Marinship and Civil Rights

By Larry Clinton

The integrated workforce at Marinship during WWII has often been hailed as a watershed in the U.S. civil rights movement.  But it took a California Supreme Court decision to make it happen.

Marinship had a closed-shop contract which required that all shipyard construction workers must be members of the union. According to the book “James vs. Marinship: Trouble on the New Black Frontier,” African Americans were forced to join Auxiliary A-41, an all-black unit controlled by Boilermakers Local 6.  In 1943, more than 200 African Americans who refused to pay the A-41 dues were fired.  One of them, Joseph James, filed a lawsuit in Marin County Superior Court to stop their dismissal. Among the points made in the case was that the threatened dismissals would constitute a breach of the anti-discrimination provisions in Marinship's contracts with the Maritime Commission. A summary of the case at points out that the shipyard was owned by the United States and operated by Marinship Corp. under contracts containing provisions that Marinship would not discriminate against any worker because of race, color, creed, or national origin. The Marin court issued a preliminary injunction against the union and Marinship Corporation, but those defendants countered by contending that a state court had no jurisdiction over a labor controversy in the shipbuilding industry, because shipbuilding affects interstate commerce, so “jurisdiction over labor disputes lies in the National Labor Relations Board.”  Eventually, the case wound its way to the California Supreme Court in 1944, where it was argued by notable African American attorney Thurgood Marshall, among others.  The unanimous decision in favor of James and the other workers rejected the jurisdictional argument, and held that if a closed-shop contract was in place and that workers must be union members in order to work, then unions cannot be closed to any members based on their race or any other arbitrary conditions.  True integration had come to Marinship at last.

Thurgood Marshall later distinguished himself by arguing before the United States Supreme Court in the case of Brown v. Board of Education, winning a decision that desegregated public schools. He was eventually appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967.

“James vs. Marinship” by Charles Wollenberg is in the collection of the Sausalito Historical Society Research Room, which is open to the public Wednesdays and Saturdays 10 AM to 1 PM on the top floor of City Hall.