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May 2015

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Ore. Local Honors Minority Legacy

Even before Rickey Brame Sr. hung up his inside journeyman wireman's tools two years ago, the Portland, Ore., Local 48 member's musings often turned to rich stories spanning the journey he and other African-American electricians have navigated through their local union.

Collecting tales, not just the sagas already known, but also the whispers of the electrical trade and his local union, come naturally for a guy who once hung around his father's popular barbershop, or, as he calls it, "the black man's country club."

Brame and some co-workers asked his local union and NECA for help. In January, their labor-management committee produced a detailed history, "A Rising Tide of Diversity in the Oregon-Columbia Chapter of NECA and IBEW Local 48 Since World War II."

"I asked myself, first, why are there still so few second-generation black members in the local? And then I asked why can I walk through the hallways of Local 48 and not see faces of some of the leading minority men and women, the heroes like Mark Smith. One of 21,000 shipyard workers who paid dues to the IBEW during World War II, Smith arrived in Portland with an advanced college degree, became a journeyman inside wireman and was appointed deputy state labor commissioner in 1952, the highest position ever achieved by an African-American at the time.

Brame knew that Smith was an exception. As the war ended, hundreds of other black shipyard workers, including his father, who had migrated north from Arkansas, were laid off. Local unions were reluctant to recruit them. Six of 14 labor unions even refused admission to African-Americans. Local 48 was the only union to admit black workers on an equal basis. But race relations on the job were still rough, mentors were too scarce and many black workers didn't apply.

Brame's request to Local 48 Business Manager Gary Young for help uncovering history and putting it on display was timely.

The local and the National Electrical Contractors Association had just commissioned an elaborate history exhibit to coincide with Local 48's 100-year anniversary in 2013, hiring a local freelance writer and historian, Alan Guggenheim, to research the local's roots. The exhibit is still on display at the NECA/IBEW Electrical Training Center.

Guggenheim was put back on the research trail. In January, he released the 52-page pamphlet, full of oral histories and newspaper accounts of minority workers overcoming obstacles and winning support for justice on the job.

After his co-workers read about the challenges minority workers faced, says Brame, "I've heard reactions from both black and white workers like, 'Are you serious?'"

Stories of courage and persistence are personified by workers like Mary Gleason, a shipyard electrician who turned out of her apprenticeship at age 47 and became the first woman electrician in the nation to collect full benefits under the IBEW pension plan in 1962.

Well-known contractors are chronicled like "Buzzy Allison, Reid Grasle Jr. and NECA manager Robert P. Burns. Together with Local 48 business managers including Ed Barnes, Herman Teeple and Clif Davis, they formed a minority recruitment partnership with the Urban League of Portland that continues to this day.

The history includes members like former Local 48 Business Manager Keith Edwards, the first African-American elected to lead an IBEW inside electrician local, who is a retired Ninth District international representative.

And the account celebrates the unsung heroes. Folks like Sam Whitney.

A member since May 1943, Whitney was the first African-American in Local 48 to earn his journeyman wireman's card in the postwar era. He encouraged and trained minority apprentices, and was the inspiration for a support group that included most of the local's black electricians in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Upon his retirement in 1971, his successors, Brame included, continued meeting as the "Sam G. Whitney Association." The group became the nucleus for what is now the local chapter of the Electrical Workers Minority Caucus.

Brame tells young workers, "You can't just go to work and go home and ignore your local union. You owe it to the folks [like those featured in "A Rising Tide"] to keep their legacy alive."

"Local 48 and Alan Guggenheim did an excellent job on 'Rising Tide,'" says Keith Edwards, president of the national Electrical Workers Minority Caucus. "I see their efforts as a work in progress. We need to tell the whole story of minorities in the IBEW." Edwards says he hopes other local unions will follow Local 48's example and the Electrical Training Alliance (formerly the National Joint Apprenticeship Training Center) will incorporate the history of minorities in the union in its curriculum.

Brame looks around the community where he grew up and still resides. He still gets together with his old neighborhood friends, black, white and Asian to reminisce and catch up. Most of them have moved away. The neighborhood has been gentrified. High rises have replaced single-family homes. "It hurts me that I never see Local 48 electricians building them," says Brame.

"Local 48 needs to get bigger and get more work. We can't get there without being even more open to everyone who wants to come in," he says.


'You have to know where you're coming from to know where you're going,' says retired inside journeyman wireman Rickey Brame Sr., who proposed Local 48 document the history of its minority members.