Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

October 15, 1999

OLA DELIGHT COOK SMITH'S contributions to the labor movement and to the cause of economic justice in Oregon and in the Deep South should never be forgotten. She usually went by a shortened version of her name, Mrs. O. D. Cook. Her friends shortened it further to "Cookie."

She died in a Portland hospital of a circulatory ailment on Dec. 5, 1958 at age 78. In reporting on her life and death, the Labor Press said: "She was our last living link with the pioneer days of unionism. The cause of labor was her religion and her life." This newspaper also said: "Mrs. Cook devoted her long life to the labor movement and to helping the underdog. She spent much of her life in near-poverty because she was more interested in advancing the cause of unionism than in her own comfort or gain." In an account of her early years, the Labor Press said:

"MRS. COOK WAS BORN Jan. 21, 1880 at Millersburg, Ill., and moved with her parents at an early age to the Deep South. As a young woman she became a skilled railroad telegrapher and Morse Code operator for railroads in Alabama and Georgia. She was a member of the Railroad Telegraphers Union from 1903 until her death.

"She became an unpaid union organizer in the first decade of this century, and was an active participant in the early battles to organize both railroad and textile workers in the Deep South." She once described her experiences in these words: "I went through hell for this labor movement. I rode boxcars. I was chased by railroad police. I hid behind depots and I fought them."

Samuel Gompers, the head of the Cigarmakers Union who was the founder and first president of the American Federation of Labor, was her friend and confidant. He referred affectionately to Cookie as "daughter" and appointed her as an AFL organizer. In her obituary, the Labor Press said she carried the honorary credential throughout her life. The Labor Press obituary further reported:

"IN SOME OF THE early Textile Workers' strikes in Georgia and Alabama before World War I, Mrs. Cook was assigned to take care of strikers and their families who had been evicted from company-owned houses. She set up tent cities for them and fed them from community kitchens .

"Cookie came to Portland in 1923 at age 43 after having been blacklisted for union activity on the railroads in the Deep South. Arriving here alone and penniless, she found a room at the YWCA (Young Women's Christian Association) and washed dishes to pay for her room and board." Using her skills as a Morse Code telegraph operator, Mrs. Cook found a job with Postal Telegraph, a telegram company that has since gone out of business. Later she worked for the dominant Western Union telegram and money transfer firm. "She was one of seven founders and charter members of what later became Commercial Telegraphers Local 92," her obituary reported, adding: "She represented this union for more than 15 years as a delegate to the state and local labor councils.

MRS. COOK RETIRED from Western Union in 1950 at the age of 70 and was honored at a party given by Local 92. Retirement from her job gave her more time for her endeavors on behalf of the labor movement and its political action programs. "What we have won on the picket line, we must now protect through effective political action," Mrs. Cook stressed time and again.

Many Oregon political leaders of her era considered Mrs. Cook a friend and sought out her advice and campaign help. These included U.S. Senators Wayne Morse and Richard Neuberger, Congresswoman Edith Green, Governor Robert Holmes and Portland Mayor Terry Schrunk.

"She compiled huge files of clippings and source materials pertaining to labor and politics, and often worked on this project long after midnight," reported the Labor Press obituary on Mrs. Cook. "In her will, Mrs. Cook bequeathed these files to the Multnomah County Labor Council for the establishment of a research library in the Labor Temple."

HOWEVER, THE LABOR COUNCIL'S office lacked the space for setting up a research library and her extensive files were given to the Oregon Historical Society. Her papers are available to students and other researchers at the Oregon History Center in the Portland Park Blocks.

Mrs. Cook never forgot the kindness extended to her by the Portland YWCA and its staff when she arrived in the Rose City in 1923 with an empty purse, having spent her meager grubstake on her trip from the South. In its 1958 obituary of Mrs. Cook, the Labor Press said of her relationship to the YWCA: "Years later, in 1955, she became a member of its building committee and board of directors. She sparked labor's active participation in financing Portland's new YWCA building, completed this year, and she was recently elected to a new term on the YWCA board."

Nearly every union office in Portland closed its doors during the labor heroine's funeral on Dec. 10, 1958.

A few years ago, a North Carolina college professor and labor historian contacted the Labor Press for information about Mrs. Cook in doing research for a book she was planning to write on early-day union women in the South. Perhaps when the professor's book is published it will contain more details on the life of this remarkable woman, including why she picked Portland as her new home when she sought a refuge from the blacklisting of the South's employers.

(Credit for the Labor Press's 1958 articles on Mrs. Cook goes to then-Editor Jim Goodsell, who now lives in Twisp, Wash., and Associate Editor Emsie Howard, who is deceased.)

***

DEMOCRAT OSWALD WEST, Oregon's governor from 1911 to 1915, vetoed 58 pieces of bad legislation passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature in the 1911 session at Salem. Os West's vetoes set a record. Never before had an Oregon governor rejected so many legislative bills. Gov. West's record stood for 88 years. This year, in 1999, Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber last month finished vetoing 69 ill-considered bills passed by a Republican-controlled Legislature. Some of Gov. Kitzhaber's vetoes unhorsed Republican attacks on working people, such as undercutting the 1996 voter-passed minimum wage increase, rolling back the family leave law, restricting farm workers' rights, limiting non-economic damages for workers killed on the job, protecting bosses who don't pay their workers, plus other anti-worker clunkers. In addition, the threat of a Kitzhaber veto stalled still other worker-bashing proposals including attacks on the prevailing wage and on public employees, plus half-baked proposals to privatize prisons and mass transit.

In 1911, Republican legislative leaders waxed vehement in their criticism of West's vetoes. In 1999, leaders of the not-so-Grand Old Party fired verbal salvos at Kitzhaber to complain about his vetoes.

Today, Gov. West's name is perpetuated by the Oswald West State Park on the Oregon Coast near Manzanita. The park memorializes Gov. West because of his contribution to saving the public's access to Oregon's beautiful Pacific Ocean beaches. The names of West's Republican critics of 88 years ago have been swept into the dustbin of history. Eighty-eight years from now there probably will be a state facility named in salute of Gov. Kitzhaber's contributions, while names of his critics will have faded away.

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