“Now, Mary, Daddy says you have to get a job.”
“I know that!” I snapped quite nastily. My mother and I were standing in a bedroom of my parents’ home in San Andreas, California. I had gone there after graduating from the University of California primarily to dump books and assorted papers. I was headed back to Berkeley to look for a job. I knew that I had to get off my parent’s payroll. My snippy answer to my mother was born of many sleepless nights in deep worry about how I was going to make a living.
When I left home in Merced Falls in 1938 to enter the University, I had not a single idea what I should do there. The dominant thought in my brain was to get away; away from that little lumber town, away from my parents, away from all talk of tuberculosis, away from the deep-seated memories of the Great Depression. I wanted to make a new way to live my daily life. None of those thoughts included ideas of how to put a roof over my head or food on the table. Getting away was first and foremost. I studied political science and economics in college. How does one get a job with that combo?
The answer for me, and many more millions of women in 1942, was World War II. Men were leaving their jobs or school because they were drafted or volunteered. Employers needed us – the fairer sex – to do the welding, operate giant cranes and so much more. Eventually, eighteen million women entered the work force during the war.
I quickly found a job at Kaiser’s Richmond Shipyard #2. My first check stub is dated May 30, 1942, and the last one is from September 26, 1942. Kaiser had a gigantic ship building at Richmond and the company proudly announced in late 1943 or early 1944 that it was launching a “Liberty ship” every twenty-four hours. These ships were the supply chain of the war.
I worked in a small office, which monitored the supply of steel. It was an area with six women overseen by Jack Clark, a tall, handsome football star from Stanford. We worked six days a week at fifty cents an hour. The minimum hourly wage was then forty cents.
I began to think of my next move. I had made a commitment to myself that I wanted to be connected to the trade union movement in some way— that was where the action was. Finally, workers were getting a piece of the pie and trade unions were organizing.
My friends, Eleanor and Les Fishman and Morrie Glickfeld had been urging me to join them in Washington, D. C. where I was sure to get a job with the government. I planned my trip east: borrowed $250.00 from my parents; bought a one-way train ticket to Washington, D. C. with stopovers in Kansas City, Chicago, and New York City, and said goodbye to my friends.
The evening I left Berkeley from the Santa Fe Station on University Avenue, several friends came to see me off, including Belle Peck Shapiro. She carried a bottle of Haig and Haig Pinch Scotch, a special treat at that time since it was carried across the Atlantic Ocean as World War II erupted everywhere. I managed to drop this precious bottle of Scotch on the cement platform and we all got down on our knees trying to lap it up!
New York City, 1942
In New York, where I knew no one, I rented a room in Greenwich Village; spare, all white. Bath, toilet and telephone were all down the hall.
I went out to see the magical town I had heard so much about. One of the first touristy things I did was to take the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, then the tallest building in the world. I met a Detroit autoworker that was as confused as I was as we looked down at the entangled mass of buildings and rivers. After talking a bit, we decided to team up to see some nightlife, which included Cafe Society Uptown and Cafe Society Downtown. These two clubs were opened by the Josephson brothers who routinely featuring African American performers. We saw the African American pianist Hazel Scott who was then the wife of Adam Clayton Powell, the first African American Congressman after the Civil War period and Billy Daniels, singing “That Old Black Magic”. At Café Society Downtown, we saw famed African American guitarist and singer, Josh White. My friend, the autoworker, had to go back to Detroit because we had spent all his money!
I liked my room in The Village; it was quiet and very private. I have two indelible memories connected with this room. On my first Sunday, as I lay in my bed, the bells of the nearby Catholic church began to toll. I debated with myself – do I go to Mass, as a good Catholic should? Or do I not go and risk damnation and everlasting hellfire? I was born into a profoundly devout Catholic family. My grandparents went to early Mass every day. An aunt was a nun, an uncle a priest. My mother refused to marry my father until he agreed to convert. But, since eighth grade and all through college, my religion had been challenged. A priest I consulted with my doubts told me to “believe”. In the face of all that, my decision was not difficult. I would risk hellfire!
