Portland has a rich labor history that deserves to be better known. This Portland Labor History Tour puts you in touch with some of that history; helping you discover significant sites, and learn some of our city’s important stories of working-class activism.
Working people in Portland have fought for living wages, sustainable work hours, safe working conditions, and public policies for the common good. Occasionally Portland workers have been at the forefront of national struggles. More frequently, they’ve acted on local or regional fronts, often supported by the wider community. And, more often than not, they’ve faced fierce resistance from employers and local authorities.
Today’s world of work reflects those struggles — sometimes successful, sometimes not. Knowing this history, and linking it to the streets we travel and the buildings we pass, brings the city to life in a new way. That’s not all. Knowing the history around us can inspire us to keep working for change even when signs of progress are hard to see. Learning about the choices people made in the past, and the strategies they pursued, can help us better confront the challenges of the present.
There are many lessons to be learned, and more tour sites to add (so check back often). We hope this Portland Labor History Tour inspires you to see labor’s story in the everyday world around you, and motivates you to learn more.
In Solidarity – The Portland Rising Steering Committee
SW Site 1: SW Harvey Milk Street & 3rd Avenue – Oregon Pioneer Building, Red Squad Headquarters (1934-37)
This was the mid-1930s headquarters of the infamous Red Squad, a group of “special citizens and officers” secretly organized by the Portland Police Bureau to spy on, harass, and intimidate labor organizers and members of the Communist Party. The Red Squad was first formed in the late 1910s. By the 1920s its membership largely overlapped with the Oregon branch of the Ku Klux Klan. In the 1930s, the Red Squad drew heavily from members of the pro-Nazi antisemitic Silver Shirts; in 1937, the captain of the Red Squad, Walter Odale, joined the American Defenders, a spinoff from the Silver Shirts. The Red Squad was disbanded in 1937, following a public outcry when it became known that the Red Squad had interrogated a student leader at Lincoln High School.
Sadly, the end of the Red Squad did not mean the end of police spying on organizations and individuals. A spying operation that was active from 1965 to the early 1980s was exposed in 2002 when a Portland Tribune reporter received a tip about the existence of many of the operation’s secret files. The paper’s review of the files found that the Intelligence Division spied on numerous groups for at least six years despite police claims to the contrary. The groups included both political and non-political organizations. Examples of the latter: the People’s Food Store co-op and the city supported Bicycle Repair Collective. The files included the names and activities of some 3000 people.
A number of community organizations are now working to promote police accountability and to block the adoption of new police surveillance technologies. There is also growing concern over the operation of so-called “special units” like the Portland Police Criminal Intelligence Unit (CIU), which many see as an updated version of the earlier Red Squad. The CIU has a mandate to monitor and investigate political groups and maintains working relations with the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. These community efforts are helping to stimulate important conversations about the role policing plays in our society and alternative ways to achieve safe and healthy cities.
SW Site 2: SW 6th & Washington – Free Speech Park (1913)
Soapbox orators were active throughout Portland in the early months of 1913 as part of an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) free speech campaign. This was one of their favorite speaking locations. Local governments sought to block IWW efforts at organizing workers where they found them, including city streets. One way they did this was to declare public speaking on street corners illegal. That was what happened in Portland, where the newly elected mayor ordered an end to all public speaking except at religious meetings.
The IWW responded to such restrictions by encouraging their members to travel to those cities limiting free speech, set up soapboxes, and begin talking, often by reading the First Amendment of the Constitution. If speakers were arrested, others would take their place. Many times, government officials, faced with jails full to capacity, would rescind their prohibitions. IWW activists challenged the Portland law, and many were arrested, including Dr. Marie Equi.
SW Site 3: 68 SW Alder – Unemployed Council Headquarters (1934)
The depression-era Portland Unemployed Councils had their headquarters here. The councils were organized by the Communist Party to give unemployed workers a means to organize and struggle for political change in solidarity with employed workers. By the end of 1931, the Portland councils had a registered membership of more than 3000 people. The councils often took direct action in defense of their member’s interests and with great success. For example, after some 400 unemployed stormed the Portland City Hall, the government agreed to provide housing and shelter for over 1000 unemployed workers. The Unemployed Councils also fought hard for broader system changes, including unemployment insurance and social security, government spending on a variety of construction-oriented programs, and in defense of workers on strike for higher pay and better working conditions.
