1968 : SAN FRANCISCO’S
YEAR OF THE STRIKE
By Dick Meister
“Strike! Strike! Strike!” The cry rang out loud and clear all across San Francisco in 1968. Never has there been a year like it for the city’s unions, never a year with so many strikes.
Strikers shut down the city’s daily newspapers and closed most public schools. Retail clerks walked off the job. So did armored car and truck drivers, machinists, movie theater janitors, garment workers, Kaiser Hospital and telephone company employees, office clerks, longshoremen, and others.
The newspaper strike had been coming since 1965, when the Hearst Corporation joined in a once highly improbable alliance with the De Young family, which had long boasted that its morning Chronicle was “the city’s only home-owned newspaper.” Hearst and De Young killed Hearst’s afternoon News Call-Bulletin and switched Hearst’s morning Examiner into that spot, then formed a company to handle all non-editorial functions of the two papers.
Their goal, of course, was to maximize profits by wiping out competition. But what of the 15 unions that represented the papers’ employees? The contracts of the three largest – the Newspaper Guild, Typographical Union, and Newspaper and Periodical Drivers – were up for re-negotiation in 1968. But first came the much smaller Mailers Union, and, as a management negotiator said, “If we’re a pushover for the Mailers, the three big ones will think it pretty easy. “
Management offered the Mailers only a very small share of the new profits, the Mailers struck to demand more, and the other unions joined their picket lines. The strike was settled two months later with a highly unusual agreement that granted new three-year contracts granting pay and benefit raises to all 15 of the newspaper unions. What’s more, the new contracts would all expire at the same time and thus bring the unions even closer together.
Teachers, who struck city schools under the banner of the American Federation of Teachers, were out for only one day. But their strike – the first teachers strike in West Coast history – forced school officials to grant the teachers’ long-ignored demand for smaller class sizes by hiring 900 new teachers and to make other significant improvements in school operations and teachers’ working conditions. That included creating a formal grievance procedure that helped solve the many work-related problems that teachers faced. Teachers across the county line in Daly City later called a two-day strike of their own for improved pay, benefits and working conditions.
Many of San Francisco’s supermarkets were struck by the Retail Clerks Union at about the same time, and many other markets locked out their clerks in retaliation. The strike-lockout also lasted only one day, but led to negotiations that resulted in substantial pay raises and liberalized fringe benefits and work rules.
Not long afterward, supermarkets, banks, department stores and other firms in San Francisco and elsewhere in the Bay Area ran short of the cash they needed to conduct business because of a brief strike by the Teamster drivers who delivered the money. The drivers wanted more money for themselves -- and they got it.
It took much longer – 5 1/2 months – for Teamster driver-salesmen to end their strike against the companies whose potato chips and other snacks they delivered and sold wholesale to markets and other retail outlets. The walkout forced the companies to close their Northern California plants and virtually cleared stores of the snacks. The strikers got the same raises in pay and commissions as they were offered before walking out, but won longer paid vacations, higher pensions and other benefit improvements.
Teamsters also were involved in what was in effect a union vs. union strike, pitting them against longshoremen in a major dispute over cargo handling. Previously, cargo brought to the docks via Teamster-driven trucks was unloaded by the Teamsters, then loaded onto ships by longshoremen piece by piece. But a new system – “containerization” -- called for the loose cargo to be “stuffed” into containers before delivery and the containers to be taken off the trucks and loaded onto ships by longshoremen.
Teamster pickets demanding that they get the work of unloading the containers from their trucks kept ships from being loaded and their crews from boarding. A court order halted the picketing, and after more than a week, the Teamsters and International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union reached an agreement that gave all loading and unloading work on the docks to ILWU members.
The ILWU was involved in another unusual union vs. union dispute – a strike against the ILWU’s longshore Local 10 by members of the Office and
Professional Employees Union. It was called by the women who worked in the office of the union’s longshore Local 10 over alleged arbitrary treatment by Local 10 Secretary-Treasurer Carl Smith. The strikers were joined on the picket lines by the 50 or so women at all other ILWU offices in the city, including the office where international union president Harry Bridges worked, and by some of the 700 women who worked in other union offices around the city. They had threatened but not carried out a strike of their own to demand improved contracts from their union employers.
The strike against Local 10 was quickly settled -- but not before a bit of role confusion. The pickets were labor, of course. But what of the labor leaders inside the buildings they were picketing? They were management. And there were the longshoremen who had to go inside to get their work assignments. They did what longshoremen almost never do. They crossed a picket line.
Longshoremen, warehousemen and many other workers throughout the city and elsewhere stayed off the job on April 9, but not because of labor-management conflict. They were honoring the memory of Martin Luther King Jr., whose funeral was held that day in Atlanta. Longshoremen, who had previously made King an honorary ILWU member, closed the port of San Francisco and all other West Coast ports. Mail delivery was curtailed, as was Municipal Railway service. Hundreds of offices, both government and private, were closed, and work in a wide variety of other locations was
noticeably slowed, if not halted.
