Part Six - Blues Again
Living in my reality, down in some deep tank with enclosing steel walls all around, working in the bilge with oil seeping through my clothes, constant noise only broken by deadly silence... only a lack of words keeps me from fully explaining that reality. Down in the engine room it can get so damn hot that passing out is a real concern. In the tanks below the waterline the cold can chill you to the bone as you crawl through the tight spaces. Pulling, tugging, wrenching, hammering, a ship doesn't give up anything easily, and going back in with the new ain't no charm either. Welcome to my reality. Lord, lord, I got them old yardbird blues again.
We got ourselves an old weekly rent shack in Green's Bayou, right outside of Houston. Later, when we had a little money saved up, we rented a house on the banks of Green's Bayou. If I'd had a boat I could have gone down the bayou, which flowed in to the industrial channel, to my place of work.
The work at Todd Shipyard, while I was there, was made up of new construction of ferryboats and jet barges, which are used in the oil industry to work and live on, and ship repair. In the pipe department those that were not journeymen started out as tack welders. When you are fitting pipe with welded joints you tack weld the parts together, then later it is welded out by the pipe welder. The foreman later decides if you are to go on and become a pipe welder or a pipefitter.
I started out as a tacker in the pipeshop. There the journeyman is given a drawing of a section of piping to be made. It could have offsets, saddles, bends, flanges and different types of fittings on it. The tacker, being nothing more than an helper, would do most of the cutting of the pipe, beveling the ends for a butt weld, grinding off paint and galvanize where the weld will be located. It is very important to get as much of the paint and galvanize off as possible, because marine paint has lead in it and the smoke from galvanize is toxic. When the prep work was done the journeyman would fit the pieces together, twohole the flanges, place the offsets in the right direction, and then the tacker would tack the weldable joints together. In those days, if the system was galvanized, the helper would take a stick of galvanize and rub it into the welded joints that had been heated with a torch. If a pipe came in from the repairing of a ship it would be placed on a steel slab and a target would be built. The target would have the same type of connectors on both ends connecting the old pipe to the slab. Then braces and angles would be welded down that would give the exact shape of the pipe when the old pipe was removed. Then you would fit the new pipe to the target.
As you may be able to tell, the tacker or helper did most of the hard work. I did not like working in the pipeshop. Even after I became a journeyman I still hated working in the shop. Fortunately, my three months working in Todd's pipeshop was my longest stay in a shop in over twenty years of working in shipyards.
Most pipeshops are set up with a foreman, and if the shop is big enough it may also have a leadman (in some places a leadman will be called a toolpusher). The shop will also have a few older journeymen who have spent a number of years out on the ships, and as a reward are made the top journeymen of the shop. This is not a bad arrangement, for it allowed older workers to have things a bit easier before they retired and to pass on their knowledge to younger journeymen and helpers.
The unfortunate thing about this arrangement was that it reflected the hierarchical behavior of the dominant society. Each person was expected to kiss up to those 'above' them, and treat those 'below' them like shit. So, as the saying goes, shit runs down hill and those on the bottom get shit upon the most. I should point out that not everyone acted in this manner; there were a few who knew how to treat other people with respect. Unfortunately this situation, which could be a very good learning experience for young workers, too often reverted to nothing more than a master/slave relationship. It often amazes me when I think about the shop situation, because it is here that they bring in people new to the trade, yet they expect them to know everything. How many times I have heard a helper ask how something is done, only to receive an abusive answer; "You dumb shit, it's is done this way."
One morning, as I was setting up my welding machine, the leadman came up to me and told me to gather up my tools and report to the ship repair leadman. An old tramp steamer had come in and upon it I met Jim, who was an old-timer and leadman on that job. Jim was tough as nails, but beyond that was a very nice guy. He was different than the shop old-timers, whom he called lazy slackers. He did not abuse people, but treated each person with respect no matter what their job or how long they had been in the trade. He made a point of trying to teach that which we did not know. He told me that he wanted the job done right the first time and that he realized I was new to all this. "When in doubt ask", he stated, "for the only dumb question is the question not asked."
He put me on taking out a valve down in the bilge of the engine room. In about an hour he brought a journeyman down to work with me. This guy thought he was a real badass because he had just made journeyman and thus was a step up the latter from me. I was having a bit of trouble getting the valve out, and the journeyman started to belittle me. I pulled myself out of the bilge and gave the badass a ration of shit right back. He stood there dumbfounded; for when you kick a dog, the dog Is not suppose to bite you back. He looked over to Jim, who was standing near by watching the whole encounter, for support, but Jim was standing there laughing his ass off. Jim sent the guy off the ship because, as he said it, he did not want any "prima donna wannabes" working for him. Jim and I became good friends and whenever a ship came in, he would ask for me. He was a strong union man, and would tell me stories of the old days and of past labor battles. He told me that one of the things he liked about me was my interest in unionism and its' history, because few young people had much interest in such things. He would make a point, whenever he had the time, to come over to where I was working and help me out. In doing so he helped me learn my trade, and we had a chance to talk unionism. I told him of my previous experiences with AFL-CIO unions, and that it did not seem to me that they cared about working people. He said that in the early days of unions things were different, because then the unions were made up of just working people, but as the unions got bigger they came under the control of paid union officials. These people did not have the same interests as did the members and as they got fat off union dues; such things as organizing began to drop off. Today many of those union officials make more money than do the bosses of the workers they represent. He stated that the fault was not with the union officials, for where ever there is money and power there are those that are more than willing to seize those things; the fault was in the membership, which got lazy and was willing to let someone else do for them that which they should do for themselves.
