By DON McINTOSH
Near the close of Northwest Oregon Labor Council’s Oct. 23 delegates meeting, Mark Sturbois was called to the front of the room. For the next 20 minutes, politicians and fellow union members thanked him for decades of humble service to the union cause.
Sturbois, 73, was diagnosed in March with untreatable liver cancer. Doctors told him he had maybe six months left to live. Seven months later, he says he feels fine but knows he can’t count on turning 74 next June. To let Sturbois know that he made a difference as a volunteer with Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901, friends and colleagues organized the surprise celebration and got him to the meeting on the pretext that he would help introduce Portland City Council candidate Jesse Cornett to labor leaders.
Sturbois told the Labor Press afterward that he thought it was strange to see so many politicians at the Labor Council meeting but had no clue why they were there. When he was called and accolades started pouring in, it was a total surprise.
Emceeing the special program was Diane Rosenbaum, a former Oregon state senator and a fellow activist in Local 7901. Rosenbaum presented Sturbois with a framed letter from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley.
“I want to thank you for a lifetime of service,” Merkley wrote. “Your fellow Oregonians and fellow Americans are better for your efforts.”
Oregon AFL-CIO President Graham Trainor and his predecessor Tom Chamberlain, and Oregon State Representative Rob Nosse recorded video messages. And one after another, guests in the room stepped forward with thanks, including Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, former Portland City Commissioner Amanda Fritz, and former state legislator Jefferson Smith.
They wanted to honor Sturbois for showing up, and doing the work, as a union volunteer. Despite a quiet nature, Sturbois could always be counted on to knock on doors to elect union-endorsed candidates, and he was not afraid to hold them to account once they got into office.
Former Oregon Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian recalled the time he was giving a speech and saw Sturbois in the front row of the audience. Sturbois had been a tireless volunteer on his campaign, and Avakian said Sturbois was the first person he shook hands with as he walked off stage. Avakian said he’ll never forget what happened next: “Nice speech,” Sturbois told him. “Now, what are you gonna do about getting that minimum wage up to 15 bucks an hour?”
“Mark was not one that liked to just rub elbows with governors,” Avakian said. “Mark was one that wanted people to do their jobs.”
Sturbois worked union jobs at an Ohio glass factory and the Montgomery Ward warehouse in Portland but first got involved in unionism as a technician for the local cable company. When he started in the late 1980s, it was Rogers Cable, but six changes in ownership later, it was Comcast. Each owner was worse to workers than the last, Sturbois says. Three times Sturbois campaigned to unionize his coworkers at the cable company, and on the third try, CWA Local 7901 won a union election. But the union never got a contract. Sturbois says even after union members ratified a Comcast offer they weren’t thrilled about, the company repudiated its own offer and campaigned successfully to have workers vote out the union.
By then, Sturbois had become devoted enough to Local 7901 that he was given associate member status so he could continue as a union volunteer. For years he served as Local 7901’s political director, even while continuing to work at nonunion Comcast.Eventually, CWA’s national president had him added as a full-fledged member.
Suspecting Comcast was looking for excuses to discipline and fire him, he retired in 2012 after 25 years at the cable company. He later took a job as a graveyard shift security guard at the Portland Art Museum and continued as a union volunteer.
Sturbois left the security job this summer because of his cancer diagnosis, and became one of the first Oregonians to collect a new state paid sick leave benefit, a policy he had personally lobbied lawmakers to pass.
At the labor council meeting, hearing the outpouring of gratitude for his decades of work, Sturbois wept quietly, and so did many others in the room.
“I did nothing by myself,” Sturbois told delegates. “I had people I could learn from, people that led by example. I’m grateful for that, and in the time I have left, I’m gonna play a lot and still try and do some good in the community.”