Michael Theriault headshot

Just hours before this edition of Organized Labor went to press, word came that Mayor Ed Lee had died.

I set aside the column I had been writing, on the likely damage of Republican tax plans to our organizing. That topic, alas, will likely have even more awful clarity next month.

Ed Lee was a true friend of the Building Trades.

This cannot have been easy for him.

Those who know this Council’s history know that its origins were defined almost as much by opposition to Asian immigration as by successful advocacy for white, mostly ethnic workers. The otherwise brilliant record of this newspaper was marred in its early years by the virulently anti-Asian screeds of the Council’s otherwise brilliant first Secretary-Treasurer, Olaf Tveitmoe.

Despite this Council’s efforts, the City’s Asian population grew, and after more than a century began to achieve some of the respect and power it should have had – and would have had, in a republic true to its stated values – from a day when City streets were mud and our homes little more than tents.

The Trades retained some hard kernel of this bias for generations. The growing Asian population did not need reminders of our exclusionary history. It experienced the exclusion afresh with each passing decade.

And so it was in a San Francisco with few union-signatory Asian contractors and little union penetration into the Asian workforce that a young Ed Lee, raised in Seattle and educated in Maine, began advocacy for his community.

Part of that advocacy was on behalf of primarily non-union Asian contractors. Over time, the future mayor helped these contractors obtain a solid share of City work that sustained them and increased their number. It also gave them their own political power.

Meanwhile Building Trades workers who had grown up in an era of civil rights foment moved into leadership. Their recognition of the problems posed by division between Asian contractors and the Trades and their commitment to advancement of Asian workers led them to organize among those contractors and workers.

They had and continue to have success. I will claim some slight credit in this, having organized for the Iron Workers under the very capable and effective Danny Prince.

But this success has not been complete. Some of the shortfall belongs to the contractors; few non-union businesses, no matter their ethnicity, graciously accept union representation for their employees. Some of the shortfall belongs to us; I have in this column expressed frustration that – after more than a century and a half of Chinese monolingual construction workers in San Francisco – many of our locals have not found means of communicating with them.

Ed Lee was therefore caught between the contractors for which he had advocated from his arrival and the unions that had made great progress in representing Asian workers.

I believe he recognized our progress. At the same time, I knew our push for a Citywide project labor agreement policy put him in a hard position, and in my heart at moments regretted this.

Because Ed Lee was a true friend of the Building Trades.

Many forget or ignore that he took office during what was for us a second Great Depression. The construction resulting from his steps to bring tech jobs to the City kept many of us in homes and in medical benefits and kept our families intact. He saw also how we helped San Franciscans through our apprenticeships from difficult straits into new lives, and so his staff ensured that developers also knew this, so that when our work returned, it was in fact ours, and on much of it we have negotiated project labor agreements that will keep it ours for a generation.

I have seen the graffiti and tweets calling him a tool of tech. Many forget or ignore that we are stuck with capitalism unless and until it fails so completely as to bring revolution, and that revolution fails as often as or more often than it succeeds. Those devoted to the present needs of workers and families are obliged, then, to ensure that business succeeds while simultaneously obtaining for workers everything that does not kill this success.

We struggle with this continuously.

So did Ed Lee.

The unexpectedly complete triumph of his efforts to bring jobs brought also new crises of housing shortages and displacement.

He sought tenant protections from Sacramento. He pushed for low-income and veteran and homeless housing. He engineered the rebuild of most of the City’s public housing. He accepted that production of market-rate housing reduces pressure on the existing housing stock.

He did not have all the answers in this. No one does.

Let us give him credit for his real achievements.

To Ed Lee, for saving the homes, healthcare, families of many thousands of Building Trades workers, thank you.

To Ed Lee, for helping the Building Trades advance another generation of workers, thank you.

To Ed Lee, for growing in your relationship with us as we have grown in ours with your community, thank you.

To Ed Lee, for grappling honestly and humbly with the City’s challenges, as I hope we will all do in your memory, thank you.

Organized Labor


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