The story of the Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council (CPBTC) began with the formation of the Portland Building Trades Alliance/League in 1889. The seeds were sown for this alliance in the mid to late 1860’s with the beginning of the Trade Union movement in this country.
In 1870, the pioneers of what we call the AFL-CIO — The Knights of Labor — arrived on the scene in Portland with a welcome rally that had over 4,000 participants, a pretty good showing considering the population in the area at that time was approximately 17,500.
From this rally through 1889, a number of independent and individual organizations were formed for the protection and welfare of the various individual crafts. In 1889, a number of the “craft, benevolent, and protective” organizations came together to form the Portland Building Trades Alliance/League. Eight farsighted individuals representing 800 craft workers from eight different trades were assigned that first charter.
In the early years members worked six days a week, nine hours a day, for $2 a day. In old photos, many of them wore white shirts and ties, demonstrating the pride they took in themselves and their work. Union meetings were often held weekly — or at least twice a month. Some unions fined their members $1 if they did not attend meetings — a princely sum considering the daily wage was $2!
Pensions, health insurance, unemployment insurance, and workers’ compensation were unheard of in those days. Workers usually toiled until they died. It was these forefathers in the labor movement who established sick and lost-time benefits, which set the stage for future health and pension benefits. The Bricklayers Union in 1888 established a sickness and disability benefit of $8 per week, but had this provision attached: “If such sickness or disability should be the result of drunkenness or immoral conduct, no benefits shall be paid.”
The National Building Trades Department of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) was established in 1908 and granted the charter for the Portland Building and Construction Trades Council on July 27, 1908. In the 100 years since the Portland Building Trades Council was first chartered with eight organizations, it has been re-chartered twice. The first time was in 1938, with 20 affiliate organizations; then again in 1973, with 21 affiliates.
The Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council currently has 28 affiliated organizations representing approximately 20,000 members employed by more than 2,000 signatory employers. These members earn more in wages and benefits in an hour than most of those first 800 earned in one month. Our predecessors suffered through multiple recessions, the Great Depression, anti-union attacks, and passage of laws requiring us to be one of the most regulated segments of society. Our members served in World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Freedom,and are currently serving in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
We all believe these veterans deserve the best when they return from their service. Three years ago, the National Building Trades Department established the Helmets to Hardhats program. This program reaches out to Vets who will soon be discharged, or who have recently been discharged, making them aware of the great career opportunities in the Building Trades.
Approximately one year ago, our union Joint Apprenticeship and Training Committees (JATCs) signed a “Letter of Understanding” with the Oregon National Guard, which offers the same ties and opportunities to returning Guard members. Both programs allow service members to apply before they are discharged, and give them priority to being accepted into the Building Trades career of their choice.
We take great pride in recruiting and training the most highly skilled workforce anywhere in the world. There is increasing focus and commitment by the crafts to recruit more women and people of color into their apprenticeship programs. The JATCs of our affiliated unions and their signatory employers have invested over $30 million in Training Centers in the Portland metropolitan area. Their collective annual budgets for training apprentices and journeymen and women is approximately $10 million per year. These pprenticeship funds are generated by unions and signatory employers and are not reliant on tax dollars.
Many owners and developers we have worked for have complimented us on the highly-skilled workforce we bring to their work site. From the roads and bridges that thread through our region, to the power-generating facilities that light our homes, to the light rail and streetcar projects that help define Portland, our members are proud to build them. The list could go on forever — schools and institutions of higher learning, shopping centers, industrial sites ranging from pulp and paper mills to high tech to pharmaceutical facilities, high-rise office buildings — our members are proud to deliver them at the highest level of quality, on time and on budget. We take great pride in the wages and benefits our members receive. After all, unions set the wages and benefits for all workers in this country, whether they belong to a union or not. Our members receive health and welfare benefits for them, their spouses and their dependents — in a time when employers are increasingly eliminating or cutting back their health plans. They also receive pension benefits so they can retire with dignity after a lifetime of hard work.
Part of our success is due to political action. We take seriously the words of the founder of the AFL, Samuel Gompers: “Reward your friends,defeat your enemies.” Our leadership and rank-and- file members work hard to elect candidates who support laws and policies that are fair to union members and working families. We are non partisan and will support candidates from any party as long as they support our objectives.
But being proud of what we have earned is simply not enough. We realize our good fortunes and are willing to give back to the community and our citizens. There is not enough room in this program to list all the jobs our members have helped build on a donation basis — many times in cooperation with our signatory employers and area suppliers. A sample would be Christmas in April, Habitat for Humanity, dugouts for Little Leagues, homeless and battered women’s shelters, Christmas lighting at the Grotto, building the first OMSI facility in Washington Park (largely with donated union labor); and recently helping with the construction of a home for the family of a Veteran who was killed in action in Iraq.
Our affiliates also give back to the community by helping charitable organizations collectively and individually. Our affiliates help the Albertina Kerr Center, Holiday toy drives, the National Kidney Foundation, the Wheel to Walk Foundation, the Muscular Dystrophy Association, and the Unions For Kids Motorcycle Poker Run benefiting Doernbecher Children’s Hospital.
Our Council’s signature charity event is the BULL Session Invitational Charity Golf Tournament and Auction. BULL stands for Business, Union, and Legislative Leaders, and was started in 1991 by former CPBCTC Executive Secretary-Treasurer Wally Mehrens and several other area union, professional, and contractor members. The first year consisted of a golf tournament that donated $5,000 to one local children’s charity. Over the years, the Tournament has grown tremendously, and has added a dinner and auction on the day preceding the golf tournament. In 2007, $330,000 was donated to nine area children’s charities, bringing the 16-year donation total to over $3 million!
We have also banded together to help build affordable housing in our area. Two examples are LINK, which has built four affordable housing projects in Oregon. The other was the brainchild of another former Executive Secretary-Treasurer of this organization, Earl Kirkland. He and several other area labor leaders formed the Union Labor Retirement Association over 40 years ago. The ULRA has built five area retirement centers — using all union labor of course. The facilities are well maintained by union labor as well.
We also invest our pension dollars back into the community, which not only creates jobs for our members and contractors, but spurs economic development. Over the past 25 years our pension funds have invested tens of millions of dollars into projects with several investment firms which has resulted in over $500 million in building projects.
The past 100 years have seen great advancement for the Building and Construction Trades. Our members enjoy good careers with excellent benefits. On-the-job safety has improved tremendously. We are a political force to be reckoned with. But this is no time to rest on our laurels. It’s time for all of us to rededicate ourselves to organizing, to growing our ranks and improving our wages and benefits. We have to continue to invest in our training systems so that we continue to produce the best trained, most productive workforce in the world. And we must continue to band together for political strength.
All of us in the Building Trades take great pride in our work. Every one of us has driven by a building we worked on and told our spouse or our children: “I helped build that building.” We are also proud and grateful of the men and women who built this industry up for us over the past 100 years. I hope a century from now the men and women who are in the leadership positions we now hold will look back and be proud of the work that we have done.
Many thanks to Wally Mehrens for his help with this text.