Dorothy Christiansen worked for several decades as a commissioner for the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service and helped resolve some of the biggest labor disputes in California.
“She was direct, smart, and unyielding,” said NUHW President Sal Rosselli. “She could see both sides and she worked hard to cut through all the nonsense and get the situation resolved.”
Born to a sharecropper family in Stonewall, Oklahoma, her family was among the many who made their way to the Golden State looking for work during World War II.
Christiansen’s first labor dispute was a personal one. After graduating from Richmond Union High School, she began working as a secretary for the City of Richmond. When the city denied her a salary increase because of her gender, Christiansen successfully organized her coworkers into the first union for administrative staff.
The effort propelled her into labor work, and eventually she became deputy executive director of SEIU Local 390, a public employees’ union in Oakland, where she led the effort to organize BART workers when the transit system opened in the early 1970s.
Her experience on the labor side informed her work when she became a federal mediator, where her tough but even approach earned her the admiration of workers, labor leaders, management, and elected political leaders.
Christiansen always managed to make herself heard by opposing sides during exhausting labor negotiations. She loved language and valued precise communication. She taught up-and-coming mediators that the manner in which a mediator delivers a message is just as important as the message itself. And she was not afraid to offer a pithy or cutting remark when it was needed.
Those skills helped her settle strikes by workers at Mission Foods tortilla factory in Contra Costa County, Kaiser Permanente, and Summit Medical Center in Oakland, where she helped bring a lengthy strike to an end.
Local 250 and four other unions representing 1,700 workers at Summit Medical Center were striking for the right to honor each other’s picket lines. The strike dragged on for 45 days and drew national attention. Ultimately, it was Christiansen’s proposal for settlement that brought the standoff to a conclusion. Convinced that the workers would not give up and that the public was on their side, she publicly put forth a variation of the union’s proposal that the hospital at first dismissed, but agreed to just days later.
Christiansen was so highly regarded by Local 250 members and leaders that when they broke away to form NUHW, they asked her to preside over the counting of the ballots when the newly formed union ratified its Constitution and Bylaws in 2011.
“We could have chosen any neutral third party,” Rosselli said. “We could have hired a firm, or asked a faith leader or a political figure. But there was no question that we wanted Dorothy to do it. She had an extraordinary ability to relate to workers, and she was an advisor to many of us who worked for Local 250 and NUHW. She was unique, she was tough, and she was fair.”