If you were holding a copy of The San Francisco Call in your hands on this day 125 years ago, you’d be reading about the arrival of William Pinkerton and his detective agency to the City, where they were contracting with corporations.
The year was 1896. Utah had just been minted the 45th state, San Francisco’s new Cliff House was featured prominently, with service by the Sutro Electrical Street Railway, and the now-outdated 1895 Rambler bicycle was discounted $15 to $85.
The Painters Union was in the midst of a strike against St. Denis & Co., and working painters, plasterers and others were chipping in to provide support. This would prove to be an important fight, with citywide committees set in place and reporting back to the Building Trades Council.
The strike would end victorious for the Union and lead to the establishment of the card system, guaranteeing contractors would employ only card-carrying Union members.
Delegates of the Building Trades set out to enforce the early model of the Union shop, and contractors agreed to hire only Union labor. P.H. McCarthy, a Union carpenter who had immigrated from County Limerick, Ireland, would rise to lead the newly formed S.F. Building Trades Council and later go on to serve as the 29th mayor of San Francisco.
Politics, social norms, and the economy would continue to shift — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse — but one thing would remain: The hardworking Union families of the City would, time and again, be taken on by employers of every industry. And standing guard would be the delegates, representatives, and elected leaders of our Unions.
Advancing the Labor Movement, 125 Years On
Today’s headlines have been dominated by national political affairs, COVID-19, soaring public approval of Unions (64% nationwide!), and yes, of course, school reopenings. Here I will take a personal point of privilege, ascend the soap box, and insert my own take on the matter.
First, the Building Trades must stand in solidarity with the educators and professionals with whom we align as Unionists, and whom, frankly, we trust with the welfare and lives of our own children. We must also stand on the side of public education as an institution, and, after we sift through the politics and posturing, see a grand opportunity to reinvest in our schools in every way.
Second, let’s be honest about our priorities. Our schools were in disrepair due to insurmountable deferred maintenance and with staff underpaid and in short supply, and districts across the state were starved. As a father, I can attest to the disproportionate impact this kind of austerity has on young children, especially those with special needs. But I cannot lay blame on the educators who have been doing their best to offer education and community, even if through a computer screen and with their own kids in the background.
Finally, let’s not forget the workers who have been on the job throughout the pandemic. Plumbers, sheet metal workers, laborers, electricians, carpenters, teamsters, engineers, glaziers, painters, roofers, and water proofers have been continuously reporting to work, where they find themselves on shoestring budgets with too few staff. Alongside them, food service workers have staffed food distribution facilities, and custodians have disinfected facilities. IT and help desk staff have delivered technology and support to students. The list goes on.
So, let’s have the conversation about reinvesting in public education and prioritizing our schools. One of the easiest things we can do is fast-track capital improvement plans; if we’re serious about equity, let’s start with schools in our poorest neighborhoods. We have contractors and skilled tradespeople ready to modernize, green, and make safe our middle and high schools even after we begin reopening the lower grades. We have done the work to chart a course toward reopening, with the recently announced baseline safety agreement at SFUSD.
The Trades stand ready to reopen learning sites safely and under the best possible conditions. We remain clear-eyed about limitations due to underfunding, retention, and staffing challenges, but we nevertheless see hope in the recently negotiated safety agreement. We look forward to support from our federal, state, and local leaders to help us realize learning environments and facilities that are worthy of our students.
As we embark on our 125th year as a Council, we will continue to fight for safety, fair pay, healthcare, and retirement security — all in the name of safeguarding the working class. We must ensure the next generation has a path to the middle class, and with a Union label!