And I was running out of money! I was lying on my bed in the rooming house counting my last few cents, which were $1.35. Again, I debated: should I spend it on bread and milk for my dinner and plan the future in the morning, or should I buy a good dinner and worry tomorrow? In the hallway the phone rang. It was Morrie calling from D.C. “Where are you, Mary Kay? When are you coming down here? I’m leaving for the army any day now.” I told him I was broke and he said he would send me money and not to worry. I went out that night to have a very nice dinner, and the next day, I pawned my watch for $10. With Morrie’s money and my $10, I soon set off for D.C.
Washington, D.C., 1942-1944
On the train going to Washington, I anticipated this “new life” that was before me. Can I convey that to you, Dear Reader? I felt secure with my friends. I had a place to live and I knew for certain I would get a job and be able to pay my way. So there was nothing to worry about. I had time and space to luxuriate in those days of excitement and pure joy as I looked at my future.
It was November 1942 when I moved in with Les and Eleanor, a married couple, and our mutual friend, Morrie. We shared a second floor apartment at 1846 Ingleside Terrace, facing the city’s famed Rock Creek Park. We had all been friends at U.C. Berkeley; now Les and Morrie were waiting for their army transport – Les to Seattle and Morrie to England. I have photos showing us playing in the Park. We swung ourselves in the children’s’ swings. Morrie and I picked up large leaves, which had fallen from the trees. We used them to cover our well-dressed “private parts”, holding arms and standing a bit tipsy-like while laughing at the camera. The next day I went job hunting.
We were all as politically left as our knowledge led us to be. Ellie had the Almanac Singers record with Pete Seeger. This genre was new to me and I soaked it all in.
World War II hung over our lives. Morrie, and Ellie’s husband Les, and dozens of our fellow students were now in the service.
Many of them came through D.C. on their way to wherever. I remember dancing with Heinz, who, at a young age, had left Germany with his parents on January 30th, 1933, the day that Adolph Hitler became Chancellor there. Heinz was a teaching assistant in the Political Science Department at UC Berkeley when I met him. Ed Tackle, a former editor of the Daily Cal, came through and we spent a drunken, loving night together. He was on his way to North Africa, Sicily, and Anzio. We exchanged letters in the next several months, and in one of his letters he asked me, “Is there really a song in America today that goes like this: “Mairz eat oats and doze eat oats and little lambs eat ivy, a kid’ll eat ivy too, wouldn’t you”? Ed was killed on the Italian front at Anzio in July of ’44.
I want to say a word about the Battle of Anzio on the Italian coast across the water from Sicily, which started in January 1944 and ended in May 1944. Winston Churchill’s strategy for fighting the German Army on the European mainland was to start at the southern part of Italy. From that overall view, the Battle of Anzio was hatched. Anzio is a beach ringed by low mountains. The German army was on higher ground backed by the mountains, and as the U.S. troops landed on the beach, they were cut down by the German machine guns. There were 43,000 US casualties at Anzio.
After the men left, Ellie and I shared the apartment on Ingleside Terrace. She had a small part time job. I had found a job, very dull. I was age 22. A young co-worker and I shared a secretary who was very much older, perhaps in her 50’s. Frankly, I no longer remember what that job was, but I had my first experience at dictating to the secretary; she resented the fact I was her very young boss and her face said it all. I was embarrassed for her and for myself.
Ellie was to join Les In Seattle. Later, he would be sent to join the war in Europe. His service there led to a quiet little episode in 1945 known only to his friends. I am jumping way ahead in this memoir, but I am going to quote an e-mail letter from his son David. “Yes, I do recall Dad talking about this, although he was very reticent and I had to ask him specific questions before stories were forthcoming. It was in the final throes of the European theatre and his unit had a German unit pinned down in a factory, somewhere in Western Czechoslovakia territory (Sudetenland at that time I suppose…); Dad went and negotiated with the German commander (white flag and all) and communicated with a mixture of his academic German (learnt in order to be able to read Das Kapital) and his boyhood Yiddish! He did manage to get them to surrender, thus saving a firefight and associated fatalities/injuries, etc.”.
As Ellie was leaving to join Les in Seattle, Diana joined our household. Diana and I had a very brief stay with one another because we gave a party! Among the guests we invited were two black soldiers. They were sophisticated and seemed to be attached to some secret part of the service, perhaps Intelligence. At that time, D.C. was totally segregated. I mean the segregation was total: movie theaters, restaurants, housing, and jobs. So I wonder why Diana and I were surprised at all when the landlady told us to our faces that we were to leave the apartment; that she would not “tolerate” any “N …” on her property. We were evicted!
