Joan Weir: The Only Girl in the Welding Shop

In 1972, a junior in high school, she had already taken all the drafting classes her Los Angeles school offered. She’d been working with her father building a car so she took her father’s advice and enrolled in the welding class. The teacher said if she could fire up a torch she could stay in the class. It was a test no one else had to take. She was the only girl.

Joan production welding light poles for the Bay Bridge, 1976

She took the class and got hooked on welding. The first year she excelled so much she was teaching the other students how to weld. By her senior year she was shirking all her other classes, spending days in the machine shop building projects. That year she won a national award from the Lincoln Arc Welding Foundation for TIG welding brass but she didn’t graduate high school. Joan Weir was a welding phenom.

That summer she got her first job. It was piecework building motorcycle accessories. She said, “They needed someone who could TIG (tungsten inert gas) weld. That was new technology back then. It’s an electric spark that comes out of a piece of tungsten, where you can weld ferrous and non-ferrous materials and it’s like a fine art because it’s a smaller weld you’re making.”

Again she was the only female on the job. “I was welding in a metal building where it was well over 90 degrees. I remember lifting my welding hood to find that my sleeve was on fire. I looked down the line and all the guys were just watching. They weren’t helping me. They just wanted to see me take my shirt off. Of course I had a T-shirt on underneath so it was so ridiculous.”

I first met Joan Weir in the late 1970s. With our mutual friend, Cheryl Parker, we bonded as some of the few early tradeswomen in the San Francisco Bay Area. Cheryl and I got into the electrical trade and Cheryl had attained the rank of Chief Building Inspector in the city of Richmond, California when she died of ovarian cancer in 1992. In 1976 Joan and Cheryl had traveled with a convoy of tradeswomen and their supporters to Los Angeles to petition the state government for affirmative action goals and timetables for women in construction apprenticeship.

L-R Cheryl Parker, Joan MacQuarrie, Joan Weir

“It was a great moment because we were standing up and talking about what we were experiencing and each one of us had a different story. We got the state of California to enact goals and timetables.”

I think of Joan as a Renaissance woman. She has been a general contractor, a carpenter, a plumber, a glass blower and many other things. But Joan is primarily a welder. She lost her career and nearly her life after being set up to blow up.

In 1980 Joan was working for US Steel in Pittsburg, California as a maintenance welder. To get the job she took a welding test.

“My test was so perfect that they could not refuse to hire me so their recourse was to put me in the ugliest location, which was the cold reduction department,” she said.

“It was located in a building a mile long. We had four mills that ran consecutively. The steel was brought in in large rolls and was run through each mill to make it thinner. Each roll was a ton maybe two tons at the very end. It was called cold reduction because heat was not being applied. Rollers compressed each sheet as it went through. Water and oil were the lubricants. Next-door was an acid dip where they would roll the big sheets of steel through acid to clean them. As a maintenance welder I led a team of two millwrights and two steamfitters. And jointly we would move on a weekly rotating basis from working days, swing, and graveyard shifts.

US Steel plant, Pittsburg, CA. Credit: Wikipedia

We kept the mill running 24/7. These machines were put under a lot of pressure and they would break. The millwrights were in charge of keeping the mill running and the pipefitters would fix any of the piping, which was typically hydraulic whether it was water or air. My job as the welder was to weld any metal part that broke and I also built anything that they would need to install.

It was up to the welder to determine the time length of the repair and if it exceeded three or four hours then they would shut down the mill and all the workers on the mill would be sent home. So it was imperative to not have that happen because the union required that if the worker had already worked four hours then they would get full pay even if sent home. That would cost big bucks. I must admit I always enjoyed saying ‘Nope send your guys home. It’s gonna take at least five or six hours to repair.’

The environment at the plant was extremely unsafe. Cranes carried the large steel rolls over people’s heads. Workers died on a regular basis from the hooks breaking or the roll getting loose. Large forklifts with large extended poles on them carried the rolls along where workers were walking. And because of the extreme noise you could be walking, turn, and not realize that a forklift was right there on top of you. People were hurt on a number of occasions while I worked there.

At US Steel in 1980 it felt like we were working back in the 30s and 40s. Workers were constantly being harassed in many different ways and if you were to go up against management you were likely to end up hurt or killed. That was known. That was just a given.

After the accident Joan learned glass blowing

The United Steelworkers union covered everybody so if you had a problem with a co-worker the union couldn’t side with one worker or another so it didn’t feel like you had representation–especially as a woman.

I was the only woman welder in the plant, the whole steel industry in Pittsburg. I led a team–two very supportive pipefitters and then two millwrights who were not supportive. This one individual who was a short guy, white, Mormon, had a real issue taking orders from a woman. But I was the team leader and I got paid more.

The atmosphere in the cold reduction department was tense, unsafe and the work was really demanding. Also the air quality was really bad because we were stuck inside a building that had lots of water and oil mixed into the air we were breathing. We would get inside a mill, literally placing ourselves inside this big machinery, going down into the bowels of it. I never felt very safe going there because I knew this guy didn’t like me. I never expected him to do me physical harm but I worried that he might cause an accident.

