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 Stark & 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.
Popular support for a change in policing has grown dramatically since the summer of 2020, largely because of the militarized actions of Portland police and Homeland Security agents against those protesting police brutality after the murder of George Floyd. A number of community groups 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 International Workers of the World (IWW) free speech campaign, and 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: 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. The Portland Labor College was reborn in 1972, 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 reestablished a theater project, The Portland Labor Players II. Plays were written about local labor struggles and performed in a number of different settings. The Labor College closed in 1984.
We want well-rounded workers who are capable of responding to the challenges of the day. Unfortunately, working people have few opportunities to collectively deepen their understanding of political events and economic trends or advance their knowledge of and capacity to produce art and literature. A well-designed labor college can provide a safe and attractive space for this kind of learning. It is worth taking a few minutes to imagine a possible curriculum.
SW Site 5: 914 SW 10th Avenue – The WPA’s Oregon Federal Theater (1935-39)
This was the home of the Oregon 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 Oregon 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.
Is there a need for a renewed Federal Project Number One? What might we gain from the new works produced by writers, theater workers, artists, and musicians encouraged to create public art? Would unions and community groups actively support such a 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 people 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. Approximately 900 people attended. The country was in the midst of the Great Financial Crisis. 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.
The free event was co-sponsored by Portland Jobs with Justice and more than two dozen union locals and community organizations. 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 set, from 1:00 to 2:30, focused on the causes and consequences of the crisis. The second set, from 4:15 to 5 pm, focused on movement building. In between the two 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 workshops 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. After the last plenary, there was an hour set aside for people to enjoy some food, meet others with similar concerns, learn more about the work of many of the co-sponsoring organizations, and talk with individual speakers.
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 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.
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. At the same time, the history of the Portland Reporter should encourage us to think about what it would take to establish a newspaper responsive to worker interests, and how its reporting on current events might inspire broader social and political changes in our community.
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 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 this 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.
SE Site 1: SE 7th 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.
The strike won immediate support from the International 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). The strike became tied to the IWW-led free speech fights [see SW Site 2] when strikers hung banners reading “Forty cents a day makes prostitutes” and were told that they could be arrested for such actions.
SE Site 2: 6111 SE 92nd Avenue – Temporary Home of Woody Guthrie (1941)
Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912 –1967) lived in the back of a four-unit house at this address during the months of May and June in 1941. He was employed by the Bonneville Power Administration as an “information consultant” and, while in Portland, composed “Roll on Columbia” and 25 other songs. Guthrie returned to Portland in September with Pete Seager and the two sang together at a number of union halls.
Woody, 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.
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.”