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Bay Area's skilled hands celebrated, preserved

February 17, 2006

Photo of a 1937 poster by the Fruit and Vegetable Workers Union in Salinas and Watsonville alleging unfair labor practicesFor two decades historians, union organizers, students, faculty members and others have come to the SFSU Labor Archives and Research Center to learn about the struggles and triumphs of Bay Area labor history. On Feb. 24, the public is invited to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the center with a book reading, photography exhibit and live music.

Archivist Jeff Rosen said the event is an opportunity to hear from artists and scholars who have documented and participated in labor history. Contemporary workplace standards, including the eight-hour day and employee health benefits, are direct results of labor activism, Rosen said.

Walking into the center, tucked into a nook of the California State Library's Sutro branch at 480 Winston Drive behind Stonestown Galleria and the University Park North Apartments, feels like stepping backward in time.

Shelves are lined with faded, bound editions of underground, labor-related newspapers including El Malcriado, People's World and The Western Worker. Labor posters, event fliers, union emblems and logos, and other artifacts are on display. Thick binders contain more than 10,000 photos of Bay Area labor union events, strikes, picket lines, banquets and union members at work. Visitors can play analog tapes to hear local workers describe their work histories. Stickers with slogans such as "One Voice" and "Union Yes" are dwarfed by a life-sized portrait of P.H. McCarthy, an early labor leader and former mayor of San Francisco.

The center, an extension of the J. Paul Leonard Library, houses a comprehensive collection of information on Gold Rush immigration, radical trade unionists and their fight against racial and sexual discrimination, Golden Gate Bridge construction, the 1934 longshoremen's strike and 1946 Oakland general strike.

The center's artifacts and information on the history of farm workers in the Central Valley is another draw for visiting historians and researchers. Susan Sherwood, acting director of the center, appeared on the PBS television show "History Detectives" in 2004 with a United Farm Workers Union banner rumored to have been carried at the head of the famous 25-day Delano Plan march in 1965, led by Cesar Chavez during the grape boycott.

At the Feb. 24 event, Grace Palladino, codirector of the Samuel Gompers Papers at University of Maryland, will discuss her book "Skilled Hands, Strong Spirits: A Century of Building Trades History," which chronicles growth and change in the AFL-CIO. Building trade photography by Joseph A. Blum, a retired boilermaker who specializes in documenting people's work, will be on display. Blum's photography includes the new eastern span of the Bay Bridge under construction and the recently completed Al Zampa Memorial Bridge over the Carquinez Strait in Vallejo. The Labor Heritage/Rockin' Solidarity Chorus will perform.

The event, free and open to the public, begins at 6 p.m. at the UA Local 38/Plumber's Hall, 1623 Market St. (at Franklin). For details, call (415) 564-4010 or e-mail

-- Student Writer Gary Moskowitz with Matt Itelson
Photo: Courtesy of the SFSU Labor Archives and Research Center


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Last modified February 17, 2006 by University Communications