Two years ago, Barbara Byrd retired from the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon after 20 years; last month she stepped down as Oregon AFL-CIO’s secretary treasurer after 14 years. At 70, Byrd is wrapping up a 41-year career in which she’s trained hundreds of union leaders across four states, promoted the apprenticeship model of job training, and urged labor organizations to confront climate change.
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, Byrd got an early union education from her father, a newspaper reporter who became president of his Newspaper Guild local and representative for the international union.
“He would always say it wasn’t about wages and benefits,” Byrd told the Labor Press. “It was about being able to stand up at work and say what you thought and not be afraid of getting fired.”
Byrd got a bachelor’s degree in sociology at Rice University in Houston and a master’s degree in labor studies at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. She discovered labor education at UMass when she followed an instructor from union hall to union hall doing steward training.
“I watched him teach and I watched the excitement of people in those classes, and it was like a light bulb going off. It was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”
In 1978, she began her first job as a labor educator at Indiana University, teaching union leaders from the steel mills near Gary, Indiana. When her father had a stroke, she returned to Texas in 1981 with then-husband Peter Donohue, an economist and labor union researcher. She helped start a labor studies program at San Antonio College, and earned a Ph.D. in adult education from the University of Texas in Austin. With newborn daughter Caitlin, they relocated to San Francisco in 1985 and Byrd took a job directing the Labor Studies and Apprenticeship Department at City College of San Francisco. But in 1995, frustrated by the high cost of living in San Francisco, they moved to Portland and Byrd began at LERC as a teacher and researcher.
At LERC, her teaching developed the skills of countless union stewards and leaders. Her research made the case for the value of union apprenticeship programs, and looked at the challenges of attracting and retaining women in that program, and minority apprentices. In recent years, leadership development became her passion, particularly with the Cascade Region Labor Leadership Initiative. In that program, about two dozen high-level labor leaders from Oregon, Washington and British Columbia meet for three weeks for seminars on honing a vision, leading organizational change, and connecting with movements. They come away with a clearer game plan for building their organizations, and a network of peers to turn to for advice.
Mid-way through her tenure at LERC, a surprising thing happened. Newly installed Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain invited Byrd to become the union federation’s number two officer, secretary-treasurer, in 2005. The Oregon AFL-CIO had just lost 40% of its membership because of a national union split, and to deal with the budget shortfall, had made secretary-treasurer an unpaid position. Byrd, with a flexible academic job and wide familiarity within union leaders at all levels, agreed to step in. It was the first time a woman had held the office.
At the Oregon AFL-CIO, Byrd became a persistent advocate that organized labor engage with environmental groups — to ensure that when environmental legislation passes, it benefits, and doesn’t harm, Oregon workers. In 2007 she helped set up an Oregon chapter of the Apollo Alliance, a labor-environmental coalition, which later merged into the similar Blue-Green Alliance. In 2009 she took part in the United Nations climate summit in Copenhagen. And for years she worked behind the scenes to make sure labor was in the room when climate policy was being discussed by elected leaders. The culmination of that work was in this year’s “cap-and-invest” bill, which contains stronger labor standards than any other legislation in the nation. The bill failed, but could come up again next year.
Byrd also made women’s empowerment a priority. In 2017 she helped form the group Oregon Women Labor Leaders. It started with informal get-togethers of female union activists. Talking about difficulties they faced, like not being listened to by their male union counterparts, they found they weren’t alone. National AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler came to Oregon for their first official meeting. This year, the group waged its first full-on campaign, with well-attended public actions to pressure Fred Meyer to address a gender pay gap.
Though Byrd is now doubly retired, she says she isn’t gone yet. She’ll teach a few more classes at LERC, and hopes to stay involved with labor environmental work.
The seeds she planted — skilling up union leaders and encouraging labor to fight for green jobs and gender equality — will bear fruit for years to come.