prestigious project such as the iconic Golden Gate Bridge would be recorded in Lindbergh’s “History,” but it is not. The reason was revealed in this small article in a local paper:
Bridge Builders, Inc., of San Francisco[was awarded the contract for] the steel superstructures for the San Francisco and Sausalito approaches, $934,800. The company has asked to assign this contract to one of its partners in the undertaking, the Raymond Concrete Pile Co.
– “S.F. Firms Win Big Contracts Largest Job, Construction of Superstructure Awarded on $10,494,000 Bid,” San Francisco News, Feb. 23, 1933
So there we have it. Kaiser Construction, as part of Bridge Builders, Inc., did bid on part of the Golden Gate Bridge construction, and was awarded a contract – but pulled out, and relinquished the work to one of its partners. The likeliest reason is that Kaiser Construction realized it far had too much on its plate with multiple other construction commitments.
Further evidence comes from a full page ad in the July, 1934 trade publication Western Construction News. It announces “FOR SALE – The entire construction plant & equipment of Bridge Builders, Inc.”
But before then Kaiser Industries, in various capacities, maintained a distinguished performance in significant Bay Area construction projects. Those included the Caldecott Tunnel east of Oakland, the distinctive San Francisco Transamerica Pyramid office building, and Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART), but as we now know, it passed on the most iconic regional structure of all.
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What do Henry Kaiser, Carol Burnett, and George Lucas have in common? Not obvious? How about John Madden, romance novelist Danielle Steel, bodybuilder Joe Weider – and Henry Kaiser? Not intuitive? OK, what about Clint Eastwood, restaurateur Alice Waters, and Color Purple author Alice Walker? Still stumped?
Try this combination: Henry Kaiser, Earl Warren, Leland Stanford, architect Julia Morgan, Hiram Johnson, photographer Dorothea Lange, pilot Amelia Earhart, and polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk. Starting to see a pattern here? These famous historical figures are all recent inductees into the California Hall of Fame.
Henry Kaiser, 20th Century industrialist and co-founder of Kaiser Permanente Health Plan, will be officially inducted into the California Hall of Fame (launched in 2006) in December. This will be Kaiser’s eighth inclusion in lists of hall-of-fame honorees, including the U.S. Labor Hall of Fame in Washington, D.C., where he was honored in 1990.
California Gov. Arnold Swartzenegger and First Lady Maria Shriver announced the 2009 list of honorees this fall. They are (alphabetically): entertainer Carol Burnett, former Intel CEO Andrew Grove, governor and U.S. senator Hiram Johnson (19th Century), decathlete and philanthropist Rafer Johnson, Henry Kaiser, philanthropist and peace activist Joan Kroc, filmmaker George Lucas, football commentator John Madden, gay rights advocate Harvey Milk, artist Fritz Scholder, author Danielle Steel, fitness and bodybuilding pioneer Joe Weider, and Air Force test pilot General Chuck Yeager.
To learn more about the 2009 inductees and the 38 from previous years, go to
Schwarzenegger said the intent of the hall of fame is to highlight the broad range of California interests by honoring trailblazers who have distinguished themselves in more than one field and “impacted the world with their overall courage, determination, and creativity.”
When Kaiser lost his bid to build the Shasta Dam, he started a cement company to provide the six million tons needed for the northern California project and quickly became the world’s largest cement producer.
He played a major role in the construction of such pre-War wonders as the Hoover Dam on the Colorado River, the Grand Coulee Dam on the Columbia River in Washington State, and the 1933-built Oakland-San Francisco Bay Bridge. He even built roads in Cuba and levees in Mississippi.
During World War II, Kaiser established West Coast shipyards whose workers built war ships at record-breaking speed. Kaiser employed a mix of skilled and unskilled workers that included the first women shipyard workers, as well as African-Americans, Chinese, Hispanics, and Native Americans.
Making of a health care program
Taking care of workers, many transplanted from the South and other parts of the country, entailed the creation of a health care program that placed emphasis on workers’ safety and a healthy lifestyle to avoid illness and injury. With 100,000 shipyard workers in the four Richmond, Calif. shipyards alone, the Kaiser Health Plan became the largest civilian medical care program on the Home Front of World War II.
Sidney Garfield, MD, developed and ran the medical care program, based on a prepaid, group practice model he had found successful on earlier Kaiser worker care programs. When the shipbuilding contracts evaporated at the end of the War, Kaiser and Garfield opened the health plan to the public. Eventually, union agreements kept the plan afloat and allowed it to grow to serve 8.5 million members today.
After the War, Kaiser turned to other industrial endeavors — manufacturing automobiles, homes, dishwashers, aluminum, steel, chemicals, electronics, and aeronautics. But Kaiser always wished — and believed — that he would be best remembered for his work to provide better health care for all people.
In the decade before his death in 1967, Kaiser often said:
“Of all the things I’ve done, I expect only to be remembered for . . . filling the people’s greatest need — good health.”
— Ginny McPartland
Kaiser Permanente Historian Tom Debley will be interviewed Tuesday, Dec. 1, on Capitol Public Radio (KXJZ 90.9 FM) about Henry Kaiser’s legacy and his induction into the California Hall of Fame. The interview will air on Insight with Jeffrey Callison from 10:05 to 11:18 a.m. For more information: