Walter Washington, then a young black D.C. housing official, and J.C. Turner, a young white union official, met often during the 1940s and 1950s to discuss the long fight for desegregation. They frequently ate lunch at the downtown YWCA -- because it was one of the few places in Washington a black and a white could be served together.
After the battle for integration was won, Walter Washington went on to become the first elected mayor of the District. And James Castle Turner Jr. became one of the most influential and respected men in Washington, the "Mr. Labor" whose political clout and early commitment to civil rights helped integrate the city's work places and win home rule for the District.
"This is the kind of man who comes through a community once in a lifetime," the former mayor told more than 500 labor and civic leaders who gathered Thursday night to honor Turner, 68, who has retired as president of the 370,000-member International Union of Operating Engineers.
A beefy southerner who was a collegiate boxing champion, Turner's brains and brawn figured in his rise from east Texas laborer to become a nationally known labor leader, AFL-CIO vice president, Democratic National Committee member, member of the first appointed D.C. City Council, and longtime head of the Washington Central Labor Council, among other distinctions.
Turner's role as a labor power broker in the District will likely never be equaled, and his retirement marks the end of an era in which unions were an extraordinarily potent force here, according to those familiar with his 50-year career in Washington.
He headed a previously all-white union in the building trades that were notorious for their discriminatory hiring practices, yet Turner became an unlikely champion of affirmative action prior to the rising tide of the civil rights movement.
Turner used his friendship with the late AFL-CIO president George Meany and labor's then-strong ties to Congress and the White House to maximize his influence. As Mayor Marion Barry said at Turner's testimonial: "He lobbied congressional leaders and presidents for home rule. He recognized that the need for self-determination -- whether it be at the ballot box or at the bargaining table -- is integral to freedom."
The District today has one of the highest minimum-wage levels and has had one of the most generous worker compensation and unemployment systems in part because of Turner's influence in shaping those systems and serving as a member of the city agencies that controlled them.
"Jay Turner had real power. Nothing moved in this city without J.C. The labor people will tell you that, and business people too," said Joslyn N. Williams, who heads the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, which Turner headed until 1972.
If a construction firm refused to hire union workers or otherwise crossed Turner, he could use his political ties to the District Building to strike back, Williams said.
"That company might find their application for an alley closing or their permit to dig up a street was suddenly jammed up," Williams said. "J.C. could shut down any job in the city . . . . Those were the old days when labor could run this city, but it will never be like that again."
"When there was a political campaign in Washington, you reported to J.C. Turner for your assignment," said Minor W. Christian, president of the 10,000-member Local 25 of the Hotel and Restaurant Employees Union. "He gave you that assignment and you did it." Ron Richardson, another hotel union official, agreed. "He was the greatest delegater of tasks I've ever seen."
Walter Washington, who was an official of the old National Capital Housing Authority between 1941 and 1966, jokes now about the influence that Turner had over him. "At the housing authority, we gave only union contracts" rather than allowing nonunion firms to build, Washington said.
"I didn't know what I was doing all the time, but Jay said it was right," Washington said, smiling.
Although union membership in Washington has grown dramatically in recent years by the organization of government workers, the labor movement no longer has the clout it enjoyed before home rule, Turner said in an interview. "The business community has become more powerful under this form of government," partly because of its heavy financial contributions and influence upon elected City Council members, he said.
Before home rule, Turner was able to wield considerable power here because the city was governed by congressional committees and appointed commissioners, whom Turner could effectively lobby for favors ranging from union construction contracts to political appointments for labor officials.
Since then, he said, "We've done well in forming unions, but in putting forward trade-union objectives, we haven't done too well." He pointed to recent reductions in unemployment and worker compensation benefits as an example of business gaining the upper hand over labor within city government. Part of the problem, he said, is that "we developed a close relationship with Walter Washington, but we never developed that kind of rapport with his successor," Barry.
The Turner-Washington friendship became crucial in the turbulent 1960s after Washington was appointed mayor by President Johnson, who chose Turner to serve on the first appointed council. Turner recalls vividly his meeting with fellow Texan Johnson after Turner had made it known that he did not want the job.
"Meany had slipped my name to LBJ, and Mr. Johnson called me in and he said, 'J.C., either you take this job or there won't be a labor representative on the D.C. council. And I said 'Yes, sir, Mr. President,' and that was it," he said.
Turner is the son of an ironworker who was blacklisted by employers in the 1920s and had trouble finding work because he was a member of the "Wobblies," the radical Industrial Workers of the World union. As a result, the Turner family had to move frequently in search of work and in 1932 landed in Washington, where James Castle Sr. found a job as a riveter on the massive construction projects spawned by the New Deal.
J.C. Jr., then a young socialist at Eastern High School, won a boxing scholarship to Catholic University in the depths of the Great Depression. While helping Catholic win a national boxing championship, the heavyweight fighter graduated magna cum laude with a degree in economics.
He joined the Operating Engineers, working as an equipment operator and later as a union organizer on Tennessee Valley Authority projects in the deep South, an assignment that led to his kidnaping and other forms of inhospitable treatment from antiunion employers.
In the District, the building trades began integrating long before their counterparts in many other cities, partly because of Turner's efforts to break the barrier for his own union and for others.
"When we were organizing cafeteria workers in the 1960s, an all-black work force, the man to see was J.C. . . . He was always there" offering support and advice, recalled Minor Christian, who is black. "There will never be another J.C. Turner."
A soft-spoken man, Turner is matter-of-fact in describing his racial attitudes and activities. "I grew up in Beaumont, Tex. I played with black people when I was a kid. I swam with them, played ball," he said. " . . . I think I became a sensitive person for one reason or another. It just happened that way. I just felt strongly about these things."
Turner's perspective was radically different from the parochial views of many labor officials who were concerned mainly with union contracts. He was fond of saying that "the labor movement is a movement of ideals," said Larry Dugan Jr., Turner's successor at the Operating Engineers.
In keeping with those ideals, Turner served for years on groups such as the Washington Housing Association, the Clearing House on Slum Clearance, the Criminal Justice Association and many others. He still serves as treasurer of the National Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and as a trustee of the National Urban League.
Said Washington of those efforts, "There are a good many people who are sleeping better in this city tonight because J.C. Turner was here."
Turner serves on the board of WETA-TV, and last year, in an unusual move, he was named to the board of American Security Bank after building trades unions, which had more than $1.5 billion in pension funds there, wanted a union member on the board to better represent their interests.
Turner and his wife Mary reared five children, and Turner boasts that he usually made it home for dinner, regardless of the press of business. He proudly notes that all five children went to college and two became union officials.
His son, Brian, an AFL-CIO trade specialist, recalls admiring his father's versatility at the bargaining table: "I saw him once at a sand-and-gravel company negotiation. He was a very effective bargainer. Very analytical, and trained as an economist, a very cool and calm analyst.
"But then he could turn it around," he said. "He came back in and hit the table with his fist. I thought the . . . room would fall down. He shouted at the company guy, 'We don't want a strike, but if you want a strike, you got one, and you'll be sorry you were ever born.' . . . I think he got what he wanted.