Part Ten - Speed up and Die!
What is the value of the life of a worker? To the employers the value lies in the worker's ability to produce profit, both as a producer and consumer. Will the employer allow the time to be taken to make the job sites safe? Only if it does not interfere with profit making, or if they are forced to by actions such as union solidarity. One of the causes of death and injury in industry is sped-up working conditions. The workers are pushed so hard to produce that there is no time to prevent accidents. Of all the deaths that I am aware of from shipyard accidents, taking the time to do the job safely could have prevented every case.
I could write a book about shipyard deaths alone. Stories of workers being trapped in tanks drowning when they are filled. What a horrible way to die. Can you imagine yourself working in a tank and then hearing the tank being closed up? The water begins to fill the tank and you struggle to find that last bit of air as you pound upon the tank with your fists. There are few big shipyards that do not have stories of this happening. Another way that shipyard workers have died is from the hoses used for burning or tig welding leaking in some confined space. Nine workers died in one tank alone because of a leak in an Argon hose in a Mississippi shipyard. Argon is a gas used in tig welding. It is heavier than air and if you breath it into your lungs you will suffocate for it leaves no room for the air you need.
These types of deaths would be almost a thing of the past if the equipment used and the spaces worked were all thoroughly inspected before hand. In shipyards equipment is usually only inspected after it breaks or causes an accident; work spaces are only thoroughly inspected after something has gone wrong and the bosses need to show that the fault was with some worker.
The excuse makers will point out that there are more than enough government regulations to protect workers. They will point to all the safety plans that each employer must have, the safety officers on the job, the employee safety meetings and the safety posters all over the place. They can dig out some regulation that deals with almost any situation, but what they fail to point out is that all of this exists, not for worker safety, but for the benefit of the employers and their need to show that they are not at fault. When an accident occurs, the employers will pull out their safety plans and mounds of paper that workers never see, and say, "it is not our fault"; then blame some worker for not following the safety rules. At best, they may blame an accident on mechanical malfunction.
Safety regulations are little more than a sick joke. As far as that goes, if all Of the safety regulations and safety plans were followed industrial production would grind to a halt. This is because there is overkill and some down right ridiculous regulations and safety rules that are designed to cover the boss's ass in most every situation. They have even been used as a union tactic in industrial conflict. It is called the "rulebook" strike. We used it once at Todd. They had a safety rule that required you to use both hands to hold on to the safety rails while going down stairs. Well, we had a beef with the foreman, so we followed that rule which meant we could not carry our tools, pipe and parts down into the spaces that we were working in.
Even if the employer is found in violation of some government regulation, the penalty is so small, if there is one at all, that it does not force the employers to change their ways. There are even companies that figure in health, safety and environmental fines into their cost analysis.
After working at NASSCO for a few months I was transferred to a grading dock where work on a new Exxon tanker was beginning. They started out by laying down the double bottom tanks. Within the double bottom tanks there are pipes that are part of the ballast system. These pipes are 8" and 10" pipes that run from the forward tank all the way to the pumproom, each tank having its own pipeline. This means that you start with one pipeline in the first tank, and add another one each time a new tank is set into place. The closer you get to the pumproom, the more piping you have. The pipes that came to us would be first a straight piece, then an S piece, then, again a straight piece. What we called the S pieces allowed the pipeline to stretch when out at sea. Within the tanks we had to cut and make each piece fit.
I was teamed up with two other workers, another pipefitter and a welder. The other pipefitter was John, a Black worker who had overcome industrial racism to become one of the few Black pipefitters I had ever known. Most Black shipyard workers are limited to being welders, sandblasters, painters and laborers, but John was a damn good pipefitter, one of the best that I have worked with. He was the best at pipefitting math, he could figure each cut, angle and miter within his head, where I would have to write everything out and use my calculator. We made a good team because what I was good at was rigging and fitting up the butt joints together on the chill rings. We were able to work ahead of schedule without much effort.
I hired on at NASSCO as a journeyman, but I still did not know all that I should about the trade. John taught me many shortcuts in pipefitting math, and how to easily figure such things as angles and miters. When an angle of a pipe or fitting does not come out right where you need it, you have to change the angle of the butt joint in order to make a fitup that is called mitering a joint. I got so good at miters that some people called me miter Miller.
After all the double bottom tanks were joined together, they laid in the pumproom and started to build the cargo tanks. All this was going on as we were underneath running our pipes. When we got to the pumproom bulkhead we stopped and started to work in the pumproom itself. We had to set the ballast manifold in first. After that was done they pulled John out of the pumproom and had him working in the engineroom. I had to connect the pipes that we had run through the tanks to the ballast manifold. This was not easy because the space between the valves on the manifold was less than the space between the pipes and that meant having to make a number of offsets in a very tight space.