At Todd, and the few other union yards in Houston, the pipefitters union had closed its books to new members. Only the old timers were members and they all were leadmen and the foreman. Out of nearly forty pipefitters, only five were union members; the rest of us had to pay an agency fee. The reason for this was that the union bosses were able to buy off most of these members with the best jobs available, thus, their power would not be threaten. They were then able to get money from the other pipefitters, but they had no say in union affairs.
Jim opposed this and called it an "aristocracy of labor" at the expense of all other working people. When contract time came around, since a great majority of pipefitters had no vote on the contract, Jim would hold a meeting out in the parking lot and discuss the issues. Then he would ask the workers how he should vote. It was Jim who taught me what true on-the-job unionism was all about.
One day, as we were talking union, Jim made the statement that there once was a union that was different, the IWW, who were called Wobbiies. They knew how to keep the power of the union in the hands of the members, and no matter what the situation was, they could be counted upon to stand fast with the working stiffs. After that I informed him that I was a member of the IWW. His eyes lit up and he got a smile on his face like a kid who had was just been handed a puppy on his birthday. He said that he had no idea that the IWW was still around. I told him that there were a few Wobbiies still in Houston, but most of them were old timers. He had heard stories about Blackie Vaughan and you could tell the man was a hero to him. He said that I should be careful as to who I informed that I was a Wobbly, because the AFL-CIO was very anti-Wobbly and that they still feared the memory of them. He went on to say that the AFL-CIO had become a protection racket and the officials were no better than gangsters. Like any mob, they would use the same strong-arm tactics as any other gangsters. I found this out first-hand later in my life. The United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters not only represented marine pipefitters, but also land plumbers, pipefitters and steamfitters. The union was divided up into two groups: first there were the metal trades (shipyard workers mostly) and then there were the building trades (the land workers). All the metal trade workers in the different trade unions were organized into a Metal Trades Council, and the building trades had their Building Trades Council. Then there are regional councils for both. You would think that such organizing would lead to a strong working class organization, but since this was a racket, and the power of the organizations were not in the hands of the workers, these councils were used for the interests of the union bosses. Like the Mafia, these councils were used to divide up territory, and settle jurisdictional disputes.
Jim took me under his wing and taught me the tricks of the trade. He would tell me that no matter how bad a job looked, there was always a way of getting it done. One day we went aboard an old freighter and down into the engine room. Beneath the deck plates was a greasy 8" pipe about six feet long. It was under other pipes and it snaked through the bilge. We had to get it out and send it to the shop for a new one to be made. I took one look at it and said, "how in the hell are we going to get that out in one piece?" Jim got that look in his eye as if he had been waiting for this opportunity to get up on his soapbox and give me a line of talk that would be appropriate in just such a situation. What he said changed my outlook on many things for the rest of my life.
He said to me "you look at that piece of pipe and ask how we are going to get it out, and you think the job is impossible. But here you are, a Wobbly, out to rebuild the IWW. Isn't that also an impossible job? Both are only impossible if you accept them as being impossible. You are going to take that pipe out of there in the same way you are going to help rebuild the IWW. First, you must understand that this pipe is part of a system. A ship is made up of many systems; together they make a functioning ship. We must rebuild this system that is no longer up to par, so that the whole ship will be functioning as it should. Like a union, all the parts of a ship must function together and if something does not function then it needs to be fixed. With the ultimate goal in mind, focus on the job at hand. Don't be intimidated by what stands before you, the engines, pumps, generators and all the other piping, or in union organizing all that are unorganized. Remember, all that you see is made up of parts, and you can only fix one part at a time."
"Always be aware of everything that is going on around you, The old excuse of, 'they should have warned me' ain't worth a damn. True, everyone should warn others of dangers, but the person with the number one responsibility for your well-being is you. If someone is pulling up a valve with a line of rope over your head, do not stand there and say, 'I don't need to move because no one has warned me'. Take the responsibility for your own self-interest and don't pass the buck. In understanding your own self-interest you must understand that the interest of others are in common with your own. That means you must look out for the other guy and stand with him in times of need; for everything we do has an effect on someone else. This we call solidarity."
'This is also true in the outside world. If someone is polluting the air and making you sick it is your responsibility to act for your own safety. This is what you Wobblies call direct action. Direct action is not just something you use against the boss. It is a way of taking responsibility for your own life and those interests you hold in common with others. It means not running away from problems and passing them off to others. It means making that which may seem impossible, possible by acting directly upon a problem and finding solutions. If you boil the fat off the grand talk, isn't this what the Wobblies are all about?"
