By DON McINTOSH
Matt Lambert, 44, has a doctorate in genetics. But he’d rather be on a roof than in a classroom. On May 22, he hired on full time as an organizer and field rep for Roofers Local 49. His improbable route to union rep takes some explanation.
“I grew up super poor, with no real hopes for success of any kind,” Lambert said. “The only thing I was good at getting in trouble.”
Born in British Columbia to an American mom and Canadian dad, he settled in Portland by pure chance: It’s where his family’s car broke down en route to Arizona when he was 12.
At age 21, he learned he would be a father unexpectedly and determined to get his life together.
“I started roofing and I found something that I was actually good at, that I took pride in doing.”
He roofed for several years. Then his daughter’s mom left, and he found himself raising his daughter full time, not an easy thing to do with the hours required in construction. He decided to use his savings to go to college, continuing to work roofing during summers when family members could watch his daughter.
Lambert earned a bachelor’s degree in molecular biology at Portland State University, and a master’s degree in environmental science from Washington State University. After completing a doctoral degree in genetics in 2017, he got a postdoctoral fellowship at Oregon Health and Science University, worked on a grant from the National Institutes of Health, and landed a job as a professor at Linfield College.
“That’s sort of where the disillusionment set in,” Lambert recalls. “The whole time I was doing this, I would think fondly of roofing. … I was successful as a biologist, but I missed roofing. Even when I was in graduate school and didn’t have to, I’d go roof during the summers, much to the chagrin of my Ph.D. advisors.”
Lambert realized he’d always felt like a fish out of water in school, like when he’d show up dirty after work sometimes. No one ever did anything or said anything. It was all in his head. But he didn’t feel out of place on a roof.
“I love being outside. I love the guys that I work with. I think it takes a certain sense of humor about oneself to roof well and for a long time. I get along with roofers. I like roofers. And I like the nature of the job. I like working with my hands but also being physical. It’s a great mixture of physical activity, and really skilled craftsmanship.”
Local 49 represents 563 roofers in Oregon and Southwest Washington. Under their union contract, journeyman roofers make $38.78 an hour plus benefits and are concentrated in the flat roof commercial sector of the industry.
Lambert will work under the direction of business manager Travis Hopkins. With their master agreement coming up for renegotiation in July 2024, the plan is to try to get members more engaged. Good contracts don’t happen by accident or by magic, their thinking goes; they happen when a union is well organized internally. Lambert’s job will be to help get members involved, organize new non-union workers and employers, and help Hopkins enforce the contract and police their industry against unfair competitors who commit wage theft.