Hundreds Celebrate Life of Labor Leader Walter Johnson

Written by Kat Anderson. Posted in Events, News, Politics

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Published on January 23, 2012 with 2 Comments

An enlarged photo of the late labor leader Walter Johnson was propped up during a reception Saturday at the Mason Auditorium following a memorial service at Grace Cathedral. Photos by Luke Thomas.

By Kat Anderson

January 23, 2012

Water Johnson, a humble man who had big dreams for workers and who could garner the power to achieve those dreams, was memorialized Saturday at Grace Cathedral.

A union leader for 50 years, Johnson died January 12, following a heart attack. He was 87.

The ceremony was simple, but the celebrants were remarkable. No less than the Episcopal Bishop of California, Marc Andrus, and the Dean of Grace Cathedral, Jane Shaw, presided over the service. In attendance included Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, Attorney General Kamala Harris, State Senator Mark Leno, Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi, Supervisor Eric Mar, Board of Supervisors President David Chiu and former Mayor Art Agnos.

As many as 300 filled the pews at Grace Cathedral.

A ‘Who’s Who’ of labor leaders and the hundreds of workers who attended the memorial to honor the man who never forgot about them, would have especially touched Johnson.

The homily and eulogy provided a picture of an imposing man with a witty sense of humor and an even greater heart and mind, devoted to the people for whom he cared, and that was anyone and everyone who crossed Johnson’s path.

Father Thomas Nibbe, of Holy Cross Evangelical Lutheran Church in Pacifica, gave the homily. Father Nibbe, who has known Johnson for nearly 50 years, recounted the story of a faithful man of Scandinavian heritage, born in Amenia, North Dakota in 1924.

In 1938, a farmer in Minnesota hired Johnson to weed onion fields for $1 per day. At the end of the day, however, the farmer offered Johnson only 90 cents. Johnson struggled with the farmer, holding firm on the promise of $1. He won that argument, and thus a labor activist was born. His activism on behalf of laborers continued when he moved to Washington to pick apples.

Another time, Johnson had a light-hearted conversation with Cesar Chavez about their mutual experiences in the struggles for workers. Johnson asked Chavez, “Where were you when I was weeding onions for 10 cents an hour?” Chavez shot back, “I was picking strawberries for 7 cents!”

Johnson also served in World War II as a demolition specialist in Germany. While there, he was strafed by a German fighter plane. In the chaos, Johnson lost his wallet. A fellow named Byron Nelson found it and assumed Johnson was dead. Nelson carried it with him to ensure that it would be returned to Johnson’s next of kin. A few days later, Nelson bumped into Johnson and remarked, “I thought you were dead when I found your wallet and not you!” Johnson quipped, “As you can see, I’m very much alive. Give me back my billfold!”

Johnson met his wife, Jane, in 1947 at Sutro’s ice skating rink, formerly located by the Cliff House. The sign over the entrance to the rink read, “More romances begin here than you could ever think.” They were married in 1950. Later, Lawrence and Emily were born.

In San Francisco, Johnson worked at Sears-Roebuck selling appliances, and he joined the Retail Clerks Union, Local 1100, which later became the United Food and Commercial Workers Union. In 1958, Johnson was elected president and in 1965, he became Executive Officer of the local.

In 1985, Johnson was elected head of the San Francisco Labor Council, and he worked there until 2004, when he was 80 years old.

Father Nibbe recounted that Johnson always stood up for justice for the people. Johnson espoused the ideology of “community” – to reach out in love even in times of disagreement and to be trustworthy no matter how difficult things got. He would say, “You are no better than anyone else. Everybody has value. Everyone is to be treated with respect.”

Johnson was once made an honorary woman and lesbian. When asked, how can it be that you, a man, are given such honors? Johnson quipped that it was because he “was in labor for over 50 years.”

In his eulogy, Executive Director of the San Francisco Labor Council, Tim Paulson observed, “The majority of people in this room have been on a picket line with Walter Johnson.”

Paulson met Johnson during a strike by Bricklayers and Tilesetters, Local 3. Paulson found Johnson to be the most honest, generous, compassionate leader he had ever met.

Paulson recalled that Johnson sometimes would annoy his associates when he’d invite a homeless person into the office for a cup of coffee and a lengthy conversation. But everyone understood that Johnson saw beyond himself always; that he was a genuine humanitarian.

During his tenure on the Labor Council, Johnson was pivotal in local labor speaking out against the Vietnam War. He also led in the union movement to deal with “global capitalism” and its impact on the conditions of workers all over the world. He was quick to give the LGBT community his unconditional support.

Paulson recalled that even after he retired, Johnson still lent his support at the Labor Council. He would come to the offices and share his experiences of 50 years of union activism with others. Paulson remarked, “Just the power of his convictions could get a worker’s job back.”

