Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

January 16, 1998

THE NORTHWEST Oregon Labor Retirees Council has elected John J. O'Halloran of the Iron Workers to its Labor Hall of Fame.

The honoree, a 57-year member of Portland Iron Workers Local 29, is a former leader of that building trades union.

Delegates to the retiree organization, affiliated with the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, AFL-CIO, make their Labor Hall of Fame choices at their monthly meetings in the NOLC board room at 1125 SE Madison St., Portland.

O'Halloran, now 75, retired from the structural iron trade in 1981 not long after an accident at the Marriott Hotel construction site in downtown Portland. He was bending over at ground level when a 10-foot- long four-by-six fell two stories and struck him in the head under his hard hat.

WHEN O'HALLORAN led Portland Iron Workers Local 29 as its elected business agent, he attained the distinction of seeing his union's 1962 strike settled in Washington D.C., by the U.S. secretary of labor and a Harvard economist appointed by the U.S. president. That occurred after Iron Workers in Oregon and Washington struck the Associated General Contractors (AGC) in a contract renewal dispute over wages.

Back then the Iron Workers in Oregon and Washington labored under three different AGC contracts: Oregon and southwest Washington; western Washington including the Seattle-Puget Sound area; and the Inland Empire, anchored by Spokane.

The strike began in May 1962 in western Washington and slowly spread throughout the two states, shutting down construction sites as members of other building trades unions honored the Iron Workers' picket lines. At that time Local 29 had 800 members; the other two locals had a combined membership of 1,200.

In an attempt to force the Iron Workers to settle on the contractors' terms, the AGC prevailed upon Oregon Governor Mark Hatfield, a Republican, to badger the union.

"YOUNG MAN, you are ruining the economy of my state," O'Halloran recalls being admonished by Hatfield in a meeting in the governor's second-floor office at the Capitol in Salem. The former university professor accused O'Halloran of being "power-hungry" and poked a finger in the union leader's face. "He (Hatfield) was just repeating what the contractors had told him," O'Halloran recalled.

O'Halloran said he ended the confrontation by wrapping his hand around Hatfield's outstretched finger and hanging onto it until the governor told him to "unhand me."

"I thanked him for calling me a young man since we were both the same age," O'Halloran said. Both had been born in 1922.

O'Halloran said he advised Hatfield that Oregon was not "his state" as the governor called it, but also belonged to O'Halloran and the men he represented.

O'Halloran said Hatfield quickly left the meeting, turning it over to one of his aides.

Unlike Republican Hatfield, Washington's Democratic Governor Albert Rossellini was supportive of the Iron Workers in their quest for a pay raise. Contractors wanted to continue a wage freeze which they'd obtained in a previous round of negotiations -- before O'Halloran took office.

IN WHAT O'HALLORAN viewed as an attempt to embarrass Democratic President John F. Kennedy's Administration, the AGC and Hatfield demanded that Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg intervene to settle the two-state strike.

Goldberg, a former labor union attorney who later became a U.S. Supreme Court justice and still later the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, met with union and contractor negotiators in his office in Washington, D.C. O'Halloran said when Goldberg learned there'd been "40 years of labor peace in the Northwest construction industry,"he said it indicated to him that employers dominated the relationship with the workers.

Negotiations to settle the strike took place in late July 1962 in Washington, led by Dr. John T. Dunlop of Harvard University, who accepted an assignment from President Kennedy to take charge of the talks. A dozen years later, Dunlop was secretary of labor in the brief administration of Republican President Gerald Ford.

After nearly four days and nights of almost continuous bargaining, an agreement was reached on a 71-cent an hour package of contract improvements spread over three years, which strikers later ratified. "Although we came out of the bargaining session with a 71-cent package increase, the agreement falls far short of what we know were our just demands," O'Halloran told the Labor Press in 1962."

LABOR SECRETARY GOLDBERG, who recommended the sizable settlement, told contractors it was long overdue and that the Iron Workers deserved another major increase when the three-year pact would expire in 1965.

The 1962 contract contained some landmark provisions: It created the first pension fund, and resulted in a merger of the health and welfare funds of the three structural iron locals in the Northwest. In addition, it brought the local unions under identical contract terms governing wages and working conditions. O'Halloran, who is president of the Local 29 Retirees and vice president of the Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees, said retired iron workers have told him their pension checks are larger than their paychecks were -- before he represented them.

His tenure at the helm of Local 29 lasted from 1959 to 1969, but his impact on the union began earlier and lasted longer. He was elected to the local's executive board in 1952; and from 1969 to '72 served on the board of directors of an international foundation for labor and management trustees of jointly-administered health and welfare plans and pension funds; and he continued as a trustee of Local 29's negotiated funds. He was a delegate to Iron Workers International conventions for 30 years and was a delegate to Oregon state labor federation conventions for more than 20 years, including the historic 1956 assembly in Portland, which saw the merger of state councils of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations into the Oregon AFL-CIO.

In the course of his long career, O'Halloran helped build more than a dozen bridges, including the Tacoma Narrows (which replaced the old "Galloping Gertie"), the Fremont, Morrison and Interstate spans in Portland plus structures across rivers in other parts of Oregon.

O'HALLORAN, THE SECOND OLDEST of six boys and two girls born to Irish immigrant parents, starred at Tigard High school as quarterback of the football team, catcher on the baseball team and playmaking guard on the basketball team. When he graduated in 1940 he was named the school's outstanding basketball player. His shooting prowess caught the eye of Abe Saperstein, founder of the barnstorming Harlem Globetrotters, but no contract came of it.

After high school, O'Halloran operated a proof press at the Oregon Journal for $18 a week, a job he left when he was accepted into the Iron Workers apprenticeship program.

Following U.S. Navy service in World War II, he attended Oregon State at Corvallis but after a year of campus life he returned to the structural iron trade and married his wife, Shirley. She was an operatic soprano who sang on her own KGW radio program "but she wanted a family, not a career," her husband said.

The O'Hallorans raised four sons and three daughters and have 15 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. Their sons and daughters all play a musical instrument or sing, displaying musical talent their father said they inherited from their mother.


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