at the Labor Temple: "Welcome to the Redstone Building"
- By Ruach Graffis presented July 7, 2001 and edited
and revised 4/16/2002
to the historic, and hopefully soon to have Landmark
status, Redstone Building. Designed by Matthew O'Brien,
it was built to house the San Francisco Labor Council.
There were over 130 member unions in the council at
that time. Although the cornerstone is dated 1914, the
weekly union newspaper, The Labor Clarion, proclaimed
it opened to the public February 26, 1915. Room for
about 24 union offices, it included seven lodge halls
for meetings, plus a buffet in the basement. The May
1916 Union Directory shows 54 unions using this building
for their meetings. We are in the main auditorium tonight.
when we ask someone "What do you do?" We don't
expect the answer "Waitress, cab driver, cashier..."
to define that person, because the job is likely to
be transitory: today I work in a coffeehouse, tomorrow
I might be a bank teller. But a hundred years ago, when
travel was much more difficult, people couldn't move
every five years or change jobs on a whim. As a result,
families and communities were much more stable. People
were born and died in the same town, and generally in
the same part of town. People identified more closely
with their jobs because they probably did the same thing
their whole life. Which was probably the same thing
their parents had done, and the same thing they expected
their children to do. Sons of carpenters became carpenters,
daughters of seamstresses became seamstresses. To say
"I am a teamster," "I am a bookkeeper,"
"I am a farmer," told a lot about the speaker.
that culture, the phrase "working class life"
had real meaning: you hung out with people in your neighborhood,
went to the same entertainments, to the same churches/
synagogues. Fathers walked to their jobs together, mothers
did the laundry, together. There was a working class
identity and culture.
there was an overlay of the ruling class everywhere
workers turned. The boss controlled you on the job,
and the town's richest families probably ran your place
of worship. Beside the 3 R's, schools, then as now,
were designed to teach obedience to arbitrary authority,
preparing students to accept the authority of a boss
at work. Teddy Roosevelt and the Sherman Anti-Trust
Act notwithstanding, in the early decades of the 20th
Century, American capitalists had an almost religious
fervor for business. Office buildings were built to
resemble gothic cathedrals (look at the Russ Building
at 235 Montgomery, sometime). In that atmosphere this
was designated as a haven from the boss, and it was
called The Labor Temple. It was the place where workers
could come, away from the boss, and the boss' culture.
A place where workers could help each other understand
the world through working eyes, with a working sensibility.
It was the one place the boss couldn't come.
facilitate this, the Labor Temple had pool and billiard
tables, as well as reading rooms, and on the south side
of the auditorium, a ladies parlor. On the second floor,
the west hallway was the hospital, and the north hallway,
the dentist's offices. Medical care at prices workers
could afford. In those days, a worker's union membership
might be as important as their church or synagogue membership,
and the Labor Temple was the center of working class
life in San Francisco. Here workers had space for family
gatherings, picnics, holiday parties, benefit dances,
sports leagues, and theatrical events. The seamstresses
might have a dinner with the webpressmen, or the Women's
Bindery Union might have a dance with the plumbers.
(I saw a dance card from just such an event at the Labor
Archives many years ago. The dance card had a silken
cord still attached to a slim, tiny golden pencil. The
card was partially filled out in a lovely flowing hand.)
Sherwood from the Labor Archives showed me an article
from the Labor Clarion dated May 19, 1916 which reported
that "...a ball for the benefit of a disabled (laundry
worker) ...was a financial success, more than $300 was
raised. $300 - in a time when union machinists were
striking to get $4.50 a day. Now that's solidarity.
unions got larger, stronger and more numerous, the Labor
Temple expanded to meet the need, and sometime between
1935-40 the building got an addition, reaching its current
size with room for 40 union offices.
as times changed, the culture changed. The very moment
that seemed to presage a golden age for unions was simultaneously
sowing the seeds of disaster for the Labor Temple. As
unions got richer, it became fashionable for them to
build their own - separate - union hall. In the '50's,
offices in the Labor Temple went vacant and even though
the Labor Council renovated it in 1959, the building
had become a financial drain. With only 10 unions still
in residence, it was sold in 1968 to repay bank loans
and other bills.
the Redstone, it struggled along for a number of years,
barely paying its way. The '70's merged into the '80's
and life struggled on. The owner hired an ex-Vietnam
Vet with a lot of handyman skills, and life began to
look up for the building. Roger is still here, taking
care of the building, encouraging a sense of community.
Life continued to evolve and now that the building had
some help, things began to look up for the Redstone.