The headquarters was also the location for the infamous 1934 Portland Red Squad raid at which Dirk DeJonge, World War I veteran, longshoreman, and former Communist Party candidate for Mayor of Portland, was arrested for violating the Criminal Syndicalism Law. Criminal syndicalism was defined as “the doctrine which advocates crime, physical violence, sabotage or any unlawful acts or methods as a means of accomplishing or effecting industrial or political change or revolution.” DeJonge was a speaker at a meeting called to criticize police attacks against striking longshoremen. His crime was speaking about the jail conditions experienced by the arrested strikers. A jury found him guilty, and the judge sentenced him to seven years in prison. Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the conviction, holding that the criminal syndicalism statute, as applied to De Jonge, unconstitutionally infringed on his right to assembly as protected by the First Amendment.
Many people are now suffering from houselessness and food insecurity. But tragically they suffer individually and largely quietly. They have yet to become an organized political force, like the unemployed did during the 1930s, with the capacity to force needed system changes.
SW Site 4: Southeast corner of SW 4th Avenue & Jefferson Street – The Portland Labor College (1921-27)
This was the location of the Portland Labor College. The establishment of the college owed much to the organizing work of Joseph Schwartrauler, head of the history department at Lincoln High School and the financial support of the Central Labor Council. The college offered a number of short, worker-oriented courses on a variety of topics, including political events, the workings of the economy, and literature. It also sponsored talks by well-known activists, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Scott Nearing. In 1922, the Portland Labor College established the Portland Labor Players, the first workers’ theater in the country.
A new labor college, The Pacific Northwest Labor College, was established in 1977 with the support of a number of unions, especially the International Woodworkers of America. It also organized a number of classes and programs for workers and supported a theater project, The Portland Labor Players II. Plays were written about local labor struggles and performed in a number of different settings. The Pacific Northwest Labor College closed in 1984.
SW Site 5: 914 SW 10th Avenue – The WPA’s Portland Federal Theater (1935-39)
This was the home of the Portland Federal Theater, a project of the New Deal-era Works Progress Administration (WPA). Established in May 1935, the WPA is best known for employing some 9 million unemployed workers to build public buildings and roads. Less known is Federal Project Number One, a much smaller program that operated under the WPA umbrella that employed musicians, artists, writers, actors and directors in a variety of literacy, media, drama, and arts projects. These included the Federal Writers’ Project, the Federal Music Project, the Federal Art Project, and the Federal Theatre Project–the sponsor of the Oregon Federal Theater.
The Federal Theatre Project (FTP) operated from 1935 to 1939, when its funding was terminated. Although it was administered in Washington D.C., it sponsored theater work throughout the country. Unemployed theater workers–including actors, directors, playwrights, designers, vaudeville artists, and stage technicians–were hired to write and perform plays that engaged working class audiences. The hope was that the project, although temporary, would create the foundation for a vibrant and accessible theater scene in cities across the country.
The Portland Federal Theater produced a number of plays concerned with social issues of importance to working people. Perhaps its most well-known production was the Living Newspaper play, “One Third of a Nation.” Written by Arthur Arent, and based on research by the editorial staff of the Federal Theatre Project, it focused on the problem of housing in the United States. The play was performed originally in New York City in 1938 and then in 9 other cities (including Portland), with each production adapted to specific community conditions. The National Director of the Federal Theater Project, Hallie Flanagan, often praised the Oregon Federal Theater in Portland for achieving a close and positive working relationship between the administrative and artistic sides of the project.
SW Site 6: Seawall at the foot of SW Ankeny Street – Francis J. Murnane Memorial Wharf (1979)
This was the site of the first public memorial to a union leader in Oregon. In 1979, the city christened a working wharf at the site of Portland’s oldest dock as the Francis J. Murnane Memorial Wharf. Murnane (1914-1968) was a leader of the International Woodworkers of America and later the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 8. He was also a strong advocate for historic preservation; in fact, his obituary called him the “cultural and historical conscience of Portland.” His efforts helped save some of the city’s most well-known icons from destruction, including the Benson Bubblers, the Portland Sternwheeler, the Pittock Mansion, the Skidmore Fountain, and Portland Firefighters Park.
