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Feb 28

Black History Month: International Secretary-Treasurer Oscar Owens

Remembering ATU International Secretary-Treasurer Oscar "Double O" Owens

As we close out Black History Month, we remember the late International Secretary-Treasurer Oscar "Double O" Owens. We present excerpts from an interview from 2017 with the IST Owens, who was born during the Jim Crow era in the South, fought in Vietnam, became a bus driver and, beginning in 1966, rose through the ranks from shop steward to international Secretary Treasurer until his death on October 25, 2019.

You can also listen to a podcast of part one here and part two here.

Born in the ‘deep, deep South’

Oscar Owens (OO): I was born in Alabama, but partly raised in California, partly raised in Alabama. So, I had a look at both.

Alabama – that’s the the deep, deep South. And, of course, I’ll never forget going shopping with my Mom, and I would want some water. And I was a little boy and I didn’t know the difference between one fountain and the other. And just in those days they would have the fountains for Blacks (in those days it was “Negroes”), and fountains for Whites. The same applied to the bathrooms.

And, of course there was no such thing as going to the counter in the drug store to get a soda or get some ice cream, or get a hot dog – that wasn’t allowed.

‘Son, that’s just the way it is here’

I know all about having to ride in the back of the bus. I’d have to get up, if the bus was full, and give my seat to a white person. So, I experienced all of that when I was a little boy going shopping with my Mom. I remember all of that just as though it were yesterday.

ATU: Did you realize that there was something wrong about that at that age?

OO: You know, the first time you see it happen, you know it’s not right, no matter what age you are.

You know, I always say you can take 18-month old babies, they can be black, white, whatever, and you can put them down on the floor and they will play together and have fun and won’t pay any attention to one being one color, and one being the other.

So, under those circumstances, no matter what age you were, you knew something was wrong. You’d ask your Mom if you could do what you saw the little white kids doing, sitting at the counter eating their ice cream bars, or getting a soda. She said, “No, you can’t do that.”

Later on, you would ask her “Why?” She would say, “Son, that’s just the way it is here.”

Then you start growing up and learn how to read for yourself, and then it all starts coming out.

Rosa Parks

And, of course, I remember it like it was yesterday when the news broke concerning Rosa Parks. I’ll never forget that.

Two things impressed me [when I was growing up]: Rosa Parks, and, later, the student sit-ins.

And, of course when the sit-ins started I was in California. You know, at that time, a lot of my friends lived in Richmond (CA)  – just the suburbs of Oakland. And a lot of those kids from Oakland, Richmond, and San Francisco went down to the protests that were occurring at the time.

Racism more subtle in California

I moved to California in the late ’50s. And, of course, California was a little bit different (in its racism), but the same thing was still there – it was just done in a subtle way.

You know, you could drink out of fountains and sit at the counter in the drugstores, but I used to hear the older people talk about how they wanted to be bus drivers. They couldn’t be a bus driver, but they could work on the tracks.

They would tell me all these wild stories about how they couldn’t drive the bus. They’d have to sit in the back of the bus; they certainly couldn’t sit in the front of the bus.

A lot of them said when we did start being able to drive a bus that “I no longer have to sit in the back of the bus, I’m now in front of the bus.” And I always kept that in my mind.

Once I started driving a bus, in 1966, I had the chance to meet the first black person to ever work for the transit system in Oakland.

Military service

I entered the military in 1963. President Kennedy had not been elected for very long, and they were getting rid of the draft. That was the big issue. I happened to be in the last group of draftees that went into the service. It was August 1, 1963.

So, once we arrived at Fort Ord, CA, two days later the order came down that the draft was ended, and anyone there who was married – they sent them back home. I was a single man so I didn’t get to go back home.

But, anyway I served out my time. The military was good for me, and I think I was good for the military.

ATU: Were you sent to Vietnam?                        

OO: Yes.

ATU: What was that like?

OO: That’s an experience that shall always be with me.

First, I left Ft. Ord after I did my advanced training, and my first assignment was in Frankfort, Germany.   So, I left there and went to Vietnam – but that was at the early stages.

ATU: And, you were infantry, I take it?

OO: Yes.

ATU: So, you were right on the front lines.

OO: Yes, sir... Tough… tough.

OO: I came back in ’66. And I already had a job as an inspector for Gerber’s Baby Foods. I took care of the babies.

In those days if you went into the military – especially drafted – your job was assured when you got out of the military. But, that’s not the case today.

‘I wanted to try driving a bus’

And, so, when I returned I had six months to accept my job back, and I did that. And, they hired me back in the same position I was in when I left. I decided that I wanted to try driving a bus. And then, I started driving a bus, June 16, 1966.