"Back to the job at hand. First look around and think about all the possible effects what you are about to do could have. First protect yourself and others around you, then the job and the ship. Make sure that the valves are closed at both ends of the pipe. Then think about what maybe inside of the pipe. Even if you are told that the system has been drained, look to see if there are low points in the pipe that could trap whatever may be in the there. If there are traps, and there could be something in the pipe that you don't want spilled, get something to catch it. Then, look to see if you may need to tie up one or both ends because it could fall when you break it loose. Look to see if there is any interference that you could remove to make the job easier. Then look at the pipe itself, try to visualize in your mind how the pipe can be removed. Now take your wrenches and break the flanges loose. No matter how hard it is to break the bolts loose, there is always a way that works. Don't just try one thing then give up and say 'I can't do if. 'I can't' can't do a damn thing, 'I can' will get the job done." "Do not get stuck in the trap of always having to do things the same way. Keep an open mind and use your imagination. Once you have the flanges loose start pulling the pipe out based upon how you visualize it happening. If that plan does not work, don't just blindly start pushing, pulling and smashing the pipe, but take time to figure out what the problem is and come up with another solution."
"Don't get mad at the pipe, it ain't out to get you. It has no feelings or thoughts. When you are mad and frustrated you lose the ability to think your way out of any problem."
"In pipefitting, like in rebuilding the IWW, you are your worst enemy. If you can overcome your doubts, frustrations, fear and self-imposed limitations you will find that things are not as hard as they may seem. You must also remember that you are a part of a team, all working for the same goal. It matters not if the goal is repairing a ship or building a union, you are not alone. If the team is struggling within itself the goal is put off. There is no person that is more important than others within the team. Here you are new to the trade, but if you don't get your pipe out and the new one back in the ship will not function and just sit here waiting on you. So who is the most important person on this job? We all are."
"No matter how hard things get, only you can make yourself give up. Though there are times when you must back off because of some danger, no one can break your spirit for that comes from your heart, and there ain't a damn person who can control that but you."
I am sure that Jim could have gone on longer, but lunchtime had come and he was not the type of person who would willingly miss a meal. I spent my lunchtime writing down what he had said to me, and I have referred back to his words to remind myself of what he said when I have had doubts about what I was doing. Jim's words had a very deep impact upon me. They brought together my working life, being a Wobbly and my personal life, and put it into focus. I knew then what kind of person I wanted to be, one that did not accept excuses or limitations, one that was true to oneself. From that point on I knew what I had to do, and that was whatever had to be done. Be it on a ship, fitting pipe, or be it in the movement, involved in a struggle, doing what needed to be done was the important thing. If that meant I stepped upon the toes of a few prima donnas, so be it.
When there were no ships in, I would spend my time in new construction on either the ferries or jet barges. The ferryboats were being built for Wilmington, Delaware. Todd could under-bid the northern yards because of lower wages and because they did not have the expense of decent working conditions.
Working in tanks was by far the worst of conditions at Todd. The summer sun would beat down upon the tank top making the metal too hot to touch. That meant the heat in the tank would be almost unbearable. And Todd did not believe in spending the money for ventilation. That meant that smoke from welding and burning would get so thick that sometimes it was hard to see within the tank. The smoke would burn your eyes and you would cough black shit up out of your lungs. Welding smoke has fine particles of metal in it that would cut up the insides of your lungs, so there were, times when there would be traces of blood in what you coughed up.
They did have a so-called safety man; who was a "good old boy" who would rush to any accident and find a way to blame it on some worker. Rather than being on the job sites himself, looking for ways to prevent accidents, he would walk around the yard stomping on people's toes to see if they had on steeltoe boots. One day he stomped on the toes of a huge laborer, who then hit him with a good right jab, broke his jaw and knocked the fool out. Because the laborer was black, and just a working stiff, the cops were called in to they hauled him off to jail. The safetyman got his jaw wired and came back to work. From that point on he left our toes alone.
The foreman was a real winner as well. The man never had a nice thing to say to any working stiff. One day I was welding up handrails while sitting on a bucket. (When you weld you try to get into a comfortable position so that you hands are steady and you can make a good weld.) Well, that asshole came by and kicked the bucket out from underneath me, sending me flying to the deck. He then yelled at me, "get off your ass". I bit my lip and went back to working, knowing that the time for pay back would come.
One day I was getting ready to do some grinding on a bulkhead when I saw that he would be coming around the corner in a moment. The man always wore a suit and tie, so I realized that my opportunity had come. As soon as I saw his foot come around the comer I started to grind sending nice red hot sparks all over his suit. Needless to say, his suit was wasted. He stood there red as an apple and mad as hell. But what could he say? I was only doing my job. It was only his dumb luck to come around the corner at the wrong (right) time.
After two and a half years at Todd the work was slacking up and I got laid off. I could not find other work in the area so we moved on.