The site was dedicated by ILWU President Harry Bridges and blessed, for the use of “radicals, labor activists, and lovers,” by Father Bertram Griffin of St. Andrew’s Catholic Church. Tragically, the dock fell into disuse and in 1989 the bronze plaque which honored Murnane for his “years of service to the men along the shore, whose labor, sweat and skills have helped make our city one of the great ports of the world” was stolen. In 2006, the wharf was closed as a hazard. A campaign was launched in 2009 to refurbish and preserve the space but it was unsuccessful; the area was eventually remodeled, leaving no visible trace of the Murnane Memorial Wharf.
We have many streets and buildings, as well as monuments, named for political and business leaders, but very few for labor activists. It is one reason that the struggles and accomplishments of working people are largely unknown. So, what labor leaders and events should we honor and how? Honoring our past is one important way we can educate and inspire the next generation of activists.
SW Site 7: 12000 SW 49th Avenue – Portland Community College Sylvania Campus, Labor History Mural (1999)
The PCC Labor History Mural can be seen at the lower level of the Amo De Bernardis College Center (CC) on the Sylvania campus of Portland Community College (PCC). The mural celebrates the rich history of the Oregon labor movement. Among the scenes depicted: Forest Grove mill workers being arrested in a 1935 strike and longshore workers picketing during the 1934 west coast longshore strike. Individuals are also highlighted, for example, Dr. Marie Equi, a prominent labor activist and supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, and Cipriano Ferrel, immigrant rights activist and co-founder of the farmworkers union PCUN.
The PCC Faculty Federation (PCCFF) and the PCC Federation of Classified Employees (PCCFCE) pursued and received funding for the mural from a variety of sources, including the Regional Arts and Culture Council, Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, and the AFT-Oregon. The mural was designed by PCC art instructor Bill Garnett and painted jointly by Garnett and a class of PCC art students during a summer 1999 workshop. It is made of acrylic paint on plywood panels and is 8’ x 20’.
In announcing the start of the project, Martha Wolf, then PCCFCE president, said, “Many individuals do not necessarily know that the expectations they have of today’s work culture involved long struggles for hard won rights and benefits.” Michael Dembrow, then PCCFF president, added, “Our hope is that the mural and project will increase the visibility of the unions, encourage participation in union activities, and educate both members and the community-at-large on labor history and the diversity of those involved in local labor struggles.”
SW Site 8: 1011 SW 12th Avenue – First Unitarian Church, Economic Crisis Town Hall (2009)
An Economic Crisis Town Hall was held here on January 31, 2009. This free event was co-sponsored by Portland Jobs with Justice and more than two dozen union locals and community organizations. Approximately 900 people attended.
The country was in the midst of the Great Recession. Unemployment was soaring and people were losing their homes, but the government’s biggest concern was saving the financial sector. The Town Hall was organized to help working people understand the long-term structural factors responsible for the crisis, the limited and one-sided nature of the government’s response to it, and the importance of building a movement for change to defend majority interests.
As a flyer promoting the Town Hall explained: “We have a great opportunity now to organize to get not just a bailout, but an economy that provides opportunity for working people; an economy that helps communities thrive and reverses decades of growing inequality, takebacks, union busting, unfair trade agreements, cuts in health care and more.”
There were two sets of plenary presentations. The first focused on the causes and consequences of the crisis and the second on movement building. In between were thirteen well attended workshops led by local activists that examined different issues of concern and their relationship to the country’s economic crisis. These included: Building a Green Economy, Health Care, Local Alternatives to the Corporate Economy, Rebuilding the Safety Net, Strengthening Our Democracy, The Economic Crisis in Oregon, Ending Militarism and Promoting a Peace and Development Foreign Policy, “Push Me” Said Obama to Progressives: But How?, Global Justice-Debt Cancellation for Us and the World, Why Unions?, Stopping the Global Race to the Bottom, Housing, and Uniting Across Racial and Ethnic Divides.
SW Site 9: 1500 SW 11th Avenue – Benson Tower Struggle (2005)
In 2005, Portland developer Joe Weston hired ITC, a major Canadian non-union general contractor, to build the Benson Tower, a 26-floor residential high-rise building. ITC hired non-union subcontractors for laborer and carpenter work, and many of the workers they hired were from out of town. This development represented a major challenge to Portland’s building trades. The Benson Tower would be the first non-union built high-rise in the city’s downtown core. Particularly worrisome was the fact that ITC set up an office in Portland with the expectation of constructing more buildings in the years ahead.
