The sight of workers striking along the waterfront was nothing new to residents of the San Francisco Bay Area. San Francisco was a union town, and many people there had witnessed the longshore strike of 1934 and the general strike that accompanied it. Consequently, the 800 workers protesting outside the gates of the Marinship shipyards in Sausalito just after Thanksgiving in 1943 might not have raised any eyebrows, except for one fact: the workers were all African American. The target of their strike was not the management of Marinship, but the union that represented the workers there: Local 6 of the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers, American Federation of Labor.
The strike was one in a series of events that led to the California Supreme Court's 1944 decision, James v. Marinship. In Marinship, the court dramatically limited the ability of unions to exclude African Americans from membership. The litigation that led to the decision marked the beginning of an alliance between local civil rights advocates and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). To the leaders of these groups, the match was made in heaven. It was an interracial alliance to fight racial discrimination and promote economic justice. It was also an opportunity to break the hold that the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had on skilled, industrial jobs on the West Coast. Thus, the Marinship decision lived up to their wildest expectations.
Nevertheless, even as the legal victory cemented the relationship, it revealed some of the tensions that underlay it. First of all, the decision undermined the principles of industrial pluralism by demanding that courts police internal union affairs. It had been barely a decade since unions had succeeded in eliminating the widespread use of the labor injunction, the judiciary's primary tool in its heavy-handed control over union activities since the turn of the century. Yet in Marinship, the CIO requested judicially enforced limitations on the autonomy of trade unions. The decision thus chipped away at one of the labor movement's most precious rights: the right to be left alone by courts.
Second, while Marinship required formal equality between black and white workers, it did nothing to get African Americans jobs.