Lois Stanahan: Veteran Portland activist

Long-distance fighter: Lois Stranahan spoke at the Oregon governor’s mansion at an event in 2001 to honor the farmworkers union. She shared stories of Cesar Chavez staying in her home, and how a shipload of boycotted California table grapes never made it to Oregon.

Longtime Portland labor and social justice advocate Lois Stranahan, passed on May 17 at the age of 97. She was born and raised on a farm in Arkansas where she played the fiddle in a family band with her five siblings.”

Like many of her generation, she migrated from the south and headed out west during the Second World War, arriving in Portland where she found work as a waitress in 1940 – and quickly helped her co-workers join the union. Before long, she found a better paying job in Portland’s shipyards as a welder and joined the Steamfitters Union with many other women who helped build Liberty Ships that transported vital goods for the war effort. After the war, Lois worked as a telephone operator and helped organize her co-workers into the Communication Workers of America and helped lead their national strike in 1947 – a year before the ILWU west coast waterfront strike. It was during these conflicts that she married Jesse Stranahan. Both were deeply devoted to the cause of union organizing and social change, with Jesse joining ILWU Marine Clerks Local 40 in 1942 and Lois joining the ILWU Auxiliary #5 where she remained active throughout her life.

In addition to her love for gardening, Lois was an excellent photographer who contributed many images that were published in The Dispatcher.  Her devotion to political activities, desire to communicate with the public and tell labor’s story, landed her in a high-profile confrontation with authorities that made headlines in Oregon. The issue involved Stranahan’s insistence on a legal right to gather petition signatures in public places – even if those places were privately owned. In 1989, she was arrested for gathering petition signatures at a Fred Meyer store in Portland. Stranahan insisted that the sidewalk in front of the supermarket was effectively a public space – even if it was located on private property – so she sued Fred Meyer and won a jury verdict with damages that was upheld by the state court of appeals.

Oregon’s Supreme Court, eventually overturned her victory and ruled for the rights of private property owners to exclude petition gathering in public areas, such as shopping malls. Among the many social justice causes she supported was the effort by members of the United Farmworkers Union to improve working conditions in the fields. She joined the consumer grape boycott in 1965 and supported the UFW effort for decades that followed. In later life she was active in the campaign to stop a sales tax in Oregon, arguing it was a “regressive” measure that fell most heavily on the poor and working class – while going easy on the state’s richest residents. In 1997, Lois and her husband were inducted into Oregon’s Labor Hall of Fame by the Labor Retirees Council, which recognized their lifetime of activism.

Jesse died the following year in April, 1998. Lois survived another 19 years until passing at her daughter’s home in Edison, New Jersey. She was buried at the Willamette National Cemetery in Portland on May 30.

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