Diana and I went our separate ways. I went to a large rooming house at 1740 K Street and there I became roommates with Shirley. We had a good-sized room, a sleeping porch (where we actually slept in the nude when it was hot), and a shared bath next door. It was near downtown and the trolley cars. We ate meals out, and it was quite expensive for me. I remember being very broke all of the time. It would be a full year before I could reclaim my watch held at the New York City pawnshop. I borrowed money from my parents in quantities of $5.00 and $10.00.
One of the giant agencies set up by the Roosevelt Administration during the war was the Office of Price Administration (OPA). Another lucky chance in my life was to find a career-changing job as a Research Assistant with the Labor Office of the OPA, a very small branch within the larger organization. (More of my work at the Labor Office follows.)
The general spirit in the country during the war was to give the armed forces priority use of the country’s resources. What the country needed was protection from black marketeering and runaway prices. The aim of the OPA was to prevent these problems.
To facilitate this program, the OPA was established with two functions. First, to set price controls on important everyday items. Restaurant prices, for example, were: hamburger steak 25 cents, spaghetti and tomato sauce, 15 cents, corn flakes and cream, 20 cents, apple pie, 10 cents and coffee, 7 cents. Secondly, the OPA set up Ration Boards, to ration items high in demand, so that they were fairly distributed. Imagine, Dear Reader, these boards were composed of community volunteers who spent long hours sorting out the problems of their constituents. Ration cards had to be used for goods such as gasoline, leather, meat, oil, shoes, sugar, and butter. These controls became a way of life for the great majority of people. The Labor Office included representatives from the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Railroad Workers union. Their role was, in part, to distribute programs to win the support of the workers they represented for the rationing and price control programs. Additionally, they handled rationing problems between their members and the Ration Boards. With the job at the Labor Office, I became familiar with the nation’s unions and their officers who dropped in to our office occasionally. Doors opened for me. I met reps from the United Automobile Workers of America (UAW), the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, (UERMWA aka UE), and many others. It was heady stuff.
Within the OPA, the OPA Labor Office was headed by Robert R. R. Brooks, of Williams College, Massachusetts. My immediate superior was Muriel Ferris. She had a no-nonsense appearance but she had a very warm heart toward me. She introduced me to eating oysters on the half shell. We went to a famed D.C. seafood restaurant for lunch one day where I was taught the fine art. First we squeezed lemon over the oyster, dabbed a bit of horseradish, dunked them in red sauce, and slid them down our throats.
I don’t do that anymore. When I can afford them, I take them straight so as to taste their essence and the scent of the ocean as they slide down. I want to digress here. I remember the Belon Oysters of Locquemariaquer on the Gulf of Moribund, France and other oyster adventures, but this memoir must get on with it.
My very good friend Marcia Gilmartin and I decided to take a special holiday trip to New York City. We planned it quite well and ordered tickets for three plays. On one Friday early evening, we caught the sleeper train from Washington to New York City. This train allowed us to board anytime between 7 and 11 pm, and then departed while we went to bed in our berths. We got off the train in early morning, and checked in to our hotel. From that trip, two things stand out for me. First, the plays we saw, Carmen Jones, Othello with Paul Robeson, A Touch of Venus with Mary Martin and the smash hit of the season, Oklahoma!
I must say here that my very favorite memory of this trip is the chicken liver mousse on the menu at a little French restaurant named Marnel’s.
In this very young period of my life, I was learning to eat the foods of the world and this mousse stands out. I found the recipe for this mousse 25 years later in Julia Child’s book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I made it! The recipe from her book includes these ingredients:
2 cups chicken livers
2 tablespoons minced shallots or green onions
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1/3 cup Madeira or cognac
1/4 cup whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon allspice
1/8 teaspoon pepper
a pinch of thyme
It was so smooth and glorious and flavorful on the tongue. It’s the best!
