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:
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, 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.
[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.