Joan in her shop at her present job at the vineyard

A firefighter was required to stand by while I was working, as my clothing would catch fire on a regular basis because of the oil that was constantly coating us. We got used to welding this way. You’d turn, stop welding, ask the fire guy to shoot you with water, he’d douse your clothes and you’d go back to welding again.

One night I was working graveyard so it was a small crew throughout the building. I was welding something up in my weld shop and had to go get some material and I came back to find this guy using my welding hood and welding on my bench. I shouted to him because of the loud machinery and he stopped, he put up the hood, and he back-fisted me. He hit me across my face so hard that I landed against my welding tanks and my hardhat split open.

Two of the other guys on my team came to see what happened. I was injured so the supervisor was called. He sent me home and he let my attacker stay on shift. I was told to come back the following morning for a meeting with the shop steward and the guy who physically attacked me. The shop steward just said that this was something we had to get over.

At that point I contacted an attorney and they told me to take whatever sick time I had and to get off site because it was not safe for me to be there. So I took my week’s leave and then I started calling in and saying that the environment was not safe for me to work in.

Birthday present
A Rosie the Riveter hood

When I showed up for work again it was swing shift on Easter Sunday. There was an emergency. A pipe had bent and needed to be repaired. I had a new pipefitter working with me so we didn’t know each other. First I asked him if he had put the safety blocks in the line because this was a high-pressure hydraulic two-inch line. Then we climbed down the sheet steel that was in the way, down into this pit and I’m up to my knees in oil and hydraulic fluid. The pipe is above the hydraulic fluid. I’ve got my firefighter up above the pit and the pipefitter is down in the pit with me and we get ready to weld it up. I light my big oxy-acetylene rosebud torch to heat the pipe and all of a sudden somebody turns on the line, pressurizes it and there’s an explosion.

My head is literally right over the pipe when it explodes. I don’t realize I’m burnt all over my head with second and third degree burns. I scramble back up the torn up steel next to me to get to my acetylene set up to turn off those valves because I’m afraid of backfire in the lines. I see the pipefitter is burnt so I grab him to get him over to the safety shower and the safety shower doesn’t work. I see a water fountain and I get him to the water fountain and I get his hands into the water and he says ‘you’ve got to get yourself water’ and at that point I start to recognize how burnt I am.

We’re brought into the lunchroom. After 45 minutes or an hour, they finally get us to the hospital, which is unable to provide critical care. So they bring me back to the cold reduction plant. At that point my eyes are shut, I can’t see. My face doesn’t have skin on it.

Nobody responded or cared how badly I was hurt. The head of the department was there and he said that I should go home. They told me only to show up for a safety hearing the following morning. Then the guard, an African American man, looked at me and said ‘I will take you home.’ He risked his job going off shift leaving early to drive me home. When I got home my partner took me to Alta Bates hospital burn unit where they kept me for a week.

She still builds

My lawyer and I went to a hearing with the EEOC. My face was still recovering from the burns but the hearing was simply about being hit by a co-worker on the job. It wasn’t about the explosion accident.

EEOC would have found in my favor but the EEOC officer asked me if I was going to take it to federal court and sue US Steel and not knowing any better I said yes. I didn’t understand that it would take five years to even get to court and I was going up against a major corporation. It would cost me and I was unemployed. So they found against me because they said if they’d found for me I couldn’t take it to court. So I lost my suit. And that ended my career in welding.

OSHA never found out about the accident. About a year later I was volunteering for Tradeswomen Inc. with Madeline Mixer at her Women’s Bureau office in the San Francisco federal building. Madeline took me down the hall to talk to the head of OSHA who was upset with me that I never contacted them. I didn’t know that I was responsible to contact them. So nothing ever happened to US Steel.

I never learned who turned the pressure back on. We all understood that US Steel was known for killing or maiming workers who complained. And that’s the way the industry ran back in those days.”

Teresa (L) and Joan at the Rosie the Riveter contest in Richmond

For many years after the accident, Joan looked like a reverse raccoon, her face red where the skin had burned off and white around her eyes, which had been protected by plastic safety glasses (they melted). Today, 39 years later, you can’t see the burns unless she points them out. Joan still loves welding and she uses her many skills at her current job working at a vineyard in Sonoma County. In her spare time she teaches beekeeping and building trades to women and girls. She lives in Santa Rosa with her wife Teresa Romaine, a retired painting contractor.

Betsy Brown Traveled Around

Dear Readers,

In an effort to record the history of the Tradeswomen Movement and the stories of the first women to enter the construction trades, I’ve been interviewing some of my tradeswoman sisters. Here is the first of many to come. As a sister electrician, I had heard of Betsy Brown but I didn’t get to know her until she had founded the first (and only) union contracting business in San Francisco (and probably the state of California) owned and run by female electricians. 

