Walter Johnson, Friend of all Workers, is Dead

Written by FCJ Editor. Posted in News

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Published on January 13, 2012 with 1 Comment

By Carl Hall (via Media Workers Guild)

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with tributes from San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson, Mayor Ed Lee and Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom (see below).

January 13, 2012

Walter Johnson, RIP. Photo by Linda Post.

Longtime San Francisco Labor Council secretary-treasurer Walter Johnson has died after a heart attack suffered last week.

Mr. Johnson, a lifetime member of the UFCW, was a ferocious defender of worker rights and civil rights whose dignified bearing and droll humor never wavered.

“He was the ideal witness,” Duane Beeson, the veteran Oakland labor lawyer, said Friday. “He had a completely accurate memory. He was always truthful. But he had an irrepressible sense of humor, and invariably, during the middle of his answer, he would slip in something completely outrageous. But for some reason the judge would always allow it.”

He liked to needle members of the Media Workers Guild as “intellectuals,” but during the 1994 San Francisco newspaper strike, he was the smartest one on the picket lines. He seemed to know more about Puccini than the opera critics.

He never looked down on anybody, even though he seemed tall as a streetlight.

“Walt 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. That’s why he became a union organizer,” said Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation.

We will provide details of memorial plans as they are announced.

Update, 1/13/12

San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson told FCJ: “My predecessor and Secretary Emeritus of the San Francisco Labor Council, Walter Johnson, led our council during a time when labor and management had negotiations and fights.  They would always be able to shake hands and walk out the door no matter what the sides came up with.  Too bad the attacks on labor have become so vicious and destructive.

“Walter’s integrity and honesty were impeccable.  Everybody knew where he came from, and that he was on the side of working men and women.  He will be truly missed.”

Art Pulaski (Secretary-treasurer of the California Federation of Labor) with Tim Paulson (Executive Director, SF Labor Council) and Walter Johnson (Secretary emeritus, SF Labor Council). Undated photo via SF Labor Council.

Mayor Ed Lee said in a statement, “I am deeply saddened by the passing of Walter Johnson. A longtime union organizer and Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council, Walter was a tireless advocate for our communities. San Francisco has a history of being at the forefront of labor rights, and much of San Francisco’s legacy would not have been possible without Walter. Known for his incredibly acute memory and wonderful sense of humor, we will never forget Walter’s outstanding leadership and his many achievements that advanced worker and civil rights.

“Our City has lost a tremendous labor leader with the passing of Walter Johnson. His family and friends are in our thoughts and prayers.”

Lt. Governor Gavin Newsom said in a statement, “I am deeply saddened to learn of the passing of San Francisco’s own, Walter Johnson.

“Today California lost an outstanding friend, labor and community leader, who worked tirelessly for over forty years for the rights of marginalized people, and to restore labor as the conscience of San Francisco.

“Walter was strongly committed to equitable treatment for all, and as a fearless advocate he worked to advance social justice and civil rights in the workplace. It is without a doubt that California remains at the forefront of labor rights because of Walter Johnson’s vigilance.

“I extend my deepest condolences to the Johnson family during this difficult time.”

1 Comment

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  1. Thank you Brother Carl Hall and FCJ for this fine remembrance of Walter Johnson. May I share information about Memorial Services with you and the Fog City Journal readers? Also, as the principle of “seniority” is a cornerstone of unionism, I’d like to correct our Lt. Governor’s statement of Walt’s years of service!

    Walter Johnson loved, loved, loved journalism — because he loved stories and words. He loved to speak words loudly, write them with flourish and metaphor, and especially admired witty and sharp writing. When his eyesight was better, Walt loved to hunt for “Five Dollar Words” in his well-worn dictionary and then talk about this obscure word to people he encountered that week as to its origins, how it could be used, why you should use it … until you never wanted to hear it again! He never embraced the Internet but appreciated the immediacy of online reporting and, typically Walt, deemed the photos as superior!

    Lt. Governor Newsom rightly tributes Walter Johnson’s long many years of service to Labor, community, and civil rights. However, he’s short on the numbers as Walt started his leadership career in the union in the mid-1950’s. His many and significant contributions to Labor, community, and civil rights span over 55 years.

    Thank you,
    Alexis Gonzales


    Services for Walter L. Johnson:
    Friday, January 20, 2012
    4pm to 9pm
    Cypress Lawn, 1370 El Camino Road, Colma

    Memorial Service,
    Saturday, January 21, 2012
    Grace Cathedral, California & Taylor Streets, SF