University District Museum Without Walls Oral History: Megan Cornish (Radical Women) and Henry Noble (Freedom Socialist Party)

  • Posted 3/16/2010
  • Essay 9353
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This is a transcript of an oral history by Megan Cornish and Henry Noble. Cornish was one of the first women hired by Seattle City Light as a light-pole climber. She eventually made it to senior power dispatcher, the highest-level technical job, and led the fight to secure the rights of women to work in the electrical trades. She is currently an activist in Seattle's University District. Noble, a labor organizer from Boston, moved to the University District in the 1970s. He participated in organizing strikes on the University of Washington campus and at Boeing. He is currently national secretary of the Freedom Socialist Party, whose headquarters is in the University District.  Cornish and Noble were interviewed by Dawnee Dodson for the University District Museum Without Walls in March 2009.  The Museum Without Walls, a project of the University District Arts & Heritage Committee, draws together the history and life of the University District through a variety of formats, including temporary exhibitions, community events, and oral histories. 

Cornish: My name is Megan Cornish, and I'm a member of Radical Women, which is a socialist feminist group that was founded in 1967 in the U District, at the University of Washington, actually, and our community meeting hall, Freeway Hall, was right under the University freeway bridge for many, many years, and we've had a campus chapter of Radical Women also, to the present.

Noble: The present is a long time! I'm Henry Noble. I moved here from Boston in about 1972, took a job at the University of Washington, met the folks at Freeway Hall, and I've been active in politics in this city for all these years. Right now I'm national secretary of the Freedom Socialist Party, and we have our national office right across the street from here on University Ave., and have been there for nine years.

Cornish: In 1974, Seattle City Light was doing an affirmative-action program for women. Although there was one women who was working in the electrical trades at the time, there was going to be a program of 10 women, and I applied because I wanted to help women break into the electrical trade, and got hired, and it was an explosive time, 'cause it was just like the rest of the seventies, you know, a lot of things were going on, and people tended to feel that if things weren't going right, they should get out there and protest it. And the City Light employees were very angry at the time because the superintendent was a very heavy-handed militaristic kind of guy, and he did some really unjust suspensions of some electrical workers, and they just flat walked off the job. And there was an 11-day walkout of the electricians, and also pretty much all the rest of the workforce, because the electricians went to the main building where the secretaries and the engineers worked, and said, "Hey, come, join us," and everybody did. (laughs)

"Whose side are you on?" 

That was the month before we were hired, so when we went to work at City Light, the first question we were asked was, "Well, whose side are you on?" -- 'cause the superintendent had been responsible for setting up this program. And we said, "Well, we're on the side of the employees, of course -- that's who we are!" And so we got in trouble right away. We were already in trouble because the woman who set up our program was one of the leaders of the building workers -- she had helped get people to walk out. So we had a lot of resistance and fights against the superintendent. He cut off a lot of our training program, and a year after we were hired, we got these letters that said, "Congratulations! You have completed your program," meaning "you're gonna be fired." So the first day we were on the job, we were told, "Any one of you can become Superintendent of City Light," and a year later we were all laid off in retaliatory firing. So we sued, and that was in the days when you could actually win a discrimination suit if you had good facts (laughs), and we got our jobs back a year after that, and I ended up working 30 years for Seattle City Light, retiring as a senior power dispatcher.

Yes, I was the first woman power dispatcher, and senior power dispatcher. What we have found over the years is that affirmative action is still necessary to get people in the door. And, unfortunately, around -- what was it? 1999? -- an anti-affirmative action initiative was passed in Washington state, and the numbers of women in the trade have been dropping off ever since. But there've been maybe five or six women power dispatchers off and on over the years. Right now, there's just one, I believe.

Power dispatching is the highest-level technical job in the electrical end because it's basically a safety thing. Electrical workers do get hurt and killed on the job, and so laws have been passed saying you have to have technical people who are in control of the electrical system. Of course, management always dislikes that, because they want to be in control of everything. So when the lights go out, there are people in this office rushing around, pulling out maps and finding out what the area of the outage is, and trying to determine the problem, and dispatching crews, but we also dispatch the crews that work in the generation plants, which Seattle has some generation -- so we keep generators running, and turn 'em on and off. We used to buy and sell the bulk electricity before that -- before deregulation of the electrical industry came in and made a bunch of changes and complications to that. But it's a very interesting job, very interesting job, and you know, the trades generally are a really interesting area to work. I wish more women and people of color had access to that kind of employment. It's a lot of fun.

The union movement is -- being in the union movement is important and a lot of fun, because that's the only place where working people have a say in what's going on in this country. Seattle has a history of a very strong union movement. In recent years it's kind of been like the union movement around the country -- it's not as strong because people have been kind of convinced that strikes are a really big issue and the unions don't support each other sometimes as much as they should.

Affirmative Action

Noble: Starting back in Massachusetts with an AFSCME union that I was involved with -- that I got involved with, interestingly, because I was working there but I was also active against the war in Vietnam, and people in the place I worked wanted to know more about that and get involved with that. So when I came out here it was natural to look for a union, and I found one at the University of Washington. And I joined it even though my classification wasn't covered under the contract. You can still join a union, and so I did. And got involved in something that my union didn't want to do, but is where I met Radical Women and the Freedom Socialist Party, in an affirmative-action fight.

The fight was very big and broad and covered the whole campus. We had somebody in each building on campus who was part of this group called Staff Rights Organizing Committee, and the whole project was to try to keep the university from screwing lower-paid workers when they merged the personnel systems of the statewide universities and colleges. What they were gonna make the same was that if you were a computer programmer or secretary at Washington State University or Eastern Washington University or up in Bellingham, you'd make the same pay as somebody at the University of Washington.

Cornish: It involved a big reclassification, right?