BBrownElectrician Betsy Brown started her apprenticeship in 1979 in the Pacific Northwest where indoor plumbing and women’s toilets with locks were set up early on the construction site. So she was shocked to walk onto a nuclear power plant job in Texas and see (and smell) a quarter-mile-long line of port-a-potties. Betsy was, in the electrician’s lingo, a traveler most of her career because she had trouble finding work.

Betsy was born in 1951 and raised in San Francisco by a family of “Jewish Communist atheists.” It was a good life full of music and friends, she said. She was brought up on anti-war marches and union picket lines and she learned to be an organizer at a young age. She lived with her mother and three siblings for four years at her grandfather’s farm in Southern California while her father went underground during the McCarthy era of Communist witch-hunts. Her longshoreman father, Archie Brown, and two uncles had fought in the Spanish Civil War with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.

Betsy got involved in politics early on. She said she got her organizing skills from her mother, Hon, a legal secretary. “Today I would call it project management,” she said. At 14 she was part of the Students Education and Action League, a multi-school anti-war organization. They put out a mimeographed newspaper. “We had the good fortune of the Board of Education deciding to ban the newspaper,” she said, which of course increased sales. She went to the police to get a permit for a march and they pulled out a file with her name on it. “Are you Elizabeth Brown?” Yes. “Are you Archie Brown’s daughter?” Yes. She was surprised to find that the cops already had a file on her at age14. She got the permit.

She was there in San Francisco during the summer of love in 1967 and lived for a time in the Haight-Ashbury. Then, at 19, she put her dog and guitar in her car and drove north. She ended up in Bellingham, Washington and spent the next period of her life in the Pacific Northwest.

Betsy was living on a little farm near Hood River, Oregon with her boyfriend, their two kids and two other adults when the collective decided they needed to get real jobs to make some money.  She saw an ad for the electrical apprenticeship and thought “Why not?” so she drove the hour west to Portland to take the test with several hundred other applicants. She couldn’t believe it when she was granted an interview where they asked dumb questions like, “Do you really think you can drive to Portland everyday?” Later she realized she had been chosen to fail. The all-white all-male unions were under pressure to diversify. Her testers thought no five-foot tall woman could possibly succeed at construction work. She proved them wrong.

The apprenticeship guys assured her that it would be months before she was called to work so she thought she would have time to wean her month-old son. Instead she was called up within two months to work on the new I-205 bridge across the Columbia River. She left her kids with the collective and drove to Portland. The first day on the job her shirt was soaked through with milk. Her journeyman noticed and commented, “Baby at home?” That was it. “The IBEW weaned my baby and they didn’t even know it,” she said.

To work on that bridge, you had to walk a plank about 16 inches wide out to where work was going on 60 feet above the river. The first day every eye on the job was on her as she walked the plank. She was terrified of heights, but would never admit it to anyone on the job. Her journeyman told her, “Don’t look around. Just keep walking.” Eventually the others all went back to their work. During its construction, three men died on that bridge.

I-205_BRIDGE
The I-205 bridge just before it opened. Photo: Clark History

The main job for electricians on the bridge crew was to keep the pumps in the cofferdams running. One day the pump quit and Betsy’s journeyman didn’t show up to work. So, with all eyes on her, the first-year apprentice had to take the skiff out on the river by herself, tie it up to the cofferdam and figure out how to get the pump started. Once she did that, she began to build a reputation as a good mechanic. Her journeyman had instructed her, “You just have to look like you know what you’re doing.” That was good advice, she said.

Quick thinking during another near disaster also sealed her reputation as one who stays calm under pressure. Out on the icy river in the skiff one day the engine died and she and the journeyman were getting sucked into the river out amidst the barges and platforms with the possibility of capsizing.Betsy was able to grab a rope and tie up the boat before it got far.

Later in her apprenticeship Betsy worked on a paper plant in Newport Oregon, a fun job where she got to bend lots of rigid conduit. Her apprenticeship consisted entirely of industrial work. She had never done commercial or residential work when a downturn hit and she got laid off. She had finished the required school hours, but not work hours and so was not able to turn out (graduate) as a journeyman. So she decided to try traveling. Except there was a catch 22. Apprentices are not allowed to travel (that’s what the term journeyman means). But there was no way to get the required work hours in her Portland local. Betsy convinced the apprenticeship to give her a travel letter by telling them the union had allowed it, then convinced the union that the apprenticeship had allowed it.

Betsy Brown on Newburg OR paper job
Betsy (L) with the other women on the Newport paper plant job

Someone told her there was work in Phoenix, so she went there. In Phoenix they said work was stopped because of rain. Betsy countered that in Portland if you didn’t work when it rained, you would never work at all. Then they said she would have to wait for the next apprenticeship class to start, which could be years away. They told her there was work on a nuclear power plant in Texas near Houston, so she went there. She arrived alone with no connections and no place to stay but the IBEW sister/brotherhood there took her in and made her part of their family.

