Dick Meister: The union makes us strong

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It's for very good reason that San Francisco has long been considered a premier "labor town."

By Dick Meister

(Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED-TV's "Newsroom, " has covered labor issues for a half-century as an author. reporter, editor and commentator.)

The 75th anniversary of the San Francisco general strike this year should remind us of the key role that organized labor has played in the city's economic and political life, through good times and bad - often despite fierce opposition, sometimes despite the reluctance of unions to adjust to changing circumstances.

Local labor history is full of dramatic events. But none have been more dramatic than the general strike that brought the city to a standstill for four days in July of 1934 during a time of economic troubles even greater than we're facing today. People in just about every occupation walked off the job in support of longshoremen who had struck on their own to demand an end to their truly rotten working conditions.

The general strike had been triggered by the killing of two union members by police, the wounding of more than 100 others, and the arrest of 800 in a waterfront battle between heavily armed police and several thousand longshoremen and supporters on July 5, 1934 - a day known ever since as "Bloody Thursday."

The battle broke out when employers tried to bring in strikebreakers under police escort to reopen the port that picketing longshoremen had kept closed for two months. It remained closed, and the strike continued, until President Franklin D. Roosevelt intervened by appointing an arbitration panel that granted longshoremen virtually all they had demanded.

That victory gave great impetus to the drive by the newly established Congress of Industrial organizations - the CIO - that won union rights for hundreds of thousands of workers nationwide. Harry Bridges, the longshoremen's leader, led the CIO drives in the West.

Although it overshadowed anything that came before -- or after - the general strike was hardly San Francisco's first major labor-management dispute. Nor was it San Francisco labor's first major victory.

The most important of the earlier disputes broke out in 1901 with a series of strikes by teamsters, machinists, butchers, bakers and other tradesmen. Police killed four strikers, injured hundreds, jailed thousands. But, ultimately, labor prevailed.

Employers in several industries were forced to agree to eight-hour workdays and to hire only union members. And city officials agreed to a civil service system that enabled unionists to compete for government jobs that previously had been parceled out strictly as political favors.

Labor even organized a Union Labor Party, whose mayoral candidate, Musicians Union President Eugene Schmitz, was elected to three two-year terms as mayor, the last in 1905 along with a full slate of the labor party's candidates for the Board of Supervisors. Schmitz was turned out of office in 1907 in a graft scandal. But two years later another labor party candidate, P.H. McCarthy of the Building Trades Council, was elected mayor.

From then on, however, up through the 1920s, labor's power declined steadily at the hands of well-organized employers who struck back through San Francisco's notoriously anti-union Chamber of Commerce. The anti-union tide finally turned with the '34 general strike, the unleashing of years of pent-up labor frustration.

Soon after the strike, President Roosevelt pushed through Congress legislation that granted most working people the union rights he said they had to have if the country was to escape economic disaster - just as President Obama has noted that spreading unionization would help ease our current economic distress.

No unions benefited more from FDR's labor laws than San Francisco's unions. Although the financial institutions that always have dominated the city's economy continued to resist unionization of their white-collar employees, most blue-collar workers were unionized under the new laws. The newly unionized workers were hungry and militant. They made up a large unified bloc that made often irresistible demands, with the support of the liberal public opinion that invariably goes to underdogs.

Union influence reached its height with the mayoral victory in 1968 of Joe Alioto, who declared that unions had played the decisive role in his election. But after Alioto left office in 1976, labor began losing its clout. Ironically, that was in large part because of an influx of non-union white-collar employees who were hired to work in the mass of new high-rise office buildings that Alioto had promoted with the enthusiastic support of his blue-collar union allies.

The blue-collar leaders who controlled San Francisco's labor establishment paid little attention to the new white-collar workers - or to anyone else outside their own ranks. That included even the unionized workers in the service industries that were mushrooming along with business and finance at the same time that manufacturing, printing, shipping and other unionized blue-collar industries were shrinking.

Eventually, however, new and younger leaders rose from outside the blue-collar ranks. Their unions, representing hotel and health care workers. teachers, municipal employees and others, are now the city's largest and most influential unions, along with the longshoremen's union, the ILWU.

The mayors who followed Alioto were generally pro-labor, none more so than Willie Brown, who came into office in 1996 for the first of his two terms with enthusiastic union backing similar to Alioto's. Brown and pro-labor members of the Board of Supervisors, led by Board Chairman Tom Ammiano, made it much easier for unions to win bargaining rights from government agencies and from employers who had city contracts. And thanks to a Brown-sponsored building boom, they provided lots of construction work for union member.

Unions also won a Living Wage Ordinance that set a minimum wage for workers employed by companies doing business with the city - currently $9.79 an hour
- that's higher than either the state or federal minimum wage.

Current Mayor Gavin Newsom is friendly to labor, although not to the extent that Alioto and Brown were, in part because of budget constraints that have forced him to be less generous to city employees than Brown or Alioto and less able to maintain at a high level services that are used by many union members.

As important as political action is to labor, economic action is still primary and solidarity still the essential tactic. These days, labor is not doing very well along those lines. For one thing, there's a major power struggle within the city's largest union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) and attempts by the SEIU to raid other unions for members.

What's more, unions have done very little to organize the city's chain store employees, have done almost no organizing in garment manufacturers' sweatshops or among the housekeepers and other domestic workers who very much need union protection.

Most importantly, unions have generally failed to organize workers in the fields that dominate today's economy -- downtown office workers in banks and other financial institutions and workers in the technology industries. In the meantime, the construction unions that dominate blue-collar union ranks are being seriously weakened by the influx of non-union construction workers, many of them migrants.

Unions have done very well in organizing public employees, who now make up San Francisco's largest single group of unionized workers. But even the public employees' solidarity is being undercut because of contracts their unions have agreed to that grant some public employees lesser fringe benefits than their fellow workers who have greater seniority.

It has to be said, too, that the San Francisco Labor Council, to which most of the city's unions belong, has lost much of the considerable clout it once had.

The longshoremen's union has prospered throughout the years since the general strike that led to the union's establishment. In those days of the 1930s, longshoremen were paid very little for the very hard work of hoisting heavy loads of cargo onto and off waiting ships. Today, longshoremen - and now longshore women as well - are paid handsomely to load and unload cargo with computer operated cranes.

They and many others have come a long way since the bloody days of 1934.

Dick Meister, former San Francisco Chronicle labor editor and labor reporter for KQED-TV's "Newsroom, " has covered labor issues for a half-century as an author. reporter, editor and commentator. You can contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.