Lois Stranahan, 1919-2017


At a March 2001 program in the Oregon governor’s mansion honoring farmworkers union leader Cesar Chavez, Lois Stranahan shares stories about when Chavez stayed in her home, and how her husband’s longshore union kept a shipload of California table grapes out of Oregon.

Lois Redding Stranahan, a tireless fighter for trade unionism and economic justice, died May 17 at the age of 97.

Lois was well known in the local labor movement, together with her husband Jesse Stranahan. For many decades she was a presence at picket lines and union meetings, gathering signatures on ballot measures, and promoting the union gospel of solidarity.

She was born Lois Redding on Dec. 1, 1919, in Mena, Arkansas, and grew up there as one of six children in a farm household. She met Jesse Kneeland Stranahan while the two were attending a summer labor school at Commonwealth College in Mena. At the time, Jesse was a reporter for a CIO newspaper. They married on Sept. 13, 1940 in Pocatello, Idaho — en route from Arkansas to Portland, his home town. In Portland, he worked the docks as a member of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 40. She worked as a waitress and helped organize for Waitresses Local 305.

When the United States entered World War Two, Jess initially stood as a conscientious objector, but later served the U.S. Army on an ambulance crew in Europe. Lois, meanwhile, went to work in a Swan Island shipyard building Liberty Ships as a welder and member of Steamfitters Local 235.

After the war, Jess went back to working on the Portland docks, and became a prominent local union officer. Lois went to work as a telephone operator, where she was one of the founding members of Communications Workers of America Local 7901, taking part in a 1948 strike against the Bell phone system.

She eventually left to become a full time wife and mother.  In the 1960s, she joined the ILWU’s Ladies Auxiliary, and served as a photographer for The Dispatcher, the international union’s newspaper. She also became a committed volunteer on the grape boycott campaign led by Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, and stayed with that cause for decades.

Lois Stranahan and attorney Greg Kafoury talk to the press about Stranahan v Fred Meyer.

Lois was a dedicated volunteer signature gatherer for ballot measures she believed in going back as far as the 1940s, and in the late 1980s, she became active in campaigns to defend the right to gather signatures. On Oct. 11, 1989, she was gathering signatures outside a Fred Meyer shopping center at Southeast 82nd and Foster in Portland, and refused an order by a security officer to leave. Lois told the officer she had a constitutional right to be there, and showed a newspaper article about a recent court case backing that up. A court had ruled that even though a shopping center was private property, it couldn’t ban petitioners, because their public spaces were the modern-day equivalent of the town square. But Fred Meyer had her arrested anyway, and as she was entering the police car, she injured her back. Stranahan sued Fred Meyer for false arrest. A jury awarded $125,000 in compensatory damages, plus $2 million in punitive damages. The trial judge reduced the total award to $500,000, but the Oregon Court of Appeals reinstated the jury amount. By the time Stranahan v. Fred Meyer went before the Oregon Supreme Court in 1995, the damages were $3.8 million with interest. Stranahan had many plans to use the money to fund causes she believed in. But the Oregon Supreme Court decided against her, ruling that the store had the right to exclude petitioners from its property.

Undeterred, she continued her activism. On Dec. 1, 1999 — her 80th birthday — she and 350 other union activists boarded a chartered train to Seattle to take part in the largest labor demonstration in decades — a protest at the World Trade Organization summit.

In the late 2000s, her health worsened, but her spirit remained: Friends say that in the hospital, Lois would grill the nurses about their union membership, and she once was said to have gotten rid of a doctor  who was insufficiently pro-union. Health difficulties prompted a move to New Jersey, where her daughter Judith Karen Stranahan —  a union railroad conductor — could look after her. She spent the last decade of her life there, and died peacefully at her daughter’s home in Edison, New Jersey.

She was preceded in death by her siblings and her husband Jesse, who died in 1998. She’s survived by her daughter, and numerous nieces, nephews, and extended family. She’ll be buried at Willamette National Cemetery, 1180 Mt. Scott Blvd, Portland, next to her late husband Jess. A graveside service will be held there at 11:30 a.m. tomorrow, Friday, May 25.


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