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Political Economy

Portland Labor History Tour

This labor history tour was written by Norm Diamond, in association with Mike Munk and the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association, and with the support of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and Labor History Committee.  Formal tours were given in May 2001 for attendees of the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association conference and Portland area high school students.

Site # 1: 221 W Burnside, the Industrial Workers of the World

Tom Burns, known as the "Mayor of West Burnside," presided over Skidroad from his "Time Shop" and workers' lending library from around World War1 to his death in 1957. Burns joined the Industrial Workers of the World before 1920. The Portland police called him "the most arrested man in the Northwest." Howard Morgan recalls "the curious and sometimes wonderful displays in the windows of Tom Burns' watch shop. ...The constant theme was the history and current practice, good and bad, of labor relations. Clearly Tom Burns was an open and ardent admirer of the IWW and all the cantankerous free spirits who called themselves 'Wobblies.'" When Morgan ventured into the library, it "opened up parts of past and current history that nothing in my schooling had more than hinted at. In a short time I acquired more knowledge than I knew what to do with about the great Pullman strike for the 8 hour day, the associated bombing and riot in Haymarket Square and their aftermath; Homestead; Ludlow; private armies; the killings at Everett and Centralia; and much more. ...Almost none of this information came from my classes at school or the daily press, but from what I found at Tom Burns' little watch repair shop on the skidroad." (Howard Morgan, "Recollection of Tom Burns of Burnside," from Craig Wollner and W. Tracy Dillon, A Richer Harvest: The Literature of Work in the Pacific Northwest, OSU Press, 1999)

In addition to his lending library, Burns published an irreverent newletter, poking fun at the left as well as ripping into the right, and held a regular Tuesday evening "open forum" at SW 4th Ave and Alder, where he attacked "Portland's political parasites --the 'first families' like the Corbetts, Labbes, Wilcoxs-- coupon clipping clowns that never did a useful day's work in their worthless lives."

The IWW was active in Portland from nearly the turn of the century. Its first major demonstration here was a February 1907 march of 3,000 in support of Big Bill Haywood, on trial in Idaho for a bombing. Organized by the two IWW locals and supported by five Socialist Party locals and many other unions, that demonstration was followed a few weeks later by the first Wobbly strike in the Northwest. From March 1 until March 22, 1907, 1600 men struck the Eastern & Western Lumber Mill on the waterfront north of MacCormick pier and the Inman-Poulsen Mill on the east side riverfront between the Hawthorne and Ross Island Bridges.

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Site # 2: NW 9th Avenue and Everett Street, the 1934 Longshore Strike

The former longshore hiring hall is the second stop on our tour. This was where workers had to offer kickbacks to "gang bosses" in order to get work. It was the site of the first major confrontation of the strike. At this spot, longshoremen forced would-be scabs to retreat under a police escort. Right across Everett was French's Restaurant, the unofficial strike headquarters. Here, a phone line was kept open for information on the strikebreakers' moves (including tips from a few sympathetic police). From this spot also, strikers coordinated their own roving squads to counter the scabs. A few years later, when the hiring hall was moved to NW Glisan (the current Mission Theater), French's moved right along with it.

The current ILWU was born in that strike, as West Coast longshoremen threw out the corrupt leadership of their previous union. The bitter strike shut down shipping and commerce, prompting Portland businessmen to organize vigilantes and the Portland police “Red Squad” to try to break it. In Portland, that repression led to the wounding of four strikers by police who were trying (unsuccessfully) to force a train through picket lines at Terminal 4 in St. Johns. The longshoremen and their allied maritime workers held fast and organized broad support in the community, including among area farmers and among councils of the unemployed. Their victory brought a union-controlled hiring hall.

Former Wobblies were among the leaders of the strike in Portland. Perhaps that’s one reason the new CIO union adopted the IWW’s motto “An Injury to One is an Injury to All” that still guides its members today. Every July 5 at Oaks Park, Portland, ILWU Local 8 and other area locals join all other West Coast ports to observe "Bloody Thursday," the date in 1934 when three strikers were killed by police in San Francisco.

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Site # 3: 1714 NW Overton, The Portland Reporter

This handsome brick building is the third site in our chronological tour. Formerly the stables for Wells Fargo, it was the home of the Portland Reporter between 1960 and 1964. The Reporter was published by journalists and other workers locked out and on strike against the Oregonian and the Oregon Journal.

That strike was planned for and provoked by the Newhouse chain that owned the Oregonian, as part of a scheme to reorganize the production process and end union representation at the papers. They singled the Stereotypers out first, insisting the union agree, sight unseen, to new machinery and reduced staffing. Other newspaper unions honored the Stereotypers' picket line. Then, as their own contracts came up for negotiation, management stalled, forcing each to strike. The Typographers, Pressmen, Paper Handlers, Photoengravers, Machinists, Teamsters, Electrical Workers, and Newspaper Guild all went out.

Management tried to break the strike by importing scabs from outside Oregon, some of them specially trained at a "school for scabs" in Oklahoma. Their job was to travel from city to city, making sure that production continued wherever a strike could be provoked. Management housed these strikebreakers at the Hungerford Hotel, right across Columbia from the Oregonian building.

The striking unions responded by publishing their own newpaper, the Portland Reporter. At first the Reporter came out twice a week, then three times, then published daily except for Sunday. Ultimately the unions were beaten and the Reporter ran out of financial backing. This is a big part of the explanation for how the Oregonian was able to establish a non-union press monopoly in Portland and why unions rarely get any coverage or fair treatment in its pages. Some of the Oregonian's more recent senior reporters and editors consisted of people who turned their back on their union and crossed the picket lines.

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Site # 4: 10th and W Burnside, Powell's Bookstore and MayDay, 2000

The final stop on our tour is Powell’s flagship bookstore. ILWU local 5 won one of the most important labor organizing victories in 2000, gaining recognition and then a contract with Powell’s City of Books, one of the nation’s largest independent bookstore chains. This site was the scene of repeated demonstrations in support of the organizing as well as a significant MayDay standoff with the Portland police.

There had been prior attempts to organize Powell's workers. This most recent effort was sparked by a management reorganization of workplace responsibilities which centralized authority and initiative in management hands. The union used creative in-store tactics and built extensive support in the community and among other unions. Giant puppets representing Michael Powell and the union paraded by this site frequently, sometimes dressed as bride and groom and pantomiming a marriage between the two sides. As a retail store with competition, Powell's was especially vulnerable to community pressure. Local 5's successful organizing of service sector workers has spurred similar efforts elsewhere.

This same tour site was the endpoint of a tumultuous MayDay march and rally in 2000, which police repeatedly attacked and tried to break up. It is significant that one of the major issues in the original MayDay, at the Haymarket in Chicago, was working class access to public space for organized activities free of intimidation and harassment. Portland's MayDay in the year 2000 stabilized only when marchers were joined by several hundred delegates to the ILWU’s annual convention. W Burnside filled with marchers, and the police backed off. The day became a support rally for the soon-to-be-victorious Powell's workers.

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