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August 2012

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San Francisco Retiree Talks —
and Walks — Labor History

Few cities celebrate their labor histories with more enthusiasm or attention to detail than San Francisco, home of the 1934 General Strike, a decisive event that highlighted the pressing need of workers to organize unions and gain a measure of justice on the job.

A series of guided walking tours to historic buildings and sites of struggle and an annual LaborFest draw thousands of residents.

While many of the guides and workshop hosts hail from academia, one stands out as a staunch and dedicated representative of the rank-and-file union members who have made the City by the Bay one of the world's great tourist destinations.

Peter O'Driscoll, a San Francisco substation maintenance electrician who retired from Pacific Gas and Electric Co. in 2006 after 38 years of service, began guiding visitors on walking tours sponsored by the city back in 1993, starting with one commemorating the storied Gold Rush.

O'Driscoll, a Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 shop steward whose activist legacy is carried on by three sons who carry IBEW tickets, co-conducts this year's Irish Labor History Walk, bringing to life the heroes who, like O'Driscoll, traveled from Ireland to infuse their brogues in the collective voices of their generation's workers. The walk is popular. On a rainy day, a recent labor walk still turned out 63 participants.

"It's about remembering where you came from," says O'Driscoll, the youngest member of a family of nine who grew up on a farm in Aughaville, County Cork. After traveling to Birmingham, England, where he worked in construction for two years, O'Driscoll, then 20, left to join a brother and sister in St. Louis, where he found work in a rope factory.

"My brother, who was a shop steward in the United Autoworkers at the Fisher Body plant in St. Louis, was my mentor," says O'Driscoll.

Numerous jobs followed, including tying rebar on bridge projects as an Ironworker, laboring in a steel fabricating yard as a member of the Boilermakers and serving in the Missouri National Guard before heading out to join one of his sisters in Eureka, Calif.

O'Driscoll joined Local 1245 in 1967, first working as a substation construction mechanic and then entering PG&E's electrical apprentice program two years later.

"I had heard so many negative things about unions that I didn't know where to turn, so I started reading about labor in America and took a course at the University of San Francisco," says O'Driscoll, who said he took pride in reading about the history of the Irish Molly Maguires in the East's coal fields and passed his appreciation for labor solidarity on to his sons.

"My dad is a role model," says Kevin O'Driscoll, a San Mateo Local 617 journeyman wireman. "He goes to work and does the best job he can do and tries to be an example of what a good union member is, keeping those ideals in mind and applying them every day," says Kevin.

Kevin says he and his brothers — Eamon, a Local 1245 substation electrician and Stephen, a Local 1245 troubleman — heeded their father's advice "that if you work collectively, you can always accomplish more than you can as individuals," says Kevin.

His sons' interest in the electrical trade, O'Driscoll recalls, was sharpened when he volunteered to run a PG&E safety fair, where they and other visitors were enchanted by displays exhibiting high-voltage equipment.

O'Driscoll's interest in safety wasn't just for show. One year, while helping construct the safety display, O'Driscoll sheared the head off of a bolt. He did some research and informed PG&E that substandard bolts were jeopardizing worker and consumer safety, leading to changes in purchasing.

"I've always been an active listener who asks a lot of questions," says O'Driscoll, who challenges others on his walking tour to reciprocate. "Usually one of the first questions I ask," says O'Driscoll, is what working conditions and wage rates would be like if the General Strike of 1934 had failed to lead to more organizing, or if Francis Perkins, Franklin D. Roosevelt's progressive labor secretary, hadn't been around to improve the lives of workers during the New Deal.

His questions sometimes draw controversy on the tour. "I met a business guy who complained about how much money union workers earn and told me I was promoting labor unions over historical research," says O'Driscoll.

"I told him we could go to a coffee shop and talk politics all night, but I wasn't going to stop telling the truth about labor's history," says O'Driscoll, who paid his own way to the IBEW's 100th year anniversary celebration in St. Louis in 1991. "My plan is to give something back to organized labor, an organization that gave me the opportunity to earn good pay, enjoy a good quality of life and a fair standard of living," says O'Driscoll.

Larry Shoup, a historian who accompanies O'Driscoll on the Irish Labor Walk, says, "Peter is sincere, warm and open, and he has a nice relationship with the people who attend our labor walks."

O'Driscoll, who is now researching his family's history, spends part of his retirement traveling across the U.S. During those treks, he asks himself how different life for new immigrants is from the challenges he faced when he arrived from Ireland in 1962.

Addressing the current difficulties facing the labor movement, O'Driscoll says there is a pressing need for leaders with courage and conviction like Francis Perkins. The situation is complex, says O'Driscoll, but, "We need to always remember where we came from, and keep talking."


Vacaville, Calif., Local 1245 retiree Peter O'Driscoll, right, instilled strong union values into sons Eamon, left, Stephen and Kevin, all IBEW members. O'Driscoll's grandsons Collin and Ryan are also photographed.