The job was gigantic with a thousand electricians and a wide variety of other trades. That’s where she encountered the long line of smelly port-a-potties. The job sucked. There wasn’t enough work. Boredom stupefied. “You’d be excited to get to run 20 feet of pipe, then you’d have to wait half a day for the inspector,” she said. Her electrician husband, Jim, brought the kids down and the family lived in a “road trash trailer park, the only integrated housing in the town of Bay City.” She worked there November to August until she just couldn’t take it anymore. Heat, humidity, boredom and port-a-potties pushed her over the edge.

After she left Texas, Betsy joined IBEW Local 551 in Santa Rosa, whose territory includes much of Northern California. She found work at The Geysers where she finally turned out as a “journeyman inside wireman.” She ran for office and served on the executive board of the local, the first woman to do so. When she found out the dispatcher was discriminating against her and others she tried to organize a lawsuit but no one wanted to join. So she took her tools on the road again, signing the books at several San Francisco Bay Area locals.

Betsy Brown with Geysers crew
With the electrical crew at the Geysers out of local 551, Santa Rosa CA, 1984. Betsy was still an apprentice. She turned out as a journeyman on this job.

In San Francisco she got involved with the Two Gate Committee. Contractors had developed a system where union workers used one gate on the job and nonunion workers used another. Unions were prohibited from protesting with the traditional picket line. So workers from multiple trades formed an a-hoc committee to protest. The chant was “One gate two gates three gates four. A scab’s a scab through any door.” They organized a huge demonstration to protest the ABC, the nonunion contractors association, when their convention came to town. It was a huge gathering that lasted three days. A veteran of many demonstrations, Betsy observed, “It was so interesting to see how the police treated construction workers as opposed to war protesters. Police feel more brotherhood with construction workers.” The contractors sued two individuals in the committee and the Two Gate Committee then had to focus on their defense. Charges were eventually dropped and the committee disbanded.

Betsy next got a temporary job with the city of San Francisco as a traffic signal electrician where she worked for about a year. She said it was a great job, but she didn’t understand how much antipathy there was until she looked back on the experience. “(I used) whatever armor we put on to work with those assholes…because if you noticed it at every turn you’d go crazy,” she said.

On a jobsite, handing out two gate leaflets she ran into a woman from her old local in Portland, Jay Mullins, and they hatched a plan to start a contracting business, Thunder Electric. Betsy was still having trouble getting work and felt she either had to quit working out of the halls or go to work for herself. They started small. “We were two girls and a truck. We worked out of Jay’s garage.”

The IBEW business agent told them that as soon as they got big enough to hire a hand, they could be organized into the union. In the meantime, they worked on mostly residential remodel projects in San Francisco. In a serendipitous encounter at a bid meeting another experienced contractor approached Betsy wanting to partner with a minority contractor. It was a $250,000 job at the airport. “I said I don’t think I can bond this job. So he wrote me a check for $23,000 for that bid and after that he helped us get bonded. The hardest part of contracting is finding someone to float your bond. Once you have one bond, then you can get the next bond,” she said.

Thunder Electric
Betsy (L), Jay (R) and their business partner Mike

Jay and Betsy agreed they would take no jobs relating to incarceration or weapons. They worked on quite a few public works projects. As a San Francisco city electrical inspector I inspected at least one of their jobs—the upgrade of the North Beach sewage treatment plant. Thunder Electric had no trouble attracting and keeping experienced hands. “We were a good company to work for,” she told me.

Through luck and organizing ability they expanded their business until they were keeping 30 San Francisco IBEW Local 6 electricians working. Betsy found she liked working as an electrician far better than contracting, but she is most proud of being able to employ so many hands at union wages. She sold out her share of the business to Jay and another partner and some years later Jay dissolved the business. It remains the only Local 6 contracting business owned and run by women who started out as electricians.

Back in Portland Jay also found she had trouble getting work. “They don’t want you because you’re a woman and they don’t want you because you’re old,” she said.

Betsy really always wanted to be a farmer, and she gave it a go a couple of times. She tried apple farming in Eastern Washington but didn’t have adequate capitalization. After selling out of the contracting business she and Jim bought a small farm in Round Valley, California on the Indian reservation planning a peaceful farming life. Then her 19-year-old son got cancer and she had to find a job to support him (It’s a good story; he survived). She worked as a project manager for a contractor, then for an estimator.

Then she saw an ad for a job project managing a community center and housing project on the Round Valley Indian reservation. At the interview she asked where her desk would be. When they showed her she said, “Can you put a window right there?” They said sure and she took the job. She had learned from experience that you have to get everything you want right when you’re getting hired—salary, extra vacation days, benefits. “When they want you, you can get it, but after you’re hired you can’t,” she said. She took over the project management and was able to train a crew of local Native American tribal members to continue it. Now she is organizing a co-op of marijuana growers. Those organizing skills she learned as an activist and a contractor have come in handy in “retirement.”

Al Crosby 1931-2018

 

Al Crosby didn’t gain fame until we had all left Washington State University and the little town of Pullman, out in the middle of the wheat fields. All our changes were there.