We serviced Alameda/Contra Costa Counties and we would go across the bridge because a lot of people from  the East Bay which is Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, San Leandro – they would work in San Francisco. There was no BART in those days. So, we transported those people.

Vietnam and civil rights

You know, the embarkation point for Vietnam was Oakland. That was the center of attention, of everything because when they came in, or they were leaving, there were always big protests over the war. And, of course, on the other side of that was the civil rights struggle.

The Black Panther Party was born. Eldridge Cleaver, Huey Newton. It was very unstable in Northern California in those days, basically because of the war. It wasn’t so much about the civil rights scene, but that played an important role there too.  Those were trying times in the Bay area.

‘Why don’t you run for shop steward?’

You know, I’d heard about unions, I’d read about them. I didn’t know a lot about them.

When I was working at Gerber’s – naturally that was a union house. The Teamsters represented the workers at Gerber’s Baby Food. So, I became active there.

When I went over and started driving the bus, there, as a condition of employment you had to join the Union within 30 days of being hired. So, I became interested in the Union; became really, really active because I would listen to the old guys. That’s who I would hang around with, and I guess I wanted to know about the Union. I wanted to get involved.

‘Just a kid!’

I was very much a “rabble-rouser.” All of us [union officers] start out that way. But, I didn’t think I was a rabble-rouser. I was just trying to learn. Because I didn’t know why certain things were being done. OK? I was just a kid [laughs] 24-years old! Just a kid!

So, we’d have long union meetings, and the president would know we were youngsters, and he would take his time and explain it. And one time he asked me, after I was there a few years, “Why don’t you run for shop steward?”

I said, “Yeah, I think I’d like that.”

Labor education

At that time, we had labor studies up at UC Berkeley, which was free. All you had to do was go to class, and they would teach you everything from grievance handling to collective bargaining. All of it was free – they didn’t charge you anything!

So that’s what I did for over two years, and I ran for shop steward in 1972; I won. There was a second term in ’74. At that time, the term was two years. 

And that took me through to ’76. We had an election, and I ran for “business agent.” And in those days the business agent was the “key.” And you know Dan Maroney changed that because there was always the squabble as to who was in charge – whether it was the business agent or the president [laughs].

I was elected business agent in the summer of ’76 and took office at the first union meeting in January. 

Resistance?

ATU: Was there any resistance because of the color of your skin?

OO: You know, as I talked to Mr. Foster [the first ATU African-American local, and international vice president], over the years, there was some resistance – but not extensive – because, you know, the drivers in certain parts of the country, as well as mechanics, realized a change was coming.

The local president who encouraged me to run for shop steward was named Ed Codaro, and he thought it was just better for the Amalgamated Transit Union, overall. And right on the heels of that came the women.

Women join the transit workforce

When I first started there in ’66 the only females who worked there were the women who were hired during World War II (because they didn’t have enough men).

After the war was over they stopped hiring women. So, later, a lawsuit was filed, and the judge ordered them to hire women. The Mexican-American Defense League was involved in it. A lot of civil rights groups were involved in it. And after the District lost the lawsuit, it started hiring women.

Maya Angelou was a transit operator there during that time. It was years before I knew that she came out of the transit industry – Muni – in San Francisco.

‘We saw that change could happen’

In 1976, we had one African American supervisor out of the entire system. We were in our 20s. He was probably in his early 50s.

We began to do the same thing with the company that we did with the union. We started organizing because we saw that change could happen.

So what we would do… We would meet with the politicians. We would meet with the leadership of the black community, because they were attuned to what was really going on. And, after we got everybody organized (the board of directors of AC Transit was elected, not appointed) board members were elected from different areas of the county.

So we began to put pressure on the board that we wanted the “landscape” to start looking like the employees.

So that’s the way we started a change in management. And they did start hiring black people into supervisory positions. And then they eventually went into being assistant superintendents, superintendents, and assistant general manager of the entire system.

Joining the international staff

I came on the international staff in ’82, as an organizer…. And then I went from organizer to international rep., and then international vice president.

After the [late International Vice President] Chuck Yelky passed away [in ’86], International President John Rowland reached out and put me on as an international vice president to replace Yelky. In those days you got all of California to yourself. Only one person did the entire state.

But before I became international vice president, John Rowland summoned me to Washington – didn’t tell me what he wanted.

Staff brought me out some books. And they said, “International President Rowland wants you to look at these.”

