‘Working together is what it’s all about’ — Billy Noyes reflects on 50 years of union membership

BillyAndWandaNoyesWithMaineStater

Billy and Wanda Noyes show off Billy’s September 1969 edition of the Maine Stater. A 50-year member of our union, Billy started out as a Highway Worker 1 back in 1969 at $1.20 an hour.

BillyNoyesHoldingOurFirstContract

Billy Noyes served on the bargaining team that negotiated our union’s first contract, which ran from 1978-1980. He kept his first contract all these years.

In the kitchen of the Jonesboro home where Billy and Wanda Noyes raised their four children to adulthood is a bulletin board with a tiny, torn-out scrap of a news clipping. It’s about how Bangor got 181 inches of snow the winter of 1962-1963. Billy remembers that winter well, one of scores he spent cutting and hauling wood.

“And that’s when another fellow and I loaded 19 carloads of field wood, and we were riding right on about 4 feet of snow with the truck,” Billy recalled as if it were yesterday. “And they couldn’t cut wood that winter because there was so much snow, and that’s in this area, too.”

A consummate record keeper, Billy, age 83, spent most winters of his adult life cutting and hauling wood, as a youngster with his father and their horse named Prince, after graduating in 1953 from Jonesboro High School, up to and after his joining the Maine Department of Transportation as a Highway Worker 1 back in 1969, and well into retirement. Early on, he worked for Maine DOT in the summer and cut wood in the winter.

At Maine DOT, Billy quickly progressed to Highway Worker 2 and then to Foreman. From the get-go he joined the Maine State Employees Association as a union member after then-MSEA president Phil Davis recruited him.
Between Billy’s 29 years as a union member while working for Maine DOT and his 21 years as a retiree member of our union, Billy earlier this year became a 50-year member of our union, the Maine State Employees Association, Local 1989 of the Service Employees International Union.

Early on, Billy was the sole breadwinner in their family. His wife, Wanda, stayed home with their four children before working at Down East Community Hospital as a housekeeper for 22 years. Billy said in those early years, he saw the need for DOT workers to stand up for themselves and each other. That’s why he immediately joined the Maine State Employees Association after starting work for Maine DOT. Back in 1969, Billy said, Maine DOT workers and all other state workers didn’t have a union contract. “We had to depend on the Legislature. If they passed our raises, it was fine. If they didn’t, we had to go without,” he said.

As a union member in those early days, Billy chaired the MSEA Highway Committee, which advocated for DOT workers. He became a union steward. He and his fellow MSEA members knew they needed a voice in their pay, benefits and working conditions, so they also set out to gain collective bargaining rights in state law, which they secured in the 1970s. Then came the real work: Negotiating the first contract for state employees. Billy served on our bargaining team for those first negotiations with the Brennan administration. The negotiations culminated in MSEA members who work for the state ratifying their first contract, which ran from 1978 to 1980.

“We had to go against the State, and we had our proposals and they had theirs,” Billy said. “It was long hours. Sometimes we wouldn’t settle till early in the morning. And it was no stopping or anything. It was just go-go-go. It was really interesting and a learning experience especially for me.”

“When I started out (in 1969) it was $1.20 an hour,” Billy said of his pay as a Highway Worker 1 in 1969, “and I ended up at $14 an hour 21 years ago (in late 1997). We always got a raise and worked on additions and everything. The union difference is everyone has a say in the contract, where before we had to depend on the Legislature. And with a contract, you get more people involved.”

Billy said our union also had to fight for a voice in the state retirement system that administers public employee pensions. We succeeded in gaining representation on the Board of Trustees of what’s now known as the Maine Public Employees Retirement System. Nothing came easy, Billy said, adding, “You gotta be tough.”

Throughout his 50 years as a unionist, Billy also served as president of our Washington County Chapter and as a member of our Board of Directors. At one of our Annual Meetings, he befriended another Washington County unionist, Harold West, who lived in Milbridge and also worked for Maine DOT. A lifetime friendship ensued. Billy said he and Harold both understood the importance of MSEA members engaging in the legislative and electoral processes. Harold was a longtime member of our union’s political action program, PASER, Political Action by Service Employees and Retirees. Billy is a PASER contributor as well.