Machinists called one of the longest strikes of 1968 – a seven-week walkout that idled 20,000 of the machinists and other workers who made everything from fire hydrants to complex electronic equipment at the area’s
manufacturing sites. The strike shut down more than 100 factories and shops in San Francisco, the East Bay and on the Peninsula.
The strike settlement, reached with the help of federal mediators, granted strikers virtually all they had demanded – and they had demanded a lot. Most workers got pay raises of more than 20 percent, plus a guarantee of future raises to match increases in the cost-of-living. They also won an employer-financed dental plan, improved sick leave provisions, longer paid vacations and better pensions.
A strike and lockout by janitors at more than 200 movie theaters in the city and elsewhere in Northern California kept the janitors out for twice as long as the machinists. But they ended up with far less than they had demanded. Most of the theaters remained open, with assistant managers handling clean-up duties. Worse, projectionists crossed the janitors’ picket lines on orders from national Projectionist Union officers who said their contract with the theaters prohibited them from honoring other unions’ picket lines. Several local unions objected strongly to the Projectionist Union stand and demanded the union’s expulsion from local AFL-CIO bodies.
Janitors also called a brief strike and mounted picket lines that kept officials and employees of the San Francisco Labor Council from entering their offices in the old Labor Temple at Sixteenth and Capp Streets. The strike was called to demand a contract from a firm that had just bought the 54-year-old building from the Labor Council, which soon moved its offices elsewhere.
A landmark strike – the first in the long history of Chinatown -- was even less successful than the theater janitors’ walkout. Waged for several months by garment workers at a small Chinatown shop, the strike was the first step in a union drive to organize the district’s largely non-union businesses. It ended in a complete union defeat.
Two months into the strike, the struck employer abandoned the shop and shifted operations to a larger shop outside Chinatown. Strikers took jobs elsewhere, and that was that for the strike – and, in effect, the end of the drive to unionize Chinatown.
Leaders of the San Francisco Labor Council had pledged at the start of the strike to join in a coordinated drive to bring union wages and conditions – if not outright unionization -to all of Chinatown. But they hit the same major hurdle that had stopped most individual unions in the past: The isolation of Chinatown’s workers. They hit a formidable self-imposed hurdle, too: The all-out drive pledged by all of the city’s unions never materialized. The 1968 strikes were generally peaceful, with the noticeable exception of a week-long walkout by the Kaiser Foundation’s hospital workers in the city and elsewhere in Northern California. It involved some 3400 kitchen helpers, porters, maids, orderlies, licensed vocational nurses, pharmacists, clerical workers and X-ray and lab technicians, many of them women and minorities, at Kaiser’s 25 hospitals and clinics.
Pickets clashed with police who attempted to enforce court orders limiting their numbers that were issued in response to widespread picket line violence, some of it by pickets against police and non-strikers, some by police against pickets. Pickets also blocked or tried to block delivery trucks, patients and others from entering the hospitals, sometimes violently, always with shouted angry words. Doctors, registered nurses and others took over most of the strikers’ duties and kept the hospitals operating on a limited basis.
Kaiser was under great pressure from its biggest customers – Northern California’s unions. Among other steps, the unions threatened to at least temporarily halt the millions of dollars in payments put into Kaiser health plans by employers and union members that paid for the members’ medical care.
But Edgar J. Kaiser, the unorthodox founder and chairman of Kaiser Industries, said it was not those pressures, but primarily the spread of violence on the picket lines that caused him to step in and personally arrange for union-employer peace talks. An agreement was reached with the help of state conciliators during a weekend of nearly non-stop negotiations. The two-year contract guaranteed workers the best pay and the best benefits of virtually any medical workers in the Bay Area and set up grievance machinery to handle the complaints of overwork that had in large part prompted the strike.
It once was a maxim that you didn’t strike unless you could close down the boss’ business. But it wasn’t anymore, as was shown by the Kaiser strike and even more clearly shown by the 1968 strike of the Communications Workers Union against the American Telephone & Telegraph Company and several closely associated companies in San Francisco and across the country.
The strike was patterned to fit a new era in which companies may have machines that can keep them operating, strike or no strike. Which is just what the telephone company had – automatic dialing equipment. The Communications Workers countered by, in effect, adopting the techniques of its employer opposites,.
The union waged a massive advertising campaign to try to sway the companies’ customers and the government officials who regulated the companies, and put together a highly rated staff of experts to help in bargaining. They union meanwhile urged the public to make as many phone calls as possible, particularly operator-assisted calls, and otherwise put the greatest possible strain on the non-union help and machines that kept the struck companies going.
It took almost three weeks, but strikers won a contract that raised pay by almost 20 percent over the next three years. Strikers in San Francisco nevertheless temporarily balked at returning to work because the votes on the contract in their Pacific Telephone Division, though favorable, were cast by less than half of the division employees. The San Francisco workers continued picketing after the vote, but were ordered back to work by national union officials.
1968 wound up with demonstrations and picketing throughout the city in support of the farmworkers’ grape boycott, the beginning of a student strike at San Francisco State College and a dispute over the pay, benefits, workloads and rights of faculty members at the college. That dispute soon erupted into the first major strike of 1969, another year with many strikes -- though fewer than in the truly extraordinary year that preceded it.