August 10, 2007
By Harvey Schwartz
Curator, ILWU Oral History Collection
Workers lost an esteemed historian and journalist when David F. Selvin passed away March 6 at the age of 93. More than a great scholar, Selvin was involved in the events he witnessed while passionately telling the workers’ stories.
“I was there, that angry, discordant summer of 1934, not as a participant, but as a young, deeply engaged observer,” he wrote in his acclaimed 1996 book, “A Terrible Anger: The 1934 Waterfront and General Strikes in San Francisco.”
Before the summer of 1934 was over, he was employed first by the National Longshoremen’s Board that arbitrated the strike. Selvin then worked with the Pacific Coast Labor Bureau (PCLB), which assisted the waterfront unions. In the latter post, Selvin worked closely with Harry Bridges and Sam Kagel, the PCLB’s advisor to Bridges in 1934 who became a legend as Coast Arbitrator for the longshore industry.
Selvin was born outside Salt Lake City in Tooele, Utah. He attended Menlo Junior College in 1929 and he transferred to the UC Berkeley, where in 1933 he received a B.S. in Commerce, and in 1935 an M.A. in Labor Economics.
After the 1934 strike Selvin went to Seattle for the PCLB. There he helped organize the Newspaper Guild and was employed under the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration as a statistician. In 1937 he returned to California to work for San Francisco-based newspapers.
Upon leaving the Army after WWII, Selvin resumed his human rights advocacy. He campaigned for a California Fair Employment Practices Act and helped Japanese-Americans get settled following their release from wartime “relocation” camps. One such Japanese-American he met at an anti-discrimination meeting in 1946 was Noriko (“Nikki”) Sawada, who became Harry Bridges’ wife twelve years later. Because of their interest in human rights and, eventually, the preservation of labor history, Selvin and Sawada-Bridges became long-term friends and colleagues.
In 1951 Selvin began his long career with the San Francisco Labor Council as editor of Northern California Labor, which was initially called San Francisco Labor.
Between 1964 and 1969 Selvin published four books for youthful readers that featured people like AFL pioneer Samuel Gompers, the socialist Eugene Debs, CIO founder John L. Lewis and others. At the end of the 1960s Selvin also released The Other San Francisco, a book for youths about the city’s working poor and minority populations.
In 1966 Selvin produced his classic “Sky Full of Storm: A Brief History of California Labor,” and 1981, “A Place in the Sun.”
He championed the creation of a comprehensive labor archive and 1984 he helped persuade the San Francisco Labor Council to ask the California legislature for funding. The Labor Archives and Research Center opened at San Francisco State University in 1986.
In the late 1980s Selvin again worked closely with Nikki Bridges. Bridges and Selvin, who was the advisory board’s perennial chair, worked for years on behalf of LARC.
Late in his career Selvin published a biography of Mother Jones. To honor his long service to the labor movement and to LARC, in 1999 San Francisco State Univ. awarded Selvin an honorary doctorate.
Selvin was preceded in death by Susan Selvin, his wife of many years. He is survived by his sons Joel, a San Francisco Chronicle music reviewer, Steve and Michael, both residents of Berkeley, and four grandchildren. Contributions in David Selvin’s memory can be sent to the Labor Archives and Research Center, San Francisco State University, 480 Winston Drive, San Francisco, CA 94132.