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Latest News - October 2014

October 19, 2014
Labor union honors Richmond woman for shining light on discrimination that it once practiced
Source: Contra Costa Times
By: Chris Treadway

RICHMOND -- It's not unusual for Betty Reid Soskin to be recognized for her efforts to explain the discriminatory conditions faced by minority and women workers on the World War II home front. It's quite another thing when the recognition comes from the very union that once practiced the discrimination she witnessed.

That's what happened Sept. 19 at the 16th annual Labor to Labor dinner hosted by Contra Costa County labor organizations at the Craneway Pavilion in Richmond, when the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers surprised Soskin with an award "in honor of your home front service and your dedication to preserving a transformational chapter in U.S. history for women and people of color."

The significance of the gesture was not lost on Soskin, who regularly gives talks and tours at the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park. Those events oftenrelate her experience being relegated to work during the war as a clerk at the Richmond office of the auxiliary union local established for black workers who were not allowed in the segregated and powerful Boilermakers local.

"I think that's amazing," she said of the gesture. "There is no reason today's Boilermakers need to carry that baggage. They chose to go back in time and own that history and seek redemption."

The labor banquet, an annual fundraiser for the Contra Costa Central Labor Council and Building and Construction Trades Councils, AFL-CIO, is normally held at the Concord Hilton. It was moved to Richmond this year to honor the event's featured honoree, retiring U.S. Rep. George Miller, D-Martinez, in the city of his birth.

The decision to make Soskin this year's working woman honoree "was really a no-brainer," said Margaret Hanlon-Gradie, executive director of the Central Labor Council of Contra Costa County, AFL-CIO, which includes 70 affiliated unions.

"She represents the women's work experience, the African-American work experience," Hanlon-Gradie said. "We knew she had been in a segregated union."

There was no reluctance to acknowledge that past. "That's one of the things the Boilermakers stands for," Hanlon-Gradie said. "You've got to be honest about your history. I don't think the union knew the story."

Soskin, who turned 94 three days after the banquet, is the oldest full-time ranger in the National Park Service, and her popular talks have enlightened a new generation to the often-overlooked struggle for equality during the war, and the sacrifices and toll that took.

An example is the threat by the Boilermakers to send its membership of 40,000 in Portland, Oregon, out on strike in 1943 unless the Kaiser shipyards there revoked the promotions "of eight New York Negroes" classified as skilled workers.

"The park was designed to remember and celebrate the years 1941 to '45, and that's part of the history I deal with in my talks," she said. "That was perfectly acceptable at the time. That's where we were in history. Now we've moved on, and I think it's something to be shared. I think it's a marker in time."

As far as Soskin is concerned, that period has no connection to the Boilermakers union of today, which has among the most diverse memberships of labor organizations in the United States. And that was what she found most moving about the award.

"I thought this was all delegated to the past. I thought it was a nonissue," she said. "I mean, it's been 70 years, come on. It was only important because most people knew little about race relations of those times, and I was able to put a face on it."

Boilermakers International Union Vice President Tom Baca, who presented Soskin with the award, acknowledged that "back in the day, the trade unions were probably like the rest of the country, not very color-friendly. We were not unique. Black, Latino-American, Indian workers were not welcome."

Along with honoring Soskin for "her years of service, her dedication" in championing the cause of equality and a forgotten part of history, the award "was for all the Rosies, all the women, all the people of color," Baca said. "They put it all on the line and were treated like dirt.

"Everything's changed, and it was people like her that brought that change on," Baca said, noting that people of color now make up more than half the Boilermaker membership.

Most of the workers of the era who endured the Jim Crow work environment are not alive more than 70 years later to see a moment they could have only dreamed about.

"Today's young people do not understand that history," Soskin said. "They have no way to understand how far we've come since the second world war. I guess if anything is true, it's that history is still being written."



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