I joined the United Federal Workers Union, CIO, as soon as it came into my sight. I have a leaflet advertising a meeting, which featured Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt. Dated June 7, 1943, the leaflet advertised United Nations Week and a talk by Mrs. Roosevelt. She would speak on FDR’s proposal for a post-war United Nations Organization designed to resolve differences diplomatically rather than in war. The descriptive wording told us, too, of other events, which would honor the U.N. As I hold this fragile 71-year-old leaflet in my hand, I have to remember how passionately I, and millions of others, believed in the United Nations, believed that there would be no more blood soaking the soils of the earth. No more wars!
CIO-PAC, New York City, 1944
My memoir group teacher said, “I want you to write of the most important moment in your life, and really put yourself in it.” As I left the group meeting that day, my mind scanned through the decades of my life searching for significant events of my past. I recalled two marriages and my time working as a union organizer. My memory jumped right over these and went to the moment when the phone rang in my room in Washington, DC on K Street in January 1944. It was Russ on the phone telling me that I had a job in New York City with CIO-PAC (Congress of Industrial Organizations Political Action Committee). The aim of this new committee was to help re-elect President Roosevelt to a fourth term.
The phone call sent a jolt of joy, of intense thrill never before felt, from my ear pressed to the receiver through my body to land explosively in my stomach. I could recall this intense emotion for many years in the future. This was the lucky break, the life-changing event to top all others before and since. I believed that I had now a toehold entry to work in the trade union movement.
A friend, with whom I worked in Washington, told me that her parents had a spare bedroom that I could rent in her parent’s home in New York City. 490 West End Avenue near 83rd Street was my new address, having borrowed $50 from my parents to help with the move. The West End apartment was truly grand in its size: a huge living room, same for the dining room, kitchen with a dinette, three bedrooms, two baths and a live-in cook-maid, Anita. She cooked my breakfast every morning.
The CIO-PAC offices were on 42nd Street near Lexington Avenue on the 8th floor of a large office building. When people asked, I said I worked near the Commodore Hotel and they immediately knew what I meant. I was hired as a Research Assistant. My first job was to call the Washington, D.C. offices of every Federal government agency to get on their mailing list and to receive copies of their most recent published material. We needed background material to support our efforts to get Roosevelt re-elected.
A few days later, I was shocked to see my name in a front-page article describing the CIO-PAC and its offices. Apparently the telephone company gave this information to the paper attempting to show CIO-PAC’s ties to the Federal government. The attempt here was to insinuate that the Federal Government and the trade union movement were conniving hand in hand to get Roosevelt re-elected to a fourth term and to enhance the power of the trade unions.
My work at CIO-PAC was to assist my boss, Palmer Webber, in gathering political and public information on which our mass leaflets would be based, as we sought to explain the issues facing the U.S. in the 1944 election. The work was interesting, as were the people who worked there. One day Vice-President Henry Wallace walked through and shook hands with all. I was on a business phone call and did not know how to end it. So I greeted him with my left hand.
Our CIO-PAC office was a one-floor layout with both private offices and groupings of desks. There may have been about fifteen employees, most of whom had established their roots at the state level of the Democratic Party or the trade union movement. Others came from the art world, such as Ben Shahn. Beanie Baldwin was an admirer and advocate for Henry Wallace.
There were only a few, including myself, who had almost no skills in this kind of political work. I have thought about my work at PAC and decades later, I still feel critical of myself because I didn’t know how to get things done. As one example, I was sent to the New York Public Library to search of a particular political fact that Sidney Hillman wanted to include in a speech. With pounding heart, I searched the microfiche to find the information he needed. I did not find it on the microfiche and I did not have the good sense to go to the librarian and ask for help.
During that summer I had a new learning experience. It was then that I was first introduced to anti-Semitism. Two friends went to one of the many resorts in the New York area for a few days of rest and relaxation. One, who was Jewish, had a last name of Keane, and the other who was not Jewish, had a married name of Shapiro. The resort refused entry to Shapiro because she was thought to be Jewish. Such was the easy discrimination of the 1940’s.
Later, I learned that it was the practice of the major private universities to keep the number of Jewish students to 10% of the class. My friend, Al Solnit, was aware of this stricture and spoke of it to me. Yale did accept Al into their Medical Psychiatry Department. He went on to be a well-known professor in this field.
I had grown up in a narrow circle of family and friends. In the San Joaquin Valley of those days, mocking remarks were aimed at the Italians and Armenians. My mother often used “old Armenian” and “dago” in speaking of these people. One of Mother’s dearest friends was of Armenian heritage and Mother had an Italian brother in-law and a Mexican sister-in-law. Go figure.
