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Betty Soskin celebrates 100 years

Betty Soskin - Photo courtesy of NPS Photo/Luther Bailey

On September 26, Betty Reid Soskin, a Rosie the Riveter icon, celebrated her 100th birthday at a gala at the Rosie the Riveter Museum in Richmond, California, where IVP-WS J. Tom Baca, Boilermakers from the Western States and many other guests offered Soskin well-wishes for her milestone birthday. The museum is housed on the grounds of the former Kaiser Company shipyards where workers built 747 ships during WWII. Soskin worked there as a file clerk for Boilermakers local A-36, an all-Black auxiliary lodge.

Her personal progression from a file clerk to later become a well-recognized champion of the history of the Rosies is deeply woven into another important history lesson she has preserved, that of trade union racism.

With the entry of the United States into war, women such as Soskin and non-European minorities were afforded entry into the labor force largely closed to them in pre-war times. Increased labor demand opened a door to labor for the war effort, but many other doors were still locked, including full union membership.

The Boilermakers union, along with nearly every other trade craft union at the time, did not allow people of color and women to become union members. Local lodges and the national groupings that grew from them tended to reflect the ethnic character of the neighborhoods from which they sprang. In the early 19th Century, Boilermakers were mostly Irish and Scottish before English, Germans and Italians quickly swelled the ranks. At the time, Blacks, Hispanics and women were not welcome. 

The American Federation of Labor in the early days of unionism tried to combat racism by requiring member unions to pledge never to discriminate against a fellow worker on account of color, creed or nationality. But in practice, most unions barred Black Americans from membership because leadership feared a revolt of current members. As with the rest of the nation at that time, opinions within the brotherhood were mixed.  Blacks were barred from membership until 1937 when President Franklin D. Roosevelt called a special meeting of the metals trades presidents together with the request that unions begin accepting African Americans so they could benefit from increased government spending.

Yet to appease the current membership, which as a majority did not favor admitting Black workers to full union membership, the union created auxiliary lodges. They existed under the jurisdiction and supervision of the nearest white local.

It was at one of these wartime auxiliary lodges at the Kaiser Shipyards where Soskin worked as a clerk filing change of address cards for workers.

But that job was only one of her many life adventures. As a songwriter, she penned protest songs for the Civil Rights Movement. She and her husband, Mel Reid, founded Reid’s Records in Berkeley, California. Soskin later worked as a field representative for a California state assemblywoman and then became involved in the planning and development of a park to memorialize the role of women on the home front during WWII. Eventually, the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park was born. Soskin left her state job in 2003 and became a consultant at the park she helped plan. In 2007 at age 85, she became a park ranger for the National Park Service.

Soskin has been vocal about the negative impact auxiliary lodges had on her personally and on Black union members during the war. A few years ago, International President Newton B. Jones addressed that period in the Boilermakers’ history on stage at an event. 

“In her capacity as a National Park Service ranger, Betty not only recounts the history of the Kaiser Shipyards and the women and men who worked there, she tells the story of inequality, bigotry and segregation that existed during those times. She reminds all who listen of the important lessons that history teaches us, so that we can become a better people, better unions and a better America,” IP Jones said.

“On behalf of my organization, I offer Betty and all former Boilermakers who at one time belonged to an auxiliary local, an apology for what must have been a demeaning life experience.”

When Soskin heard IP Jones apologize, she embraced him and acknowledged his remarks, stating, “I forgave you [the Boilermakers union] long ago, but I’ve never really had the feeling . . . that we were on the same page until just a few moments ago. Thank you very much. Thank you.”