Before World War II, shipyards and unions made no special effort to hire women or people of color. But after Pearl Harbor, and all that was required to defend the home front, Henry J. Kaiser immediately understood that a diverse industrial workforce would be essential for defense production as white men went away to war.
By federal law the shipyards were closed shops, and could only employ union members. But the Boilermakers union, the largest of the shipyard unions, would not hire African-Americans as full members.
Kaiser was known for working well with organized labor, but in this situation the union’s hiring policies were an impediment to production. When Kaiser at first tried to hire workers directly without going through the union, he began one of the most fundamental struggles between management and labor during the home front period. At stake was the right of workers to gainful employment regardless of gender or race.
The International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, Iron Ship Builders and Helpers of America had created a “separate but unequal” membership tier for African Americans in 1937. These were called “auxiliary” unions (the Richmond, California, auxiliary was “A-36”), and limited members’ job opportunities, grievance procedures, and voice in union affairs. By 1942, over 1,500 black workers were working in auxiliaries, but as wartime employment increased so did racial tension over these limitations.
The first skirmish in this battle took place in Portland, Oregon. Kaiser’s eldest son, Edgar, was in charge of three shipyards there, and he sought help in hiring as many people as he could. He found a responsive official in Anna Rosenberg, the New York regional director of the War Manpower Commission, who authorized the United States Employment Services to support the recruitment of Kaiser’s workers in early September 1942. They signed up at the rate of 400 an hour, then headed west to the Kaiser shipyards in Oakland and Portland areas.
On September 8, 1942, women — the other group affected by the Boilermaker employment policies — were finally allowed to join the Boilermakers after picketing their office in San Francisco.
Tom Ray, secretary and business agent for Portland’s Boilermakers Lodge 72, threatened that the union would "take matters into its own hands" unless Kaiser revoked the promotions of 8 black shipyard workers from common laborers to skilled tradesmen.
The Daily Oregonian on September 30 announced “'Magic Carpet' Special Bearing Kaiser Crews Approaches Vancouver”:
Out of the east and into the far west rolled the "Henry J. Kaiser magic carpet" tonight, bearing 490 enthusiastic, happy, future shipyard workers from New York, the first contingent of a new movement over the new Oregon trail… [to] the Kaiser shipyard at Vancouver, Washington, where they will work.
Buried in the article was the single mention that “in the train are 30 Negroes.”
On that same page was an article about citizens of Portland’s Albina district meeting to “protest further influx of Negroes into the area” and demanding federal housing authorities “halt construction of dormitories for Negro shipyard workers.”
The Boilermakers pushed back for control. Lodge 72 refused to hire the 30 New York black workers except for menial jobs. They complained, and the conflict forced Anna Rosenberg to withdraw USES from Kaiser’s hiring program. After further negotiation, the Boilermakers seemed to consider hiring black workers.
It wasn’t until October 7, 1942, that the Portland Kaiser shipyard and the Boilermakers union agreed to permit black workers to be employed at the shipyards, “…making use of ‘their highest skills’ in all departments.” But that interpretation was up to the union.
The situation proceeded to get uglier.
The Oakland Tribune announced October 21, 1942, “The Henry J. Kaiser Company shipyard at Vancouver, Washington, stood firm today behind a decision to use Negro workers in skilled jobs despite protests by A.F.L. unions.”
By mid-December 1942, resistance mounted. A representative for 150 black shipyard workers at Kaiser’s Vancouver, Washington, yard charged that the auxiliary union represented “downright open discrimination.” In California, 18 black shipyard workers petitioned a federal judge for a permanent injunction restraining the Bechtel’s Marinship yard in Sausalito from discharging them for failure to pay dues to the auxiliary union.
Hamstrung by Boilermaker intransigence, the Oregon Kaiser shipyards were forced to fire more than 300 black workers in July 1943 for refusing to join the auxiliary. The Fair Employment Practices Commission held public hearings and issued a “cease and desist” order, with little result. So, in November 1943, virtually all black workers at Marinship stopped working after the Boilermakers said they would fire 430 black workers for failure to join the auxiliary.
The Marinship workers went to court. The plaintiff was Joseph James, on behalf of himself and 1,000 others. James had claimed that black workers at their shipyard were forced to join the auxiliary union, without gaining union privileges.
Intervention by the Fair Employment Practices Commission resulted in a favorable ruling in early 1944, later upheld by the California Supreme Court. By then, the war, and shipyard production, was almost over.
It’s now 2018. Betty Reid Soskin, the country’s oldest national park ranger who works at the Rosie the Riveter World II Home Front National Historical Park on the site of the bustling Kaiser Richmond shipyards, was a clerk for the all-black Boilermakers Union A-36, and appreciates how the union has come a long way toward correcting past injustices. Today, the union is a major supporter of the park and actively recruits women in the trade.
Kaiser Permanente, Henry J. Kaiser’s sole remaining institutional legacy, follows good business practices in hiring a diverse and inclusive workforce. We are proud to have been part of the struggle to achieve equal opportunity, led by disenfranchised workers eager to do their part for America and supported in that effort by an enlightened business leader — Henry J. Kaiser.