Some of the friends I made at CIO-PAC were Ruth Wilson and Mal and Peggy Hobbs. Ruth Wilson was the wife of Luke Wilson whose family owned department stores and other properties. He was extremely wealthy and at the time, was in the Armed forces, stationed in Europe. Ruth Wilson rented the apartment of Katherine Cornell, perhaps the most famous stage actress of the time. For me, this apartment was an eye-opener as to how wealthy people could live. Cornell’s apartment was small, beautifully lit, and with intimate seating arrangements with upholstered furniture in a lively yellow.
As in Washington, people were on the move, so friends came through. Marcia Gilmartin had an apartment in New York, but she was traveling for her job a great deal and I saw her from time to time. Al Solnit also visited occasionally. These were really good friends and we always had a lot of laughs.
I still remember coming into the kitchen for breakfast that morning of June 6, 1944. The maid, Anita, had the radio on and she could only whisper the words, “It’s here.” The D-Day landing had occurred. Fifty-six years later, I visited Utah Beach, where U.S. troops had landed that day; still standing on the cliff above were the German pillboxes from which their soldiers shot and killed our troops as they waded onto the beach.
My friend, Russ Nixon, with a Ph.D. from Harvard in Economics, stood out amongst the trade union staffers in Washington. He told me of his extraordinary experience meeting General Marshall. Russ entered the Army as a private and was sent to boot camp in Texas for training. He wrote to me from there telling me that the training days were long and that he was spending time with other soldiers who needed help to write letters to their families. When Russ left Texas, on his way to Europe in the summer of 1944, General George C. Marshall, head of all Armed Forces, sent a message to Russ that he wanted to see him at the War Department in D.C. before Russ left for Europe. These two men were strangers to each other. General Marshall sent a car for Russ and when he arrived at the War Department, Marshall wanted to know what was going on at the lower levels of the Army. What was the morale like? What were the conditions? He may also have discussed with him Russ’ upcoming assignment with Army intelligence in Europe. His work would be to find and bring to justice members of the leadership of the Nazi army. The event described above may leave the reader surprised. But I cannot forego emphasizing the enormous chasm between yesterday’s political climate and today’s. Russ, a left-wing officer of a left-wing union, was invited by the Chief of all U.S. Armed Forces to come and talk to him about the Army, especially its morale and behavior. Can you imagine any such event happening today?
While working at CIO-PAC during the spring of 1944, I received a bill from the IRS for $100 income tax due on my 1943 wages at OPA. Workers all over the U.S. received similar bills because the government had to pay for World War II. This “pay as you go” plan was devised by Mr. Ruml, and it levied income taxes on a whole strata of workers who had never paid income taxes before. I sent a note back to the IRS telling them I had no money to pay this tax. About a year later, two good looking young men showed up at my cottage door on Warring Street in Berkeley asking for their $100! I told them I would pay $10 per month, and as low as my wages had been my entire working life, I ponied up my income taxes, thanks to Mr. Ruml.
November 1944 was the first election in which I was qualified to vote. The age limit was 21 at the time so I missed 1940, but in this year, I was able to send my absentee ballot to California. This was the first of seventeen presidential votes that I have cast in this long life.
I left New York City in late November of 1944. My job with CI0-PAC had ended when the Presidential election was over. Franklin D. Roosevelt was re-elected to his fourth term. I was heading west to California and would be looking for a job in the trade union movement. I had references from CI0-PAC and big hopes. I had not seen my parents for two years. I don’t believe I had any special thoughts about them. I was totally self-absorbed now and focused on finding a job.
I boarded the train, a reserved seat on a “Pullman” car, and looked expectantly because trains were fun in those days. They were filled with people: families, workers like me and dozens of service men and women. Sometimes between short hops, travelers would stand in the aisles. There were always busy voices, always movement.
