Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

November 17, 2000

MARTELL F. BLAKE of Portland, retired executive secretary-treasurer of Service Employees International Union Local 49 and also a retired SEIU international vice president, rates a standing ovation as the newest addition to Labor's Hall of Fame.

Delegates to the Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council selected the 80-year-old Blake for a place in the Hall of Fame, which the council established in 1997 to honor retired unionists for the contributions they made on behalf of working men and women. The retirees organization is affiliated with the Northwest Oregon Labor Council, AFL-CIO, headquartered in an office building at 1125 SE Madison St., Portland.

"A great trade union leader" was an accolade accorded Blake in 1983 by John J. Sweeney, then the SEIU international president. Sweeney, now the president of the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations, was a speaker at a retirement testimonial dinner for Blake 17 years ago at a Portland hotel. Blake and Sweeney had served together as SEIU vice presidents.

LAST MONTH, Blake greeted his old friend at a political rally in the Machinists Building in southeast Portland when the AFL-CIO president barnstormed through the Pacific Northwest to encourage union members and their families to vote for labor-friendly Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore.

Blake was born on July 20, 1920, in Tacoma, Wash., a year before his father, Harold, helped organize Local 38 in what was then called the Building Service Union, which some 40 years later changed its name to Service Employees Union to reflect its enlarged sphere of membership.

After graduation in 1937 from Tacoma's Stadium High School, Marty planned to enroll at the College of Puget Sound, which was near his home, but changed his mind upon getting a Local 38 window-washing job that paid $44 for a 44-hour workweek. He learned the window-washing trade from his father. "That was good money because back then in the Depression, men were supporting families on $25 a week," Blake told the NW Labor Press. But that job, at the U.S. Army Air Corps' McChord Field, ended just after the fall college term started. After a stint as "a flunky in a print shop," Blake found a $70 a month job as a clerk in a stationery store. Next came a $25 a week job as a "stock rustler" at a door manufacturing plant where he joined the Lumber and Sawmill Workers Union.

As a young man, Blake remembers seeing a major event in Tacoma's history - the dramatic collapse of the Tacoma Narrows Bridge.

BLAKE TOOK NIGHT CLASSES in arc welding for six months while at the door plant, parlaying his new skill into a $57-a-week job at Todd Shipyard. There he joined the Boilermakers Union. At Todd he moved up to welder checker and then to lead man. He worked there until mid-1943, when he joined the U.S. Navy for service in World War II. He was assigned to a ship repair unit as a welder and served on a submarine tender in the South Pacific. The year 1943 was also important in Blake's life because that's when he and Clara Olsen were married.

After being mustered out of the Navy in December 1945, he used his GI Bill benefits to learn the insurance business and opened an agency with a partner. But he maintained a connection with Local 38 by working part-time as a window washer. In the late 1940s the international union hired him to take over Local 38 as a trustee "because it was infiltrated with Communists and had been kicked out of the Tacoma Labor Temple," Blake recalled.

IN JANUARY 1951, Blake moved his family to Portland where he bought a share of stock in the old Multnomah Plywood mill on the riverfront site of what is now the Riverplace development. He went to work in the mill and joined the Woodworkers Union. He recalled that on paper as a stockholder he was making about $800 a month, but was taking home only $200. Fortunately, his uncle, Glenn Blake, was the secretary-treasurer of Portland Building Service Local 49, and dispatched Marty to part-time work as a window-washer to augment his income from the plywood mill.

After two years in Portland, Marty returned to the Tacoma area and sold burial plots for a while before buying a union restaurant in suburban Lakewood. In those days, the early 1950s, hamburgers sold for 50 cents and a top sirloin dinner went for $1.45.

After two years Blake sold the eatery and moved to Moses Lake in eastern Washington to purchase a cocktail lounge and restaurant, which he operated under a contract with the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union. He remembers putting in 16 to 18-hour workdays cooking and tending bar. However, the closing of a military base sent the Moses Lake economy into a tailspin and by 1958 Blake was back in Tacoma working as a union bartender.

A major career change came Marty's way when his uncle Glenn hired him in January 1959 to work as a business agent for Portland Local 49. "The pay was $110 a week plus a $15 car allowance," Marty told the Labor Press.

WHEN GLENN BLAKE, who also had served as president of the Multnomah County Labor Council, retired in 1968 as executive secretary-treasurer of Service Employees Local 49, Marty Blake was elected to succeed him as Local 49's executive officer. Marty later was elected first vice president of the labor council. In 1970 Blake became a member of the SEIU International Executive Board and four years later was elected an international vice president.

In his years as the leader of Local 49, Blake expanded its membership base southward into northern California and northward into Longview, Wash. He said at one time he had 13 hospitals under contract, including one as far east as The Dalles.

A highlight of his career included participating as an SEIU vice president in gaining the affiliation of the 14,000-member Oregon State Employees Association in 1980. The Salem-based OSEA became the Oregon Public Employees Union Local 503 of the SEIU.

TO OREGON AFL-CIO convention delegates, Blake was for many years one of the genial hosts at the "Hello Parties" staged on the night before the annual conventions' opening day. Blake's experience as a restaurant owner, cook and bartender gave him the expertise to prepare the food and set up the buffet tables and portable bars to serve hundreds of delegates and guests. He was always ably assisted by John Petroff of the Machinists, who also had long-ago experience in the restaurant business.

For about 30 years Blake has served on the board of directors of the Union Labor Retirement Association, builder of Union Manor retirement apartment complexes in the Portland metro area, which provide affordable, quality housing for retired workers.

MARTY AND HIS WIFE, CLARA, who is in poor health, moved into the Westmoreland Union Manor apartments at SE McLoughlin and 23rd two years ago. Marty is active in a Kiwanis Club that meets in the Manor's dining room. He uses his cooking skills to prepare a special appreciation dinner each year for the tenants of the Portland area Union Manors. The dinners are sponsored by the Union Labor Retirement Association's directors. The association has built five apartment complexes for retired workers and plans to construct more.

The Blakes, who've been married for 57 years, have three daughters, 12 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A son, Martell Jr., died two years ago. Two of their grandchildren are serving as Mormon missionaries, one in Detroit, Mich., and the other in Argentina.


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