Why the Oaks Park Labor Day picnic is no more


By DON McINTOSH

For thousands of union members and their families, it was a tradition that lasted over 20 years: The biggest official Labor Day gathering in the Portland metro region meant a visit to Oaks Amusement Park, and a day of hamburgers, rollercoasters, fellowship, music, and speeches by politicians. As many as 16,000 attended in a typical year, a logistical feat that involved offsite parking near OMSI and a free-for-the-day train ride.

But the Oaks Parks Labor Day Picnic is no more. The picnic took a hiatus in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID-19 health guidelines restricting large crowds. But the picnic’s return in 2022, organizers say, was killed off by the park’s own management. 

The park is run by the nonprofit Oaks Park Association, and after its longtime director died, it hired a new CEO, Brandon Roben, who’d led the troubled Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum in McMinnville. Picnic organizers say Roben made a slew of changes that might as well have been crafted specifically to put an end to the event. Last October, park management terminated longtime picnic director Brenda Stephens, a 30-year employee who had worked with the labor council to make the event a success. The park also dismantled the stage where politicians and union officers spoke. They cut down trees. They reduced the number of picnic areas from 22 to 14. They eliminated the in-house catering departement, and announced a 20% service fee for outside caterers the labor council would  want to bring in. And to top it all off, they proposed to triple the prices for ride bracelets, from $13.17 to $47.95 each. The park is charming, but it’s no Disneyland, and that would be an absurd amount to pay on the busiest day of the year, when long lines would limit the number of rides kids could take.

And that’s not even all. They also eliminated a crucial policy that made the event a success—allowing unions to buy ride bracelets in bulk and return unused bracelets for a refund. Instead, unions could buy bracelets at a 25% discount up to three days before, but would have to pay the full price for more on the day of.

Labor Council leaders were incredulous when IBEW Local 48 financial assistant Tracey Powers and other volunteer picnic organizers reported the changes this Spring, but focused on a leadership transition, the council was unable to pull together an alternate location this year.

The central labor council wasn’t the only labor organization to end its tradition at Oaks Park: IBEW Local 48, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 8 and the Machinists, which held their own summer picnics there on other dates, moved elsewhere this year. 

ILWU Local 8 had been holding its annual picnic at Oaks Park even longer than the labor council — at least 40 years, says Local 8 office manager Shelby Palmer. The longshore union’s picnic, drawing up to 1,500 attendees, was always on the same day: July 5. That’s a sacred day for ILWU members, because it commemorates the day when San Francisco police killed two workers during a West Coast dock strike. That 1934 strike played a crucial role in the union’s formation, and to this day, “Bloody Thursday” is a paid holiday in the West Coast longshore union contract. Every year, Local 8 members and their families would honor the slain by placing wreaths in the Willamette River at Oaks Park, a solemn scene captured in an OPB documentary that aired earlier this year.

So it came as a shock and surprise when ILWU Local 8 was told that Oaks Parks is no longer open on Tuesdays, and wouldn’t make an exception to let ILWU hold its picnic there this year, Tuesday, July 5. Palmer says that—and an initial ask of $75 for ride bracelets—made the union feel unappreciated, and unwelcome. Local 8 moved its picnic to Alderbrook Park in Clark County. Palmer says Alderbrook has picked up a lot of picnic business from Oaks Park; Local 8 expects to hold theirs at Alderbrook again next year, and won’t be going back to Oaks Park.

The Oaks Park Labor Day picnic was a joyous event, and unifying, bringing together not just the AFL-CIO unions of the Northwest Oregon Labor Council but also members of unaffiliated unions like the Carpenters and SEIU.  

Prior to 1998, the Labor Council held its picnic at Blue Lake Park. That will be one option as organizers look for a suitable venue for the picnic’s return in 2023.

6 Comments

    • This just fills me with disgust. Yeah, Oaks Park is historic, and cute, and kitschy, and all that. But the vultures in charge of it are class traitors and worse so good riddance. The labor day picnic should be held at a PUBLIC park anyways.

  1. Very sad to lose such an important labor tradition. Was the decision just about money or is it anti-union sentiment? I have 4 grandchildren who won’t be visiting Oaks Park again with me. I can’t support a venue that has no regard for people in the community.

  2. Before you judge, you should get both sides to the story. The information that you have is from one person. A disgruntle ex-employee.

    • It really doesn’t matter who supplied the information. If the ride ticket price increases from $13.17 to $47.95, the new park director needs a new job flipping burgers.

  3. This is beyond ridiculous! He’s going to ruin Oaks Park! The everyday working family can’t and won’t pay that price. The bracelets are over $20 each now! I couldn’t afford to take my grandson for his 5th birthday last month! Most barely afford that, much less $40+ per ticket. He’s going to destroy a great family venue.

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