At meal times, passengers lined up for the dining car. The rule was that service people were the first to be served, then civilians. So, I was standing in the line as it snaked along the windows forming a narrow line. I had taken a book, a biography of “La Passionara,”, Delores Ibarruri, a heroine of the Republican Army and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Spain. The party was amongst those opposing the fascist forces of General Franco in the civil war (1936-1938). I heard a voice say, “Where did you get that book?” It was an Army man asking. He appeared friendly and curious. I said, “It’s mine, a gift.” He moved on to the diner. Shortly after, I heard another voice say, “Where did you get that book?” Again I looked up to see another GI who had taken interest in my reading choice. I replied, “It’s mine, a gift.” And he too moved on to the diner. And shortly after that, two G.I.’s came up to me asking me to join their table. There we were, seven of us, all crowded around, talking excitedly, interrupting each other, laughing and talking of the war, which then seemed to be all but over in Europe. There was an intense feeling of camaraderie. It was pretty clear that these GIs and I were all “lefties” on the political spectrum. We exchanged notes on our lives, immediate futures and the talk of the war. They were all heading to the Pacific. We fell silent. This was wartime, and our futures were all in someone else’s hands. They would soon be on ships taking them to an unknown battleground. We exchanged some addresses. We never used them.
We stopped at the North Platte, Nebraska train station, famous for it’s canteen, where local women set up hospitality tables specifically for servicemen traveling through. The offerings were free and consisted of sandwiches, cokes and other tasty snacks. The women of Platte became nationally known for this war effort.
When the train pulled into Sacramento, there was Belle Peck Shapiro and Eleanor Jackson waiting to drive me home. They didn’t know that my parents had planned to pick me up at the following stop in Stockton, so I was unable to accept their offer. I loved these two women. We were all kinda “free spirits.” Belle had a great sense of humor along with her “roll with the punches” attitude towards life. Eleanor became a noted attorney helping the “99%”. But, because we did not live static lives, we were rarely in the same place at the same time.
My parents picked me up and drove me to their home in San Andreas, the gold mining area of California. My father worked in a lumber mill there. I spent the holidays here with my parents before I would head to San Francisco looking for a job.
I remember standing in my parent’s living room as I read the Fresno Bee newspaper and its startling front-page headline announcing the “Battle of the Bulge”. A shock of fear went through me: how could this happen? And oh God, how much longer would this war go on? We were later to learn that the German army had run out of fuel, and could go no further and that the attack caught the Allied commanders by surprise, due to the failure of their own intelligence units.
During World War II, I followed the events of the war very closely, reading the New York Times daily to find out where our troops were in the world. But the media was cagey about U.S. losses and fatalities. How many of us knew then that it took 10,000 U.S. lives to win the island of Tarawa? I had to wait until I read John Hersey’s book of the same name, Tarawa.
More “On the Job” Training
In early January I was on my way to San Francisco. I would share Belle Peck Shapiro’s little cottage on Warring Street in Berkeley for a while. Her husband, Barney, was in the Service some place, not at the Bulge or the Pacific. I headed for the State CIO’s office, 150 Golden Gate Avenue in the City where I had a reference from the CIO-PAC. I was hired as a Research Assistant by Paul Pinsky, Research Director of the State CIO. I am looking at a news clipping from the State CIO News showing myself, “Mary Whitehead” and Rea Seiler, who would be Secretary for this little office of the two of us. In the attendant narrative, our resumes are listed with mine cited as “Research” worker of the O.P.A in Washington, D. C. and for the CIO-PAC in New York City.
In Sacramento, where I was about half the week, I stayed in a cheap hotel and ate my meals on the run. In the 1940’s, Sacramento was a medium sized city with many wide streets, lined with trees and in that way resembled most of California’s smaller cities and towns. The summer heat, endured by all residents of the “Great Valley”, with Sacramento at its northern end and Bakersfield in the south, had convinced earlier settlers to plant trees, lots of trees. In the spring of 1945 and 1946 Sacramento was warm and sunny unlike the foggy Bay Area.
In 1945, the CIO was focused on jobs. With the end of the war imminent, war industries would be closing down and service men and women would be returning looking for jobs. Jobs were the big issue.
The “heavy hitters” from the CIO came in to town to testify before the State Assembly and Senate committees on really important matters and to lend their lobbying presence to our organized efforts to be an effective lobby. This entire operation was the creation of Mervyn Rathbone, Legislative Analyst of the State CIO. California had shipping, fishing, shipbuilding, and one steel plant in southern California (the Kaiser Fontana plant) and, of course, our major industries, agriculture and canned foods. But even with all of that, California was still considered a lightweight in industrial production. As Mervyn would remind me over and over, our state was seen as a “colony”, the sales venue where we bought what the rest of the country manufactured. Our product was food and not seen as important. Merv’s aim was to raise the level of California industry and to enhance the trade union movement.
