William H. Chester (1914-1985)

Dr. Martin Luther King with Bill Chester,
January 25, 1963
“Image Courtesy of Anne Rand Library, International
Longshore and Warehouse Union”

William “Bill” Chester, Vice President and Assistant to Harry Bridges, President of the International Longshoremen and Warehouse Union (ILWU), was the highest ranking African American in the ILWU and a leading trade union official and civil rights leader in the San Francisco Bay Area from the 1950s through 1970s.

Born in Shreveport, Louisiana, on January 6, 1914, Chester’s mother’s maiden name was Fuller. Chester, an only child, moved with his parents to Kansas City, Missouri when he was a year old and spent his entire childhood there.  His father, a railroad worker, died when he was 11.  Chester graduated from high school in 1932 and spent two years at Western College in Quindaro, Kansas.

Due to the Depression, Chester enlisted in the 25th Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, a famed all-black unit, for three years. Discharged in the late 1930s, he traveled to San Francisco, California, where he briefly worked on barges and joined the ILWU, Local 10.

When Chester joined the union in 1938, fewer than 100 blacks belonged.  San Francisco’s port boomed in World War II, allowing thousands of African American workers to find jobs on the waterfront.  Chester, however, did not work with these migrants.  He was called back into the Army until the war ended.  Afterwards, Chester was reinstated to Local 10.

The ILWU was one of the few unions in San Francisco where blacks could get a job without discrimination.  Nonetheless, to fight lingering racism, Chester helped formed a Black Caucus in Local 10.  This group, with the active support of many progressive whites, pushed to ensure representation of all races, when new members were admitted to the union.  They also started recruiting from impoverished Bay Area black communities.  This policy, over time, led to a black majority in Local 10 by the late 1960s.

In 1951, ILWU President Harry Bridges appointed Chester as Northern California Regional Director where he served for 18 years.  That year, he also was appointed West Coast Regional Director and a Vice President of the National Negro Labor Council.  In 1959, he was elected an ILWU Vice President.

Chester’s civil rights efforts frequently involved the larger Bay Area and African American communities beyond ILWU membership. On May 26, 1963, for example, he helped conceive and organize a march of 20,000 and subsequent rally of 30,000 civil rights supporters in San Francisco.  The event, the largest civil rights demonstration in the region’s history, signaled Bay Area solidarity with the black civil rights demonstrators then confronting police in Birmingham, Alabama.

That same year, Chester led the effort to make Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. an honorary ILWU member.  In 1967, King visited Local 10’s hall and hailed the ILWU for promoting racial equality and uplifting poor people into the middle class.

San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto appointed Chester to the Board of Directors of the Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) in 1970.  Three years later, as president of BART, he rode the first official train to travel underneath the San Francisco Bay.

William H. Chester passed away on November 3, 1985, survived by his wife, Ethel V. Johnson, whom he married in 1940, one son and one daughter.  Nine years later, in 1994, Leo Robinson, another African American activist in Local 10, spearheaded the naming of Local 10’s hiring hall for Chester.