To fight back, the Laborers and Carpenters unions engaged in a year-long campaign to make life hard for ITC. There were weekly pickets and rallies at the worksite and at ITC’s office. Union cement masons joined the picket and other trades also lent a hand with the protests. The unity among key building trades unions was important. Construction union members who were working at the union-built Eliot Tower came over for rallies on their lunch breaks. The Carpenter’s Union made a video, which it gave to prospective contractors, comparing the quality of union construction at the Eliot Tower to the non-union work at the Benson Tower. Its message: union built is better!
Portland Jobs with Justice made the Benson Tower fight a priority campaign. Its members were an active presence on pickets and rallies along with members of other unions. And, at the Jobs with Justice organized march through downtown Portland on Human Rights Day, December 10th, 2005, some 300 people peeled off from the 3000 strong march and invaded the Benson Tower sales office to protest the project’s use of non-union labor.
This very active campaign slowed down work at the Benson Tower, adding to ITC’s costs as well as creating a negative image of the non-union project. The building was eventually completed, but the year-long campaign had its intended effect: ITC left Portland after the project’s completion and all high-profile construction downtown has been solid union ever since.
SW Site 10: 701 SW 6th Avenue – Pioneer Courthouse Square, Rally for “Good Jobs, No Cuts” (2011)
On April 16th, 2011 some 2500 people gathered here, in what is known as Portland’s living room, for a rally demanding “Good Jobs, No Cuts,” followed by a march through downtown Portland. Economists had declared the Great Recession over, but unemployment remained high, real wages continued to fall, and millions of households were still losing their homes through foreclosure. Making matters worse, instead of supporting a federally funded jobs-centered recovery, the Obama Administration embraced austerity. President Obama even established a bi-partisan debt reduction commission with appointed leadership that publicly supported slashing Social Security and Medicare benefits to reduce the federal budget deficit.
The rally, Portland Rising’s first project, included rousing speeches by activist “heroes” from five different unions, each of which had a contract set to expire on June 30th, 2011 and had come to Portland Jobs with Justice asking for support for their contract campaign. These included the Portland Association of Teachers, AFSCME County workers, SEIU Home Health Workers, Unite-HERE hotel workers, and IBU workers at Georgia Pacific.
Rally organizers stressed the commonalities of worker struggles, the importance of building a broad community fightback against austerity, and the need for a federal jobs program to create family wage jobs that also protected the climate. Other speakers discussed the work of community campaigns against the Korea, Panama and Columbia Trade Agreements as well as the campaign for dignity for houseless people.
The highlight of the rally was the presence of Mahlon Mitchell, President of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin. Mitchell was an active participant in the worker/community uprising in Wisconsin months earlier, that had been triggered by Governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill which was designed to destroy the state’s public sector unions. Mitchell spoke about the struggle in Wisconsin and emphasized the need for a strong worker-led fightback against the growing rightwing austerity drive. He also led the march through downtown that followed the rally.
SW Site 11: 555 SW Oak Street – First Unionized Portland Starbucks Store (2022)
This is one of the first Portland Starbucks locations to unionize. Workers at three other stores also voted to join Starbucks Workers United on the same day, May 17, 2022; the other stores are at 2880 SE Powell Blvd, 2328 W Burnside St, and 525 NE Grand Ave. Over the next three months, six more Portland stores voted to unionize, although Starbucks closed two of them. Four locations in the greater Portland area—in Beaverton, Gresham, and Happy Valley—also unionized.
Starbucks Workers United unionized its first store in Buffalo, N.Y. in December 2021. As of December 2022, approximately 7,000 workers at over 250 stores had joined the union. You can keep up on the union’s national organizing activity here. The rapid growth in unionization at Starbucks is driven by unsafe working conditions, arbitrary management decisions, uncertain scheduling, irregular shift changes, and low pay, all at a highly profitable company.
Starbucks, for its part, continues to claim that its workers don’t need a union and has refused to bargain in good faith with its unionized workforce. Company representatives often ignore scheduled bargaining sessions or walk out early with no time commitment to return to bargaining. At the same time, the company continues to engage in unlawful actions designed to break the union.
For example, in April 2022, as reported by the New York Times, a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board found Starbucks guilty of “firing employees in retaliation for supporting the union; threatening employees’ ability to receive new benefits if they choose to unionize; requiring workers to be available for a minimum number of hours to remain employed at a unionized store without bargaining over the change, as a way to force out at least one union supporter; and effectively promising benefits to workers if they decide not to unionize.”