Al was the rare professor who bridged the generation gap and communed with us students. He even lived with us for a time in the Rosa Luxemburg Collective, a 40-something among us 20-something student radicals. I’m not sure I ever adequately apologized for that inedible garbanzo loaf. If any of you Rosa communards are reading this, I’d like to do so now. In my defense, I was stoned on acid.

Those were turbulent times. We vigorously protested the war in Vietnam and the bombing of Cambodia, the genocidal impulses of our rogue government. But our big student strike in the spring of 1970 was about racism. The university administration met our demand for a Black Studies program and Al, the white guy with the Boston accent, was tapped to teach Black History. That changed his life, and he changed our lives.

Thirty-five years later I was reading Charles Mann’s book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus and I kept seeing Alfred Crosby referred to in footnotes. Could it be OUR Al? Of course, by then I could google him. I learned that Al’s 1972 book The Columbian Exchange had revolutionized the way historians view history! Al invented the concept of environmental history. He wrote a few other books as well, including Ecological Imperialism and a little history of explosions, Throwing Fire. He had become an expert on the flu epidemic of 1918 and I just saw him interviewed on PBS American Experience.

Some of us old communards got in touch and began a correspondence. Al had retired and was living with his wife Fran Karttunen on Nantucket Island. That’s where he died, of Parkinson’s disease, at Our Island Home where he had lived for two years.

Fran wrote to me: Al drew his last breath on March 14. There had been a tremendous wind and snow storm. Al waited out the storm and when it had passed and the sun was shining on fresh snow, Al followed Stephen Hawking into some other dimension where I would like to think of the two of them sharing a good laugh at the universe.

Russia on My Mind

 

Shelby Morgan 1949-2017

The Soviet Experiment 1917-1992

My latest favorite T-shirt shows two punks of indeterminate gender kissing. Its message is in Cyrillic script. I asked my friend Shelby, who had lived in Russia for a year, to translate, but she wasn’t able to make sense of it. Then recently I was wearing it when I encountered a Russian woman at a party celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. She gladly translated its message.punk

Shut up! Shut up! Punk out!

Now that I know its message is from the Pussy Riot era, I love the T-shirt even more. Wearing it on the anniversary of the 1917 revolution conjures thoughts of tangled Russian history.

I’ve been thinking about Russia a lot as I’ve been grieving the death of my friend Shelby Morgan. Shelby was a Russophile who loved Russian culture and the Russian people. She was deeply influenced by the poet Anna Ahkmatova.

I interviewed Shelby as she was dying of ovarian cancer. The story of her life is fascinating and I learned so much that I had not known. I was especially interested in how she became radicalized and why she joined the Communist Party.

Shelby Morgan was born in 1949. Her birth day, May 19, was the same birth day as Ho Chi Minh, Malcolm X and Augusto Sandino. When she walked into Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco and saw a poster with the date and pictures of all of them, she knew she was destined to be a revolutionary.

ShelbyM
Shelby Morgan

Shelby was born and raised in Corning, a little Arkansas town on the Mississippi Delta. It was flat farming country, hot and muggy. Her father was a traveling fertilizer salesman.

Growing up a white girl in the South during the Civil Rights Movement colored Shelby’s political development. The forced integration of Little Rock Central High in 1957 when she was eight years old stunned her.

“I remember saying to my mom, ‘why would people act this way just because of skin color?’ Mom said, ‘It makes no sense.’ That was a very big deal to me.”

Because the Arkansas education system was so terrible, her parents sent her to a boarding school for white young ladies in Memphis, Tennessee in 11th grade (1966-67). Most of the students were from Mississippi and Alabama where schools had just been integrated, so their parents sent them there to get them out of the integrated public schools.

Shelby landed in San Francisco in the early 1970s. Her first job was at the Exploratorium where she worked with its founder, Frank Oppenheimer. The younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, he had been blacklisted during the McCarthy era.

“He would play the flute while I played piano. We had a sweet little friendship going on. He was an old man at that point, an old commie. His atonement for his brother Robert’s involvement with the atom bomb was to start the Exploratorium.”

She joined the Communist Party in 1978.

“I was totally anti-capitalist at this point and even with the disaster that the Left was in at that time, there was an international movement and it was just thrilling to me. I just felt this was where the good work was being done. And it was fun. Man, did I have fun. The people were just great.”

By that time, most of the older generation of commies had left the Party after learning of Stalin’s purges.

“The old commies, people who’d left the Party, said ‘what about Czechoslovakia?’ We knew about all the atrocities. And I, because of my gender training, said I’d leave the theoretical issues up to the leadership who were primarily male. I said I’m about doing the work on the ground. And I just turned my back to it. It was only years later I started thinking I have to hold myself accountable for this too.”

Communists and others around the world were encouraged by Mikhail Gorbachev’s promise of reforms after he was elected to leadership of the Soviet Union in 1985. When the era of perestroika and glasnost arrived, “we were hot for Gorbachev. I didn’t officially drop out of the Party till we moved to Russia in 1990.”

