A good, stubborn Irishman

Pub date March 29, 2010
WriterDick Meister
SectionBruce Blog

He was one of the last of the old-line labor leaders who once had great influence in many cities. He was Irish-Catholic, of course, a resident of the city’s principal working class district, and from one of the blue-collar trades.

 His name was Joseph Michael O’Sullivan. He had been president of the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council and for four decades head of its main carpenters union local.
Those who would truly understand the history of San Francisco and in  particular the key role organized labor has played in the city’s development, as in that of so many other cities, must pay attention to the memory of Joe O’Sullivan.

 He was a very good man. He also was a very stubborn man. I remember, for instance, that time in 1976 when he insisted on going to jail.

 O’Sullivan and three other construction union officials had been sentenced to jail for having led a strike by municipal craftsmen — who, as public employees, supposedly did not have the legal right to strike. O’Sullivan — then aged 74 and ailing — didn’t have to go to jail, since union lawyers were certain they could overturn the sentences, as they ultimately did.

The other union officials were content to have the lawyers handle the matter through court appeals, but O’Sullivan refused to be “a damned labor bureaucrat.” He preferred to be a labor activist, and so turned himself over to the San Francisco County sheriff for a five-day stay behind bars.

 O’Sullivan thought that was a small price to pay for the badly needed opportunity it would give the city’s unions to bounce back from the severe beating they had suffered in the craftsmen’s strike. Surely, he thought, the unions would mount a major campaign to protest the jailing of one of their best known and most respected leaders over one of the most fundamental of labor rights.

 That would draw maximum attention to the injustice of a court ruling which had denied that fundamental right to thousands of working people. It would show that the unions still were capable of the militancy that had earned San Francisco a reputation as one of the country’s premier “union towns.”

And it would be an ideal way for the unions to seek the support essential to restoring their former influence — the support of public employees and others in the heavily non-union white collar occupations that had come to dominate the city’s economy and that of so many other cities as unionized blue collar occupations once did.

 But the unions allowed Joe O’Sullivan to enter jail, and to leave jail, quietly and alone.  There were no protest rallies. no demonstrations, no marches, no angry speeches, no picketing, no sympathy strikes, none of the militant actions that had marked labor’s rise to economic, political and social prominence.
 There was only grumbling, among most of the city’s other labor leaders, that O’Sullivan was “grandstanding” in trying to get them top rely on more than just largely unpublicized courtroom arguments.

 But the arguments won the unions very little. About all they got was a narrow court ruling that, although indeed overturning the decision which had ordered the strike leaders to jail, did so on purely technical grounds. The ruling did not upset the previous finding that city employees could not legally strike.

Union strategists argue to this day whether activist tactics would have countered that anti-unionism of the 1970s, as they argue whether such tactics would be the best way to counter the anti-unionism that has plagued the labor movement of San Francisco and other cities ever since.
Such questions rarely even occurred to O’Sullivan. Activism was virtually the only tactic he knew. He learned it very early in life, as an 11-year-old telegraph messenger working with the Irish Republican Army in 1913, against the British forces occupying his native village of Tralle, County Kerry.

 Young O’Sullivan, entrusted by the British authorities to deliver messages to the occupying British troops, showed the messages first to local IRA leaders — despite the leaders’ warnings “that if I was caught, it would be the finish for me.”
 So why did he do it? “The messages were very important, they wanted them, and I felt that whatever I could do for Ireland … well, I would do it.”
 O’Sullivan left the messenger’s job to work with his father, a master carpenter and secretary of the carpenters union in Tralle, but continued his IRA activities.
“Whenever they were going to ambush a British lorry,” he recalled, “the IRA had to know when it was leaving to come out in the country. So I would put out a gas lamp, then another boy a mile away would see that and he would put out another one.  That would be the signal. The IRA would did a trench in the road and the lorry would fall into it. Our guys would call on them to surrender. We’d take the rifles and ammunition, and their shoes, and then make them walk back into town. . .
 “We never went to kill them — though people were killed, that was for sure . . . But there was more caskets going back to England than were being lowered in the ground in Ireland.”

 O’Sullivan’s IRA activities ended abruptly one night when two British soldiers burst into the cottage where he lived and dragged him away at gun point after O’Sullivan’s mother, certain he was to be killed, “started throwing holy water on me.”  Once outside the cottage, O’Sullivan knocked away the rifle of one of the soldiers and ran. Although wounded by the other soldier, he escaped, eventually making his way to the United States.

 O’Sullivan arrived in San Francisco in 1925, seeking work through the carpenters union local he eventually would head. At the time, the local was leading a major strike aimed at forcing contractors to bargain with construction unions on pay and working conditions.  Contractors had brought in more than 1,000 non-union strikebreakers from Southern California to replace the strikers, and they became the striking union’s main targets.

 “We formed ‘wrecking crews’ — ‘thugs,’ they used to call us in the newspapers — and got $1.50 a day from the union to get into a job, roust the scabs, break their tools,” O’Sullivan remembered. “When we shut a job down, nobody worked — they got out fast. We just used our hands, but we worked the scabs over good …. Maybe it was the right thing to do, maybe it was wrong — but that’s the way it got done.”

 At one point, O’Sullivan and the six other members of his “wrecking crew” were arrested for the murder of a strikebreaker. They were held three weeks, until two other men confessed to the killing.

 The construction unions lost the strike after a year of fierce struggle and O’Sullivan, blacklisted by employers, had to move to the  city of Vallejo across San Francisco Bay to find work. But he later returned to San Francisco and, in 1935, was elected to head Carpenters Local No. 22.  O’Sullivan held that job until 1977, helping lead carpenters and other building tradesmen in the struggles that finally won them the right to effective union representation.

 The relatively high pay and benefits and decent working conditions of the tradesmen today are taken for granted. But the workers wouldn’t have them if it wasn’t for their unions, which had to fight hard to get employers to grant even the simplest amenities.  O’Sullivan’s nephew James vividly recalled his uncle’s great pride in getting “fresh water and toilets on the job for the carpenters and a pension plan to take care of them when they grew old.”

O’Sullivan was stubborn to the end. He left union office only because of the adoption, over the strong objections of O’Sullivan and many of his local’s members, of an amendment to the carpenters’ national constitution that prohibited anyone over 70 — O’Sullivan included — from seeking union office.

But he was no grim advocate, despite his stubbornness, dedication and determination. I recall watching him turn on his considerable Gaelic charm in Israel, where he had gone with a delegation of touring labor leaders in 1973. The most important day of the tour was March 17, when the leaders were to confer with David Ben-Gurion.

As the senior member of the delegation, O’Sullivan greeted the legendary former prime minister, who stood before the visitors with an air of immense and almost forbidding dignity.  Joseph Michael O’Sullivan, looking and sounding only as someone who had been baptized in Ireland with such a name could look and sound, quickly broke the ice.

 “Mr. Ben-Gurion,” he said, “let me be the first to wish you a happy St. Patrick’s Day.”

Dick Meister, formerly labor editor of the SF Chronicle and KQED-TV Newsroom, has covered labor and politics fror a half-century. Contact him through his website, www.dickmeister.com, which includes more than 250 of his recent columns.