Q&A: A historian who supports workers

Name: Harvey Schwartz
Age: 77
City: El Cerrito
Position: Labor historian

J.: You are a native San Franciscan from a middle-class Jewish family that goes back generations in Napa, where your great-grandparents opened a dry-goods store in the late 1800s. You graduated from Stanford University in 1961 with a bachelor’s degree in history. What sparked your interest in labor unions?

Harvey Schwartz: I enlisted in the Army Reserves in ’62 after starting my master’s work in American history. I just wasn’t ready for graduate school. I wanted to look at the world, to seek the “why,” not just the “what,” of how things were the way they were. I was stationed in south Texas. Racial prejudice was all around us; its presence was like a hissing snake. I had the revelation that I could leave the service and get out of Texas, but African Americans could not just leave their social condition: not that way. So I went back to graduate school with a vengeance and started studying social movements, including labor unions.

Harvey Schwartz

What does that mean, graduate school “with a vengeance”?

I joined the civil rights movement, co-founding Friends of SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) at the University of Washington. I spent a lot of my time fundraising and building community. The conditions have to be right in order to organize: In the 1930s, for example, when people were desperate. And in the ’60s, the time was right to fight for civil rights. Some 10 or 15 years ago, Bill Shields, chair of the labor studies program at City College of San Francisco, described me as an “activist historian.” He probably had it right.

Did your Jewish heritage influence your life choices?

I always thought of myself as culturally Jewish. When I went to Stanford, I was supposed to study to become a doctor, but I just didn’t have it in me and I chose to study history instead. You know, there are two traditions: either you’re a doctor/lawyer/businessman — or you’re a do-gooder. You can see which path I chose.

You went on to earn your doctorate in labor history at U.C. Davis. What drew you there, and what was your focus?

Professor David Brody was one of the top labor historians in the country at the time, and I learned from him how to do oral histories. I did my thesis on the San Francisco angle of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, the only international union that has its headquarters here in the city — most are in Washington, D.C. This got me started gathering primary source research on the workers of Bay Area docks and shipyards and, later, the warehouses.

What’s the importance of the ILWU to the Bay Area?

I’ll admit there’s a lot of “inside baseball” in labor politics, and a lot of people turn away from it for that reason. But the ILWU has played a central role in West Coast politics overall. After unions were suppressed nationally in the 1920s, it was longshoremen who turned that around in the ’30s and ’40s, leading the way to show that workers’ rights could be won. Despite the many trials of ILWU leader Harry Bridges regarding his suspected Communist affiliations, black workers in this area know that Bridges insisted on including them in the union. Today, African Americans comprise more than 50 percent of ILWU Local 10 membership. It’s been a democratizing force.

Jobs in labor history are not exactly plentiful; how have you put your skills to use?

I’ve researched and written many papers, articles and books on the role of unions in West Coast life, including 54 full-length oral history interviews of ILWU members and leaders in the union paper the Dispatcher. My book “Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU” (2009) was named best book in American labor history by the Bay Area Independent Publishers Association. I’ve been hired to interview subjects for major oral history projects at the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University. One of those projects, in 1987, planted the seeds of my most recent book, “Building the Golden Gate Bridge: A Workers’ Oral History” (2015). And since 2000 I’ve been an honorary curator at the ILWU International Library in San Francisco.

It seems that everything about the bridge has already been documented. Why did you decide to write your book?

Since I conducted those interviews with workers in 1987, it had been on my bucket list. It was colorful and rich historical material. And I thought, everyone loves the Golden Gate Bridge. Maybe a book about the people who built it in cold and dangerous conditions, while dealing with the Great Depression of the 1930s, could serve to entice people outside of the organized labor community to look at the lives of American workers.

We’re coming up on Labor Day, and the Bay Area is flush with tech workers and others who have never had a union experience. What would you like to convey in terms of public awareness?

I still feel that the best hope for the great majority of the working people in the United States lies with the labor movement. Who else has the power to serve as the party of humanity for the vast majority of us? Certainly not the great corporations or their political spokespersons. “Solidarity Stories” was aimed at informing people about the ILWU and letting them know what a clean, democratic, militant union could do for them. That’s the sort of public awareness I’d like to encourage.

Will you be participating in the upcoming celebrations for the bridge’s 80th anniversary next year?

I do not have specific plans, but I’d love to be a part of any public celebration of the birthday of that great orange icon and help get the word out about the Golden Gate Bridge workers, if any public or media entities want to have me over.

How do you take a break from all your scholarly work?

I was, for a long time, a marathon runner. I may be soft in some areas, but not in running. I’ve run 14 full marathons, five ultra-marathons and other long races. I ran the Dipsea Trail race six times — my best time was 67 minutes. I stopped running in 1990 after blowing out my knee. Now I hike. I love to hike in the East Bay hills.

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Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s former culture editor.