Oregon Tavern Age: Unions

I sat at the bar in OTA country and drank a dark ale.

An OTA man wearing a denim outfit from the 1970s limped in and stood near me.

“How are you?” said the female OTA bartender.

“Upright,” said the man.

She fetched him his usual: a shot of Coor’s Light. Yes, she filled a shot glass with Coor’s Light. He shot it, placed the glass on the bar, and moseyed over to the video lottery machines.

I surveyed the wall behind the bar. Cigarettes and pork rinds for sale. A mounted replica of Wyatt Earp’s .44 Peacemaker. UO and OSU crap.

Baseball played on television and two tables of OTA Trump supporters bitched about the state of America, even though their party controlled every branch of the government. They were in power but powerless.

It was strange listening to their conversations: every line was a talking point from Fox News. Every single line. Not a sole dissenter. These men had lost the capacity for original reflection, if indeed they once had it. I think many of them once did. Were OTA men in the late Nixon Presidency like this?

The ale sucked. I was going to order a draft of Rainier but the tap was blowing foam and the bartender seemed powerless to fix it.

Yes, America is going to hell. We can’t fix problems anymore. I think the last problem we solved was inventing HIV drugs that worked miraculously well.

Name me another one.

I looked at the ancient fridge: wood and glass. I was shocked by the number of union stickers plastered on it. Clearly, this joint had once been a union hangout. Perhaps they even held union meetings here.

I read the stickers and the trades they represented:




HVAC techs




Road engineers



These stickers represented not only trades, but a history lesson (if you knew any history) of the spectacular mid-20th century creation of a staunch middle class that became the envy of the world: excellent pay, benefits and a comfortable pensioned retirement where a man who had once made a living with his hands could drink beer at 2:00 pm after fishing for salmon all morning and then bitch mindlessly about the endless threats to American greatness.

Most likely, three quarters of the men at the Trump table benefited from the creation of that middle class. Now they didn’t want the same for their grandchildren or the wage workers paying for their Medicare. Let them eat food stamps. Fifty years ago, tens of millions of American workers were unionized, 25-30 percent of the workforce. What is it today? Five?

I finished my beer and left the bar. I walked out into the street and crossed the deserted rail line. I recalled reading something about employees at a couple of Portland-area Burgervilles trying to form unions. Several had been fired and alleged illegal retaliation by management. The NRLB was investigating.

From pipefitters and bricklayers to Walla Walla onion rings and blackberry shakes…there was a history lesson in that arc, too.