And I started looking through the books and there was this little African-American girl who had been shot on the bus in Dallas, and they were tearing up the buses and the Teamsters Union would not deliver fuel for the system so that they could run the buses. And people were crossing the picket line. There were fights.

So, finally he called me into the office and said, “I’m sending you to Dallas.”

So I worked in Dallas from 1982 until 2000 – 18 years – and took care of California. Dallas was a great experience for me, because I didn’t have all the privileges and the language in the collective bargaining agreement in Dallas that I had in Oakland. In fact, we didn’t have any collective bargaining agreement there.

It’s a right-to-work state. They had to meet and confer with us – but, you can imagine what that looked like versus collective bargaining.

So, those were the days that I will never forget. And, that’s what kind of propelled me to where I am now.

ATU: So Jim La Sala calls and asks you to be International Secretary-Treasurer.

OO: Well, he didn’t say it quite like that. What happened was he summoned me to Washington to see if I wanted the job. So I came to Washington and he met with me – he and Ellis Franklin (executive vice). And he’s saying “Oliver Green is retiring at the end of the year (this was in late August), and I’d like for you to consider it – becoming secretary-treasurer.”

I said, “Jimmy, no. I’m happy where I am! You know, I’ve got a good job. Got a few kids at home – little ones. And I don’t know if I want to…”

He says, “Well first you’ll have to move.”

So we discussed it and I went back to the hotel. They picked me up again that night, and we started going through it all over again.

And he said, “Well, let me tell you what. I’m going to give you some time to think about it.” I said, “OK.”

I thought about it and talked to the wife about it [and accepted the job].

The ATU Black Caucus

The Black Caucus will be celebrating our 50th anniversary this year.

That was long before me. It’s my understanding of the way that came about is along the same lines that I was telling you about my Local Union. We didn’t have any black [executive] officers, and no women.

In 1972, Bruce Foster became the first African-American international vice president. He was the first, and we called him the “Godfather,” because he would attempt to teach us. With Bruce Foster there was no failing. No – you learn, and you do it, and you do it right.

Tight with a buck

ATU: How did you get the reputation for being so tight with a buck?

OO: I had three months of training with [former International Secretary-Treasurer] Oliver Green. And, of course, Ray Wallace [former International Secretary-Treasurer before Green] and I were always close, because when Ray was secretary-treasurer I was an organizer and a rep., and I became a vice president before he retired. So, he and I were very close.

We would talk a lot. He said, “Oscar, let me just leave this with you: Just do your job as secretary-treasurer. Follow your duties as in the Constitution, and take care of the money.”

The fight to include women in transit hiring

You know, when the black women were in the fight, Hispanic women got in the fight too after they saw what was happening.

So, there weren’t any Hispanic women, or any women at all driving the bus. They could just be a clerk or something.

So, once they started coming in – not only in California, but all over the country – they started asking questions about the Black Caucus.

“What is that? What do you all do?”

We used to sit with them and tell them. I used to use Phillip Randolph’s old saying: “At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You take what you can get, and you keep what you can hold.”  If you don’t take anything you won’t get anything.

They came along and they started organizing, and once they were all together, they created a great organization [the Latino Caucus]. They’re great people.

50 years

ATU: Now you come all this way in the Union – over 50 years – just like the Super Bowl.

OO:  [laughs] June the 15th I’ll have 51 years.

I think we came such a long way, but we still have a long way to go in order to be equally treated; where there is no division in America. You as an American and all Americans should be treated the same. But we’re not there.

ATU: Do you think we’re going backwards now?

OO: Yeah. With this guy, Trump, if something doesn’t change, we’ll be back to the ’60s. People are not going to take it [repression] today. So, that’s why I say, with this guy [President Trump], I see us going back to the ’60s.

All you have to do is listen to his speeches. And he carried that ball about the birtherism about Barack for years; he wouldn’t give up.  And over that time racism starts showing its ugly head all over again. And it’s alive and well under his leadership today.

You look at what he’s doing to the women! I see us going backwards.

They’re [the wealthy] turning worker against worker, and when that happens it’s dangerous. We’re going to have our work cut out for us – especially public employees. We have to be ready to fight.

‘Thankful’

I am just so thankful. I’m just happy that I was able to have a decent job, send my kids to school. They’ve got good jobs. Got a decent place to live.

And last of all, I enjoy what I do. People ask, “Why are you still working?” I say, “I like what I do.”

If I can just help one person along the way…

When I was an organizer, after a win, I’d leave on a plane and look back down on the city, and say, “I helped somebody.”

That’s why I stay on.  I think I do some good. Helping somebody, you know – I think that’s what it’s all about.