December 18, 2010

End of war: happier holidays but uncertain future for workers

Happy people around the world celebrated the end of World War II in 1945. Meanwhile, workers at shipyards across the country were losing their jobs.

(First of two articles)

Christmas 1945 was undoubtedly the happiest Americans had known since 1940, the year before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The Japanese surrender in August closed the final chapter of World War II and meant the return of loved ones serving overseas and the hope that normal life would resume.

But it was not entirely clear what that would mean for tens of thousands of shipyard workers in California, Oregon and Washington whose lives were irreversibly changed by their trek westward to work for Henry Kaiser. Would their lives ever be normal again?

From a height of 93,000 employees in the Richmond shipyards in 1943, the total spiraled downward in 1945 as the contracts were cancelled, with 40,000 workers in March dropping to 16,000 by the end of September.

In the Northwest, where Kaiser had yards in Portland and Vancouver, Wash., the cutbacks were sudden. From January to December, employment fell from 90,000 to just above 10,000.

After three years of hard-driving work fueled by a strong sense of mission and new experiences, many, especially the women and black workers, were once again jobless and possibly a little disoriented.

Vancouver worker Chauncey Del French describes the last day on the job in November for the paint crews who “took off like so many flushed quail to their locker room…a half-hour later, the ‘painters’ parade’ started up the dock.

"Men and women, arm in arm, sang Auld Lang Syne in the rain. They had their honorable discharge papers and were going to collect their ‘rocking chair money’ and live the life of Riley,” French wrote in his book "Waging War on the Homefront."

Workers in the Northwest were told to grab farm labor work with 9,000 jobs available picking pole beans. “Highest wages ever received in Oregon by farm workers are being paid out this year,” stated an article in the "Bosn’s Whistle," the shipyard newsletter, which noted they would be displacing Mexican workers who had been brought in to do the picking during the war.

The Marine Phoenix was the last troopship built in the Kaiser Shipyards in Vancouver, Washington.

Henry Kaiser relentless in pursuing postwar contracts

Meanwhile Kaiser said he “was determined to keep the job level at Richmond shipyards at the highest possible point” as he anticipated rail car and dry dock contracts. He also labored to get repair contracts and to attract work building ships for the Merchant Marine. Despite the major lobbying by Kaiser’s top officials motivated by concern for the workers, the U.S. Maritime Commission closed Richmond’s and Portland’s yards in 1946 and 1947.

No doubt what had Kaiser worried was news in his own press. "Fore ‘n’ Aft," the newsletter for the Richmond yards, reported a survey of Yard Two workers in December 1944 that showed 63 percent of the out-of-state workers wanted to stay in California.

Yet, in 1945, many started to move to better jobs or — as contracts disappeared and layoffs began amidst some predictions of mass unemployment — started to head home. They also faced loss of the medical care provided by the Permanente Health Plan and the much-touted child care program that Kaiser had helped to start with the Richmond schools.

As the number of health plan enrollees in the shipyards dropped, Kaiser Permanente was invited to provide care for Vallejo residents of eight large wartime public housing dormitories and, in July, its first attempt to extend prepaid medical care to the general public was under way.

But other services that eased the burden of these dislocated workers disappeared rather quickly. Richmond hesitated to step into the breach, with some hoping that cutting back on services and beginning to tear out wartime housing would prompt the workers to leave. And many did leave, but, as it turns out, not for long.

Next time: Laid-off shipyard worker dilemma: Should I stay or should I go?