Michael Theriault headshot

By now, news of my retirement at the end of my term 2 August has made even the pages of the Chronicle. I can claim some accomplishments in my thirteen years in this office. I regret, though, the tasks I haven’t completed.

I’m not faultless in this, but it was in some ways inevitable. This Council was founded in 1896 to strengthen workers in a struggle that had long existed and that will long continue. Not only will our core task endure, but it must be pursued in forms that will mutate as law and regulation change, as population transforms, and as technology alters work itself. It will even be subject to changes in fashion: San Francisco architecture once favored tin cornices, and the Building Trades included a Tin Cornice Workers Union.

But it was inevitable, too, because of a basic human tendency toward habit, and in consequence a degree of organizational inertia in both unions and employers. I often say that the only real power I have is the power of persuasion, and I fault myself in not having been persistent and persuasive enough when I believed habits needed to be challenged and inertia overcome.

And it was inevitable because in a whirl of meetings, hearings, correspondence, elections, newspaper deadlines, negotiations, phone calls, legal requirements, and basic housekeeping things will just be left unfinished.

In this and subsequent columns I will discuss unfinished things.


John O’Connell High School fed generations of students from its shop programs into apprenticeships. Its teams are still “The Boilermakers,” a name from a past when shipyards operated along much of our eastern waterfront, members of the now-defunct Local Lodge 6 of the Boilermakers worked in them all, and John O’Connell in the blue-collar Mission District was first and foremost a trade school.

Those shipyards are closed. The last of them, at Pier 70, may yet reopen, but its return is uncertain.

When the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake wrecked John O’Connell, the San Francisco Unified School District, seeing most of the shipyards already gone, concluded that blue-collar work, too, was gone and rebuilt the school without shops. The District also adhered to educational fashion that noted correctly the misuse of shop programs to “track” minority students away from college but concluded incorrectly from this that shop programs had no worth.

The District forgot about us and our thousands of blue-collar jobs here.

For years after 1989, and well into my tenure, the Council advocated for return of shops to John O’Connell. Not long ago we succeeded. A new shop building went up at the school. A wood shop and basic construction program was begun.

In this, my powers of persuasion may have helped. I preached that shop, though itself useful, should not be viewed as an end in itself, but as a means to engage students who might learn better in a hands-on setting or who might have lost sight of the value of education. Layout could point them back to geometry and trigonometry, tool use to physics, even drafting RFIs to English.

Meanwhile, educational fashion had pointed the District back to what was now termed “Career Technical Education.”

One failing of the earlier shop programs at John O’Connell, though, was that they had no close ties to our apprenticeships and fed as readily into the non-union as into the union workforce.

When we negotiated our project labor agreement for the District’s 2011 bond work, then, I inserted a provision meant to provide incentive to both our unions and our employers, who rule our apprenticeships with equal votes, to establish agreements with the District giving some value to students’ completion of the Multi-Craft Core Curriculum, or MC3, in entry to apprenticeship. The MC3 is a pre-apprenticeship program established by all affiliates of North America’s Building Trades Unions. The PLA allows contractors who do not meet the District’s local hire mandates to avoid penalty if they have such an agreement with an apprenticeship.

This provision has attracted national attention, but no local apprenticeship yet has such an agreement.

This is a thing left unfinished.

I hoped that once a few such agreements were in place and a pipeline for students into our apprenticeships was established I could convince the District to expand the program to an East Side and a West Side high school.

Another thing left unfinished.

To tie us to the program financially and so give us more say in its implementation I advocated formation of a nonprofit organization to collect and direct contributions to it. Some Council affiliates expressed doubts. Insofar as these doubts were expressed though questions, I believe I addressed them adequately, but I did not know how to address doubts that remained unarticulated. Consideration of the nonprofit’s formation has been continued until September.

A thing unfinished.

The District is central to the City’s life. The Council has been, also, and must remain so, if workers in our industry are to thrive. The more we serve the District’s students, and the more closely we are tied to it, the longer we guarantee our centrality and ability to protect and advance our members.

Organized Labor


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