Vernon Watkins dies at 76; rights activist organized UC, city workers

Vernon Watkins
Vernon Watkins poses for a portrait in his home in Rancho Cucamonga on Aug. 18, 2013.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Vernon Watkins, a California labor leader and civil rights activist who organized major campaigns aimed at public employees, including a massive effort in the early 1980s that brought 40,000 University of California workers into his union, died Thursday at an Upland hospital. He was 76.

The cause was heart failure, said his son, Vernon Watkins Jr.

Watkins, who lived in Rancho Cucamonga, was California area director for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees for two decades starting in the early 1970s. He later served as a top national official for the union in Washington.

As California director, he was the architect of a campaign to unionize thousands of non-teaching UC employees, including custodians, clerks, researchers and hospital aides. The university fought the 1983 union election -- one of the largest in modern times – for four years.

“It probably doubled the membership in California,” said Cheryl Parisi, executive director of AFSCME’s District Council 36, which covers Southern California. “Vernon built the union in this state. He was involved in virtually every large element of our growth and organizing.”

Watkins also played a key role in a battle for pay equity for nearly 4,000 Los Angeles city workers, most of them women.

In 1985, the Los Angeles City Council agreed to raise the salaries of 3,900 women holding such traditionally low-paying city jobs as librarian, secretary and clerk. The contract brought the women’s pay in line with that of men in jobs with similar skill levels, such as gardeners, drivers and maintenance workers.

At the time, the average top salary of a clerk-typist, for example, was about $1,400 a month, compared to $1,700 for a gardener.

The agreement was one of only a few of its type in the country at the time and the first brokered through collective bargaining instead of costly litigation or a strike. A few months after the Los Angeles contract was approved, Watkins helped win a similar agreement for 2,000 municipal workers in San Jose, but that accord was reached after a lengthy strike.

“The organizing Vernon Watkins supported in the 1980s was mainly for low-wage women and workers of color,” said Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education. “He embodied the spirit of the civil rights movement and the labor movement.”

Vernon R. Watkins was born in Detroit on May 26, 1938. After earning a bachelor’s degree from Wayne State University, he became one of the first black linotype operators in the Graphic Arts International Union. He married his high school sweetheart, Marion Mason, in 1956.

By the early 1960s he was living in a segregated Detroit neighborhood and struggling to support a growing family on his modest wages from a printing plant.

In 1963, inspired by black labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin, he drove all night to the nation’s capital to participate in the massive rally they helped organize, the historic March on Washington.

“I had one thing on my mind in those days,” Watkins told The Times in 2013, “and that was jobs. With the way we were treated because of the color of our skin, how was I going to keep providing for my family?”

Hearing the Rev. Martin Luther King’s stirring “I Have a Dream” speech, with its calls for racial equality and brotherhood, prodded Watkins to join the leadership of his local printers union. By the end of the ‘60s he was back in Washington as an organizer for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union.

In 1972 he moved to Los Angeles to become the union’s California director and became a close ally of Mayor Tom Bradley and other prominent Democrats, including future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. He also served on the Democratic National Committee for many years.

In 1992, he became executive assistant to William Lucy, the union’s international secretary-treasurer. He remained in that post until retiring in 2010.

Besides his wife and son, he is survived by three daughters, Celeste, Michelle and Angelia; a sister, Louise Hamilton; 10 grandchildren and five great-grandchildren.

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