By Don McIntosh
For every white man who held her back, called her the ‘n’ word, or otherwise gave her grief, Donna Hammond says she had the good fortune to find another who would give her an equal shot at succeeding or failing on her own merits.
Hammond, 61, is retiring this year after 39 years as a union electrician and representative of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 48. In a panel presentation next week hosted by University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center, she’ll talk about her long struggle to overcome racial and gender barriers.
It was 1978 when Hammond, then 22, became the second black woman admitted to Local 48 since its founding 65 years earlier.
As a black woman in an overwhelmingly male and white trade in one of the whitest cities in America, she endured cultural isolation, personal hostility, and worse. To those challenges, Hammond brought a dose of sass, and a sense of when to pick her battles.
Her first union dispatch as a brand-new apprentice was to a now-defunct company called Ace Electric. On Day One, she was assigned to cut metal struts — at a work station decorated with pictures of women from a nude magazine. She didn’t say a word. Instead, she got a copy of Playgirl Magazine and the next day put up nude male pictures next to the others. After that, all the pictures came down.
On construction sites, she assigned herself a nickname, “Brown Sugar,” and put that on her hard hat. She also set boundaries: Say what you want, but keep your hands to yourself.
“I told everybody, ‘Call me baby, call me whatever you want, but do not touch my body.’”
Not everyone listened. One day on the fourth floor of the construction site for the downtown Marriott hotel, a co-worker pinched her butt. She hit him, and nearly knocked him off the building. Word got around, and no one touched her again.
Hammond used to tell a riddle back in the 1970s that still stumps some people to this day: An electrician and a plumber were waiting in line to get into a builders show. One of them was the father of the other one’s son. How could that be?
If it took you a minute to guess the answer, that may be because society’s mental image of an electrician or a plumber is of a man, not a woman.
Yet Hammond says it wasn’t so much her gender that co-workers took issue with over the years, but her race.
“When I walk on the job site, before they see my gender, they see my skin color,” Hammond said.
Hammond was following in the footsteps of Charlene “Charlie” Molden, who had blazed the trail as the first black woman to become an inside electrical wireman at Local 48.
“So I’d show up at the job site, and here’s what I’d hear: ‘God damn it, here comes Charlie.’ And I’d say, ‘Hey, I’m not Charlie.’ And I’d hear, ‘Oh shit, another one.”
“You’ve got to remember: This is 1979. There haven’t been women. There haven’t been black women.”
As her first year drew to a close, she was working on a construction project building a warehouse at Port of Portland Terminal 5 when the journeyman she was assigned to work with came to her and with a guilty look, said, “I can’t do what they want me to do.”
“What’s that?” Hammond asked.
Almost 40 years later, she remembers his reply: “They told me you had a bad attitude, that your attendance was poor, you couldn’t follow instructions, and had a very poor work ethic. But everything that I’ve asked you to do, you’ve been able to perform. If I lay you off, you’ll be dismissed from the program. I can’t do what they want me to do.”
He didn’t. He kept her on. It would be one of many times someone gave her a chance, even when someone else wouldn’t.
Brush with death
On job sites working with electricity, there were times when a bit of racially-tinged paranoia could be a survival skill.
Hammond will never forget the time as a two-year apprentice she was working at a paper mill in Newberg, and a foreman assigned her and the black male journeyman she was working with to remove an electric transformer from a water-filled mudhole, on the double, and told them it was de-energized.
The journeyman, Omar Shabazz, told her never to trust anyone’s say-so, and said they’d better check to see if there was current. She did. It was live. Backing away from the electrified transformer, she looked up and saw a crowd of white hats looking down at her from a catwalk. (Foremen tended to wear white construction hats).
“Was this the Klan standing up there? They were watching to see what would happen as we were getting ready to get blown up. … If had touched it, I would not be sitting here today. We would have been electrocuted immediately.”
Hammond is convinced they intended to harm her and Shabazz.
After that, she says, everyone on the job site knew something had happened, but nothing was spoken.
“There are several ways of getting to your truth. You can be Martin or you can be Malcolm. I’ve always found it’s good to pick your battles,” Hammond says. “We chose not to say anything.”
At the same job site, she was assigned to work with another journeyman, a white man. He made no secret of the fact he didn’t like her race.
“I don’t know why the foreman assigned you to work with me,” Hammond remembers him saying. “He knows I hate black people. The foreman is f—ing with me by assigning you to work with me.”
As they went around the job site, he told her to walk five paces behind him. She did as she was told.
But by the time the project was done, Hammond says that same journeyman invited her to his home for dinner, and gave her the best progress report she’d ever had.
People change. And Hammond could be a catalyst.
