The majority of us in this room have been on a picket line with Walter Johnson. That was the first time I met him. Bricklayers and Tilelayers Local 3 had a picket up on the Port almost 20 years ago and though Local 3 was not part of the Labor Council—yet, only the building trades were informed of our action—Walter was walking down the Embarcadero, saw the picket signs, heard the commotion, came over, walked the line with us and asked me how he could help turn around this non-union contractor working on a city building. That was quintessential Walter Johnson. It also meant that his lunch at Red’s Java house would be delayed by 30 minutes.
Walter Johnson was the most honest, compassionate, and generous leader the American labor movement has ever seen. He was there for all workers and all unions. And that is why so many of you are here — peers, family and friends — to celebrate his life and honor his passing.
We also know that Walter Johnson could never say “no.” As Art Pulaski, our statewide labor leader noted in the Chronicle’s article about Walter earlier this week, he could also drive all of us crazy because his generosity would include all the homeless people who would come to the office to be taken to lunch or coffee. But let’s not get started on coffee…..
Walter served the labor movement for over 50 years starting with his time as an activist in his union when he was a salesman at Sears-Roebuck and a member of the United Food and Commercial workers. He eventually became the senior officer of UFCW Local 1100 and represented the members for many years. Even in retirement Walter still came to the Labor Council offices and I was treated to so many of his UFCW stories about fighting for the rights of his members through grievances or, more importantly, just the powerful strength of Walter’s convictions.
Some of the most historic retail worker strikes in San Francisco history were won under his leadership. In honor of his UFCW service President Ron Lind and the members of UFCW Local 5 awarded Walter a lifetime membership earlier this year.
Walter, as we all know, served for 19 years as the Secretary-Treasurer of the San Francisco Labor Council as my predecessor and the majority of you here today know him from those years. His legacy goes back to his pushing the envelope on allowing the Council to oppose the war in Vietnam. He supported labor unions who wanted to expand our organizing by partnering with European and other international unions, and he was one of the first Labor Council leaders in America to support full participation for LGBT rights and leadership in our movement. This is what San Francisco and labor are about.
I know Walter is a little irritated with us right now because he didn’t get to take us to lunch one more time and complain that we never picked up the tab before ordering his favorite “oni” dinner: “Minestrone, Canneloni (just one…) and Spumoni.”
We are incredibly happy that Walter and his family experienced the first World Series championship of his beloved Giants – Damn! He loved the Giants. Right, Emily, Lawrence? I think we should all pray that the 49ers win tomorrow to commemorate this great man.
Walter, on behalf of your friends, colleagues, workers, and family — We miss you!
But we know you are organizing in a better place.