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.
Johnson, 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 his heart."
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 lead.
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.
Johnson 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 honorary lesbian."
"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."
Amen to that.
Dick Meister is a former labor editor of the San Francisco who has covered labor and politics for more than a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com.