Hammond made journeyman in due time, but didn’t imagine she could ever be a foreman on a job site. Then in 1989, she was working under Kit Fox, a Local 48 member who was superintendent on a Swan Island project making skids for Arco’s Alaskan oil pipeline. Fox is white.
“He said, ‘You’re the most qualified. I need you to be a foreman.’”
“I told him I didn’t think white guys would work for me,” she recalls.
“He goes, ‘If they don’t work for you, they don’t work here. And if they have a problem with you being the foreman, they’re going to have to talk to the union steward.”
At the time, the steward on the job was Keith Edwards, who later became Local 48’s first black business manager.
Hammond became foreman, and found her fears were overblown.
Growing up black in white Portland
Hammond says if one thing prepared her to work in an overwhelmingly-white industry, it was growing up in overwhelmingly-white Portland. She began at the all-black Highland school near her family’s home in the Albina neighborhood, but in 1966 when she was in fourth grade, the district made a decision to integrate schools, and she and other black kids were bused to Rigler, a majority-white primary school at Northeast 55th and Prescott.
There, she was isolated, but excelled academically, and she learned that though her classmates were different, she could be as smart as they were.
But she and the other black students weren’t welcomed by all. She was called the ‘n’ word, and remembers white kids rocking her bus as she and the other black kids waited to go home. Once a white boy threw an egg through the bus window, which got all over her nice dress.
In 1968, when she was 12 years old, a white family she was friends with brought her with them to the pool at the YWCA. The attendant told her she couldn’t enter, but her white classmate’s grandmother demanded that she be allowed in. Then she got in the pool.
“I felt like Moses, because I’d get in the water, and the pool would empty. Then I’d get out of the pool, and people would get in.”
After high school, Hammond studied international business and French at the University of Oregon, then transferred to Portland State, where she dropped out without completing a degree.
Entering the workforce, there was never any question but that she would work union. Her mother worked at the Tradewell grocery store on North Williams and Fremont as a member of Retail Clerks Local 1092. Her father was a union machinist at Zidell Tube Forgings of America. They had only two requirements for her: That she love her work, and that she work union.
“He would say, ‘The protection that you’re going to need at work will only be afforded if you have union representation.’”
For a time, Hammond worked at Nordstrom (which was then union). She got a garage job at the phone company, also union. Applying for an apprenticeship as an installer, she was told she lacked the “personality” for it, but was offered a job in directory assistance.
It was the union electrical apprenticeship — which she obtained with some coaching from the Urban League — that changed her life.
A union career
For a time, she hit the road as a union “traveler” in Miami, Atlanta, and New York City. Then in 1991, after a decade of work as a construction electrician, she took a temporary dispatch at the City of Portland’s wastewater treatment plant. She stayed 21 years, leaving twice for stints working with the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council and Oregon Tradeswomen Inc.
Meanwhile, in the union, she found kindred spirits and got active in the union’s Electrical Workers Minority Caucus. She ran for union office, and was elected recording secretary, receiving encouragement from then-business manager Ed Barnes.
In 2007, she ran for Local 48’s top office, business manager. She came in fourth place, out of four. But not long after, the winner, Clif Davis, hired her as a rep to negotiate and enforce union contracts.
That’s where Hammond spent the last 10 years, a sister spreading the gospel of brotherhood. Unlike in construction, the work is never done.
But she’s not as alone as she used to be. Hammond has gone to the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus conference nearly every year since 1991. At first there were a few dozen attendees. Last month at the group’s 28th Annual Conference in Detroit, there were over 600.
At the meeting, Hammond was honored with the group’s “Robbie Sparks North Star Award,” named after the group’s first president. The award is given each year to someone who has committed their life’s work to organized labor and has advanced equity, equality and quality of life for union members and the greater community.
IN HER OWN WORDS: IBEW Local 48 Business Representative Donna Hammond will join Portland State University professor Roberta Hunte for a presentation and discussion about race sponsored by the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center (LERC). Hammond will talk about how she overcame racial and gender barriers in the labor movement. Hunte will talk about her research on women in the trades and present her short film, “Sista in the Brotherhood” about the experience of a black woman Carpenter apprentice on a construction job site.
- When: Thursday, Feb. 8, 6 to 8:30 p.m.
- Where: White Stag Building 70 N.W. Couch St., Portland.
- RSVP: Reserve a seat here. Light refreshments will be served.
GUMBO FEED: IBEW Local 48 is hosting a fundraiser to help send members to the next national conference of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus. The event is open to all, and will be followed by a union karaoke outing at McGillacuddy’s Bar & Grill.
- When: Wednesday, Feb. 17 from 4 p.m. until the gumbo runs out.
- Where: IBEW Local 48, 15937 NE Airport Way, Portland
- Cost: $20 per person.