Paul Pinsky, Research Director of the State CIO and one of my bosses, and I started to go through all the bills introduced into the legislature for that term. With Paul’s guidance, we chose those bills that pertained to working people’s needs. I attended all of the committee hearings, which were relevant to our interests. In some cases, I testified on behalf of or against a bill. It was quite an experience, and as I think about it today, where did I dig up the nerve to do all of this?
After being trained by Paul in San Francisco, I would head up the CIO’s Sacramento office during the 1945 State Legislature session that spring. My job was to keep eyes and ears open for any legislation the CIO would be interested in. Before I left for Sacramento, I had sat down with Paul and we went over the bills already introduced. He began to mark each one as to whether the CIO would be interested. Most of the bills were the other kind, “chicken shit” as Paul called them. They were of no interest to anyone except the Legislator who introduced them. So my page of bills had many “c.s’s” in the margins. I think our meetings started, or encouraged me, to use the word shit. It has become a staple of my vocabulary.
I want to remember here, a special person, Assemblyman Gus Hawkins. He was small in stature and I marvel at the load of legislation he carried. He was the only African-American in the assembly, so efforts to adopt Fair Employment Practices were on his plate. He was a friend of the trade unions and we spoke to him often. He was a true liberal and served many years in the Assembly.
At the end of the Legislative session, I left Sacramento. The CIO Fisherman’s Union had asked me to work for it as an organizer and sent me down to Princeton-by-the-Sea near Half Moon Bay. This was the most bizarre job I ever held. I spent my days sitting in the bar of a little hotel there drinking Coffee Royales. My job was to find out if a seafood processing plant would be built nearby. There was a fellow spy from the International Longshoreman’s Association (ILA) who was also drinking Coffee Royales at the bar. Fortunately, this strange experience did not last long. No plant was ever built.
I have memories of two events. I was in Princeton-by-the-Sea when the newspapers announced the explosion of the atom bomb over Japan on August 5, 1945. Before I grasped the full horror of the bomb, my first thought was – the war will end.
The second event was a visit from my family. My mother, my sister Jewel, and my aunt Cecilia (Sister Augustina), visited me, and I have photos of the four of us. I love these photos because they show all of us at the prime of our lives – at the young end and at the older end. And, it was an extremely rare occurrence for us to be together. Soon after, the Fisherman’s Union asked me to go to Eureka to work with the Local Union there.
The Fishermen’s Union in Eureka
On an ancient train headed to Eureka, 300 miles up the California coast from San Francisco, I was the sole passenger in a coach lined with red plush seats. This was an all-night journey and I knew that I would sleep little. The train was the Northwestern and it would not be in business much longer. The business the train once had, lumber and fish, was now being shipped by large trucks on Highway 101 because they could handle the freight and mail faster and cheaper than by rail.
I stepped off the train in Eureka on August 14th, 1945. Helen, a new friend, met me there and I asked her to take me to a store where I could buy some trousers, since I had no appropriate clothing for the docks where I would be working. As we were looking at the display of trousers on the mezzanine floor of this small department store, we heard a murmur from the floor below growing ever stronger by the second. When we asked what was happening we learned that World War II had ended.
The Fishermen’s Union (International Fishermen & Allied Workers of America CIO) had hired me to replace Helen as the Eureka Local No. 38 Union Representative because she was moving to San Francisco with her husband and child, darling Margaret, who had just had her second birthday. When I met Margaret she was crying and Helen said she was in the “no” stage. Helen was a kind and thoughtful person and introduced me to the union leadership and to the work involved. My job was to be the person on site who would make a call the right person if trouble arose. Oh, yes, and to “keep the books”: tracking the union dues income and paying the phone bill.
