Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

August 15, 1997

THE NORTHWEST Oregon Labor Retirees Council has ushered Jesse and Lois Stranahan into its Labor Hall of Fame in recognition of their many decades as labor, social justice, political and environmental activists.

The Stranahans, of Portland,are the first husband and wife to be accorded Hall of Fame honors by the retiree council. Jess was one of its founders.

The organization of union retirees was chartered by the Portland-headquartered Northwest Oregon Labor Council which serves Multnomah, Washington, Columbia and Clackamas counties in the greater metro area. It is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO.

Jess (the "e" in his name is silent) Stranahan, 78, and Lois, 77, met in 1939 as summer labor school students at Commonwealth College in Mena, Arkansas, her home town, near the Oklahoma border. Soon after, redneck vigilantes, who regarded the college as a hotbed of political radicalism, obtained a court order closing it.

Jess and Lois were married in 1940 at Pocatello, Idaho, while en route from Arkansas to Portland, his home town.

WHEN THEY MET, Jess was a reporter for a CIO newspaper in Portland. Before leaving for U.S. Army service in World War II, he apprenticed on the docks as a clerk in the jurisdiction of the International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union (ILWU), following in the occupational footsteps of his father. After the war, Jess became a full-fledged member of the ILWU's Supercargoes and Clerks Local 40.

While Jess was in the Army, his wife Lois was among the thousands who enlisted in the war production effort by working in Portland's shipyards. Earlier, she'd been a waitress and did organizing for Waitresses Local 305. At the Swan Island shipyard she learned welding as a member of Steamfitters Local 235. Her shipyard pay of $76 a week was a four-fold increase over what she'd made as a salesclerk in a five-and-ten-cent store, another of her previous jobs. After the war, she became a telephone operator, was one of five founding members of the Portland local of the Communications Workers of America and took part in the 1948 strike against the Ma Bell phone system. In helping start the CWA local, Lois was heeding advice given to her years earlier by her father, a populist farmer, who said: "If there's not a union, make one."

In the early 1950s the Stranahans moved to California to see what life was like in the Golden State. Jesse transferred his ILWU membership to Marine Clerks Local 63 in Wilmington and was elected to the union's Southern California District Council. But they returned to Portland within five years because Jess's father suffered a stroke.

Jess put his labor newspaper experience to work by helping out on the San Francisco-headquartered ILWU's strike publicity committees in all of the major coastwise labor disputes. He also was a delegate to the ILWU's Columbia River Area District Council.

OVER THE YEARS Jess and Lois have been familiar figures on picket lines, in various labor and social justice causes and in political campaigns for labor-endorsed candidates and ballot measures. One of their favorite politicians was U.S. Senator Wayne Morse, Oregon's legendary conscience of the Senate.

Lois joined the ILWU's Auxiliary in the 1960s and became a photographer for The Dispatcher, the international union's newspaper. Jess has contributed articles to the newspaper on events in Oregon and southwest Washington.

The Stranahans have devoted decades to helping the Cesar Chavez-founded United Farm Workers, starting out as grape boycott volunteers in the mid-1960s.

The Harry Bridges Institute (HBI), named for the late, legendary founding president of the ILWU, is another endeavor to which the Stranahans have committed themselves. Earlier this year, the Stranahans were honored as recipients of the HBI's Cesar Chavez Labor Tribute, which was established to celebrate "men and women who have lived their lives in support of trade unionism." The Stranahans were presented with the award last March at a banquet in San Pedro in the Los Angeles area. The event's program said of Jess:

"A STRONG BELIEVER in coalition-building, his work with other labor and progressive organizations is wide-reaching. He was a fraternal delegate to the first constitutional convention of the United Farm Workers of America in Fresno, Calif., and has worked actively on behalf of Farm Workers. With the HBI's Columbia River Area Committee, he works with a variety of unions, especially teachers' unions, to bring labor education to a younger generation."

Of Lois, the Chavez Labor Tribute program said: "For her part, Lois has been and is no less active..." After sketching her history with the Waitresses, Steamfitters and Communications Workers, it reported on her contributions to The Dispatcher and the Farm Workers, then said:

"She has spent her entire life as a grass-roots activist for labor, senior and social justice issues. Most notably, she won a major First Amendment legal decision regarding labor's right to leaflet, petition and picket in certain public places."

The First Amendment legal decision was a Multnomah County Circuit Court jury verdict in 1995 awarding her more than $2 million in damages involving a false arrest connected to her 1989 signature-gathering for a petition opposing a state sales tax. The verdict was against the Fred Meyer chain of supermarkets for having her taken into custody while she was gathering signatures outside its store at SE 82nd Avenue and Foster Road in Portland. She said the incident caused an angina attack and accelerated her blood pressure "up into the stroke zone."

SHE HAS YET to see a dime of the $2 million because Fred Meyer, which has barred her from its stores, appealed the judgment to the Oregon Court of Appeals in Salem.

The Stranahans have a daughter, Judith, who's a railroad conductor. Jess retired in 1980 but has kept as busy as ever. He's active in the ILWU's Pacific Coast Pensioners Association, serves on the board of the HBI, and he and Lois devote much time to labor history, retiree and environmental organizations.

Last year the Stranahans joined other union political activists from throughout the country in forming a national Labor Party at a convention in Cleveland. Two months ago, Jess was speaking on a resolution asking support for the Labor Party at the ILWU's international convention in Honolulu when he collapsed at the microphone. As the ILWU Dispatcher reported: "Jesse's friends and colleagues got a sharp scare...when he collapsed... He was rushed to a Kaiser hospital in Honolulu, where he was diagnosed with congestive heart failure and kept under observation for three days. Now he's home in Portland, with instruction to take it easy..."

AFTER THAT SCARE, Jess took it easy for a while, then he got busy helping Lois arrange the inaugural Columbia River Harry Bridges Tribute banquet held at the Oregon Convention Center on Aug. 1. Proceeds from it will benefit several HBI projects, including community events promoting labor education in public schools and a video history of labor in cooperation with the Northwest Oregon Labor Council's Labor History Committee. The Stranahans have long been involved in efforts to study, preserve and promote labor history. Their contributions in that field were recognized in 1995 when the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association designated them as its Labor Persons of the Year.

To explain their activist roles, they told the Northwest Labor Press:

"Even though we are retired from the job, we still live by the belief, as Harry Bridges once put it, that the only way for working people to win basic economic and social justice, and dignity, is by being organized into a solid democratic union.

"As union retirees, we also feel that there is still an important role for pensioners in today's labor movement. That is why we are active in the Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council, working with the national AFL-CIO and the Northwest Oregon Labor Council in support of labor's agenda.

"That is also why we participate with the Harry Bridges Institute for International Education and Organization and the Labor History Committee of the labor council to get real labor history into our public school system and out into the community.

"At the ages of 78 and 77, we try to live by the message delivered some years ago by Simone De Bevoir, famous French author: 'There is only one solution if old age is not to be an absurd parody of our younger life. And that is to go on pursuing ends that give our existence a meaning—devotion to individuals, to groups or causes, social, political, intellectual or creative work. One's life has value as long as one attributes value to the life of others -- by means of love, friendship, indignation, compassion.'"


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