1988_CPA_5942
Perestroika postage stamp 1988

Shelby’s husband at the time, Dan, was accepted to do research in Russia. They took their four-year-old daughter, Sarah, with them to Russia in 1990. They came back one week before Gorbachev was overthrown in 1991.

“It was a very Interesting and difficult year. We were in Leningrad (now called Saint Petersburg, the cultural capital and the second largest city in Russia). This is hard to talk about because it was so difficult. Russians were really suffering at that point. For the first four months I was living the life of a Soviet woman, so while Dan was in the archives at the University of Leningrad, I would wait in line. There was no food to be had. You would go into a store and the shelves would be literally empty. I would stand in line for a soup bone and cabbage for two hours. We lived off cabbage soup. Fortunately Sarah got fed three days a week at school. After four months we got diplomatic coupons so we could shop. Even then I had to ride a bus across town for an hour to shop. Buses were so crowded. To get on you would have to push people. Sarah was sick all the time with earaches. The clinics and hospitals were filthy. They had no equipment, not even syringes. There was no hot water. I had to boil water to bathe and to wash clothes.

In 1991 the Soviet Union was in a severe economic crisis. The government was collapsing.

“We lived a block from Red Square in Leningrad. People were burning effigies of Gorbachev in the square. I remember standing in Red Square just sobbing. My dreams were dashed. Then Dan went to another city for a while to do research and left Sarah and me in Leningrad after we’d only been there a couple of months. My Russian was very poor. The Iraq war broke out. The American embassy called us together and told us we had to be really careful, lay low, watch your back. Sure enough one night someone threw a rock through Sarah’s bedroom window. I was just terrified.”

“I had a job teaching psychology (Transactional Analysis) at U of Leningrad. The Russians were hungry for input from the West. Psychology was dismal there. I also taught at a collective called Harmonia and did a Radical Therapy (RT) group.”

Her husband was researching a biography of the physiologist Ian Pavlov.

“When the summer came around, we moved out to the country to Pavlov’s daughter’s house in Komarovo on the Finnish-Soviet border. Stalin had built a village there for artists and intellectuals. It was where Pushkin had lived along with other famous artists and writers. I was really happy there. It was a sweet village with pine and birch trees and a beautiful lake. We used to pick berries. There were no cars. Most people caught a train between Leningrad and Komarovo. Everyone rode bikes there. On the way to the lake there was an old graveyard with old crosses and tombstones where the great female Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, was buried. My father died then just as the government was changing and I couldn’t get a plane back. This was just weeks before Gorbachev was overthrown. Everything was shut down. So I hung out at Akhmatovas’s grave to mourn my dad.”

220px-Anna_Ahmatova's_grave
Akhmatova’s grave

As her marriage dissolved and she mourned her father’s death, Shelby watched as anti-Gorbachev forces grew. In Leningrad she heard tanks rumbling by on the cobblestone street outside their window.

“We were supposed to come back in September but I started thinking about getting Sarah in kindergarten so we came back early or else we would have been there (on August 19, 1991) when Gorbachev was actually overthrown.”

“We knew it was going to happen just the way it did because there was no civil society to butt up against the government and the mafia. Because it was so heavily state run.”

In the States Shelby worked as a youth counselor, a union organizer, in electoral politics, in the anti-apartheid movement, in the non-profit world, sometimes the only white person on staff. Shelby’s anti-capitalist outlook influenced her work in the Radical Therapy Movement.

“The theory was you should work only with people in groups, not individuals because unhappiness in life was not based on mental illness. It was a result of alienation from meaningful work, from community, from your body, from meaningful relationships. It was a way to anti-pathologize people’s unhappiness, a total anti-medical model of psychology.

“The reason people have trouble doing that: we grow up under capitalism, which is based on the idea that some people have to win, some have to lose. It’s based on competition and we carry that into our relationships. So RT developed this set of skills to teach people to have cooperative rather than competitive relationships. Radical Therapy was really key to building a mediation movement.”

Finding a time to interview Shelby was not easy. Even as she was dying, she was organizing, working for single payer health care, marching in demonstrations against Trump and for equality and justice. She was a lifelong activist and she is dearly missed by a large community of friends and comrades.

Shelby Morgan died August 28, 2017

Anna Akhmatova

Kuzma_petrov-vodkin,_ritratto_di_anna_akhmatova,_1922
Akhmatova

From Wikipedia I learned that the poet Anna Akhmatova remained in Russia during the revolution and until her death in 1966. For long periods she was in official disfavor, and many of her relatives and friends fell victim to Soviet political repression.

In February 1917, the revolution started in Petersburg (then named Petrograd); soldiers fired on marching protestors, and others mutinied. In a city without electricity or sewage service, with little water or food, they faced starvation and sickness. Ahkmatova’s friends died around her and others left in droves for safer havens in Europe and America. She had the option to leave, and considered it for a time, but chose to stay and was proud of her decision to remain. She wrote of her own temptation to leave:

A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
It said, “Come here,
Leave your deaf and sinful land,
Leave Russia forever,
I will wash the blood from your hands,
Root out the black shame from your heart,
[…] calmly and indifferently,
I covered my ears with my hands,
So that my sorrowing spirit
Would not be stained by those shameful words.

