Retired Portland IBEW Leader: ‘Still in the Dogfight’
October 1, 2014
A force of nature. The ultimate organizer. That’s how Jeff Johnson, president of the Washington State AFL-CIO, describes retired Portland, Ore., Local 48 Business Manager Ed Barnes.
Unlike so many accolades to retirees, Johnson’s description wasn’t about “Glory Days” that passed Ed by, like the Bruce Springsteen song chronicles.
Barnes, who served in union office for 15 years, retiring in 1995, was basking in the glory of community goodwill in June. The Vancouver, Wash., resident, who spent 12 years as a state transportation commissioner, had just been appointed a commissioner of Clark County.
For months, Barnes had publicly battled his now-fellow incumbent Republican commissioners over cronyism, challenging the hiring of one of their political allies, a state senator who Barnes said lacked the expertise to serve as the county’s environmental services director.
A fuse was lit when the new director sued Barnes for defamation. The community rallied behind Barnes, whose three sons, Brian, Bradley and Bruce, as well as grandson, Broc, and son-in-law, Kevin Lux, are all members of Local 48.
Nearly 300 Vancouver citizens massed outside a commission meeting sporting buttons and T-shirts that read, “Ed Barnes is Right,” carrying signs saying, “I am Ed Barnes.”
“Ed always told the commissioners they weren’t listening to the people. Here’s a man who has no computer or cell phone, but who is willing to put his face out front and speak for all of us. I love Ed Barnes,” says Marcia Manning, a former paper industry manager who helped organize the rally.
“Politics is in my blood,” says Barnes, 80, a Korean War veteran who grew up in Arthurdale, W.Va., a New Deal community established by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Barnes remembers sitting on her lap as well as the battles that led his family to the national landmark.
His father, who began working in coal mines at age 8, endured gunshots from hired guards as a union organizer, later became a charter member of an IBEW local union in Fairmount.
Barnes says his father’s activism was behind his family being designated by the Roosevelt administration as one of 164 homesteaders to be given three acres of land, a house and a barn in Arthurdale. His father helped wire the buildings.
In the late 1940s, the elder Barnes took his family to Hanford, Wash., where he went to work in a nuclear production complex. The family lived in a 12-person tent for a year.
“If you support the IBEW, you have to support candidates who [follow the tradition] of those who fought for the 40-hour work week and the eight-hour day,” says Barnes, who first accompanied his father, then a member of Local 48, stuffing mailboxes with campaign fliers for a local politician.
Barnes began selling COPE tickets as an apprentice and was selected Local 48’s first registrar. And he started backing candidates, helping many win public office, while never forgetting to remind them what they were elected for.
In contrast to his low-tech communications methods, Barnes became perhaps the best-known advocate for local transportation system modernization. Against staunch Republican opposition, he supported the construction of the Columbia River Crossing, a proposed freeway megaproject to replace two aging bridges, built in 1917 and 1958.
Jobs were always at the top of Barnes’ political agenda, says AFL-CIO leader Johnson. “Ed was tireless, front and center, calling politicians who opposed the project into question.”
The Columbia River Crossing remains unbuilt. But Brian Barnes, Ed’s oldest son, knows his father will never give up his advocacy.
“My dad followed in his father’s footsteps. He’s always been a champion of the blue-collar worker,” says Brian Barnes, a 35-year member of Local 48. And he’s a champion with good humor.
Two years ago, Barnes led a partner in the foxtrot as the first member of organized labor to compete in a “Dancing with the Stars” benefit for a local charity. He won, collecting $25,000 from allies and friends. A beaming Barnes was chauffeured to the event in Local 48’s electric Chevy Volt, driven by another former business manager, Clif Davis, who is now an international representative for business development.
“Ed is a labor movement icon,” says Davis, crediting Barnes with “tremendous growth” in Local 48’s market share, marshalling a once-controversial market recovery program and drug-free workplace initiative. Portland’s IBEW-NECA labor-management cooperation committee is named for Barnes and a now-deceased management counterpart, Buzz Allison.
“Ed was always an advocate for all working men and women in our state,” says former Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a friend. “His most enduring quality was his loyalty and his word. If Ed told you he was going to do something, it happened.”
As of this writing, Bruce Barnes, Ed’s youngest son, is recovering from critical injuries resulting from a freak accident on a motocross track where he was volunteering. Brian Barnes says his brother’s need for quality medical care reminds him of the opposition his father faced when he initiated Local 48’s health and welfare fund: “Today, the families of those who opposed the plan are its biggest supporters.” His father never took their opposition personally. “My dad values everyone’s input and taught us that we need to listen to everyone’s opinion to change the world.”
Asked about his new role as a county commissioner, Ed Barnes says, “It’s a dogfight every day. I just introduced a resolution supporting the Columbia River Crossing.”