Keith Johnson, a former president of Portland-headquartered International Woodworkers of America (IAW) died at his home in Portland May 28 following a lengthy illness. He was 81.
Johnson served as president of the international union from 1973 to 1987. He was the last president of IWA, which in 1987 split along national boundaries to create IWA-USA and IWA-Canada. IWA-USA merged with the International Association of Machinists in 1994 and IWA-Canada merged with the Steelworkers Union in 2004.
After the union split, Johnson went to work as a special representative of labour in the Canadian government’s overseas market development program for timber products.
He retried in 1990, remaining in Portland.
Keith William Johnson was born in Edmonton, Alberta, on July 20, 1930.
He served in the Canadian Navy for five years, seeing extensive combat duty in the Korean War. Following his stint in the military, Johnson returned to Alberta and worked in a plywood mill. He helped organize the mill into the IWA and subsequently was elected plant chairman and a vice president of the local.
He worked his way up the ranks of the local, going from assistant business agent in 1957, to elected financial secretary in 1960, to elected president in 1962.
He served on the IWA Western Canadian Regional Council Executive Board from 1960-64, then was elected to the international union’s Executive Board.
Johnson moved to Portland in 1967 after being elected international vice president and director of organizing. In 1969 he was tapped first vice president and in 1973 he was elected international president. At age 43, he was one of the youngest international union leaders in the country.
In 1974 he was elected a vice president of the AFL-CIO’s Industrial Union Department, a post he held until his departure from the IWA in 1987.
Johnson served as a workers’ representative on woodworking and forestry-related matters at International Labor Organization (ILO) meetings in Geneva, Switzerland, and was active in the National Labor Committee in Support of Democracy and Human Rights in El Salvador. He also was part of the first American trade union delegation to tour China following normalization of relations with the U.S.
Johnson was inducted into the Northwest Oregon Labor Council Retirees Association Labor Hall of Fame in October 1997 and has twice been recognized for his work by the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association.
Johnson is survived by his wife, Linda; children, Catherine, Brenda, Christopher, and Keith; Linda’s children, Barbara, Brian, and Richard; eight grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.