Unionized workers in Portland face similar treatment, with managers closing stores, shifting schedules without consultation, offering benefits only to workers at non-union shops, and firing union activists, in an attempt to weaken workers’ resolve. Undaunted, the local struggle continues with strong community support; members of Portland Jobs with Justice, Portland Democratic Socialists of America, and other labor unions have joined picket lines and packed store locations to demonstrate solidarity with workers. Two Portland locations joined the “Red Cup Rebellion,” a nationwide strike at more than 100 unionized Starbucks stores on Starbucks’ promotional Red Cup Day.
As the union ratchets up the pressure, aided by important National Labor Relations Board findings against Starbucks, local activists are also preparing for future negotiations with the company. Some dozen Northwest union members have formed a regional bargaining team to develop a shared set of demands. At the same time, the Starbucks Workers United’s national bargaining committee is working to craft a series of non-economic contract proposals for use by regional bargaining teams, including one requiring just cause for discipline and termination.
Tragically, Starbucks continues its campaign against unionization, punishing and firing union activists, rejecting negotiations with union locals, and shutting down locations where worker support for unionization is strong and vocal. In June 2023, Starbucks closed down this store.
NW Site 1: 1714 NW Overton Street – The Portland Reporter Building (1960-64)
The Portland Reporter, a worker-owned and operated newspaper, was published at this site from February 1960 through September 1964. It was run by journalists and other workers who had been locked out and forced to strike both the Oregonian and the Oregon Journal. The Newhouse chain, owners of the Oregonian, provoked the strike as part of its plan to merge the two papers, restructure their production, reduce staff, and make them union-free. The strike began on November 10, 1959 when 54 stereotypers went out; they were soon joined by 850 members of eleven different newspaper unions. The newly merged paper replaced them with nonunion workers and professional strikebreakers that were recruited nationwide.
A year into the strike, eighty Portlanders donated $150,000 to buy and remodel an abandoned Wells Fargo stable to serve as the new paper’s headquarters. The workers canvassed the city, knocking on doors and encouraging residents to cancel Oregonian subscriptions and switch to the Reporter. After a slow start, the paper appeared daily except for Sunday, with a print run of close to 80,000. However, unable to obtain sufficient funding, the paper eventually closed. Little has changed when it comes to the Oregonian’s hostility to unions, for its own workers as well as its reporting about local union organizing efforts.
NW Site 2: NW 10th and W. Burnside Street – Powell’s Bookstore Unionization Struggle and May Day (1999- 2000)
Workers at Powell’s City of Books, one of the largest independent bookstores in the country, undertook a community-supported organizing campaign in 1998 that culminated with a successful union representation election and first contract in 2000. Past worker efforts at unionization had failed. This campaign was triggered by a management decision to restructure work processes along lines that greatly reduced possibilities for worker shopfloor initiative. The union, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) local 5, used a number of creative tactics, including in-store actions at this location, Powell’s flagship bookstore, and their efforts were strongly supported by a variety of unions and community groups, including Portland Jobs with Justice.
A large and energetic 2000 May Day march, one marked by vicious police attacks against participants, proved to be one of the key moments in the struggle to force owner Michael Powell to accept unionization. Marchers rallied around the Burnside location to support the workers as a final stop in the day’s activities. A police assault was only averted when several hundred delegates to the ILWU’s annual national convention, being held in Portland that year, marched down Broadway to the bookstore to join the demonstrators. The police melted away, and the strength of expressed support for the union eventually led Powell to negotiate with the union.
NW Site 3: Southeast corner of NW 9th and NW Everett – Longshoremen’s Hiring Hall (1934)
During the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike, longshoremen set up daily pickets in front of the employer-controlled hiring hall located at this site. In the first days of the strike an estimated 1,000 longshoremen packed the street outside the building, forcing the handful of strikebreakers (aka scabs) dispatched from the hiring hall to run a gauntlet of verbal insults and fisticuffs. Neither private guards nor Portland police sent at the behest of the ship owners were able to protect them, which successfully dissuaded others from seeking work as strikebreakers. This was only the first of many confrontations during the months-long strike.