A few days after John had gone to the engineroom, I went over there to help him get a long piece of 10" pipe that had a few bends in it down in to place. John was at the opening at the top of the engineroom guiding the pipe down when the temporary handrail he was holding on to broke lose. The weld holding the handrail to the deck had not been inspected and the job had been done quickly for the bosses were pushing a speedup. John fell head first down forty feet before hitting the steel deck, only a few feet from where I was standing. I had never seen so much blood, and at first sight I thought John was dead. Then I heard a slight moan and I knelt down to him and tried to stop the gushing of his blood with a rag. I stayed with him trying to comfort him until the medical people arrived, all the while yelling, "damn the bosses and their speed-up, damn them to hell!"
John did not die, but he had brain damage from a fractured skull and a number of other broken bones. He was never the same again, for he could not focus on anything for very long. This highly intelligent worker was doomed to spend the rest of his days living in a daze, unable to even take care of himself. All because the bosses were pushing a speed-up that did not allow time for doing the job right, and not having proper safety inspections.
For the next few months I continued to fit the pumproom piping, until I was transferred to ship repair. A week and a half after I left, the pipefitter who took my place was killed in a fire in the pumproom. It could have been me. Yes, it would have been me had they picked someone else to transfer.
At the new site we had a problem on the ship I was working on with the chemist. We would ask for fuel pipes to be sniffed out to see if they still contain fuel. Time after time he would say they were clean. but we'd find, when we took them apart, that there was still fuel in them. This was a major problem because the pipes were copper-nickel with silver brazed joints, and the print called for the debrazing of a number of fittings. When you debraze a fitting you use a torch with a very hot flame and heat up the pipe and fitting until it is red-hot and the silver is liquefied. The proper way of doing this would have been to drain the pipe of all fuel at its lowest points and then steam clean them. The danger is in pockets of fuel trapped in low points of the pipe and the vapors from that fuel rising to the high points. The vapors are far more dangerous than the fuel itself for they will explode.
The first joint that I tried to debraze, after putting heat to it, blew out like the back of a jet engine. Ideally on such a job the first thing I would do would be to trace the pipe out and look for traps. This did not happen because the leadman showed me a section of pipe he wanted out that day, leaving no time to do the job right. He had told me that the pipe was clean. After what happened, I told him that he could fire me, but I was going to remove all the traps in the line, and then go back and remove the other pipes the print called for. We removed the ripout pipe all the way down to the fuel oil pumproom. Once in the pumproom we began to break lose the mechanical joints off the fuel oil manifold. Two times we found fuel oil in the lines and once the result was a spill that caught on fire from a welder working on a catwalk. Fires on ships are never pleasant experiences, but a fire in a pumproom that you had to climb down a ladder three decks to get into, and where that ladder is the only way out, can get you thinking about why in the hell you are willing to work in such a place. Fuel fires spread very quickly and if the fire is between you and the ladder you have no way of escape.
After removing the pipes from the top of the manifold we broke loose the pipes at the bottom. Then I went and got the chemist to sniff them out, for we had to use a torch to remove the pipes out of their location. I told him that if he was not sure the pipes were clean not to tell me they were. He sniffed out the pipes and told me they were clean. Not wanting to trust that "good old boy" who spent most of his time drinking coffee and eating donuts, I found a low point in the pipe and cut into it with a saw. When the saw broke through the pipe pure undiluted fuel oil came out.
The problem with just sniffing out a pipe is that it will only tell you if there are vapors at the end of the sniffer, and will not tell you about the rest of the pipe. A high point vapor trap cannot be detected. That is why he should not have certified the pipe clean, and forced the company to steam clean it. All this "good old boy" cared about was saving the company money, to hell with the safety of the workers.
I collected some of the fuel oil in a cup and took it up to the chemist. I placed the cup under his nose and asked him what it was. He stated that it was fuel oil. I then poured the cup over his head and walked out. I quit NASSCO right in the middle of a shift. I put down the reason why I was quitting was that NASSCO followed no safety standards and explain what happened in great detail. Since I quit I had to wait until payday to get my check. When I came in to ask for my check, I was told that they would not release it unless I changed the reason for quitting that I had written, and talked to the safety department. Now that really set me off. Those who know me can testify to the fact that when something like this sets me off I am not a very nice person to deal with. I started ranting and raving like a madman from hell. The personnel man turned white with fear and called in his supervisor and yard security. I told the supervisor, quoting a braindead movie, "make my day asshole, I am not going to change a damn thing. If you refuse to give me my check, I'll sue you and make such a stink about the lack of safety standards and poor production that it will be years before you will be able pull yourselves out of all the shit that will hit the fan." After hearing this, the man said not a word and handed me my check.
