To read more, purchase Radical Passions
3. YARDBIRD: LIFE IN THE SHIPYARD
Oh we’re feelin’ the pain
Of the big man’s money game
And that’s where you’d better put the blame
If you intend to make a change.And the plan took me to the shipyard.
Had I ever known the unbearable agony that welding at General Dynamics, the largest shipyard in New England, would cause me, I’m sure I would have renounced my political beliefs for a comfortable place in the suburbs, a professional job, and the nuclear family my parents had dreamed for me. But my life was a dare, and my politics thrust me into situations to cause disruption, discomfort, and change.With my shield protecting me from the bright orange flame of the welding rod melting steel to steel, I asked myself how I’d gotten to this huge shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was a bitter, snowy morning in 1976, and I thought back to that afternoon in 1967 when my father handed me a copy of the Communist Manifesto. “Here is a really good book you might like to read, Kendall,” Dad said emerging from his study, where for seventeen years I usually saw his back bent over his typewriter, his Ph.D. dissertation, or university duties.
“Karl Marx? Who’s he?” I asked.“He was a philosopher who believed that we should create a society where social classes and class differences had been eliminated. A classless society is one that operates according to the principle, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’,” Dad answered, his eyes tired from reading and grading papers. “Marx said if members of the working class stood together against the capitalist ruling class, they could overturn the government and create a new society. Worker solidarity would set them free.”
“Free of what?” I asked. I was still in high school.“Exploitation.”
“Oh, I get it,” I lied. Yet somewhere my heart understood and carried the message.And so it went from late 1960s, Marx, and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, to Madison and the student rebellion, and now union organizing.
As the welding sparks flew around my body, I wished my Marxist-Leninist mentor Shanna could see me. After she was jailed for slashing a strikebreaker’s tire, I would need something like the shipyard to win my “red badge of courage.”“Bang,” a thunderous sound reverberated on the steel beneath my boots.
“What the hell was that?” I gasped, catapulted back to the shipyard from my daydream. I flipped back my shield. An eight-foot long plank had landed inches from me. Glancing into the dark staging sixty feet up, I saw two pairs of boots.“Watch out, you bastards!” I screamed, shaking my fist. “You could have killed me. You knew I was down here!”
Silence. Solidarity, I thought to myself. Worker solidarity?Walking through the shipyard gates in 1976 was like going to war, with a constant battle between the workers and supervisors, the General Dynamics “white hats,” who punished and verbally abused most workers they came in contact with. Every morning I woke up at 5:30, facing blackness and the terror of being late for the 7:00 a.m. shift. The 45-minute drive to Quincy always left me and my co-workers running or hop-skipping into Joe’s Lunch for coffee, the only restaurant that serviced the shipbuilders. I tried to blend into the sea of gnarled, weather beaten men who had given twenty to thirty years of their lives to the New England winters, the relentless, ocean wind forever imprinted on their features.
I wore what all the welders wore, a hard-hat, huge baggy coveralls, heavy work boots, and company supplied leathers that covered my shoulders and chest to keep from being burned by welding sparks. After a few weeks, I looked as tattered as the veteran welders, with spark burns on my sleeves and pant legs, along with dirt from lying in garbage heaps inside the tunnels. But my face was young and beautiful, smooth and round as the full moon, as I walked, shaking, past the crowded tables of tough, raucous men, my downcast eyes focusing across the room until I managed to get past the stares coming from all directions. Bottom line: I was female.
There were just fifty women hired at General Dynamics to work on the liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers, a requirement of a federal affirmative action program. Half of us were there because of our affiliation with the new communist party building movement. Women and minority workers walked into the yard to become “yardbirds” for the first time in history, except when women known as “Rosie the Riveter” had filled in for men at war in the 1940s. We were the other creatures, out of kitchens, bedrooms, grocery stores, and beauty parlors, wearing hard-hats and steel-toed shoes. I knew if I could see just one familiar feature, a nose, mouth, a gesture, while walking toward the coffee counter, I would begin to breathe more evenly, just to be able to say “Hi or good morning,” not enough to gain acceptance or be one of the boys, but just enough to connect for an instant. Unfortunately, the morning entrance into Joe’s never got comfortable. Familiar, but never friendly.I had enjoyed the eight weeks of welding school, as well as the attention I received from lots of young men. We started working on the “plats,” an area of the shipyard in front of the tankers where the bulkheads were constructed and welded together. But welding school had not prepared us for the lion’s den, and I quickly became lost in a maze of metal cranes swinging like prehistoric creatures carrying huge pieces of metal without any safety bell ringing to warn workers when to run for cover. We joked about wearing a hard hat for protection from a piece of huge steel dropped from one hundred feet up. The school instructors had so terrified me of the boats, that I considered myself lucky with the plat assignment. But soon the foreman or white hat (in distinction from the workers who wore different colored hard hats), who never spoke directly to me, grumbled orders to the working leader and had me transferred to a tanker, the length of three football fields. Panic flooded my body, and I protested every step of the way, asking and begging: “Why, why? I was welding just fine. You didn’t give me a chance, I was only here three weeks!”
