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.
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
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
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.
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
"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."
Copyright © 2012 Dick Meister