— When in suicidal anguish, trans. Jane Kenyon

Russia on My Mind

On the revolution’s centenary I’ve been thinking about Russia as I read articles by the prolific journalist Masha Gessen and The Unwomanly Face of War by Pulitzer Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich who chronicles stories of Soviet women soldiers in World War II. Then I picked up the Smithsonian magazine to read a compelling piece by Ian Frazier, Whatever Happened to the Russian Revolution. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/what-ever-happened-to-russian-revolution-180964768/. He condenses the history for us in between reminiscences of his travels to Russia in the last 24 years.

There are many lessons here. I hope we Americans can learn them soon enough to avoid contemporary political catastrophes.

Radical Lesbian Foremothers

Longtime friends Angela Romagnoli and Lynn Stern were two of the foremothers of the Radical Lesbian movement. I sat down with them last November to record their story. Angie had been diagnosed with cancer and had undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatments. She died July 5, 2017. Angie leaves her wife of 39 years, Megan Adams, and their son Reese Adams-Romagnoli.

All three of us—Angie, Lynn and I—were born in the year 1949 and we all started college in 1967. We were all the oldest sibling in our families. We were all involved in radical politics in college and came out as lesbians. I was at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. They met at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. Their stories resonate with me even though U of M is far from the wheat fields of eastern Washington State. We were making the same revolution.

Angela and Lynn first met when Angie encountered Lynn sitting on her bed weeping with homesickness in their college dormitory. It was the fall of 1967 and both were 17. Lynn was very close to her family in Chicago, and especially her mother. It was the first time she had lived away from home. They were roommates the next year in another dorm and they became lovers in 1970. They broke up in in 1978, but their friendship has lasted ever since.

Both of these women—all three of us—came from liberal families and the historical moment radicalized us.

The oldest of six siblings, Angie grew up in a union household. Her family moved to Dearborn, Michigan, just outside Detroit, when she was in high school. Dearborn was a white town, but they had lived in a mixed-race town before that. They watched as the city of Detroit fell apart, as jobs left the area and red lining took its toll on black citizens. Angie went to a progressive high school where she developed a class analysis.

Lynn was the oldest of three siblings. Her family were liberals and secular Jews.

In 1967 the U.S. government was escalating the war in Vietnam. The student anti-war movement gained steam. Lynn and Angie went to a bunch of meetings, looking around campus for a group to join.

“We saw who was just talking and who was doing. We didn’t want to hear guys just jacking off,” said Angie. “We picked SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) because they were doing sit-ins and actions, talking to classes.”

They went to marches, broke windows. “I was a baseball player and had a great arm,” said Angie. One time Angie’s mother picked up Lynn’s jacket and the pockets were full of rocks. “You would put your lead pipe in the pocket of your pea coat.”

They wore combat boots, overalls. “We could strut our stuff. No bras,” remembered Angie. “You needed boots in Ann Arbor.”

One night they broke into the ROTC building on campus, trashed it and didn’t get caught. But the SDS had been infiltrated by cops and many demonstrators did get arrested, including their friend Nais (a mutual friend who now lives in San Francisco), also a student there.

“One time a phalanx of police scattered our march, arresting people. I was pulling the cops off people’s backs, but they didn’t arrest me,” remembered Angie.

By 1970, the women in SDS were pissed off, questioning the leadership and meeting dynamics. Feminists like Gayle Rubin came to SDS to talk and the women listened.

Although their recollections of how it happened differ, best friends Lynn and Angie became lovers in 1970. “We were happy. It was great,” effused Lynn.

“We were fed up with SDS,” said Angie. “That summer they said read Mao’s Combat Liberalism. That Cultural Revolution shit was offensive to me. I’m from the working class. I said the revolution is not coming around the corner. I wasn’t under an illusion.”

“We were still living in an SDS house in the summer of 1970, but we knew about the Radical Lesbians in New York and Berkeley,” said Lynn. Two of the New York women visited them and suggested they start their own radical lesbian collective.

We were isolated. We called up the two other lesbians we knew in town and we put an ad in the Michigan Daily. We got a meeting room on campus. Altogether ten people showed up. Gayle Rubin held up a book at the end of the meeting and said everyone should read this. It was The Story of O. (they both laugh) “We didn’t get it, didn’t even question her.”

So they had an organization, Ann Arbor Radicalesbians. “We hopped right from SDS to radical lesbians with no feminist group in between. Two hundred different women came to those meetings. “Judy Dlugacz (who later founded Olivia Records and Olivia Travel), was one of the first. ‘I’m writing a paper on lesbians,’ she said. Then she came back with a little curly-headed girlfriend,” laughed Angie.

“We organized the first lesbian softball team in the women’s league,” said Angie. “Martial arts was an extension of feminism.”