As the '90's unfolded, rents began to skyrocket. Prices
in the Mission lagged behind the rest of the city, so
the Redstone became a haven for artistic and social
action groups. Among them were: Catholic Charities,
a Central American refugee underground halfway house,
Global Exchange, Sex Information Center, Suicide Prevention,
Gay Historical Society as well as many Central American
refugee organizations in the basement. My personal favorite
was an underground radio station with their antenna
on the roof. They had a program on Saturday nights favored
by the Mission Street "low riders." They cranked
up the music real loud and drove some of the other tenants
crazy, especially the theater groups trying to have
again, the Redstone became a focus for a rebirth of
community activity in the area. A sense of shared consciousness
and solidarity began to develop within and from these
groups, and in the late 1990's, the Clarion Alley Mural
Project, named for the Labor Clarion Newspaper, spent
six months doing research which culminated in the murals
you see in the lobby today. Aaron Nobles, a student
of Tim Driescher (a Humanities professor at SF State),
led the project. Muralists included other students from
State as well as kids from the area: a lighthearted
mural by a local teenager portrays the concerns of young
girls in the area, while Twist, a spray can artist,
did a sepia toned mural showing the darker side of life.
A haunting depiction of lives lost to alcoholism, it
is a social commentary of current life right outside
our doors. Across from it, a water mural by Rigo, brings
to mind the many streams that used to run through the
Mission. I'm sure you have seen some of Rigo's building-sized
murals around town - the 40' one-way signs painted on
buildings: ONE TREE - pointing at the one tree by the
freeway entrance at 10/Harrison, SKY/ GROUND pointing
in appropriate directions at 3/Mission, and CAR/BIRD
Filipino culture of the Mission is portrayed with a
couple, dressed in their finest, dancing down the main
hallway, a remembrance of the times when the Filipino
Senior Center was located in the Redstone auditorium
and the tenants were serenaded daily with live music.
Susan Green's mural over the elevator on the ground
floor celebrates the Bindery Women's union. Going up
the stairs and into the main hall you'll see the 1948
Emporium strike by the saleswomen of Local 1100, and
the Chinese women's garment workers strike in 1938,
marking their entrance into organized labor in San Francisco.
In the main portion of the lobby is the dramatic depiction
of Dow Wilson throwing out the corrupt Secretary of
the Painter's union in 1966. Unfortunately that wasn't
the end of the story: next to Dow is the newspaper article,
dated April 5, reporting Dow's murder just around the
corner on South Van Ness, days later. The inside front
wall honors the original Native American inhabitants
of this area, the Ohlones, with a bone harpoon tip being
uncovered by a construction worker as he digs the foundation
for this building. You know he was a union worker.
most prominent murals as you walk by on the street,
are scenes from the 1934 General Strike, probably the
most famous incident in San Francisco labor history.
The longshoremen and seafarers lived on the fringes
of society in conditions, that even for those times,
were abominable. The longshoremen had to pay for their
jobs on the dock, the seafarers were little more than
slaves on the ships. They wanted no more than any worker
wants: dignity on the job and off, justice, a living
wage. (Sound familiar?) They were willing to strike
because their conditions were so bad, they had almost
nothing to loose. In the mural look for Vincent Hallinan,
Harry Bridges, an African/American man (whose name I
am trying to track down) and Garment Workers' organizer
Jenny Matyas. An inset reproduces a picture of two men
shot at Steuart and Mission Streets on July 5, the day
known as Bloody Thursday.The longshoremen and seamen
had been out on strike for weeks without much success,
few other unions had joined them in sympathy, but the
strikers hung on. The shipping companies were determined
to bring the strikers to their knees and stop the strike.
They had hired armed guards as well as San Francisco
police to do their dirty work. For several days there
had been fighting on Rincon Hill. On July 5, just outside
of the strike kitchen at 113 Steuart, an unnamed policeman
fired into a crowd of longshoremen and their sympathizers,
shooting several of them. Two died. The deaths of Howard
Sperry and Nick Bordoise stunned the public and galvanized
the rest of the unions to support the struggle.
July 9, a funeral procession bearing their bodies walked
down Market Street. Estimates range from 15,000 to 50,000
in the procession. More thousands lined the sidewalks.
Fearing that sight of police on the streets would incite
workers further, City Hall agreed that the strikers
would be in charge of crowd control. There was no talking
no sound except a quiet funeral dirge, and the tramp
but the air was electric with that sound.