The 1934 West Coast waterfront strike was one of the largest labor actions of the 1930s. Over 12,000 longshoremen went on strike, closing down virtually every port from Bellingham, WA to San Diego, CA for 83 days (May 9-July 31). More than 20,000 other West Coast maritime workers joined the strike. Like workers across the country, longshoremen were inspired by the nation’s first-ever law declaring that workers had the right to organize unions (National Industrial Recovery Act, Section 7a). More to the point, decades-long grievances against dismal working conditions and extremely low wages were aggravated by the shippers’ (employers) adamant refusal to abide by new NIRA labor codes designed to address some of those grievances and to spread scarce depression-era jobs among more workers. The longshoremen’s central demand was union control of the hiring hall. This would end discrimination and favoritism in hiring, and, most importantly, give union workers greater control over the pace of backbreaking and dangerous work, made more deadly by bosses’ incessant demands to “speed up.”
Although Portland handled only a small percentage of west coast shipping, it played a significant role in the union’s victory. Workers’ solidarity was the key ingredient. Waterfront Employers Associations had long collaborated on a coast-wide basis, particularly when it came to setting working conditions and opposing unions. In 1934 a radical faction of the International Longshoremen’s Association [ILA], led by Harry Bridges, persuaded fellow longshoremen and other waterfront workers that they, too, needed to act, black and white together, on a coast-wise basis. This was the only way to prevent the shippers from playing one group of workers against another by shifting business to ports that weren’t on strike. Daily confrontations, some deadly, took place up and down the coast as workers fought to keep the ports closed until employers met their demands, and employers rejected all the workers’ demands and tried to bring in strikebreakers to open the ports. [ See NW Site: 4 for more on Portland events]
After losing tens of millions of dollars from the waterfront shutdown, and under threat of losing millions more in federal contracts, employers finally agreed to a federally-arbitrated settlement. Longshoremen won shorter workdays, higher pay, and joint union-employer management of the hiring halls. West Coast longshoremen left the ILA, regrouping as the International Longshore and Warehouse Union [ILWU], with ILWU local 8 representing waterfront workers in Portland. With a strong union and good contract, longshoremen shed their image as “wharf rats,” and became leaders in the ongoing struggle for union democracy and a just society for all.
NW Site 4: Between the Steel Bridge and Broadway Bridge – McCormick Pier (1934)
On the third night of the 1934 West Coast waterfront strike, striking longshoremen attacked and unmoored a ship docked here at McCormick Pier. The Admiral Evans had arrived earlier in the day to serve as a floating hotel and canteen for strikebreakers. Before that could happen, and under cover of darkness, several hundred striking longshoremen and their supporters attacked. They smashed barricades erected to prevent just such an assault, overwhelmed two dozen armed guards on board (throwing one into the river as the others fled), and cut the stern lines. The Admiral Evans floated downriver until it snagged on the Broadway Bridge. Shippers’ plans for a floating hotel for strikebreakers came to an end.
This was only one of many physical confrontations, some deadly, that punctuated the 83-day West Coast waterfront strike. Both sides saw the issues at stake as existential. Shippers asserted an unconditional right to set the terms of employment and protect their profit margins. Longshoremen demanded a voice in hiring and work conditions, and better-than-poverty wages. Striking longshoremen needed to close down all shipping in order to force shippers to the bargaining table. This meant preventing the shippers from employing strikebreakers. In addition to the attack on the Admiral Evans and pickets blocking the employer-controlled hiring hall downtown, over fifty picket squads patrolled docks up and down the Portland waterfront to prevent strikebreakers from taking any jobs, and a waterborne “navy” patrolled the city’s docks from the river. Longshoremen and other striking waterfront workers used fists, rocks, bats, and carried guns. Shippers hired armed guards and easily persuaded Portland city government to assign hundreds of armed regular and specially deputized police to protect their properties and potential strikebreakers. Scores of injuries ensued on both sides.
The solidarity of waterfront workers, in combination with pressure from the Roosevelt administration, forced the shippers into binding arbitration after two months. Longshoremen won most of their demands, including crucial control of the hiring hall. [For more on the strike see NW Site 3.]
(You can access this site from the downtown area through the public gate on the north side of Broadway Bridge: follow the Waterfront Park walkway north; turn left just before the Broadway Bridge, veer right to pass under the bridge, then right again to cross the RR tracks and go through the open fence gate. Be alert for trains. You can also visit this site from the north using the Willamette Greenway path which can be accessed via the public patio on the north side of the Albers Mill Building, 1200 NW Naito Parkway.)
