Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

January 1, 1999

EDWARD J. WHELAN has been there, done that, many times over.

He's been a Portland high school quarterback, a World War II and Korean War veteran, a fire fighter, local union officer, state union council president and lobbyist, Multnomah County Labor Council executive officer, state legislator, Oregon AFL-CIO president, board member of various public agencies, first executive director of the Oregon Department of Economic Development, electric utility executive, small business entrepreneur, and the list goes on.

In the 55 years covered by the accomplishments cited above, Whelan, as the Labor Press said two decades ago, earned "a one-word reputation - effective." He took the initiative, did his homework, made things happen.

WHELAN, WHO TURNS 73 this month, is the latest member of Labor's Hall of Fame. He was tapped for that honor by the sponsoring Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council, which is affiliated with the Portland-based Northwest Oregon Labor Council, AFL-CIO. The latter is the successor to the Multnomah County Labor Council (MCLC) which Whelan headed from 1957 to 1965.

A Portland native, Whelan grew up on the city's north side and played on the Roosevelt High School football team. After serving in the Army Air Corps in World War II, he remained in the military reserves and was recalled for duty in the Korean War, leaving military service as a major.

Whelan attended the University of Portland and the University of Oregon before joining the Portland Fire Bureau. He became active in the Fire Fighters Union, serving as secretary of Portland Local 43 and president of the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council. He lobbied for the Fire Fighters in the 1955 and '57 sessions of the Legislature at Salem, where he came under the guidance of James T. Marr, who headed the Oregon AFL-CIO as its executive secretary-treasurer.

WHILE THE LEADER of the MCLC, Whelan helped draft and pass laws as a member of the Legislature, concentrating on legislation affecting workers, their unions, and economic development. First elected in 1958, he served from the 1959 session through the '65 session as a Democratic state representative from the district in his longtime home base on the city's north side. As chief of the Portland area labor council, Whelan exercised his energy, intellect and commanding presence to mediate disputes between Portland area unions and employers, to transform organized labor into a major player in civic affairs and to make the council's Committee on Political Education an effective vehicle for electing labor's friends to political offices. He correctly described the Portland newspaper strike, which began Nov. 10, 1959 and was not called off until April 4, 1965, as management-provoked to create a smokescreen behind which New York press lord Samuel I. Newhouse could buy the afternoon Oregon Journal to give himself a highly lucrative daily newspaper monopoly in Portland.

Newhouse had bought the morning Oregonian in 1950. The two union-busting publishers, blustery Mike Frey of Newhouse's Oregonian and hard-drinking Bill Knight of the Journal, threatened to sue over Whelan's comment but it was all a heavy-handed bluff. Newhouse bought the Journal within 18 months. Whelan was instrumental in launching the union-financed Portland Daily Reporter as competition against the scab-produced Oregonian and Journal. The scrappy Reporter's press ran from February 1960 until September 1964 when a financier, who had become the near-bankrupt tabloid's principal owner seven months earlier, reluctantly threw in the towel.

IN 1965 AT AGE 39, Whelan succeeded the retiring Marr as the Oregon AFL-CIO's leader. Marr, a founder and charter member of Portland Municipal Employees Local 483 when he worked in the city's parks department, holds the distinction of having served longer than anyone as the executive officer of the Oregon labor federation. He was first elected executive secretary-treasurer of the Oregon State Federation of labor in 1944 and was elected to the same post in the state-level merger of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations in 1956. The 1967 convention of the Oregon AFL-CIO made the president the organization's executive officer and assigned administrative duties to the secretary-treasurer, and Whelan was elected to the presidency.

Seeking to establish a common ground with the growing environmental movement and also to point up the effect on jobs posed by environmental restrictions, Whelan became a co-founder of the Western Environmental Trade Association. As the state labor federation's leader, Whelan continued as a member of the Governor's Economic Development Council, to which he'd been appointed while head of the Portland area labor council. Other public boards on which he served included the Portland Dock Commission and later the Port of Portland Commission after the dock panel's jurisdiction was folded into the Port's portfolio, and Tri-Met's governing panel.

Whelan's hands-on style of operating as head of the state AFL-CIO enabled him to chalk up many achievements at the Legislature, in politics and on other fronts. For example, Whelan, along with George Brown, the state AFL-CIO's legendary director of political education and legislation, and Mel Schoppert of Portland Transit Union Local 757, lobbied together at the 1969 legislative session to create the Tri-County Metropolitan Transportation District of Oregon as a Portland area mass transit agency whose governing board is appointed by the governor. The Legislature okayed buying out the privately-owned Rose City Transit Company and replacing it with Tri-Met. Brown was appointed to Tri-Met's first board and Whelan later served on it.

GOVERNOR TOM McCALL lured Whelan from the labor movement in January 1973 by prevailing on him to accept an appointment as the first executive director of the Oregon Department of Economic Development. In that job, Whelan moved his interest in creating jobs for workers to a larger stage. When the progressive Republican governor finished his second term, Whelan departed state government to become an economic development executive for Portland General Electric, where he also handled the public utility's governmental affairs assignments.

In 1985 while Whelan was with PGE, Portland Mayor Bud Clark enlisted his mediation skills to avert a mass transit strike that would have paralyzed the city. Although Portland's mayor has no control over Tri-Met or responsibility for mass transit, Clark interjected his office into the situation because contract renewal negotiations between Tri-Met and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 were deadlocked, a strike was only 80 hours away and the governor, Republican Vic Atiyeh, was taking a hands-off policy. In a performance that was Whelan at his vintage best, as the mayor's personal representative he met privately and separately with the top negotiators for both sides and within 48 hours had mediated a settlement. The union's top negotiator was ATU International Vice President Mel Schoppert, with whom Whelan had worked 16 years earlier to get the 1969 Legislature to create Tri-Met. Mayor Clark praised Whelan as a "magician."

Whelan retired from PGE in 1988 and he and his wife Phyllis later moved to Newport on the Oregon Coast where Ed operated a real estate business, a car wash and auto detailing shop, and served on the city's Port Commission. Just recently Ed and Phyllis moved from Newport to the King City retirement community southwest of Portland, The Whelans have a son, Tom, who's an officer in the Salem Fire Department and served in the Legislature; a daughter, Susan, who lives in Newport, and one granddaughter. A son, Steve, died in 1997.



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