By DON McINTOSH
Bob Tackett, 69, is heading home to Arkansas after decades of union involvement in Oregon, the last 12 as executive secretary-treasurer of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, the state’s only remaining autonomous local council of unions.
Born in tiny Brinkley, Arkansas, Bobby Austin Tackett grew up poor in a farmhouse along a gravel road, and didn’t have running water until his high school years. As a child, he helped his father, a farmworker, pick cotton. Later he helped with rice and soybean crops.
In 1970 Bob met Janet Watts at a church social. She was 13. He was 17. He asked her out. She refused, but later relented. They married two years later, the year he graduated high school. And in the 49 years since, he listened to her when they made all the big decisions of life.
The first big decision came two years after they married. Bob’s brother-in-law had moved to the Portland area and was working at the Reynolds Aluminum plant in Troutdale, Oregon.
“He said, ‘It’s a good union job. And if you can take the heat (because it’s a smelter), you’ll make a good living.’” Tackett recalls. “I thought, ‘Well, man, I’ve got nothing to lose. We got nothing here.’”
They sold their belongings and moved. Tackett started at the smelter Sept. 5, 1974, becoming a member of United Steel Workers Local 330.
“I made more money in a week than I made in probably two months in Arkansas,” Tackett said.
He started in the rodding room, where workers attached copper rods to carbon anodes as they burn off in pots that turn bauxite powder into aluminum. It was incredibly noisy. Later, he transferred to the cast house, where molten aluminum was poured to produce ingots weighing 35 to 70 pounds that would later be used to make aircraft parts or rolled into foil. For 26 years he worked in the cast house, except for one year when the plant shut down. The work was hard, physically demanding, but there was a real camaraderie among the workers.
When he first started, Tackett remembers, you couldn’t see from one end of the pot room to the other because of all the smoke. But in the 1980s, the plant invested in environmental controls, putting money into ventilation and scrubbers. The union was instrumental in making hearing protection and other safeguards mandatory.
After over a decade on the job, Tackett was complaining one day to his wife about the union.
“She said, ‘Well, the only way you’re going to change it is to get involved.’”
So he did. He ran and was elected as Local 330’s financial secretary, and later became vice president.
“I learned that things don’t go as easily as you think they should when you want to make change,” Tackett said. All offices in Local 330 were (and are) volunteer, except for a small stipend.
Alcoa had once owned the Troutdale smelter, but it was sold to Reynolds Aluminum when the federal government broke up Alcoa as a monopoly. But government fervor for restraining monopolies waned starting in the 1980s. In 2000, Alcoa was allowed to acquire Reynolds. One day in 2000, the Troutdale smelter got a visit from men in suits. They were from Alcoa.
“I heard one of the men in suits saying, ‘You guys haven’t upgraded the plant since we sold it to you back in the ‘30s.’ And I said ‘Oh shit, this plant isn’t long for this world.’”
In an era of deregulation and globalization, the smelter was in trouble. The price of electricity was going up. And trade barriers were going down. Aluminum from China and Russia began flooding the market.
Soon after the suits arrived, the plant shut down, permanently. The local union president took that moment to retire, and left the state. That left Tackett as president in the hour of crisis. He and 350 of his coworkers had lost their livelihoods. Tackett was hired temporarily through the union-supported charity Labor’s Community Service Agency (LCSA) for a new role: Making sure his coworkers got every severance and dislocated benefit they were entitled to.
“A lot of the guys had never been on unemployment before,” Tackett said. “Some people were so proud. They felt like unemployment was welfare. They didn’t think they were going to file for unemployment.”
Tackett told them that employers pay for unemployment insurance so that workers can collect it when they need it. When the men didn’t listen, Tackett would work to persuade their wives.
Tackett was contracted with LCSA for 30 days, but kept getting renewed. Soon there was a mass layoff at Boeing. Another at Freightliner. Tackett spent nine years helping dislocated workers, the last two as dislocated worker specialist at the Oregon AFL-CIO.
Then in 2009, he got a call from Judy O’Connor, executive secretary-treasurer of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council; she would be retiring mid-term and wanted him to take her place.
“My first response was, ‘Thanks but no thanks.’” Tackett recalls. “I like what I’m doing. I think I’ll just stay here.” But then Machinists leader Bob Petroff called. So did others. His boss, then- Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain, agreed. Janet said he really should consider it. It was decided.
Over the next 12 years, as labor’s top local official, he got to know many politicians and became close with some. Once, Tackett had a triple bypass, but the timing was inconvenient; the labor council’s awards dinner was 10 days after his surgery. Tackett showed up to preside with a drain tube attached and could barely stand, but he wanted to be there. Congressman Earl Blumenauer saw what was happening and insisted that Tackett go home.
Since going to work for the Labor Council in 2009, Tackett has occupied many chairs. He’s been vice president of Oregon AFL-CIO. Recording clerk on the Steelworkers Legislative Committee. On the board of the local United Way. A member of the Portland Metro Workforce Development Board. Board president of Labor’s Community Service Agency. And board member of the independent nonprofit that publishes the Northwest Labor Press.
But for all the responsibilities, Tackett says he’s most proud of being able to help rank-and-file working people.
Decades after the smelter closed, he’s still helping former coworkers and their families. Recently, the widow of a former coworker called saying Alcoa didn’t recognize that her late husband ever worked there. She wanted to retire herself but couldn’t afford to without the retiree benefit he’d earned.
“I was able to find out what was going on and get it fixed. And she calls me and she’s in tears saying, ‘Six years I’ve been trying to get this done, and you got my husband’s retirement for me. So now I can retire.’”
“That’s as good as it gets,” Tackett said.
Tackett’s efforts have earned him wide acclaim in labor circles. At the Oregon AFL-CIO convention in March, delegates and leaders from across the labor movement rose for a lengthy standing ovation. That honor was repeated at a Democratic Party summit in Sunriver April 30, when word of Tackett’s impending retirement drew a standing ovation from elected leaders and activists from around the state.
Later this month, Bob and Janet will be driving home to Arkansas. They plan to build a house in the Hot Springs resort area where they’ve bought some property. But Bob’s service ethic runs strong. He’ll be volunteering to help people file their taxes and apply for Medicare. Over a lifetime, Tackett has been called to help. And he answered the call.