SE Site 1: SE 8th Avenue & Belmont Street – Oregon Packing Company Strike (1913)
This is where, on June 27, 1913, over 50 of the Oregon Packing Company’s all female staff walked out to protest low wages and unsafe working conditions. Their strike was met with repression, with the mayor authorizing aggressive actions against the women. In one incident, a number of strikers were trampled by police horses. Strikers hung banners reading “Forty cents a day makes prostitutes” and were told that they could be arrested for such actions.
The strike won immediate support from the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), especially from IWW women such as Dr. Marie Equi and Mary Schwab (a Socialist party member and daughter-in-law of Chicago Haymarket defendant Michael Schwab) and through them became part of the iWW led free speech fights. [See SW Site 2.]
SE Site 2: 6111 SE 92nd Avenue – Temporary Home of Woody Guthrie (1941)
Woodrow Wilson (Woody) Guthrie (1912 –1967) lived in the back of a four-unit house at this address during May and June in 1941. He was employed by the Bonneville Power Administration to write a song a day. During this time he composed “Roll on Columbia,” “Grand Coulee Dam,” “Pastures of Plenty,” and more than 20 other songs. Guthrie returned to Portland in September with Pete Seeger and the two sang together at a number of union halls.
Guthrie, one of the most significant figures in American folk music, wrote more than 1,000 songs, including “So Long (It’s Been Good to Know Yuh),” “Union Maid,” and “This Land Is Your Land,” which was his response to the song “God Bless America.” Most of his songs were about the struggles of working people, especially those written during the depression, and the need for radical change. During World War II, he joined the Merchant Marine and began composing music with an explicitly antifascist message. He was famous for performing with the slogan, “This Machine Kills Fascists,” written on his acoustic guitar.
SE Site 3: 3504 SE 92nd Ave – Burgerville Workers Union First Victory (2018)
It was at this store location, on April 23rd, 2018, that the Burgerville Workers Union won its first unionization vote; a second location, in Gladstone, unionized weeks later. The Oregon AFL-CIO president, Tom Chamberlain, responded to this first union victory with a press statement, noting that “The struggle of the Burgerville workers is an inspiration to not just unions, but to all working people.” However, because of company resistance, it was not until December 2021 that the company and union (representing five locations) signed a first contract, making the Burgerville Workers Union the first legally recognized union of fast-food workers in the United States.
The Burgerville Workers Union went public with its organizing in four different locations in April 2016. In the response to the company’s increasingly heavy-handed opposition to the unionization effort, the workers began a strike in February 2018, followed by a worker and community march on the Burgerville company headquarters in Vancouver in March to demand the voluntary recognition of the union. As more locations voted to unionize, the Burgerville Workers Union stepped up the pressure, launching a well-supported boycott campaign of all of the company’s locations in the summer.
Burgerville was twice nominated for “Scrooge of the Year” at the Portland Jobs with Justice annual holiday party. Jobs with Justice supporters make contributions to the organization during the celebration, with each dollar contributed buying a vote. In 2019, the company won the most votes for its record of firing union supporters and stonewalling union negotiations.
Burgerville Workers Union members won a number of important gains under their first contract, which covers workers at the five unionized stores (Convention Center, Hawthorne, Montavilla, Gladstone, and 92nd & Powell). These gains include a three-month set schedule, paid vacation time, paid parental leave, improved job safety, and greater job security. Moreover, the company agreed to extend some of the gains to workers in all of its restaurants. It was a difficult and long struggle, but as the union’s chief negotiator, Mark Medina, said “We’re proud of the work we’ve done. This would not be possible without the courage and persistence of Burgerville workers who took action and stayed strong in solidarity with local labor and the community.”
The Burgerville Workers Union has deservedly won national recognition for its work. It was one of six honorees to receive a 2023 James Beard Foundation Leadership Award. The award honors individuals or groups that promote a safer, more healthful, equitable and sustainable food world.
