Black History Month – February 2018
Some of my fellow Officers encouraged me to write a little about myself on this occasion of Black History month which is celebrated in many places around the nation and the world, to include how I became an ATU Officer and the President of Local 758.
Many of you probably don’t know that I was elected as the first African-American or Black Amalgamated Transit Union elected President/Business Agent in the Pacific Northwest, and am presently one of the longest serving Officers not only for this Local (758), but the entire West Coast. My official journey towards an ATU Union leadership role began early in my career as a Transit Operator and advocate back in the mid to late 80’s when I became a Shop Steward, but I truthfully have to believe it started earlier than that.
I grew up as the oldest child in a family of seven as an Army brat which meant constantly moving from place to place, and on many occasions having to assume the role of “man of the house” as my dad spent much of his time in those days “in the field” as a Squad leader and Platoon sergeant. Anyone who grew up in the time period that I did knows of the expectations and responsibilities of being the oldest child and especially in a military family. That said, what I am the most grateful for was growing up in an ever changing environment that exposed me to so many other people, ideas and ways of thinking. For sure there were pluses and minuses. I remember riding on “Trailway” (southern version of Greyhound) buses with my mother to go visit my dad who was in the Army. I remember we were forced to sit in the back. I remember there was another little Black kid traveling by himself, and an intoxicated white sailor had puked on the floor and he was pushing the kid down into it. I remember when the bus stopped at a restaurant which they called a “half-way” house, the Whites would go in the front door and the Blacks would order through a hole in the wall in the back. The bus would leave when the Whites got their food, so if you were Black and hadn’t received yours by the time the Whites did, you were out of luck. Ride hungry. I also remember living in Alaska in the 60’s where our family survived the Alaska earthquake one of the most devastating in history. Everyone’s father was gone to Anchorage to guard infrastructure and businesses. There was no power for many days and drinking Clorox infused drinking water. Of course the oldest child (me) was in charge of the family.
In 1965 my parents purchased a brand new 1965 Chevy Impala station wagon, and in 1966 traveled then what was the AL-Can highway from Ft. Richardson, Alaska to Knoxville, Tennessee. This was the start of another period of enlightment. One of the most memorable events to happen on that journey in addition to the fact the road was unpaved for 90% of the way, was the fact that for the first time in my life, we stopped at a Canadian restaurant and in looking at the menu we decided to order rainbow trout. Well the trout was cooked with the head on and in butter only, no coating, crumbs or cornmeal etc. It was pure tasty unadulterated rainbow trout. Yes some things are etched in one’s head for life.
As it is today and as it was then, people in Alaska especially the rural areas depended on each other regardless of who you were. But what made that trip to Tennessee so different was that once the family dropped down into the Southern states, I had to ride in the 3rd row seat of the station wagon facing rearward while holding a rifle (30.06) in case we were attacked or ambushed from the rear or someone tried to run us off the road. This was a time shortly after both the passage of the Civil Rights Act” and “Voting Rights Act”, and many people in the South were opposed to loosening the reins of segregation and were put off with the notion that “people of color” were actually allowed to vote or worse yet go where they chose. The only other time I remembered this mindset was before we were stationed in Alaska we were stationed in Ft. Benning, Georgia, Columbus to be exact. I do remember the “white only” and “No Negroes” signs on bathrooms and entrances to stores, but I had forgotten. We had lived in Alaska were everybody looked out after one another. One of the most puzzling things to me in my life at that time was the fact that my dad served in the military, so shouldn’t our family be treated differently than other people who did not, or chose not to serve their country? Wasn’t my dad fighting for everyone? It was later that I began to understand that not everyone in the military especially at the Army bases in the South shared my views of unity or integration of anything…..period.
In the 70’s and early 80’s I became a wildland firefighter. This too happened to be a job where there was not a lot, no change that, there were only a few Black or African Americans (4) including myself over a 14 year span of time that I had seen spread out across the entire US. My firefighting career started one summer when I was attending college with the intent of becoming a structural engineer, but the call of the wild became too great. When it was time to return to school in the Fall I found myself elongating my stay in the woods and volunteering to go down south were there were still seasonal forest and brush fires in California. I would then return and do P–Line engineering work until snowed out of Federal lands. Again one of the most unique and enjoyable aspects of the job was being in the position to change the mind-set and perceptions of people who lived in relatively isolated communities. There were people who had grown a hatred of other people via word of mouth. There were people who to this date…never went or had ever been anywhere outside their communities. I like to think I changed those perceptions by working with their sons and daughters, and being in positions of leadership. I remember back in the day our fire crew was in Eastern Oregon (Burns to be exact) and we were on a project fire so I had federal food vouchers for meals for my crew. The owner warily asked me who was my boss and in charge of the crew, I asked him to wait a minute left and came back and told him I was. The owners were impressed. The crew ended up with free breakfast, cowboy hats and cigars all around. I’ve got plenty more firefighting stories and actually two of my crew members from the town of Concrete, WA. later became members of the Washington State Patrol. I always took care of my people.
So, once I came to Pierce Transit it did not take long for me to become an advocate for my co-workers. Long before I had the official title of Shop Steward I was always more than willing to represent or address another member’s issue with management, especially after researching the topic and making up my mind that someone’s interpretation did not agree with mine, and feeling that the member was wronged.
The rest as they say is history. I have served as an Executive Board Officer to include multiple terms as both Vice-President/ABA and President/Business Agent.
I was elected Vice-President of the NorthWest Conference of the ATU before being elected President/Chair and becoming the Conference’s first Black or African-American President wherein I served three terms. The NorthWest Conference encompasses Nine (9) ATU Locals in Washington and Oregon, including Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Minneapolis, Minnesota. Also included are ATU Canadian Locals in Kelowna and Vancouver, British Columbia, Calgary, Lethbridge and Edmonton Alberta, Canada and Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.
Interestingly enough at the 2010 International Convention in Orlando, Florida there was a bylaw proposed to establish an International Vice-President position that could only be filled by a Canadian. There was much confusion as to who should run for the position. There was a rumor (started by one of my good friends and to stir up stuff) that I due to my affiliation with the Canadian Locals was running for the position. So when asked about it (mainly to get on a certain individual’s nerves) I was rather vague in my response. I would be the first U.S. born Black or African-American U.S. citizen, and a non-Canadian to hold a position reserved for a Canadian as a Canadian International Vice President. Solidarity aside, I was smart enough not to get sucked into that one.
Isaac O. Tate