1984 "It's a Tough, Dirty Job -- But Somebody's Got To Do It!"

1984 "It's a Tough, Dirty Job -- But Somebody's Got To Do It!"


The 15 members of Local 48 in the news clipping from the Oregon Labor Press, above, are smiling now.  But you should’ve seen their hot, dirty, sweaty expressions a few months earlier!  But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. 

This story starts back on October 6, 1979, when the board of the Federal Reserve Bank chaired by Paul Volcker hiked interest rates in an effort to cure the rampant inflation of the 1970s.  The Fed action effectively froze home-building, shattered Oregon’s economy, slashed timber employment by 50%, or 80,000 jobs, and ushered in what many called a “double-dip” recession in 1980 and again in 1981.  

The downturn bankrupted many NECA contractors and threw hundreds of us Local 48 electricians out of work.  The economic calamity reduced the numbers of apprentices, including women and minorities, sought by NECA/IBEW Local 48. 

Survival was the top priority.  Union contractors slimmed their shop staffs.  The hall at Local 48 was full of long faces.  Members were saying good-bye, traveling out-of-state for work, some as far away as New York City.  Church ministers implored Business Manager Ed Barnes to help their parishioners before they lost their homes.  Everybody was suffering.  But there were bright moments, rays of hope.  One of them was the Paramount Theatre project. 

Max and Marlene Landon had just purchased McCoy Electric, a NECA member since 1946, when the recession hit.  Landon had to reduce his shop from 100 to 25 until work picked up.  Fortunately, in October 1983, McCoy landed the job of renovating the historic Paramount Theater in downtown Portland.  It would be dirty, dusty and relatively dangerous.  But at least it was work, and it would last for almost a year for 15 to 20 members of Local 48.

At the completion of the project, five of the 15 electricians who gathered for the traditional group photograph were women.  Like their male counterparts, all of the women smiled with the self-evident pride of a job well-done: Chris Valentine, Bonnie Backberg, Nancy Berwick, Chris Lawton, with Linda Miller taking the picture. 

Foreman Ken Burnett credited his diverse crew for safely tearing down and restoring a structure as historically delicate as the Paramount Theatre.  Massive dismantling created physical hazards and the daily hassle of breathing 55-year-old dust in crevices not used for decades was “very challenging.”  He said, “It’s been an especially dirty job, but very rewarding to see history repaired and restored.” 

That women comprised 20-percent of the McCoy crew didn’t impress Burnett: “They do their job just like the others.”  Ditto Landon: “It doesn’t make any difference to me – I don’t care:  Send me little green men so long as they can do the job, and do it right.” 

Landon attributed the competence of his diverse crew, as well as that of Blessing Electric, which did the production lighting, to the education the electricians received in Local 48’s apprenticeship program directed by Dan Faddis at Metro JATC, predecessor of NIETC. 

“They do a fantastic job at the Training Center.  I’m very pleased with the product that we’re getting out of there,” Landon said, himself a graduate of the old Metro JATC “Apprentice School” in hot, cramped quarters at Benson High School in 1963.

As far as Landon was concerned, there wasn’t any particular lesson to be learned from the Paramount project.  It was just incontrovertible evidence that a solid union contractor with a competent and diverse crew can survive the worst economic recession.  Why?  Because we have the training and the desire to do the toughest jobs, safely and efficiently.

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