“Well, that’s the breaks, sister, GD isn’t fair,” he answered. “You can handle it.”The foremen were trained to run the yard just like a military machine, barking out commands they carried out according to rigid, inflexible rules. The corrupt Shipbuilder’s union was just a name and a card. If a foreman wanted to transfer you, there was no choice. You went.
This transfer, however, was a blessing in disguise, because my new crew had a woman member, Dee. Red-headed, lesbian Dee. She was tough and kind, and she sensed my desperation. We immediately developed a deep rapport, and then I clung to her for psychic, emotional survival. The crew seemed to resent my being her pal and her protection of me, but for a few weeks life was good. This foreman put us on jobs together. Dee taught me how to weld, and we laughed, talked, and created a female dynamic that reverberated through the cold steel into the darkest, dampest, dirtiest holes. We paraded gleefully before the carpenters, burners, ship fitters, and all the male-only groups we were not welcomed to join. With Dee, I felt proud to be a woman and proud we were taking on new challenges together. In her presence my level of fear and timidity was halved. No one bothered us.On rare occasions on an outside job, high above the decks, when the sky was clear, I had a spectacular panoramic view of the Quincy Bay, with seagulls, boats, blue ocean, and fresh, gentle breezes. On those days, I identified with the young Chinese woman shipyard worker glowing from the socialist poster I had bought in Madison, Wisconsin. In those moments, I merged with my welding rod and felt peaceful, accomplished, and almost happy.
Signs of solidarity frightened management, even two women friends, and Dee and I were separated. A few days after she was transferred to another tanker, pin-ups of naked, huge-breasted women started appearing on and above my toolbox. I seethed at this harassment that must have come from men on my crew. The deeper I worked in the tankers, the more chalk drawings of vaginas and breasts were scrawled on the bulkheads. I knew it was futile to report sexual harassment. In 1978 it was not recognized, just as my rape was ignored in 1971, blamed on women’s seductiveness.The foreman I had been so grateful to had ruined our honeymoon by sending Dee to a different crew and me to jobs I could not do. One of those places was called wing walls, a space so closed in and filled with smoke, noise, gas leaks from acetylene torches, toxic welding fumes, dropping pieces of metal, and burners fumes, that I was absolutely terrified. I had to squeeze into spaces and lie down at angles that my body would not bend, and weld where my arms could not reach. Sometimes I welded upside down so the hard hat offered no protection and my hair caught on fire. Sparks fell into my shoes, burning through my socks and causing me to jump off the job shaking my boots wildly. Welders have lots of tattoos to show for their trade: burn marks dotting arms and chest, noses blackened by smoke. My eyeballs, temporarily dried out by welding flashes, felt gritty, like after a walk on a windy beach.
Our lungs took the worst abuse, breathing in cancerous chemicals that entered throats and air sacs through holes in the aluminum blowers that management refused to repair. Long-term employees developed welders’ lung, just as our fellow workers in the mines and textile plants suffered from black and brown lung disease. We were expected to weld wherever we were told, without questions, complaints, or demands, in the darkest, damp, garbage-filled holes often tainted with urine. “How is it that our country has the technology to put a man on the moon, but the management of General Dynamics can’t fix our blowers?” I repeatedly asked other workers.Every day we had to find a new welding line, and plug it into a machine for amperage near the job we had been assigned. This was the most difficult part of the job because the lines were so heavy. But the chaos, disintegration of the work ethic, and disorganization of production would have made even Karl Marx a little nervous. At the end of each working day, lines were dropped where each worker stood. Heaps of lines got tangled in knots that literally took hours to undo, wrapped around debris, hanging down holes, and trapped under pieces of bulkhead. This caused a battle between welders because there were never enough lines to go around. People fought to be first to get a line since it could mean searching half a workday or longer for one.
This waste of labor time and money was astronomical, but apparently General Dynamics could absorb the loss, and since management didn’t care, neither did anyone else. “Don’t do anything you don’t have to” became the motto. Standing around doing nothing was not my style, so for weeks, each morning I cried while stumbling over piles of junk, pulling until my arms could hardly move, getting a line half way to a job, and giving up with exhaustion. Most people gave the company at best half a day’s work, and then found a hiding place to smoke a joint or sleep. As long as we were somewhere on or near the job, most foremen were cool, but a trip across the yard to the bathroom was suspect and timed to the minute. Women were watched carefully since we all crowded into the bathroom for fifteen minutes at the morning and afternoon breaks. It was the only place we had to give ourselves comfort, support, and protection from the constant confrontations, invasions, and harassment. We would arrive depressed, and, in the winter, stiff with cold, each with a story to tell, taking turns listening with empathy and sisterhood.“I never thought drinking mud could taste so good,” commented a petite welder, her blue lips sucking in the machine-made hot chocolate.