Before I move on past NASSCO, there is one other situation I wish to write about, the Green Card workers. Green Cards workers are Mexican workers who apply for green cards so that the may work in the U.S. During my time at NASSCO there were quite a few Green Card workers employed there. Most of them lived in Tijuana and commuted to work every day. The unions did not like the Green Card workers because they believed that these workers would not support the unions and that they took jobs away from American workers. To my great surprise many of the Hispanic workers who were U.S. citizens also lined up against Green Card workers. Their reasoning was that these workers took American jobs and "lived like kings down in Tijuana."
While I was at NASSCO the company came up with a new policy that all Green Card workers had to have a green stripe on their hardhats. The company's excuse for this was that the yard did some government work in which only "American" workers could work, and they wanted to easily identify their "American" workers. The real reason, I believe, was something else entirely; that being, the company wanted to help widen the division between workers that the workers themselves had created.
In those days NASSCO had a very large work force of around 10,000 workers. Among these workers was a militant minority. This minority was at times very actively involved in the different issues in the yard. Unfortunately, many of this group were Marxist-Leninists (M-Ls) who believed in leading the working class rather than organizing the working class to act in their own interests, which is what we Wobblies wanted. Also, among the minority were straight-up militant unionists, a few anarchists, and a group of pipefitters who were sympathetic to the IWW. because I was known as an outspoken militant, (because I was very vocal on issues), and a Wobbly or as the M-Ls always called me, a syndicalist (sometimes calling me the "syndicalist threat"). Most all of us of the militant minority agreed on the issues, but there was strong disagreement over tactics and decision-making.
When the green striping issue came up, naturally all the militants opposed it. There developed somewhat of an alliance between Green Card workers who actively opposed green striping and the militant minority. The M-Ls jumped ahead of the process that was going on, believing that in every situation they were the "leaders". They put together a petition against green striping and began to circulate it in the yard. This was a very bad tactic, because, given the dynamics of the yard and the issue, all this petition did was to give the bosses something that they did not already have, a list of all the militants in the yard. Also, I have always been against symbolic actions that lead to no results. I thought it was rather naive to think that the company would change its polices just because a bunch of militants handed them a petition. For these reasons most of the non-M-Ls would not sign the petition, and the division among the militants kept any real united action on this issue from happening.
I felt the direction to take on this issue was education and community outreach (both in San Diego and Tijuana). Out of that we could build united action. I also felt that the time was long overdue to begin to deal with the larger issue of Green Card workers and the reaction against them. I tried to explain that any division among working people would always become the weak link in our struggle. Rather than bad mouth Green Card workers for supposedly not supporting the unions, I advocated dialogue to understand what differences there may be and to work to overcome these differences.
One reason the Green Card workers may have been unsupportive of the unions was that the unions were against them. How could anyone expect them to support the unions when the unions wanted to take their jobs away from them? I also spoke out against the petty nationalism of the unions. Working people had no hand in drawing the political borders that divided working people. To me, these borders represented the political conquest of the ruling classes of different countries. I will not recognize the right of the wealthy few to exploit working people and the land, nor will I recognize their borders. It was my view that the workers of San Diego and Tijuana had the same self-interests, that being making a living from their labor. The green striping issue was a good opportunity to build unified action among workers on both sides of the political border.
Geographically, the union's reactionary views against green cards and so-called "illegal" workers made no sense to me. From north of San Diego all the way to south of Tijuana is basically one continuous city, with a political border drawn in the middle of it. The employers from both sides of the political border cooperated in their own self-interest. Why should working folks not do the same?
As for the issue of so-called "illegal" workers, I do not recognize any worker as being illegal. I am rather sickened when I hear the way some unionists talk about these workers.
Even some so-called radicals have their head up their ass on this issue. I remember one time in San Diego, at a radical event, an Earth First!er came up to a literature table where one Chicano was sitting and began to talk about immigration. He stated that immigrants were part of the problem of the destruction of our environment. Then he said that all immigration should be stopped and immigrants should be sent back to where they came from. Since those words were directed at the Chicano, he spoke up and said that this is where he came from. My answer to this, when I hear such racism, is to say, "who in the hell are you calling immigrant, immigrant!" I will agree with one thing though, had all the immigrants (mostly from Europe) had never come to this continent, the environment would be in a hell of a lot better shape than it is now.
After I quit NASSCO I went to work in a small yard. I had been planning a move to New Orleans and I just needed a larger stake before I left, so I worked about three more months and then made my move.