Noble: Yeah. And so they had the opportunity of either making everybody get the higher salary or everybody get the lower salary, and they took the opportunity to make everybody get the lower salary, and some of the statistics showed that people who were doing men's work, truck drivers and electrical workers, they'd all get like a 5 percent raise in this shuffle. And people who were food-service workers and clerical workers and cleaned up, they'd all get a 5 percent hit.

There was a lot of outrage over management trying to -- administration trying to put one over on people. And it was coming at the same time as the women's movement was blossoming, and the people of color movements, and we had just been fighting against the Vietnam War. So people, as Megan had said, people were more likely to do something about it. So the list of people who were involved in this was just really huge and was just all over campus. One of my sources of pride was that I knew, in every building, where the bulletin boards were. And myself and a woman called Lois who worked in Health Sciences -- we could plaster the whole university in like 45 minutes. We just knew where to go and could walk fast and just brrrrrup! (gestures) And everything we did was made either on an alcohol duplicator, which made purple letters, or else it was on a mimeograph and stenciled -- and it's amazing, these things one would get so proficient at and is of no use anymore. But the editor of the Daily was very friendly toward us, and really cared about the issues, so we had something in every daily paper and had support from students and faculty, and had a big meeting with the Higher Education Personnel Board, where they told us no. So we walked out and called the strike and formed a union called the United Workers Union Independent. And the number of people who actually came out on strike was small. Like a few dozen. But a number of people didn't go to work. Most of the janitorial staff didn't go to work at all, and for two -- either one or two weeks. And then, we had had a lot of press. I mean, this was, like, unprecedented. The University of Washington, oh my God!

Cornish: First strike ever!

Noble: Really! So then we decided we'd go back to work. We got them to change it. They actually -- I shouldn't be surprised, but they made concessions. And we decided to go back to work. And we all went back to work, except that two of the women in Food Service were told that their hours had been cut as penalty for having done this. So we asked the administration to fix it.

Cornish: They were black women, weren't they?

Noble: They were black women, they were older women, they had been in the jobs for a really long time. And they -- as soon as they reported in, 'cause we talked to everybody going back to work, we asked the administration to fix it and they wouldn't. And so we all went over to the president's office, whose name was Cartwright, and we sat in his office for a few days until we got what we wanted. And I found a newspaper article from a few weeks later, when there was -- or some months later, and there was a new President, whose name was Hogness, and one of his first edicts was that there would be no more sit-ins on campus. (laughs) The main issue that we were fighting for, about equalizing pay for people who do similar -- who do work that requires similar skills, then got taken up and became a national issue.

Picketing in the Rain

Cornish: I wasn't working on campus at the time, but I was in Radical Women, so I was supporting the strike, and I would go early in the morning before I had to be at work, and go picket. I remember picketing in the rain with some of these same black women who were, you know -- there was a reason why management came down on them. Not just because they were at lower-level jobs, but because they were really strong and really dynamic.

Noble: And they kept us --

Cornish: They kept it going.

Noble: Yeah. It was very interesting, the things you learn. There were, among the people who were picketing, that -- I mean, this city is fairly segregated, and it was even more so then, I think. And one of the women, who just died actually, Josie Anthony, told me that she had learned a lot from this, because white radicals get picked on and harassed by the system the same way she had always experienced growing up as a black woman. And some of the people who were out on strike with us were gay, and it was the first time some of us, myself included, you know, had seen women kiss each other, or men. But we were working together on the same thing, for the same thing. So it really made a bond that, for most of us, has existed for 35 years. When we went to Josie's funeral, we were invited by her daughter, who had been a little kid out when we were doing this, but remembered it very fondly and strongly. So it was a big moment in our lives, I think, and then that activism spilled over into the organizing that you did at City Light.

Cornish: Right.

Noble: And then another -- then we were involved with the Greyhound strike and the PATCO strike, which were huge. Greyhound was a national strike, and PATCO was during the Reagan administration in the eighties, when the air-traffic controllers went on strike. And they figured that nobody could do their jobs and they were going to go on strike and they were going to set a lot of precedents. And President Reagan called out the Air Force and the Army and --

Cornish: Busted the union.

Noble: Busted the union. Yeah. And that was one instance when we really wanted the whole labor movement just to shut down.

Cornish: Yeah, they should've.

Noble: And they wouldn't, and that set labor back in this country for 20 years. At least. Or 25 years, yeah.

Cornish: Well, yeah, now we're down to the unionization rates that they had -- well, when the Great Depression hit, interestingly enough.

Noble: Oh, is that right?

Cornish: Yes.

Noble: Oh, interesting.

On the Ave

Cornish: Right, the U District has been very central to the whole thing. I'm thinking back to the older days when we were at Freeway Hall and, for one thing, the Vietnam anti-war movement was very much centered around the UW. And the demonstrations, the movement was very centered in the University District.

Noble: The Ave is a place where the university -- I think because of the university the Ave has always had a reputation as a place where people could hang out. And one of the people who works in our office used to be what she called an "Ave Rat," which were kids who had left home or would just hang out there. And it's always a place for ideas, and original ideas, and art. When I was first here, people used to hang out --well still at the Blue Moon Tavern, where famous authors had been, and there was recently a fight about trying to keep that as a tavern and not let them tear that down. So I think that the history of the Ave is very rich. And it continues to this time and you always find something neat there. I mean, I'm very conscious of how different I look now from when I used to, you know, hang out. So I was walking down the Ave the other day, and I smelled some dope. I took a deep lungful. And this kid says, "Do you want a toke, sir?"

Cornish: (laughing) That's so cute!

Noble: It was! (laughing) I just said, "I can't, I'm going to work, but thank you very much!" So, anyway, I thought that was sorta neat, and a contrast to people who offer me a seat on the bus now, occasionally.

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