The Union had the tiniest office one can imagine; I’m guessing it was 8’ x 8’ tops — a stand-alone little building with one window, a large desk, some shelves and two chairs. The little building stood on the wharf on Humboldt Bay, across from the big sheds where the women worked. It was comfortable except I had to use the toilet of the bar next door. This bar thrived off the fishermen who spent their wages there, particularly when the weather was so bad that they could not take their boats out. On such days, as the hours ticked by, the voices got louder and louder. The whole scene — bad weather, fishermen gathering at the bar to commiserate with one another, spending money on drink that their families needed (I opined), so incensed me that I gave up drinking for a time. And that was a sacrifice because I had really enjoyed the martinis at the hotel bar.
Eureka was a town of about 23,000 people. The two main industries were lumber and fishing. The town had a real working class feel to it. Houses were mostly of the one-story, 2-bedroom type; the downtown was low-keyed; there was one hotel suitable to stay in, it was affordable, and further it was walking distance to my tiny office. But, in my memory, the feel and the look of Eureka is one of fog, fog, fog.
Nearly 100 of the Local Union’s members were women who worked on the docks in cold, drafty sheds open to Humboldt Bay and the Pacific Ocean just beyond. They stood at long waist-high tables, with knee-high rubber boots and long rubber aprons, hair tied up with scarves…running water everywhere. The fresh whole fish came onto the metal-lined tables. The women, with one stroke on each side, cut off the meat of the fish, putting the filets aside and throwing the fish skeleton in a box on the floor. It was a highly skilled and dangerous job as the reader can well envision — no slip of the hand, else a nasty accident. I am happy to include in this tale that I helped to negotiate a 10 cents an hour wage increase for these women workers — a significant increase in 1945. The fishermen, all male, were mostly single boat owners who caught crab in season and various kinds of flat fish at other times. The Union was of great value to the fishermen for it represented their collective wishes in negotiations with the big brokers to set the price per pound that they would receive for their labor. Looming in the future, no it was actually already here, were a few drag boats, which the fishermen knew were a threat to their long established livelihood. We saw them sometimes in the ocean as they passed by Humboldt Bay. These boats were large, motorized factories, dragging behind them deep, deep in the ocean, a mammoth net which caught all fish in its craw.
At one point during my time in Eureka I got a brainstorm concerning the AFL unions in town. These were largely the crafts workers unions. I wrote to the AFL (American Federation of Labor) Labor Council asking if we could meet and talk about working together on some projects. The Council replied, inviting me to meet with them. I had expected a small group, but much to my surprise, I found about 50 members seated in chairs lining the walls of a large room. This was not going to be a friendly meeting where we might throw ideas back and forth. I spoke my remarks from the low stage at the front of the room and when I finished no one said a word! The room was silent. There was no clapping. This was unnerving and a bit scary, but I was thanked by the Chair and I walked through the silent room to the exit. I did not pursue togetherness.
Towards the end of the year, the State CIO asked me to work again in Sacramento during the 1946 spring session of the California State Legislature. I said yes and I left Eureka by year’s end. I will always remember Eureka. It was the character of these workingmen and women and how hard they had to work to make a living. Eureka took me back to my beginnings in life watching and remembering my father’s years in the lumber mills.
During this time, I was invited by the Orientation Department to address a group of returning Pacific theater officers. Two of us, myself and a member of the famed Associated Farmers of California were to speak at McClellan Air Force base to about 400 returning veteran Air Force officers. I say famed, but I should say infamous, because the Associated Farmers of California led horrific fights against the trade union movements and organized farmworkers. I gave a strong defense of the right of women to work at a time when there was contention about their right to work in the factories alongside men. Millions of women had worked in the factories in WW II. I also spoke about the current strike for an 18 cent an hour wage increase, much in the news. Wages had been frozen all during the War. I remember the officers were cool to my remarks, they shifted in their seats, and didn’t clap when I had finished.
In the 1946 term of the Assembly, all trade unions, women’s organizations and child care proponents zeroed in on a bill to extend the life of the free / low cost child care facilities as they had operated in the entire state during the war. There was intense lobbying on this by both sides of the issue. The dramatic moment came as the bill was up for its final vote. All legislators were in their seats; the gallery was filled and I was there. Gardiner Johnson, an urbane smooth operator was Speaker of the Assembly. The vote was taken and it was a tie! Johnson had given the leading women’s organizations some idea that he would vote in favor of this bill. We, in our observer’s seats in the balcony, waited with cautious optimism. Johnson voted “Nay”, killing the bill.