Commonwealth Club building preserves ILWU history

Honoring longshore history: Bay Area Pensioner President Lawrence Thibeaux (left) and ILWU International Secretary Treasurer Willie Adams in front of the plaque commemorating the 1934 Waterfront Strike outside of the Commonwealth Club’s new headquarters.

and turbulent origins.

1934 longshore strike headquarters

The story begins almost ten years ago when the Commonwealth Club – America’s oldest public affairs forum – began searching for a site to build their new headquarters in San Francisco. They discovered a long-abandoned property with an old collapsed office building facing the Embarcadero waterfront in front and Steuart Street in back. They soon realized this run-down property served as the office for longshore workers in Local 38-79 of the International Longshoremen’s Association between 1933-1935 when they struggled to build a union that eventually became today’s ILWU. 

Preserving worker history

“Other developers might have just demolished the old building and ignored the history, but the Commonwealth Club took it seriously and worked with us,” said ILWU International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams. He explained that ILWU officers were contacted early by the Commonwealth Club and were invited to help preserve the building’s unique history. The International officers assembled a committee to assist with historical documentation for the site, consisting of ILWU staffer Robin Walker, who serves as the ILWU’s Librarian, Archivist and Education Director; ILWU historian Harvey Schwartz; and Bay Area pensioner John Fisher. The effort resulted in a productive collaboration that lasted years as the project unfolded.

Hosting public forums

The cooperation yielded results beginning in 2014 when the Commonwealth Club hosted a public forum for ILWU leaders and allies to commemorate the 80th anniversary of the 1934 Maritime Strike. Local 10 President Melvin Mackay served as Program Chair and fellow Local 10 member/Coast Benefits Specialist John Castanho offered remarks, along with comments from historians Robert Cherny and Harvey Schwartz, Labor Council Director Tim Paulson and SF Chronicle reporter Carl Nolte. A recording of the sold-out event remains accessible on the Club’s website.

 Building’s exterior preserved

Another significant gesture made by the Club to honor the building’s history came when a decision was reached – at some expense – for architect Marsha Maytum to preserve and restore the building’s original crumbling exterior façade on Steuart Street.

Plaque to tell the story

In addition, the Commonwealth Club worked with the ILWU to design a plaque installed on the building’s Stueart Street entrance to honor the events in 1934 including the Waterfront Strike and San Francisco General Strike that gave rise to today’s ILWU.

Educational video inside

Inside the buildings entrance and reception area, the Club is developing an educational video that will further showcase the building’s history involving worker struggles.

ILWU in opening ceremony

And finally, on September 12, 2017, the grand opening ceremony for the Club’s new headquarters included remarks by ILWU International Secretary-Treasurer and Port Commission President Willie Adams – along with acknowledgement of the ILWU’s historic role made by Commonwealth CEO Gloria Duffy, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee and Supervisor Jane Kim. Also recognized and participating was ILWU Bay Area Pensioner President Lawrence Thibeaux. Adams and Thibeaux unveiled the newly installed plaque to more than 100 guests and reporters who attended the event.  “This building is where Harry Bridges and other leaders planned the 1934 waterfront strike that changed history in San Francisco and other west coast ports – and sent out shock waves that inspired workers around the world,” said Adams. He also noted that the restored building is just a few doors down from the corner of Steuart and Mission where two strikers – Howard Sperry and Nick Bordoise – were killed by police on July 5, marking a date that became known as Bloody Thursday. Bodies of the slain martyrs were taken inside the old longshore offices where they laid in repose for several days, allowing thousands of mourners to visit and honor their sacrifice.

Lectures about ILWU & 1934

After guests passed by the newly installed plaque to enter the light-filled, energy-efficient building, they were treated to food, drink and brief lectures scheduled throughout the afternoon from local historian Rick Evans, Architect Marsha Maytum and Club CEO Gloria Duffy – all of whom acknowledged the ILWU’s role in the new headquarters building.

 A growing institution

The Commonwealth Club was founded more than a century ago and now has 20,000 members who attend hundreds of speeches and debates each year. Public radio broadcasts of keynote speakers reach an even larger mass audience.  “Everyone who visits the Club’s new headquarters will also learn something about the ILWU’s past and our work that continues to this day,” said ILWU International President Robert McEllrath.

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