‘Organize the work’

Photo by Cheryl Juetten

By DON McINTOSH

Among the who’s who of Portland power brokers, everybody knows Willy Myers. For 10 years, Myers has represented 20,000-plus union construction workers, building and leveraging relationships with politicians, developers, and union officers in his job as executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council. Through meetings, phone calls and construction site visits beyond all count, he made sure that billions of dollars of construction work went to union contractors. And along the way, Myers, a white man from rural Oregon, paved the way for hundreds of women and minority workers to enter high-wage union construction jobs. On January 2, union delegates will decide who will fill his shoes. Myers, 54, will turn in his keys and start a new chapter.

As fate would have it, Myers’ rise in the trades began with a plummet down a South Salem hillside. Myers grew up on five acres in unincorporated West Stayton, Oregon, and the summer he turned 18 went to work for a nonunion sheet metal contractor. After finishing his apprenticeship, he was working at another nonunion sheet metal outfit when he was given a company van with leaking brake fluid. The brakes failed. The van hurtled down a 60 foot slope, hitting trees on the way down. He thought for sure he was going to die. But he didn’t. After his recovery, he returned to work and was reassigned as a shop superintendent. His first instinct was to ask for overdue raises for his crew. Crew members were waiting for the answer when he came out of the owner’s office. The answer was no.

“They were like, ‘What can we do about it?’” Myers recalls. “I said, ‘I’ll tell you what you can do about it. Put your shit down right now. He’s got $280,000 worth of prep work due out tonight. Let’s all walk. He can’t fire all of us.’”

The crew walked off the job, and Myers called sheet metal union organizer Mike Anderson, who met them at a diner and gave them union authorization cards. It was the beginning of a successful union campaign. It was also the end of Myers’ employment there.

“I was right,” Myers says. “He couldn’t fire all of us. He fired me.”

Myers joined Sheet Metal Workers Local 16 that day, and as a journeyman soon found union work. But he never stopped campaigning for the union. Before and after work, he would volunteer to help with union organizing efforts, and fell in love with organizing.

He read books about organizing, workers rights, and the history of unions, and took classes offered by the University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. He found he had a knack for organizing, and eventually got a staff job as a union organizer for Local 16.

Bird-dogging a nonunion sheet metal company, he discovered they were using prison labor on a public school construction project in Lebanon, Oregon. Department of Corrections vans would pull up with signs on the side listing a 1-800 number to hire prisoner crews to do drywall, HVAC, and roofing work. Myers and his union crew handed out fliers all over town. Citizens were outraged when they heard that convicts were taking jobs from locals constructing their high school. The very next day, Myers got a call from the director of corrections: “What do you guys want?” The answer: Get rid of the signs on the vans, and stop using prison labor in construction. The director agreed.

Over the next few years as an organizer, Myers helped bust abusive contractors for all manner of lawlessness. One of them went to prison. But it was at Boydstun Metal Works that he ran into the brutal buzzsaw of unionbusting that so many union organizers have come to know. Boydstun is a Clackamas maker of truck trailers and Myers mounted a union campaign there among a high-turnover largely immigrant workforce. The campaign lasted three years, and the company broke labor law so thoroughly that the National Labor Relations Board twice overturned union elections and ordered them re-held.

“I used to describe organizing in two ways,” Myers told the Labor Press. “One is giving the gift of union membership. The second is causing hate and discontent for those who deserve it.”

Boydstun deserved it. But the good guys don’t always win. The company stayed non-union.

Myers moved on to a job as a business representative. As an organizer, he had recruited new members, policed unfair non-union sheet metal contractors, and assisted bottom-up campaigns by workers to unionize their shops. Now, as a business rep, he learned the top-down approach, pitching to contractors the benefits of signing on with the union, like the high quality benefits and access to well-trained workers through the union hiring hall.

He also got active as a delegate to the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, and eventually became its president — a volunteer office whose job is to run meetings. When Jodi Guetzloe-Parker stepped down as the building trades council’s paid executive secretary-treasurer in 2013, Myers stepped up, and won election.

Myers didn’t see the job as leaving organizing behind. He took it on as a different kind of organizing.

“There’s never an end to this job,” Myers said. “There’s always more to do. There’s always more relationships to shore up. There’s always more relationships to leverage. This job is organizing, but it’s not organizing the workers, it’s not organizing the shop, it’s organizing the work.”

Organizing the work meant tracking the big money, and applying pressure to change policy. It meant making sure union employers have a fair shot at bidding on and winning construction contracts. Myers had found his calling.

In days, weeks, and years of never-ending meetings and phone calls, Myers built a reputation as a tireless advocate for the union building trades, and as a patient explainer to politicians about why it matters.

As Myers tells it, building with union labor means skilled work that likely won’t have to be re-done. Projects come in on time and on budget. Workers can earn enough to buy a house and support a family. Full-family union health benefits mean healthy workers and healthy families. Union pensions mean a dignified retirement and the ability to volunteer in the community. And far more than their non-union competitors, union contractors are invested in training the next generation through state-of-the-art apprenticeship programs.

Myers came to find there was still one more community benefit to building union: life-changing opportunities for women and minority workers who were historically excluded from the construction workforce.

Generations ago, construction unions openly discriminated against women and minority applicants. The disparity persisted even after discrimination was outlawed by the Civil Rights Act of 1964, partly because of something industry insiders call the “FBI” system — fathers, brothers, and inlaws. In other words, many construction workers learn of opportunities because of who they know. Those who were historically excluded are less likely to have family in the industry. Because of that, unions will have to consciously recruit if they want their membership to better reflect the local community.

In the Portland area, that recruitment is actually happening, so much that Myers has come to see it as a union selling point in a region where government and even private developers profess concern about racial and gender equity.

The demographic numbers union construction contractors have achieved have sometimes been stunning. At one point, Myers was getting reports of county library construction work sites where women were 51% of the apprentices and 22% of the overall workforce, and workers of color made up 55% of apprentices.

If there’s a capstone to Myers’ construction union career, it’s something called the Regional Workforce Equity Agreement (RWEA). It took years to negotiate. And it started with Myers figuratively pulling his hair out trying to negotiate a project labor agreement for the convention center headquarters hotel. The project had multiple public funders, including Metro, Multnomah County, the City of Portland, and TriMet. And every one of them had different targets and rules about women and minority participation as apprentices and journeymen. With so many cooks in the kitchen, each with their own recipe, Myers came to realize that a formal project labor agreement was impossible, and he’d have to settle for a handshake commitment by the general contractor to try to use union labor.

But after that, he worked to bring all the public owners together to see if they could harmonize their goals and practices into one regionwide commitment. Sixteeen public jurisdictions took part in the negotiations, and over several years they hammered out the terms. Four jurisdictions have now signed: Metro, Multnomah County, the City of Portland, and Portland Community College. Other jurisdictions are looking at signing, including Washington County and Beaverton School District.

Now that there’s a regionwide commitment to build with union labor and ensure that women and minorities have opportunities to enter the trades, Myers feels his work is done.

“I can leave now. We did it. We’re not done, but we’re well on the way, and there’s no way we’re going back.”

As for the next chapter … Myers says he’ll take a few weeks vacation. And then he’ll plunge back into the issues he cares about, now as a private consultant. He wants to solve three big challenges faced by the union construction industry: workforce development, the transmission bottleneck in the growing renewable energy sector, and childcare. Myers says if construction unions are to not just recruit women but keep them in the trade, the industry is going to have to figure out childcare in a way it doesn’t exist now — site-based childcare for construction workers who have to be at work at 6 a.m.

It’s never been done. But Myers isn’t discouraged. He’s an organizer.

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