NE Site 1: 100 NE Columbia Blvd – Nabisco Bakery Unionization Struggle (2021)
The 2021 nation-wide Nabisco strike began at this facility on August 10th when members of Local 364 of the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers’ International Union (BCTGM), frustrated by the company’s refusal to negotiate a new contract in good faith, left the plant and began picketing. Within days, other BCTGM locals voted to join the strike and, by August 23rd, every Nabisco bakery and distribution facility in the country had picket lines operating. The nation-wide strike lasted more than a month, finally ending on September 18th, when union members voted to accept a new contract.
Although Nabisco (a subsidiary of Mondelez International) was enjoying strong profit growth, its mid-2021 contract offer called for significant concessions, including a two-tier health plan with less generous benefits for new hires, mandatory weekend work, and 12-hour shifts without overtime pay. In the approved contract, Nabisco dropped its health care proposal, and agreed to preserve time-and-a-half pay after eight hours of work although the company did win the right to pay workers straight time for weekend work. The workers also won a “ratification bonus,” a small wage increase, and an increase in the company’s pension contribution. The new contract was approved by 75 percent of voting union members although workers did not get all they wanted, which included a company commitment to keep jobs in the United States, a return to the company’s previous defined pension plan, and greater wage gains. Portland members were among the strongest in advocating a continuation of the strike to get a better agreement.
Nabisco tied hard to break the Portland strike. It erected a fence around its property to push the picketers back to the street, employed strike breakers in an effort to keep the facility running, and used police to intimidate picketers, but to no avail. The union remained strong, maintaining a continuous picket line, with many women of color in leadership roles.
One reason for the union’s staying power was that more than half the workforce, a majority of who were people of color, including many immigrants, had worked at the facility for more than two decades. Another was the strong community support. The Democratic Socialist of America (DSA) Labor Working Group and Portland Jobs with Justice (JwJ) helped mobilize strike support and their members strengthened the picket line. There were large weekend rallies that included a number of local and state political leaders, Nabisco workers who shared their experiences, and delegations from different unions. Also important: members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Machinist Union employed at the plant honored the picket line. And some Teamsters and members of the Railroad Workers United refused to deliver supplies to the plant. As Local 364 vice president Mike Burlingham noted at the end of the strike: “It’s like dealing with a bully. He’s going to keep pushing you around until you hit him back. Symbolically, [the strike] took on a lot of meaning for us and everyone in the working class.”
N Site 1: 501 N. Dixon Street – Struggle Against Outsourcing of Portland Public Schools Custodians (2002)
This is the location of the Portland Public Schools (PPS) administration building – then called the Blanchard Education Service Center and now the Prophet Education Service Center. It was the site of a 2002 union and community struggle to stop the outsourcing of more than 300 union custodian jobs. The Portland School Board, citing cuts in state educational funding, pressed SEIU Local 140 custodians to accept a new contract with significant concessions. Although the union agreed to a shorter work year, a cap on employer health care contributions, and to forgo cost-of-living increases, the Board was not satisfied.
It replaced school district custodians with private sector workers hired by the Portland Habilitation Center (PHC), a designated Qualified Rehabilitation Facility (QRF) contractor because of its employment of “disabled individuals.” The QRF designation allowed PHC to pay substandard wages and claim that it could save PPS millions of dollars on custodial services. However, as it turned out, PHC failed to satisfy QRF requirements that at least 75 percent of its contracted work hours be performed by the disabled or provide the same level of service as the district’s custodians.
Local 140 organized a multi-faceted campaign to save its members’ jobs. Teachers, parents, and students spoke out against the plan at school board meetings. The union gathered thousands of signatures on petitions delivered to the Board and the press published many letters supporting the union custodians. Portland Jobs with Justice was deeply involved in the campaign effort, helping to organize several large rallies, including some boisterous demonstrations inside the administration building.
Once the firings began, Local 140 filed a complaint with the Custodial Civil Service Board, which is responsible for setting hiring qualifications for PPS custodians, arguing that the terminations violated state law. The Board found for the union, but the School Board ignored the ruling and fired the remaining custodians. The case eventually reached the Oregon Supreme Court which also ruled in favor of the union. Finally, in 2007, five years after the struggle began, the union and school district reached a settlement. Fired workers received a financial settlement; fewer than half returned to their PPS jobs. According to one estimate, the decision to outsource custodian jobs, which was supposed to save money, may have cost the district as much as $10 million.
But this struggle was always about more than money. Local 140 custodians were “bargaining for the common good.” Along with their community allies, they knew that schools function better and are safer with longtime, civil-service custodians, which also benefits the community as a whole.