“My fingers are so stiff I can’t even hold my cup long enough to taste it,” another woman moaned, running hot water over her hands.Some winter days I huddled on the asbestos covered steam pipes, too numb to complain or care about my safety. These “shithouse” meetings, as we called them, became the most glorious time of my day. I used to count down as I anxiously watched out for the meanest foremen, the real “ball busters,” as the men called them. They would nail us for having to piss by handing us a pink slip, the equivalent of a demerit, and then scramble down the ladders and planks off the boats to their safe, warm shacks. Three slips meant suspension or even firing. But the punishment was applied unfairly, depending on the foreman’s likes and dislikes; often it was a matter of skin color or sex.
Unhappily for me, winters came earlier to the Quincy waterfront than to Boston. I had to wear so much clothing that in the spring when I began taking off layers, everyone thought I’d lost 25 pounds. I began the first layer with a leotard, then came tights, a pair of long underwear, a thin pair of socks, a heavier wool pair, a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of pants, two sweaters, a down vest, a jumpsuit on top, with a pair of woolen lined boots, a scarf, an ugly canvas brown coat with a knit hat that I put under my hard hat, and down mittens. I could hardly walk, never mind climb, but it was that or freeze. As I stared through the dark glass window in my shield into the arc of my welding rod, the bright light of melting steel drew me inward. I didn’t want to stop welding for fear I would begin to feel the pain shooting up my legs and torso. I got increasingly stiffer and less tolerant of the cold steel we had to stand on hour after hour.Sometimes I wandered blindly off my job, just to keep moving. If I were stopped, I made up any excuse: my machine was down, I was out of welding rods, or looking for my foreman. Sometimes I climbed down beneath the tankers, and found groups of men and dogs huddled around burning trashcans or setting planks of wood on fire. The atmosphere of shadows, frozen beards with icicles, and crouched figures hovering and stomping was so primitive that I sometimes forgot it was a shipyard. The burners who ordinarily cut steel became the salvation of all the “yardbirds,” with their torches capable of heating a whole bulkhead in a few minutes. The hot steel instantly relieved us with waves of warmth, making us grateful in a way I could never have understood before. Some workers stayed warm by destroying an entire welding machine, pulling out the coiled wires and attaching them to a stinger of a welding rod to generate heat. The only people who could work efficiently in winter were workers who didn’t stand still, stage builders, carpenters, or others whose physical movements kept them warm.
During these moments of survival and sabotage, I felt like giving up, curling up in a dark hole quietly to die, or throwing off my hard hat and screaming till they carried me out of the yard on a stretcher with a welding rod between my teeth. The deepest depression came when I realized I was no different from these men I’d planned to lead into a revolution. I had no solution to this horror but to endure.General Dynamics was a world unto itself, where staging broke, and injuries, even death, happened. There were no routine safety inspections. Each step I took I tested the staging for fear it was loose. I witnessed falling planks: once one landed inches from me as I welded. During my first year and a half, it was rumored that three people were killed, their bodies crushed and mangled, necks broken from falls onto steel 20-30 feet below. Frequently, the ambulance siren pierced the air, like seagulls crying out “accident, accident.” If General Dynamics could declare a worker dead on the other side of the shipyard fence, it was not liable for benefits. We were told that rarely did anyone actually die in the yard. One morning we heard the shocking news that an entire crane had fallen into a basin, leaving the operator in three pieces.
Most of the equipment was broken, old and rusted from the inside, and rather than make repairs, GD gave the deteriorated cranes and other machines a second coat of paint, or hid them temporarily, to fool the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors. OSHA had to notify the company before arrival. We were then instructed to pick up garbage and welding rods. The yard was swept and tidied, trash cans painted or new ones put out in visible spots, and all welding in the shops ordered stopped. When the inspector came, all she or he saw was an orderly, spotless, safe shipyard: the biggest, cleanest show on earth. One afternoon a woman inspector walked into our daily shithouse meeting while we were talking about what a farce the inspection was. We surrounded her, pouring out our complaints:“Shirley’s six months pregnant and she’s still climbing ladders and pulling lines. She should be on the plats.”
“Judy has carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist and can’t hold her welding rod any more.”“My voice has been hoarse and sore all winter because of smoke fumes.”
We told her the truth, but nothing changed. The Nixon Administration’s anti-worker policies had already destroyed OSHA’s ability to enforce the law.“This wouldn’t happen in worker-run states, like Cuba or China,” I angrily argued to Dee, who now sympathized with my politics. They’d report the shipyard and the inspectors! And they’d all be sent to jail!”
Red-headed Dee, who had heard this from every socialist cadre in the yard by then, threw me a yeah-dream-on look. “It’s OK babe,” she said in her sexy, hoarse voice. “What goes around, comes around.”“Right, in another hundred years!” I shot back.
One hundred years was too long for even the most dedicated cadre. I wanted to see what the “new socialist” man and woman looked like now. Socialist Cuba was the paradise closest to the shipyard, just ninety miles off the Florida coast.
<< Read the first half of the first chapter of Radical Passions,
“On the Barricades in Madison”
Radical Passions is available online, or at your favorite book retailer.