Erica Askin replaces Richard “Buz” Beetle as Laborers 483 business manager


Erica Askin and Richard Beetle
Erica Askin and Richard Beetle

By DON McINTOSH Associate Editor

Laborers Local 483 has appointed new leadership. Longtime business manager Richard “Buz” Beetle retired at the end of February, and on his recommendation, the Local 483 Executive Board designated organizer Erica Askin to fill out the remainder of his three-year term. Askin was sworn into office March 1.

Local 483 is a public sector local within Laborers International Union of North America, which represents mostly private-sector laborers in building and highway construction. Local 483 represents about 850 employees at the City of Portland and the Metro regional government, particularly at the Oregon Zoo and in City bureaus responsible for wastewater treatment, parks, and street maintenance.

Erica Askin
Erica Askin

Askin, 34, has been an employee of the local since Nov. 10, 2010.

She grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida, and earned a degree in social work from Florida State University at Tallahassee, and a law degree from Rutgers University in New Jersey. While in college, she canvassed for a minimum wage increase for the group ACORN, and then worked at Florida Impact, an anti-poverty advocacy group. While in law school, she worked on workers’ compensation cases for New Jersey law firm Livingston Siegel. She later worked for labor law firm Weissman and Mintz representing Communications Workers of America (CWA) members employed by Verizon and the State of New Jersey. She passed the bar exam and was admitted to practice law in New York and New Jersey.

After graduating law school in 2008, she served a year-long clerkship with a trial court judge. The judge encouraged her to apply at a land use law firm that had Walmart for a client. But Askin rejected that direction. After a trip to Oregon, she started applying for union jobs on the West Coast. She wanted to be an organizer.

Beetle gave her the chance, bringing her on to organize nonunion workers and get existing members better prepared for budget and contract battles.

Askin says she’s always felt working class. Her mom earned little as a career office administrator in St. Petersburg, and her dad was disabled.

“Growing up in a nonunion background, like most people in this country, people think they’re powerless,” Askin told the Labor Press. “When you go into a union environment and see how emboldened people are, and they take action and have a culture and history of doing that, you can see how it makes a difference.”

Askin helped organize Local 483 members to take action opposing layoffs and budget cuts. About 100 Local 483 members saw their jobs on the chopping block when the City’s budget was first announced in early 2012. Local 483 hired an expert to look at the books, found funds that could be tapped to avert the cuts, and put political pressure on Mayor Adams to use those funds instead of laying off staff during the recession. In the end, no Local 483 members were laid off.

Meanwhile, Local 483 had long complained about City use of low-paid contracted-out labor to do the same work as union members. With her legal background, Askin looked at one such contract in City rec centers, and saw a violation of the union contract. The City said Local 483’s grievance was untimely because the contracting out had happened a decade ago. But Askin showed that the City had never notified the union that it was contracting out members’ work, and based on the legal theory of continuing violation, she won at the first stage with an arbitrator. The City settled the grievance, agreeing to phase out the outsourcing contract.

Now she faces likely her biggest challenge: Helping to win an acceptable union contract for the roughly 550 members of Local 483 who are part of the District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU). DCTU, a seven-union coalition, is in the midst of a strike vote after its members voted down a tentative agreement in February.

Askin said she plans to run for election when the term expires. The local will take nominations in May, and hold an election in June if more than one candidate seeks the position.

Richard "Buz" Beetle
Richard “Buz” Beetle

Beetle, 65, retires after decades of involvement in Local 483, and an even longer tenure as an activist. He grew up in Neosho, Missouri, in a household headed by his mother, after a divorce from his father, a captain in the U.S. Army. While working at a lumber yard on evenings and weekends, Beetle attended Southeastern Missouri State College in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, for a time. He joined Students for Democratic Society, and in 1969, dropped out of college, moving to New York the following year. There he got a job working for the National Peace Action Coalition — the group which organized a 750,000-strong anti-war march on April 24, 1971 — the largest rally ever held outside the U.S. Capitol.

“People learn through struggle,” Beetle told the Labor Press. “I got involved in the struggle around the war, and was a sponge: I soaked up a lot of information and really got my education that way.”

Beetle married Myra Silverman, a native New Yorker, and the two moved to Missouri, where he went to work at a paper bag printing plant, and tried to get coworkers to join the Typographical Union. The union campaign lost narrowly, a victim of employer tactics — a 25-cent raise, and threats of plant closure if they were to unionize. Beetle was fired for his union activism, and later won a backpay settlement brokered by the National Labor Relations Board.


We’re going after the people who need unions the most, because our attitude is: They either become our gravediggers or our best champions.” — Richard Beetle

[/pullquote]Then an organizer with the union told Beetle about a new program to train operators to run wastewater treatment equipment. The Clean Water Act, passed in 1972, was forcing cities to introduce a new treatment process. That meant not only cleaner water, but opportunities for skilled jobs. The government established a training school in Neosho, and Beetle graduated from it in 1974, and went to work in Plano, Texas. His wife hated it there, and they moved to Portland instead, where he went to work as a wastewater treatment technician for the City of Portland.

It was Beetle’s first time working in a union-represented job, and he got involved in Laborers Local 483 right away. In 1981, he helped organize the AFL-CIO’s 1,500-strong march in downtown Portland to protest President Ronald Reagan’s firing of striking air traffic controllers. And alongside letter carriers union activist Jamie Partridge, he helped found a labor committee to oppose Reagan’s covert war against the Nicaraguan Sandinista government and its support for a repressive military junta in El Salvador.

Beetle was appointed secretary-treasurer in 1990 and served in that position until 2005, when he won election as business manager.

The first two decades of his union involvement, Beetle recalls, were a time of relative labor peace. Before the time of public sector budget austerity, union contract language rolled over year after year, and the only fight was over how big the cost-of-living increase would be.

“Politicians were willing to buy labor peace, and there was never any talk of strike,” Beetle said.

Recent times have been more conflict-ridden. Public employers increased the use of low-wage no-benefit nonunion temps and seasonal workers, or contracted out the work altogether. And in contract negotiations, they began demanding concessions. In 2001, DCTU members went on strike for six hours. In the last two negotiations, City management has taken aim at a cherished clause that limits the City’s ability outsource members’ jobs.

Beetle and Local 483 campaigned to unionize the low-wage contingent workers, while opposing efforts by the City of Portland and Metro to use temps, contract workers, and prison labor to do things that they should be doing with union employees at a living wage.

“We’re going after the people who need unions the most,” Beetle said. “Because our attitude is: They either become our gravediggers or our best champions.”

So far, Local 483 has had several successes, including unionizing seasonal maintenance workers in the Portland Parks Bureau and fast food workers at the Zoo.

“[Most workers] get hired into their union,” Beetle said. “These people fought for theirs. So they’re proud as punch of it. They’re marginalized contingent workers, paid at the very lowest scale, hired and fired on a whim. If they say a word about anything, their hours are reduced to zero. These people are the most vulnerable, and yet they’re the most heroic you’ve ever seen.”

Beetle said as business manager he worked to implement a vision of a membership-centered union, one where leaders stood up for coworkers in the workplace. If he leaves a legacy, he hopes it’s an active membership that’s not afraid to fight — and that continues to reach out to nonunion workers.

Beetle said in retirement, he’ll also spend more time with his wife of 40 years. Their daughter, Kara Gunderson, is a case worker at Multnomah County and a member of AFSCME Local 88. Their son, Justin, is a apprentice carpenter with Carpenters Local 156.

Beetle said he plans to continue to be involved as a retiree. That includes plans working to oppose a ballot measure that would turn the City water system over to a volunteer board.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Read more