By DON McINTOSH
Office and Professional Employees International Union Local 11 has a new top officer. Longtime union steward Howard Bell outpolled two-term incumbent Maureen Goldberg in ballots counted April 10, and was sworn in to a three-year term as executive secretary-treasurer at the union’s monthly meeting May 9 at its Vancouver hall.
Local 11 has close to 1,500 members, including employees of Clark County, City of Vancouver, and dozens of local union offices in Oregon and Washington. Its biggest bargaining unit is Northwest Natural, a regulated monopoly that supplies natural gas. Most Local 11 members are in Oregon and Southwest Washington, but the local also has a few small bargaining units in Idaho, Montana, and Utah.
Bell, 59, has been a member since 1989, when he came to work for Northwest Natural as a utility assistant installing natural gas lines. Local 11 represented utility workers there after getting its start among the company’s office workers. Bell spent about 13 years in an emergency response unit, dispatched when homeowners or members of the public smelled gas leaks, or in cases where excavators accidentally hit a gas line. Eventually he became a foreman in charge of crews installing or replacing gas lines.
Bell says growing up in Sequim, Washington, he knew the value of a union. Both of his parents were teachers and members of the teachers union. And his grandfather was a union sign painter in Tacoma. A union pension meant that his grandmother was supported until she died at age 105, three decades after his grandfather died.
While earning a bachelor’s degree in social work and criminology from George Fox University, Bell worked summers at Clallam County Public Utility District. He thought about becoming an electric lineman, but his father-in-law encouraged him to join him at Northwest Natural.
At Northwest Natural, he attended union meetings and got involved, becoming chief steward and member of the union bargaining team. Bell says he was several times asked to work full-time for the union but declined while his son was still young. The drive between his home in Gaston, Oregon, to Local 11’s Vancouver office would have missing out on too much. Now that his son is 18, Bell said he feels free to take responsibility for the wellbeing of Local 11 members and their families.
In his campaign, Bell pledged several core principles: Never agree to a two-tier contract (with lower standards for newer hires), and never agree to restrictive ground rules for negotiations, such as gag agreements that limit the ability to share management proposals with members and the news media. He also wants to improve communication with members, including improvements to the union website.
A first order of business will be filling two vacant staff positions. He’ll also focus attention on preparations for better contracts: Collective bargaining agreements at Local 11’s three biggest units — Northwest Natural, Clark County, and City of Vancouver — all expire next year.
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