Their deaths - and that march - forged the solidarity
that became the West Coast General Strike.
march ended at 17th and Valencia at the mortuary, just
two blocks away. (Possibly Duggan's, which is still
there.) No doubt many mourners walked over to the Labor
Temple afterward to be together. To try to make some
sense of what was happening. To decide what to do next.
are once again, trying to figure out what to do next.
For a while, we lost our identify as workers, but after
all these decades, a union sensibility and working class
culture is returning to the Redstone, to the Labor Temple.
The IWW has its office on the 2nd floor, as do the taxicab
workers, of which I'm a member. The Organizer newspaper,
voice of the Labor Party, is on the second floor. Mission
Agenda helps tenants of the residential hotels in the
area, giving away free food every Tuesday. (Supervisor
Chris Daly made his bones with this group.) Youth Credit
Union, run by and for kids is on the third floor. A
credit union for all local residents shares the same
space. If you were to sit and have a cup of coffee at
Chile Lindo some afternoon, you would see the need for
The Homeless Children's Network and Coalition on Homelessness,
also headquartered at the Redstone. The need for these
services has become ever more acute with the simultaneous
sky high rents and ".com" evictions.
when the world gets too much for you, we have Spiritmenders
in the basement. An environmental consciousness is visibly
represented by the Green Party and Abalone Alliance,
probably the oldest groups in the building. The group
"Art and Revolution," on the first floor,
may most perfectly embody the spirit of our unifying
force: they make the huge 15' "puppets" you
see at many rallies these days. Reasonably priced health
care is still on the second floor: Dr. Yeh runs an acupuncture
clinic and April, one of the artists on the third floor,
has a part-time massage-therapy business. Our motley
crew also includes three theater groups, several artists,
and even a few small businesses. You get the picture:
the Redstone derives its unity from its diversity, and
gives back to the community from the strength which
I look around tonight at our diversity, I see a perfect
marriage - the LaborFest at the Labor Temple.
It's begun to warm up in the Mission again, worker energy
is rising. Coalitions are forming. We are building a
worker sensibility here on 16th Street, developing our
Workers Culture, making contacts, making friends, forging
alliances in the building and beyond. Local merchants
gave money or provided food for us tonight. Many of
us are active in the drive to create a MUD in SF. If
we each had a little office in a little separate store
front, isolated, alone, how long would it take to create
the same energy? Would we ever?
the point of buildings like this: they create community.
Forge solidarity. Together we support each other and
become stronger than we could ever be fighting alone.
formed a tenants organization, and meet regularly. The
hallways have become friendly places. We share paint
to make protest signs, and go to each other's rallies.
An elevator ride can help keep two people up-to-date
on each other's issues, and maybe even produce a suggestion
on how to lobby city hall about a problem. Members of
the United Taxicab Workers help Mission Agenda with
organizing the food bags on Fridays, we give them free
cab rides and they let us use their big room for our
meetings. Dr. Yeh, the acupuncturist, has a built-in
client base. Members of the Green Party and Abalone
Alliance work together on projects, and are spearheading
our work to create a MUD. Charles is our security guard
- no small task in this neighborhood! - and hand delivers
the mail to each office, stopping to chat and check
on everyone in the building. He is a one-man community
connection. And so is Roger, the Redstone's manager,
who hosts the building internet server. We couldn't
live without it - or him.
every group in the building is a member of the Redstone
Tenants Association. We got a small grant and have hired
Betty Traynor, the longest tenant in this building to
be our organizer. We want to buy this building, we want
save this precious piece of workers culture from destruction.
We need your help.
are here tonight, in the hall where the strike vote
was taken in 1934 that sent the 175 unions of the SF
Labor Council out on strike in support of the Longshoremen
and Seafarers. The Strike Committee had already written
up the motion. You would recognize many of the names
on that strike committee: Jack Shelly, A. Noriega, Mike
Casey, and of course, Harry Bridges. The meeting was
held on Saturday, July 14, with the strike to commence
on Monday, July 16, at 8 AM. A hod carrier, by the name
of Joe Murphy, made the motion.
tried to find out where Joe was standing when he made
that fateful motion, but he is dead and no one else
seems to know. It could be any where in this room. You
could be sitting where Joe was sitting that night. Are
you ready to help carry that tradition forward?
know you have given as you came in the door, but we're
asking - if you can - open your wallets, purses, pockets
and checkbooks. There is a furry box coming around that
would be warmed by your contribution.
The community of the Redstone Labor Temple thanks you.
I would like to thank Archie Green for deep background
filled with the minute details of the labor movement
that makes it live, Roger Herried for wonderful long
talks about the building we both love, and Susan Sherwoood
who shared her extensive knowledge and sent great faxes!