The Labor Activist Who Unionized Thousands and Fought For Equality

When Helene Powell graduated from UC Berkeley in May 1941, she was faced with a dilemma. The prospect of becoming a teacher held some appeal, but earning the certificate to qualify meant another year in college; another year of expenses; another year of feeling less than independent. Keen to work, and while she figured out her next move, Powell took a temp job in the Alexander-Balart coffee warehouse in San Francisco. It was a move that would change the course of Powell's life—and the lives of thousands of blue collar workers in California.

Helene Powell was born in 1919 to a close-knit family that respected her independence. (Powell's mom, despite being religious herself, refused to baptize Helene until she was old enough to choose her own religion—very unusual for the time.) When Powell was a teenager, the family moved from San Jose to San Francisco's almost exclusively Irish-Catholic Sunset District. Despite encountering racists that refused to talk to her because of her skin tone, Powell remembers most of her neighbors on 21st Avenue as “fantastic"—they were united, after all, by a strong work ethic.

That passion for working hard was evident throughout Powell's time at Berkeley. While earning her bachelor's degree in Spanish, Powell was president of the Negro Students Club for two years, and active in a plethora of groups, including the California Youth Legislature and the Committee for Peace. Her involvement with the National Youth Administration got her her very first job, earning $15 a month for Spanish translation work, which helped pay for her books. And it was her colleagues in the Student Worker's Federation who first told her about the Alexander-Balart warehouse job.

It was during a three-day strike at the coffee plant that Powell's eyes were truly opened to the importance of labor activism. “I had thought previously that [union] members were extremely militant," Powell told the California Historical Society (CHS) in 1976. "And I found out that this wasn’t true. These were just ordinary people trying to make a living.”

Powell's enthusiasm for the union took a hit when she found out that in the terms of the strike settlement, female employees received less wage increases than male ones. "The women got sold down the river," she later told CHS. And at her next few jobs (warehouse work was typically temporary and short-term), she saw the same thing happen over and over again. Among female workers, she recognized an air of “resentment but acceptance” that male employees were consistently treated better.

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Then, while working at the warehouse of Independent Paper Stock, she was put in a position to make a change. She was elected stewardess—the employee responsible for passing women's grievances onto the company for resolution. The male workers had their own separate steward. One of Powell's first goals? Eliminating this gender segregation between workers to open up lines of communication between them, and create better opportunities for women. She wasn't the only woman that pushed for this, but she was a leader in the meetings that finally led to it happening. From then on, there would be one steward for all workers.

Soon, as more and more men left to fight in World War II, roles that had once been exclusively male suddenly opened up to women. Powell took advantage, moving to a toy company where she could become an order filler. She was the only woman on the floor at first, but well-liked and quickly elected steward there too. She was a natural leader, and went above and beyond her duties, helping to organize blood drives and encouraging workers to persist with exhausting overtime that was for the war effort. Out of hours, she also regularly marched members of her union into San Francisco's City Hall to demand that rent control be maintained.

Quickly, word about Powell's powers of persuasion spread south to Los Angeles and, at the age of just 24, she was appointed as the international representative for the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU). Workers in L.A. were nowhere near as organized as they were in the Bay Area, and Powell immediately went about encouraging workers all over Los Angeles to unionize.

She spoke to hundreds of workers a day, at factories and warehouses across the city, making speeches during their lunch hours. She utilized her Spanish degree by speaking at plants that employed Mexican-Americans, and writing a column in Spanish for the union newspaper. She wrote and handed out pro-union leaflets and brochures to workers on their way to and from work. She taught people the best way to block gates during picket lines. And she even worked undercover. (Usually, by the time she was discovered by factory bosses and fired, she'd already planted the seeds of unionization in the minds of the workers.)

Outside of the plants, she met with senators and consulted with the Democratic party to make sure candidates in the region would be union-friendly. She hosted consciousness raising events and got celebrities, including actress Louise Beavers, to make appearances. She even threw Sunday afternoon parties on her own patio for workers, serving tea and enchiladas.

Despite all of her hard work, she was eventually let go by LA's ILWU for speaking out against a union official who tried to gain a “tremendous salary increase.” Her vocal objections resulted in his raise getting voted down, but also in her being fired. Powell had interfered beyond her perceived jurisdiction. "I knew I had!" she later laughed. "But I thought my position was correct! I’ve always been against union officials making so much more than the people they’ve been elected to help. They forget where they come from."

A photo from the July 9, 1943 issue of ‘The Labor Herald’ touted “CIO Women Organizers.” Helene Powell can be seen on the far right, alongside fellow union organizers: (L-R) Freda Cassa, Loretta Starvus and Irene Sparks.
A photo from the July 9, 1943 issue of ‘The Labor Herald’ touted “CIO Women Organizers.” Helene Powell can be seen on the far right, alongside fellow union organizers: (L-R) Freda Cassa, Loretta Starvus and Irene Sparks. ('The Labor Herald'/California Historical Society)

No sooner than she was out of the ILWU, Powell was offered a job working for the CIO Political Action Committee for the duration of the 1944 election. It was a role she was already very prepared for, having grown so familiar with the situations of blue-collar workers around the city. Many of the women who attended her union events were Black and from the Deep South—and Powell knew they had never voted before.

"They had come from areas where there were poll taxes," Powell told CHS in 1977. "So they’d never been able to vote because they didn’t have the money to pay the poll tax. So there had to be quite an educational program to point out that in California you did not have to pay a poll tax in order to vote. Lots of signs on telephone posts—that sort of thing. After that was the drive to get people to register to vote—many of these people could not write very well.” But Powell went about throwing "tremendous registration drives" at Black churches, among other locations, and went door-to-door to get people registered to vote.

Once the election was over, having grown tired of the sheer expanse of Los Angeles, Helene Powell returned home to San Francisco. There, she lived and worked for the rest of her life. (“After Pearl Harbor, I never went on a woman’s job again,” she said.) She also never stopped organizing for the betterment of workers and particularly women in the Bay Area. As men started returning home from the war, she joined the Legislative Committee of the ILWU to actively tackle gender discrimination.

"There was real bias against women on the job," she told CHS. "These women should be in the home—many men would come right out and say that to you. But there were many widows, divorcées, single women, who had to work in order to eat. They never gave that a consideration."

For Powell, gender equality in the work place was simply part and parcel of ensuring that workers could unite, thrive and improve conditions for all. "A good day's work for a good day's pay," she once said. "I really believe in that philosophy."

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