1968: San Francisco's Year of the Strike
|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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Copyright © 2008 Dick Meister
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