In an especially poignant moment, Paulson said that Johnson “would be a little irritated right now” for missing out on one more “oni” lunch, his signature favorite meal of minestrone, cannelloni and spumoni.

Paulson concluded, “Walter, we miss you, but we know that you are organizing in a better place right now.”

Bishop Marc Andrus appropriately concluded, “The arc of history bends toward justice. It does not do so by itself.”

The recessional was led by Jay Salter, playing “Amazing Grace” on bagpipes.  Salter later told FCJ, “It makes sense that I was selected to play for Mr. Johnson’s memorial. I’m a member of the musicians union.”

Bagpiper Jay Salter leads a procession following the memorial service at Grace Cathedral.

Johnson’s memorial service was followed by a reception at the Masonic Auditorium. Guests were greeted by the rallying songs of the Labor Heritage Rockin’ Solidarity Chorus. A round of “May the Work that I Have Done Speak for Me,” and “Solidarity Forever!” brought the stalwarts to their feet, singing and swaying. Executive Officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, Carl T. Hall, was observed joining in with great gusto.

Following Johnson's memorial service at Grace Cathedral, celebrants and mourners attended a reception at the Masonic Auditorium.

Members of the Labor Heritage Rockin' Solidarity Chorus sang several labor songs including "May the Work that I Have Done Speak for Me."

Several Labor luminaries extolled the virtues of Walter Johnson. Head of the California Labor Federation, Art Pulaski, said, “Most of us remember Walter Johnson because he was so special to our lives. I recall the 1999 BART negotiations. It was Johnson who suggested bringing all the Labor Councils together for that. When we were in the negotiations, Johnson looked out at the Bay Bridge and said, “That’s what we’re about – bringing people together.”

Pulaski recalled that Johnson shared Biblical passages and history lessons, and he always gave a lecture. “He’d wear out the other side, bringing them to the edge of their patience and sanity.” There were legendary breakfasts where Johnson would invite anyone who wanted to speak. “We’d give a collective groan when he brought up the ‘hundredth’ speaker. But, we realized that he wanted to be sure that every cause had a chance of succeeding.”

“In strikes, pickets and rallies, Walter would give us the context and we’d understand why we were all there,” Pulaski continued. “He was not just our union leader. He was our moral and spiritual leader. We had no fear because he had such faith in God and in us. We must remember this: Walter had big dreams and big plans for all of us.”

California Labor Federation Chief Officer Art Pulaski.

Ron Lind, President of UFCW Local 5 (which provided Johnson a lifetime membership award), noted that that he got to where he is today because he “had Walter as a mentor.” Lind recounted the lunches that he used to have with Johnson, most recently at Delancey Street. “God help the server that didn’t get Walter’s coffee order right: half decaf, half regular, in that order,” Lind said. Johnson would tease Lind about being a BTO – big time operator – so he could pick up the check.

Lind announced that Local 5 will set up a Walter Johnson Memorial Scholarship. “You probably won’t be eligible if you want an MBA or you’re going to Harvard or Yale,” he said.

UFCW Local 5 President Ron Lind and San Francisco Labor Council Executive Director Tim Paulson.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi put the finishing touches on the heart-warming reception. “This is like a family affair for all of us. We thank the family, we thank Emily and Lawrence, for sharing Walter with all of us. He had tremendous faith and acted upon that faith and was our champion for many important issues.”

Pelosi recalled one of Johnson’s signature compliments. If someone put forth a good effort, Johnson would say, “Good work, you can keep your job!”

Pelosi presented the Johnson family with a Congressional Record accolade.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi.

Johnson leaves behind a legacy of compassion, integrity, inclusion, respect and good humor seemingly unparalleled in the community today. While he was “old school,” he wasn’t out of fashion.

More Photos

SFLC Executive Director Tim Paulson with Emily Johnson and Pacific Media Workers Guild Executive Officer Carl T. Hall.

Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi with former ILWU Director Leroy King.

Labor attorney David Rosenfeld; William Gould, former head of the NLRB; Diane Ravnik, Chief of the Division of Apprenticeship Standards; and Pacific Media Workers Guild Executive Officer Carl T. Hall.

Walter Johnson, April 22, 1924 - January 12, 2012.

Kat Anderson

Kat Anderson is a graduate of Hastings College of the Law and Stanford University. She has made San Francisco her home since 1988.

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Comments for Hundreds Celebrate Life of Labor Leader Walter Johnson are now closed.

  1. I only just now found out about Walters’ passing; appropriate as he was not always timely himself! : ) The world has lost a brilliant man, but gained so much for his having been a part of it. His spirit and dedication is instilled in us, hopefully to carry on to future generations. You are missed, and LOVED! From ‘Kim, full of vigor and vim’!

  2. What a great man Walter was. He taught my confirmation class at church growing up. He really knew how to reach all of us with his wisdom and sense of humor. I always looked up to him. God Bless his family!!!