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PORTSIDE  January 2012, Week 3

PORTSIDE January 2012, Week 3

Subject:

Walter Johnson Did What Needed To Be Done

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Date:

Tue, 17 Jan 2012 20:46:44 -0500

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text/plain (171 lines)

Walter Johnson did what needed to be done

By Dick Meister 
San Francisco Bay Guardian 
January 16, 2012

http://www.sfbg.com/bruce/2012/01/16/dick-meister-walter-johnson-did-what-needed-be-done

Walter Johnson was everything a labor leader should be - a
dedicated, unflinching, champion of working people and their
unions. But more than that, Walter was also an unyielding
advocate of all those  inside and outside the labor movement
who wanted - and badly needed - a decent living , or who were
in any way oppressed.

Johnson, who died in San Francisco of a heart attack on Jan.
 12 at age 87, devoted his life to that noble - yes, noble -
 task as head of the Department Store and Retail Clerks
 unions in San Francisco. He also later headed the SF Labor
 Council for nearly 20 years, from 1985 until his retirement
 in 2004.

 Walter was a genuine humanitarian, a kind, thoughtful man
 who very much liked and sincerely wanted to help people, who
 freely acknowledged the contributions of others who joined
 him in his efforts for social, political and economic
 justice, who seemed always ready and eager to do what needed
 to be done.

He was a man of great good humor, an outgoing man who seemed
to get along with just about everybody, even some of his
toughest adversaries. I know, I know. That surely does sound
like pure hyperbole. But, believe me, it's not, as many
others who knew Walter Johnson could tell you.

Listen to Art Pulaski, who heads the California State AFL-
CIO. He declared that Johnson "was a big and fearless
advocate for everyone and anyone who was wronged, mistreated,
put down, left out, pushed aside or just down on their luck.
He was fearless because he always followed his faith, his
values and his heart."

Despite the seriousness of his undertakings and his
militancy, Johnson was no grim advocate. Whatever the
situation, there was always lots of good-natured teasing, and
jibes to be traded with friends. And jokes, always jokes -
always! Corny, make-you-groan jokes usually, but effective at
lessening the tensions that invariably came with the
struggles he helped lead.

One look at Johnson's face made clear his Scandinavian
 background, a mixture of Norwegian and Swedish. But you
 wouldn't necessarily recognize him as a labor leader. He
 didn't fit the stereotype. He almost invariably dressed in
 coat and tie and otherwise looked more like the public image
 of a business leader, more like management than labor.

Many union leaders spend most of their time in their offices,
but Walter was out on the picket lines, or marching or
otherwise demonstrating in support of the demands of his
union and others, as well as those of other organizations
also demanding justice. He was arrested several times for
joining in sit-ins and other demonstrations that the
authorities wanted to halt. And Johnson kept that up, despite
his retirement.

I met Walter thanks to my job as the Chronicle's labor
editor. That was in the early 1960s, a few years after he had
arrived in San Francisco from his native North Dakota to work
as a Sears appliance salesman.

Dave Selvin, the labor historian and former public
information officer for the Labor Council, had told me I
should be sure to check out "a young guy" who'd just been
elected president of the Department Store Employees. Walter
Johnson, of course.

Selvin predicted good things for Johnson, and he was right.

Under Johnson's leadership, San Francisco store clerks,
 department store employees and others won labor contacts at
 least as rewarding as the contracts as those who held
 similar jobs elsewhere.

Johnson was a key leader in winning strong, virtually
unprecedented support for labor from City Hall and the Board
of Supervisors - especially from Mayor Joseph Alioto.

Union representatives were appointed to many city
commissions, major job creating construction projects were
approved, and Alioto stepped in to mediate settlements of
major strikes. Picketing strikers could be pretty certain
police wouldn't interfere. New businesses unfriendly to labor
found it difficult to get the necessary city permits. Thanks
to Johnson and other leaders, labor had gained considerable
political clout to go with its considerable economic clout.

Johnson didn't fear clashing with the AFL-CIO and its other
affiliated unions as long as he felt he was right. He was one
of the few labor leaders to speak out against the Vietnam
War, which was wholeheartedly supported by the AFL-CIO's
national leadership and most of its affiliates.

Johnson was a leader in the growing global union movement
 that aims to create a powerful international labor
 federation that would bring the world's unions close
 together to deal with "global capitalism" and thus improve
 the often deplorable conditions of many workers in many
 countries.

Closer to home, Johnson was one of the first labor leaders to
give unconditional support to the LGBT movement. He was an
important supporter of proposals to create a gay organization
within the labor movement, despite the homophobic nature of
most unions at that time. Johnson played a key role in the
founding of the LGBT group that became Pride at Work in 2004.

Nancy Wohlforth, the current president of Pride at Work and
 now an AFL-CIO Executive Council member, had approached
 Johnson with the idea of such a group in 1979 and was
 shocked when he readily agreed it was a great idea.
 Wohlforth was so thankful for his help she dubbed him "an
 honorary lesbian."

"Walter was thrilled," Wohlforth said.

She later was the new business manager of a San Francisco
secretarial union that was on strike against a union group
that employed its members. Wohlforth noted that Johnson could
very easily have avoided being involved, but "he dove right
in."

"He walked the picket line on rainy days and led a toy drive
for the strikers during the Christmas holiday. He was, as
always, so concerned that workers would know that they were
supported at that difficult time.

"Working people's struggles were always on his mind. I'm sure
he dreamed of them every night - and he constantly was coming
up with ways to make people's lives better. He truly was my
hero and he will be missed so much by all who were fortunate
enough to know him."

Amen to that.

______________

Dick Meister, former labor editor of the SF Chronicle and
KQED-TV, has covered labor and politics for more than a half-
century, Contact him through his website,
www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 350 of his
columns,

___________________________________________

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