Labor breakthroughs in San Francisco opened doors nationally
SAN FRANCISCO -- With one-fourth of African-Americans in breadlines and millions being forced off farms by mechanization and drought in 1932, there was no higher priority for Walter White, executive secretary of the NAACP, than opening up jobs in the construction generated by new President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's New Deal.
He turned to lawyer Leslie Hawkins, president of the San Francisco NAACP, to make breakthroughs in the West. In the South, where most African-Americans lived, prevailing sentiment was against providing any jobs or assistance to blacks. Roosevelt spent most of his first term being pressured by his Southern Democrats to approve a lower wage scale for blacks in New Deal projects.
In San Francisco, Hawkins could go meet directly with W.A. Bechtel, head of the Six Companies building the Boulder Dam, to insist on fair hiring. Not one of the 3,000 workers on the $145 million project in 1932 were black. After the Hawkins committee met with Bechtel and the Dept. of Labor provided an additional $2 million, 30 were hired and then fired a month later. Floyd Covington, secretary of the Los Angeles Urban League was sent to investigate. He found that none of the black workers were allowed to live in Boulder City, having to stay 22 miles away in Las Vegas. The NAACP and Urban League went back to the Labor Dept.
The Boulder Dam reshaped the future of the West by diverting the waters of the Colorado River towards southern California, making the growth of cities like Los Angeles possible.
Along the docks of San Francisco, an unexpected ally, Australian-born Harry Bridges, proved to be a catalyst for even more labor progress. As leader of the San Francisco local of the International Longshoremens Association, he decided to put the fate of his union towards integration with black dock workers, used for decades as strikebreakers by the shipping industry.
"The doors of the San Francisco International Longshoremens Association will never again be closed to Negro labor," Bridges told a wildly applauding group of 500 union members in August 1934. It put the local at odds with a long history of labor segregation locally and nationally.
Eventually, Bridges had to form his own union and faced decades of investigations and prosecutions by the federal government. The King Behind King, Bridges, Chavez and Mandela, a documentary by ReUNION: Education-Arts-Heritage, describes the continuing impact of Bridges' decision. Additional details on this period and the ongoing fight for freedom are found in Come to the Water: Sharing the Rich Black Experience in San Francisco (ASPIRE SAN FRANCISCO), complete with lesson plans and primary sources for the entire sweep of the city's history.
The decision came as an outgrowth of the first successful citywide general strike in American history to protest the shooting of longshoremen by San Francisco police. For the first time, the federal government recognized the right to unionize.
John Pittman, a Morehouse graduate who had studied black labor for his masters degree at the University of California in Berkeley, almost immediately after graduation launched the Spokesman newspaper in the tradition of San Francisco activist publishers stretching back to the Mirror of the Times in 1857.
Pittman began chastizing labor unions for their exclusionary policies and cajoled black workers to seek out unionization. The leading black union, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, had yet to achieve recognition by the company after more than two decades of organization.
A. Philip Randolph, its president, was to use the precedent of the San Francisco dock workers local to press for respect for black workers across the board.
In a speech to the San Francisco conference of the American Federation of Labor, backed up by NAACP pickets outside the Hotel Whitcomb, Randolph called for and won a vote by the federation outlawing discrimination by its member unions.
The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters was accepted into the AFL at the San Francisco conference and soon thereafter recognized by the Pullman company. Randolph and the Sleeping Car Porters were to become the muscle behind the Double V campaign of World War II and the civil rights efforts of the 1950s.
It was to take decades to come to actual practice. Locally, the discrimination continued in the building industry, particularly on large projects such as the Boulder and Hoover Dams and the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.
The political pressure of the NAACP and black press made the most progress on projects done directly by the New Deal era agencies themselves. Secretary of Interior Harold Ickes issued a letter banning discrimination on New Deal public works projects in response to a telegram by Walter White.
In California, the State Emergency Relief Administration used federal dollars for a variety of infrastructure projects. In San Francisco, black workers were able to gain work on the construction of Lake Merced Boulevard and the Marina Seawall.
Tomorrow, the imprint of Sargent Claude Johnson on the New Deal legacy in California.