Earl B. Kirkland, a legendary figure in the Oregon labor movement, died at his home in Green Valley, Arizona, March 30 following complications from asbestos-related mesothelioma. He was 82.
Kirkland served as executive secretary-treasurer of the Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council from 1966 until his retirement in 1988. He was a catalyst in merging what at that time was the Portland Building Trades Council with other construction councils spanning from Vancouver, Washington, to The Dalles, Oregon, to create the CPBCTC.
Kirkland also helped establish the Union Labor Retirement Association, serving as its chairman until his death.
Kirkland Union Manors I and II, located at Southeast 84th and Powell Boulevard in Portland, is named after him. It is one of four federally-financed apartment buildings for retired workers built by the non-profit association. The first Union Manor — Westmoreland — was dedicated in 1966 at SE 23rd Avenue and McLoughlin Boulevard, and the second, Marshall Union Manor, was built in Northwest Portland in 1974, followed in 1980 by Kirkland Union Manor.
By trade, Kirkland was an insulator and member of the Asbestos Workers Union. He got into that line of work at age 16 because it was among the highest paid crafts at the Kaiser shipyard during World War II.
Kirkland came to Vancouver as a teenager, riding a freight train from his hometown of Ludlow, Colorado. As soon as he had earned enough money, he moved his mother and step-father to Vancouver.
At age 18, Kirkland enlisted in the U.S. Navy. After the war he worked at various jobs and was a member of Carpenters Local 1715 and later the United Paperworkers Union.
He returned to the insulation trade and by age 26 was elected business agent of Asbestos Workers Local 36. He lost a re-election campaign in 1955, but was re-elected in 1957.
During his tenure, Kirkland logged a number of negotiating firsts within the Western Conference of the International Association of Heat and Frost Insulators and Asbestos Workers. Among those landmarks were: the local’s first printed contract, replacing handshake agreements with the trade’s employers; the first employer contribution to a health and welfare program for the local’s members; the first disability payment plan and the first life insurance coverage and medical research fund in the international; the first vacation fund; and also the first dues check-off.
The medical research fund studied the effects of asbestos on workers who inhaled the fibers into their lungs.
Kirkland was diagnosed with mesothelioma in February. The cancer manifested in his abdomen rather than his lungs, and because of that, he’d been in failing health for nearly a year before a diagnosis was made.
Asbestos is a natural mineral, mined from rock. It is made up of tiny fibers that are as strong as steel but can be woven like cotton and are highly resistant to heat and chemicals. It was widely used in insulation materials used in construction, ship-building, and in household appliances.
When asbestos is disturbed or damaged, the tiny fibers are released and can be breathed into the lungs or swallowed into the digestive system.
It can take decades after exposure to asbestos for mesothelioma and asbestosis to develop.
In the early years, Kirkland and other union leaders suspected a connection between asbestos insulation and the high cancer rates among workers who handled it. Employers, for the most part, did not want to recognize the danger.
Kirkland helped institute a program on a penny-an-hour check-off from every union worker to fund research on lung ailments in insulators. The original research was begun at UCLA Medical School and continues today at Mt. Sinai Clinic.
Earl B. Kirkland was born May 22, 1926, in Frederick, Colorado, to Earl and Inez Kirkland.
He met and married Lois Hash in 1946. They had twin sons, Gary and Larry; and daughters, Deborah Longmire, Lynn Heitz, and Dawn Burbridge.
Lois died in 1979.
Kirkland married Jan Zinsmann, a retired office manager of the Oregon AFL-CIO, on Feb. 14, 1987. She has two daughters, Heidi Zinsmann and Erika Davis.
Kirkland is survived by his wife, five children, two step-children, 10 grandchildren, two step-grandchildren, and 10 great-grandchildren.