February 12, 2015

Henry J. Kaiser confronts labor practice of “colored laborers in bondage”

LeTourneau heavy construction equipment at Philbrook Dam (near Paradise, Calif.) circa 1926.

Contributed by Lincoln Cushing, Archivist and Historian

The Mississippi River flood of 1927 has been called “the most destructive river flood in the history of the United States,” and major efforts were launched in the following years to rebuild levees. The Warren Brothers contracting firm invited Henry J. Kaiser’s company to share in a minor portion of the extensive levee repair and maintenance work between Tennessee and Mississippi.

At first Kaiser hoped to use his powerful LeTourneau earth moving machinery, but the Mississippi mud stuck to the equipment in a most uncooperative manner. The project ended using human and animal labor, which frustrated Henry Kaiser’s “get things done quickly” style. But accepting the forces of nature and people would be a good lesson for his road-building projects in Cuba from 1928 to 1930.

Working in the South was uncomfortable for Henry Kaiser for ethical reasons as well. He was an unconventional employer who believed that “labor relations were nothing more than human relations” and was one of the most progressive industrial leaders of his time regarding equal treatment of women and people of color. Those values were challenged during this contract.

Leonard Blaikie, labor writer for the Oakland Tribune, wrote this vignette for a special insert on the opening of the Ordway Building (currently the main headquarters of Kaiser Permanente) on Feb. 28, 1971. Alonzo Benton (“A.B.”) Ordway was Henry J. Kaiser’s first employee and longtime and trusted operations manager.

Kaiser and Ordway ran into another practice which went against their grain while building small levees along the Mississippi River, between Memphis and Natchez, in the late 1920s. In addition to lacking the right equipment for the job, Ordway said they found they were at a disadvantage because they believed in paying their laborers their hourly wages in cash.

“Most of the Southern contractors, to all intents and purposes, held the colored laborers in bondage," he explained.

“By this I mean the workers had to purchase all food and supplies on credit from the contractors at prices higher than the going rates. Therefore, the labor costs for the Southern contractor were nowhere near ours.

“None of us liked the area and we were glad to get out in 1929."