Oregon was a very different place when the International Union of Steam Operating Engineers chartered a new local Sept. 18, 1918, to represent “hoisting, portable and shipyard engineers” in Portland — Local 701. A Spanish Flu epidemic forced founding members to wait months to elect officers. [It took the lives of half a million Americans, 1 in every 200.] The gas powered shovel had only just been invented in 1914. Steam power ran the engines of the day. It wouldn’t be until 1920 that caterpillar tracks were added to tractors, made at first of wood and tin plate. And in those days, no women or blacks were permitted to become members. To become a member of Local 701, you had to know someone: Four members had to sign for you.
In fact, six years before Local 701 was chartered, delegates to the international union convention had hotly debated whether to grant membership to firemen — the workers who fed the fires that heated the boilers that powered the steam engines. They let them in, but grudgingly. In 701 as in other Operating Engineers locals, firemen and oilers — workers who greased the equipment and changed oil in gear heads or conveyors — were given entry but assigned to “branch locals” with no voting rights. [They wouldn’t get full voting rights until 1960.]
Local 701 has come along way in 100 years. Diesel engines replaced steam boilers, and hydraulics replaced cable machinery. The international dropped “steam” from its name in 1928 (though it kept the steam gauge as its emblem.)
In a 1978 consent decree resolving a federal lawsuit filed in 1974, the Local 701 committed to admitting black and Hispanic apprentices to its training program.
In their century of progress, Local 701 members have run the machines that transformed Oregon, building every bridge, dam, highway, and skyscraper in the region.
The Local’s history is told in a 1999 book by Kirsten Bovee called Every Member is the Union: The Story of Local 701 — and in a commemorative history book distributed at a Sept. 15 celebration of the union’s centennial.
If the men were hard in the Local’s early years, it may have been because those were hard times. Unions in the 1920s were often secret organizations. Employers often wouldn’t hire a worker unless they signed “yellow dog” contracts agreeing not to join a union.
In 1929, a stock market crash set off what became known as the Great Depression. Over the next four years, employment in construction dropped 78 percent. In 1933, Local 701 accepted a 20 percent wage reduction.
The turnaround came with President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, which included an unprecedented federal commitment to building infrastructure.
That was followed by the war. World War Two put the construction economy in overdrive. At breakneck speed, Local 701 members helped build a reconnaissance blimp hangar known as the Tillamook Naval Air Station; Camp White near Medford, which would later train up to 45,000 soldiers at a time; and a top secret site in Hanford, Washington, where atomic weapons would be manufactured.
They also helped build — almost overnight — what was briefly Oregon’s second largest city: Vanport. From August 1942 to September 1943, 9,942 buildings were built to house workers at three Kaiser shipyards. But the brand new town was destroyed in a catastrophic flood May 31, 1948.
Many Local 701 members spent the war years in construction battalions like the Naval Seabees, building the airbases, warehouses, and landing facilities that helped the Allies win the war.
In the post-war era, the federal commitment to infrastructure continued with the 1956 Federal Highway Act, and lasted through 1970.
Over the course of five decades Local 701 members helped construct 26 dams on Columbia River, the Astoria Megler and Fremont bridges, US 26, I-5, and I-95.
Local 701 grew and expanded. In the early 1950s, it absorbed Local 500, taking in five Southwest Washington counties. In 1993, it added Stationary Engineers Local 87.
But the 1980s were a return to hard times: a recession, major downturn in construction, and a president who launched an era of union-busting when he terminated 11,345 striking air traffic controllers.
Prior to 1980, almost all public construction work was done by union-signatory contractors. Since then, the local has had to battle continually to hold onto union market share.
Local 701’s membership peaked in 1980 at 6,000 members, but by 1983, half of them were on the out-of-work list. Today the membership is just over 3,500.
But Local 701 continues to thrive, providing training, employment, and some of the highest wages and benefits in the construction industry. Its 100-year mark comes at another boom time, providing opportunities to new apprentices. They’ll be the ones to carry Local 701 into its second century.
— Don McIntosh