By DON McINTOSH
On June 30, Jodi Guetzloe Parker turned in her keys and retired at age 63 after 13 years as a construction laborer, 14 years working for the Laborers union, and two years leading the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council.
A tireless foot soldier for the cause of labor, she’s known for being direct but courteous even in the midst of disagreements, and has a knack for treating everyone with respect. She’s also humble, shy of the limelight and reluctant to take credit. It took some persistence to get her to share her story.
That story began in Kamiah, Idaho, a town wixth 1,000 people and one traffic light on the Nez Perce Reservation, where she went by the name Jodi Burden. The oldest of five kids, she grew up poor and started work at age 14. Her earnings at a drive-in restaurant helped keep the family afloat.
At age 17, she learned that the man she’d always known as her dad, Archie Burden, had come into the picture when she was a toddler. On her birth certificate, which she’d never seen, she was Jodi Guetzloe.
As early as age 10 she knew she was different, in that she felt same sex attraction. But Kamiah was a conservative small town, and she couldn’t vocalize it.
At age 19 she experimented with the opposite sex, became pregnant, and gave birth to a daughter, Candy.
It was 1980. Kamiah was a timber town, but the timber industry was tanking. There were no jobs. To start a new life, she moved to Vancouver with her stepdad, now divorced from her mother.
To survive, she cleaned hotel rooms, pulled car parts at an auto parts warehouse, and worked in order fulfillment at Hanna Anderson, a clothing company.
Portland was much more accepting of her orientation than Kamiah. She became a regular at gay and lesbian bars and nightclubs, but at a certain point decided that her consumption of drugs and alcohol had become a problem.
“I was doing stupid shit,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Is this the life that I want?’” In 1987 she entered a 12-step program and got sober. She’s been sober for 35 years.
Discovering the union
In 1993 her life took a turn when she lost her wallet, and Hanna Anderson’s seasonal bonus tucked inside it. She was distraught. Her friend Nancy Miller, a union cement mason, told her, “If that small amount of money makes such a deep impact, you gotta come into construction.”
She got in as a cement mason, and loved it. It was a natural fit given her family background.
“We’re a union family. We’re blue collar workers.”
Her uncle, her cousin, and his wife had been union laborers. Her aunt ran a union bar in Kalama from 1965 to 1994. After Coors tried to break the Teamsters, that drink was never served there again.
“She taught me about strikes when I was six years old,” she recalls. “You never cross the picket line.”
But a year into her cement masonry apprenticeship, she had an injury.
Working for Max J Kuney on a highway bridge construction project, she was building decking underneath the Marquam Bridge when a sudden gust of wind caught and lifted a sheet of plywood she was holding. She twisted, lost her footing, and dislocated two spinal disks. Lying on the ground, she couldn’t feel her legs. It was a year of rehab before she could walk without difficulty. Continuing a hard physical trade like cement mason was out of the question.
Kuney had the idea to bring her back on as a flagger, a member of the Laborers union. John Sutherland, business manager for Laborers Local 320, signed her up as a member. It was 1994. She liked being a flagger.
“For me, it was pretty exciting. I always kind of likened it to cooking. If you can cook a meal and have it all ready to serve at the same time, you could probably flag traffic.”
It could be scary at times, working as a flagger on a highway projects in the middle of the night, semis roaring by.
“I was just getting right with God. I mean, what do you do?” “If you’re gonna get hit at 50 miles an hour, you’re gonna suffer.”
She had a day off as an I-5 striping project was winding down. The next day she got a call from work: A drunk driver had crossed over the line and crashed into one of the highway stripers, killing him. She didn’t know the man, an employee of a subcontractor. But she was pretty shaken up. She called the union hall and put her name on the out-of-work list.
As luck would have it, her next dispatch was to Stacy and Witbeck, where she’d long hoped to work. She’d be a flagger on a streetcar project at Northwest 10th and Flanders in downtown Portland. It was right outside her old job at Hanna Anderson, and now she was making far more money she used to make non-union. Traffic wasn’t a threat.
One day, the rail was laid, and they were paving around it, blocking a lane of traffic, when she saw a cop car a few blocks away with its lights on, stuck in traffic. Straight away she took charge, yelled to others to clear the way, and waved the cop through.
“I didn’t know it at the time, but the guy that I said, ‘Clear me some space!” (And I probably cussed.) He was the general foreman.”
