“Martin, take a break!”
I had been busy moving a cart full of wire spools, following the foreman’s orders. I looked up to see my coworkers sitting in a row on a platform drinking coffee. Shit. Nobody told me about coffee break. It was 10:05. Later I would learn that the 10-minute coffee break was a hard fought clause in the union contract. To work through coffee break was to break down conditions for the entire crew. I had needed a mentor but nobody told me anything.
When I had heard that the San Francisco electricians union, IBEW Local 6, was looking for journeyman hands at $17 an hour I resolved to figure out how to get in. San Francisco was experiencing a construction boom in 1980 and the union hall was empty. Local 6 had put out a call for experienced electricians. If the union could not supply skilled workers to the contractors, the contractors would have to find them, and the union was doing everything it could to maintain control of the hiring process. By that time I’d been working almost four years as a nonunion electrician with two different companies. I’d graduated from a CETA* training program in Seattle where I had learned wiring basics and how to read the electrical code like a dictionary to find out what I didn’t know. I certainly felt like a journeywoman.
The deal was you put together a resume and went before the union executive board to prove you really had experience. The E board was six men sitting around a table. After a few questions about the mechanics of wiring, they approved me, but I knew they were desperate for hands. I was put on Book Five. It was all about seniority. It worked like this: Book One was local San Francisco hands who had graduated from the union apprenticeship. Book Two was journeymen from other locals in the U.S. I don’t know what Books Three through Five were, but the bigger your book number, the less seniority you had. Book Five was for the dregs. Last hired, first fired. You knew if you got laid off you might never get out through the union hall again.
My number came up on a foggy day in mid-August and I followed instructions to get my butt and my tools down to the union hall. I had to rent my lover’s beat up VW bug, as I didn’t have a car. Annie was one of the few dykes I knew who owned a car, and she charged us dearly for its use, but I had no choice. My toolbox was too heavy to lug onto the bus. I only had to drive from Balmy Alley in the Mission to the hall on Fillmore Street in the Haight, but weather and mechanical issues combined to nearly defeat me. The thick summer fog lay heavily on the city, obscuring my view of the streets. It landed in tiny drops on the windshield, coalescing and running down like rain, which might have been ok had the windshield wipers not been broken. You had to stick your arm out the window and operate them by hand. Miraculously I made it to the union hall without crashing.
The union had erected the single story modern brick-faced hall at the southern end of Fillmore Street behind the New Mint in what had been the ghetto, a neighborhood of decaying Victorians that the white brothers derided as the FillMo’. Dispatch took place in the basement of the hall. The dispatcher, a bald fat guy in a white shirt no tie, read down a list, yelling the names. When he got to mine, I approached the window and got a slip with the job information. I was to go to the symphony hall at Civic Center, a big job nearly at its end. I heard the contractor was facing penalties for going over the allotted time. Or maybe he was already paying penalties.
At the job site I checked in with the electrical foreman whose “office” was in a basement room. The symphony hall was topped out, all the concrete had been poured, the roof and exterior walls finished. But the interior finishes, including sheetrock, were still to be done so workers’ paths through the building went right through the fastest routes, around metal studs and through ghost walls yet to be finished. In the cavernous hall, workers from a dozen trades rushed around making finishing touches on the rough building. The job had that fresh smell of new concrete.
On my first day, the shop steward called a meeting of the crew in the basement where the contractor’s big gang boxes were stored. I’d never been in one place with so many electricians. I counted 25, but they filled up this space and seemed like more. The carpenters were taking a strike vote and they wanted the support of the other trades. I didn’t have to be told not to cross a picket line. But I sensed the brothers were worried about me. I was an unknown quantity and I’d worked nonunion.
My job was to do what I was told and keep my mouth shut. For $17 an hour I could do that. The foreman instructed me to move bundles of conduit from one floor to another. In this endeavor I had a partner, another Book Five hand, a black guy. We were probably the only female and only black on the whole job, certainly among the electricians. We immediately bonded and I felt I could count on him to stand up for me if harassed, and I would sure have his back.
Conduit is manufactured in diameters from a half inch and up, cut in ten-foot lengths and bundled. I learned to pick up the bundle and, like a weight lifter, heft it up to my shoulder in one clean lift. By the end of that day my shoulder was so sore from carrying pipe that I brought a towel to work the next day to give me a little padding. But the next day I was put on a different floor and instructed to vacuum out floor boxes. Fine with me. Near the end of the day the foreman approached me and handed me a blue paper. Not a pink slip, a blue slip. Same thing. I was laid off. I’d never used a tool, never seen a blueprint.
Even after only two days, I was crushed. There’s nothing like the bummer of getting a layoff notice even if you’re looking forward to the layoff. I felt lucky in a way, as I knew the carpenters were planning to go out on strike the following day and I would never cross a picket line, so I’d probably lose the job anyway. With a layoff notice I could apply for unemployment.
Did the contractor hire a bunch of hands just to show they’d made a good faith effort to meet the contract deadline? Was I laid off because they thought they couldn’t trust me to not cross the picket line, or was the foreman doing me a favor by laying me off before the strike? There was no one to ask.
*Comprehensive Employment and Training Act