MEMBERS OF THE Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49 were seriously shaken when their hall in Southeast Portland was badly burned by an arsonist at 5 am on October 30. And though the motivations behind the attack remain unclear, the fire seems to have galvanized the union's base.
"To the inept arsonist: You missed your target," said Art Lee, vice president of Local 49, to a crowd of about 150 last Friday, November 6, one week after the fire. The union had organized a rally to show the unknown assailant that Local 49's resolve to fight for workers' rights had not been dampened.
"SEIU Local 49 is not a building. It's people," said Lee, to cheers and applause.
Someone broke a first floor window of the hall at the corner of SE 26th and Powell, says Shauna Ballo, a spokesperson for the union, adding that investigators aren't sure if the arsonist used the broken window to enter the building, or simply threw a burning object through the window to start the blaze.
Either way, the building sustained about $100,000 in damages and will not be usable for another four months, Ballo says. Last Friday in front of the vacant building, union members chanted slogans, cheered as State Representative Michael Dembrow fired up the crowd, and sang along to "Stand by Me" beneath an illuminated a banner that read "SEIU Local 49: Stronger than ever."
Although SEIU held the rally to show strength to their attacker, it wasn't entirely clear who they were standing up to. Ballo says Local 49 hasn't been the target of any other recent violence, and hasn't received any specific threats. That doesn't mean some people don't have it out for SEIU: National anger against liberal organizations has been building over the past year. Unions are no exception. Still, Ballo says Local 49 is not speculating on the attacker's identity.
Meanwhile, Blue Oregon Editor and Publisher Kari Chisholm asked whether teabaggers might be responsible on his blog on Monday, November 9.
"At the time [of the fire], a number of folks noted in the comments on Blue Oregon that the Tea Party Express was making the Portland stop on their nationwide tour that day," Chisholm wrote. "A pure coincidence—or a suspicious correlation?"
Aside from the specter of marauding teabaggers, fear wasn't on the agenda at Friday's rally. Instead, there was only talk of moving forward, complete with inspirational words from Father Bob Krueger of St. Francis Catholic Church on SE Oak.
"My experience with fire is that in rebuilding, there results something new and better," Krueger said.