“Well, the ones that we endorse help us in the Legislature to get what we want,” Billy said of our union’s electoral advocacy. “And I’ve been a Republican all my years, but I haven’t always voted Republican. I vote for the ones that’s going to help us get a cost of living and everything.”

“Harold was a Republican,” Billy said of his friend, “and then he went Democrat. And he’d done a lot to help the workers of Washington and Hancock County. Real dedicated. That’s what his life was made of.”

In 2008, the State of Maine renamed the bridge over the Narraguagus River on U.S. Route 1A as the Harold West Bridge in recognition of his lifetime of public service. Harold died two years later, in 2010.

Billy remains active in our union as a retiree member. He retired from Maine DOT the day before Christmas in 1997 – he said he left right before the Great Ice Storm of 1998. Over the past 21 years as a retiree member, Billy instigated the renaming of our union’s Washington County retirees chapter as the Harold West Retirees Chapter. Billy also has served as a chapter leader over the years; he’s currently the vice president. His goal is to strengthen the chapter by building its ranks of retiree members.

Billy has taken on a slew of part-time jobs in retirement. He worked at Whitney Wreath. He packed blueberries. “And I drove part-time for Schwan – used to pick up the truck down East Machias and take it to Bangor and bring it back three days a week. The fellow that went house to house, he lived in East Machias, so all I had to do three days a week was pick the truck up and bring it back.”

Nowadays Billy is president of the Varney Brook Water Association, which provides water to a dozen households, including his. He’s an avid reader, making regular trips to the new Whitneyville Public Library.
Billy and Wanda said they’re proud that all four of their children went on to college. Nancy and Nathan live in Jonesboro. Lisa lives outside Nashville, Tenn., and Leigh lives in Amesbury, Mass. The couple have six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren with two more on the way in May.

The couple travel in retirement. Ask Billy how many airports they’ve been through down the Eastern seaboard and he will answer 19. He credits the ability to travel in retirement with having a defined-benefit pension, which he earned through his years with the Maine DOT.

Asked about her husband’s union activism and the time it took away from the family, Wanda said: “I wasn’t too excited in the beginning because it meant I’m going to be here through the winter and whenever they need to go. But I got used to it, and it was important to him. I went to a lot of the conventions.”

Wanda has proven herself as just as industrious as her husband. She paints the house and isn’t afraid of ladders. She’s built her own bookshelf. And she knits items for sale the Whitneyville Library’s Whatnot Shop, where 15 percent of the proceeds are donated to the library.

This year brought yet another milestone for Billy and Wanda Noyes. They celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary May 23.

“You just work at it with a lot of love, trust and forgiving, one day at a time” Wanda said of how they made it all these years. “Most of all take time to enjoy life; tomorrow may not come.”

Bangor181inchesIn1962-63

In the kitchen of the Jonesboro home where Billy and Wanda Noyes raised their four children to adulthood is a bulletin board with a tiny, torn-out scrap of a news clipping. It’s about how Bangor got 181 inches of snow the winter of 1962-1963. Billy remembers that winter well, one of scores he spent cutting and hauling wood. “And that’s when another fellow and I loaded 19 carloads of field wood, and we were riding right on about 4 feet of snow with the truck,” Billy recalled as if it were yesterday. “And they couldn’t cut wood that winter because there was so much snow, and that’s in this area, too.”

Billy,WandaAndTheirFourChildren

The  Noyes family

HaroldWestMemorialBridge

In 2008, the State of Maine renamed the bridge over the Narraguagus River on U.S. Route 1A as the Harold West Bridge in recognition of his lifetime of public service. Harold died two years later, in 2010.  Harold West and Billy Noyes were dear friends; they met through our union.

Updated: June 5, 2019 — 10:47 am