Britt Cornman, assistant directing business representative of Machinists District Lodge W24, retired May 17 after decades in the union movement. District Lodge W24 is the coordinating body for local Machinists union lodges in Oregon and Southwest Washington. It negotiates and enforces contracts for about 9,120 workers at lumber mills, machine shops, and manufacturers including Boeing and Daimler.
Cornman, 61, worked in mines, oil fields, mills, for a railroad carrier, in construction, and on the assembly line. His commitment to the labor movement nearly got him killed.
Cornman spent his childhood in La Grande and Cascade Locks, Oregon, where his father worked for Union Pacific railroad as a freight agent. After graduating from high school in 1976, Cornman went to work at the local sawmill, pulling dry chain and loading trains with lumber. He also worked in a Wyoming oil field, did construction, got married, and joined his father at Union Pacific in 1979, where he worked as a switchman, brakeman, and footboard yard master, assembling train cars full of the industrial chemical soda ash from Wyoming’s Green River mines. At the railroad, he became an active member of United Transportation Union.
“Reaganomics got me in 1982,” says Cornman, referring to President Ronald Reagan’s economic policies, which led to a severe recession — and his layoff from the railroad. Cornman found work in an open pit coal mine in Wyoming, first as a mechanic’s helper, then as an oiler and operator on gigantic Bucyrus-Erie mining machines. That job, too, ended in layoff after a Reagan-era deregulation of the coal industry.
In 1987, Britt, his wife Stacey, and their three children moved to Elko, Nevada, where he went to work as a heavy equipment operator in an open pit gold mine. Approached by the United Steelworkers (USW), Cornman took the lead as a volunteer union organizer at the mine. But management’s anti-union campaign was vicious. One day, his manager assigned him to use a piece of mining equipment that had faulty brakes. On a steep road leading into the pit, the brakes gave out. Thinking quickly, he lowered the machine’s blade to save himself from going over the edge and plummeting hundreds of feet. He later learned from a mechanic co-worker that the manager had known the brakes were faulty. Cornman is convinced the manager wanted him dead. Later on, another known union supporter had a hole shot through his bedroom window.
Not long after the brakes failed on his machine, at a mandatory company meeting, the mine manager provoked and berated Cornman about the union in front of his co-workers. When Cornman spoke up for the union, his foreman grabbed him by the arm and ordered him to leave.
“We think you’re on drugs, to speak up like that in front of the manager,” Cornman remembers the foreman said. Cornman was ordered to go to a lab for a drug test. Suspecting foul play, the USW staff organizer arranged for Cornman to get an independent drug test. The union test came back clean. A month later, the company said its test had showed the presence of marijuana, and fired him.
The USW filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), and the agency determined that Cornman had been fired illegally for his union involvement. The case went all the way to Washington, D.C. Because the union campaign at the mine was by now basically kaput, the USW organizer told Cornman to accept a sizable back pay settlement offer, which the company offered on condition that he not return to the mine. But now Cornman found he was blackballed by other mines in the area, and with three kids and a wife to support, he decided it was time to return home to Oregon.
After operating heavy construction equipment a few years, he got a job at Portland’s Freightliner truck plant in 1992. Working the assembly line for truck chassis, he became an active member of his Machinists Local Lodge 1005, and soon, an elected shop steward and member of the negotiating committee. He started sitting in on Executive Board meetings, and ran for and won an election for union trustee. He became a delegate to the larger Machinists District Lodge 24 and the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, AFL-CIO.
In 2002, Cornman became an apprentice union organizer with the Grand Lodge — as the Machinists international parent organization is known. He spent two years in Washington and Nevada supporting union campaigns among aerospace workers, auto dealer mechanics, and workers at a U-haul trailer repair facility in Henderson, Nevada. At that last campaign, Cornman recalls, the owner said he’d shutter the facility rather than go union, and illegally fired more than 50 workers.
Returning home to work at the truck plant, Cornman was approached to join a reform slate of candidates for business representative in Machinists District Lodge 24; the others were Bob Petroff, Joe Kear, Scott Lucy and Phil Dilsaver. All five were elected in 2005. Cornman has continued to serve as a business representative ever since, responsible for negotiating and enforcing union contracts at as many as 19 workplaces over the years. In 2011, District Lodge 24 merged with Woodworkers District Lodge W1 to become Machinists District Lodge W24. In August 2016, Cornman was appointed assistant directing business representative, the number two position at the district lodge. In December, he won re-election to the position for a three-year term.
He also served on the Executive Board of Oregon AFL-CIO, on the advisory board of the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center (LERC), and as a trustee on the Nelson Trust, which provides health coverage to about 5,000 woodworkers and their families. But in his 14 years on staff at the Machinists District Lodge, Cornman says what gave him the most satisfaction was having helped half a dozen of his fellow union members get their jobs back after they were terminated.
Cornman’s assignment for the last three years has been representing workers at Boeing’s Gresham plant. To take over that responsibility, the District Lodge is hiring Carol Krohn, the chief shop steward at the plant.