“And he was like, ‘Jesus Christ! That was amazing.”
The next day he told a manager to hire her on as a permanent employee. She stayed four and a half years.
Starting as a flagger, she soon ran crews as a traffic control supervisor and labor foreman. On the TriMet Yellow Line light rail project, she was in charge of quality control.
“They empowered me to make decisions.”
It made her stronger.
“I had to tell guys, ‘no, your concrete’s too wet. You’re not going to pour that out on this base. I need more space between the rebar.”
A woman in construction
Though she was a woman in an overwhelmingly male construction industry, she says she never felt like she was held back because of her gender.
She did have a male coworker who crossed a line, however — covertly exposing himself to her. When she confronted him on it, he said he figured she’d like to see it. She told the contractor, and the contractor ran him off the job. She also took the incident to Sutherland, the union business manager, but nothing came of it.
“At that time (the 1990s), there were no protocols for a member-on-member kind of grievance like that,” Guetzloe Parker says.
He did it again on another job. This time she confronted him on an overpass where they were working.
From then on she made it her personal mission to expose his past behavior whenever she saw him on a job site.
“Any other job that I saw him on, I went and talked to whoever the highest person I could find, and he got thrown off the job. They’re like, ‘Nope, we won’t hire him.’ So I guess in that respect, you know, maybe I helped some women.”
Eventually the perpetrator retired.
By then she’d begun going to union meetings, questioning union contributions to the Salvation Army on the grounds that it held anti-gay views, and asking pointed questions about plans to cut members’ eye care benefits.
Dave Tischer, now the Local 320 business manager took notice, and invited her to meet. Over lunch he offered her a job at the union, doing whatever was needed. She accepted.
“He hired me as an organizer. I was lousy at it. But I was really good at helping members, dispatching.”
She served as auditor, and on the union executive board. She added the name Parker when she married Melanie Parker in 2004, and kept it when they divorced in 2006. They remained friends, but she took it hard.
“I was moping around. (Dave Tischer) was like, ‘Go down and help Tom Chamberlain’ (then president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.)”
Finding union power in the ballot box
It was political season, and the AFL-CIO was working to get Ted Kulongoski re-elected Oregon governor. It was Guetzloe Parker’s first time doing union political work. Phone banking and canvassing for labor lit a fire in her. She calls herself an introvert in extrovert drag. But she loved talking politics with union members — on the phone or at doorsteps — and over the years won awards and recognitions from the Oregon AFL-CIO, for most canvass shifts.
She continued working for Local 320 until 2012, when she was elected executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council. The job was intense. Politicians wanted the council’s endorsement. Businesses wanted help crafting project labor agreements. And union business managers didn’t always get along. She’d sometimes work from 7 in the morning until 11 at night, and get up again the next morning and go to a labor breakfast.
“What turned for me, ultimately, was my grandson calling me and saying grandma, when are you coming home?”
She stepped down in December 2013 before her four-year term was complete, and went back to the Laborers union. She spent the next decade in leadership positions in Local 320 and its successor Local 737, and found a home as Local 737’s political and legislative director. She also served as an officer of Northwest Oregon Labor Council.
Looking back, Guetzloe Parker thinks things may have changed since the harassment she experienced from the co-worker in the 1990s.
“The women and the men are getting better about stepping in and being interrupters,” she said. “So is it better? I don’t know. We have more tools of defense.”
On June 28, her union had a sendoff party in her honor. She wore sunglasses the whole time.
“I knew I’d cry,” Guetzloe Parker said, and Jeff (Gritz, Laborers District Council business manager) said, ‘Oh my God. Why don’t you wear sunglasses.”
Looking back, she has one regret, about the Laborers.
“I wish I would have known about it earlier in life.”
Speaking with the voice of labor, a working class girl from Kamiah got to testify before legislators in Salem, and press a jobs and justice agenda face-to-face with mayors, county chairs, and senators.
“I had such an amazing career,” Guetzloe Parker said, “one that I wouldn’t have even dreamt about. I just needed to get out of that small town, because the timber industry was dying. To look back now. I just feel so blessed.”
“I would encourage everybody to attend their union meetings,” Guetzloe Parker said. “And watch the business of the union. Attend meetings, and don’t be afraid to be an interrupter, if you see bad things happening.”