His early days as a ranch hand and river boat roustabout had not prepared him well for the urban milieu. Throughout his years in Portland, he had to work hard—-very hard—as a manual laborer. Yet he held to a fierce level of pride, salted with a strong sense of personal responsibility. He went from job to job, eking out a living for my grandmother and me and sometimes helping out my mother, too. Even when things looked hopeless, he stubbornly refused to apply for relief. And he retained a lusty sense of humor.This was at a time, too, when there was no such thing as a “safety net”. No unemployment compensation. No Social Security. No Medicare, or Medicaid, or insured savings. No federal help of almost any kind. There was only local community relief for the destitute—and oftentimes little of that.
Over the years, Jim Dewey proudly remained a loyal, long-time, dues-paying, card-carrying member of the Laborers International Union of North America, AFL (American Federation of Labor), Local 296.
I remember one bleak day in ‘31 or ‘32, when he took me with him to the Portland AFL Labor Temple in search of a job. He’d heard the City was hiring four additional laborers for a short-term pipeline replacement project.
That morning, when we walked into the smoky hiring hall, the place was already jammed with what must have been two-hundred men, maybe more, lined up to get their names in the job draw. Yet the entire hall was strangely quiet—eerily quiet. A strong feeling of anxiety hung in the air.
My grandfather observed the scene. Then, grabbing my hand, he led me to a far back corner of the hall, where he opened the door into some kind of bustling business office. There, he told an elderly secretary he wanted to see his old friend, Andy Hawkins, for just a moment—to introduce him to the Dewey grandson.
That’s how I first met Andy Hawkins, famed business manager of Local 296 and a big shot in Oregon labor circles. He must have weighed a ton. As he stood there in the doorway to his office, face flushed and breathing laboriously, he cheerfully greeted my grandfather like he was a long lost buddy from the picket lines. We were invited into the inner office. Hawkins seated his bulk behind a giant wooden desk.
My grandfather and Hawkins proceeded to talk on and on about the old days, the labor front, hard times, Democratic politics, the four city job openings, and Andy Hawkins’ aching back.