“We made a publication called the Purple Star. I wrote an article called The Personal is Political,” said Angie. “That was before the butch-femme diatribe. Our roommate confronted me and Lynn and said you are nothing but a butch-femme couple. I got mad and wrote an article. Lesbians and especially separatists were talking out of two sides of their mouths. On the one hand they overvalued everything that was butch. On the other hand we don’t want have anything to do with butch-femme heterosexual norms.”

Lynn said, “I cried when they called me a femme. I didn’t want to be in a straight relationship. It also made me feel less powerful. (to Angie) You got to be more powerful. I couldn’t play sports. I always knew I was cute and smart but wasn’t very outspoken. I felt I wasn’t successful.”

Angie defines butch as someone who had a high male identification as a child. “I don’t think anyone has all of one ID. Butch is a complex psychological construct. I definitely felt that applied to me. I was a super tomboy. There are a few in every elementary school. I got in trouble about what clothes to wear. Mom gave me Betsy Wetsy doll. I gave it to my sister. My friend who was catholic said she had a dream the virgin came to me and we will get turned into boys. I thought great!”

Lynn teased, “I remember the skirt she wore when we were working as waitresses in the union.”

Angie: “I had to wear a skirt to work so I just wore the same one every day.”

Angie: “We (Radicalesbians) went to other places like Bowling Green and gave talks to 500 people.”

Lynn: “You really have power, influence. We just talked about feeling like ourselves. We told them about how it came about.”

Asked about coming out as a lesbian, Lynn said, “It took a lot to come out to my parents. I couldn’t figure out how to tell my family. We were estranged. My mom said we were laughing at her.”

Angie: “I was really uncomfortable. I came out to them about 1973. We were totally dedicated to coming out here, there and everywhere.” Angie’s mom was always supportive. She never wanted to be left out of anything. Her mom was only 21 when she was born. “She liked to talk to everyone.”

Angie and Lynn lived together for nearly a decade, in various collective houses, always poor. One time four people slept in one room. “We weren’t monogamous. We had a lot of experimentation. I never really did respect nonmonogamy. It wasn’t for me. Group sex and…so stupid,” said Angie.

Then, in 1978 they broke up. It was traumatic.

Angie: “I was really lost.”

Lynn: “I thought it would be like my parents. They stuck by each other. To learn that it wasn’t forever, not what we thought.”

Angie: “We were so young, so inexperienced. We became merged. I felt like you resisted my having more separate things, separating more.”

Lynn stayed in Ann Arbor. Angie got together with Megan, her partner of 39 years. She moved to San Francisco in 1979, becoming a therapist and founding the first therapy group for survivors of sexual assault.

They never stopped being friends.

Chuck Cannon 1927-2016

img_9430I’m delighted that a version of this story was published in the New York Times: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2017/magazine/the-lives-they-loved-2017/stories/chuck-cannon

Chuck and I bonded on a walk of the Fort Point Gang along San Francisco’s waterfront. The Gang was remembering dead communists and labor leaders whose names are inscribed on wooden benches at Fort Point, and also observing May Day, the workers’ holiday commemorating the birth of the eight-hour-day. We fell into an easy pace and Chuck told me he was a retired piledriver and carpenter. I learned that Chuck was a long-time member of the Piledrivers Union Local 34. I’m a retired electrician and so we talked about construction work. Chuck was the only black person in the group of old Reds. He, along with many in the Gang, had been a member of the Communist Party USA. Along with most of his comrades, Chuck left the party, but the FBI kept on surveilling him for years.

gangbenches
Some of the Gang on the commemorative benches at Fort Point

It was my first walk with the Gang. I’d been angling for an invitation to join and was delighted to be invited by a friend I’d known in the labor movement. It had really been started as a walking group, a way to get some exercise, by the seaman Bill Bailey and some of his pals. Since sometime in the 70s, the group had been meeting every Thursday near the St. Francis Yacht Club and walking to Fort Point and back, a distance of about four miles. Afterward we would adjourn for lunch at the Seal Rock Inn near Land’s End.

Chuck Cannon grew up in a small all-black community, Lake Como, in Fort Worth, Texas, and some years ago he started a blog about his hometown. By his account it was a wonderful childhood in a place where everybody knew everybody, although racism loomed large. He told me about hunting rabbits and squirrels and recalled vivid memories of the Texas prairie. He named the blog “ Warm Prairie Wind.”

chuckyvonne
Chuck and Yvonne

In 2010, soon after we met, Chuck fell from a ladder while working on his house, breaking his right leg when it got stuck between the rungs. He was 82 then and never fully recovered. Over the years Chuck had remodeled the family’s 1910 Craftsman-style home, upgrading bathrooms, kitchen, bedrooms, building a basement garage and driveway and adding a deck off the kitchen. He was a handy guy with a full shop in the basement. And he didn’t let his poorly healed leg stop him. He rebuilt the deck, rigging it so he didn’t have to get on a ladder to do the work.

But by the time I came along, he and everyone else were too old and slow to make the whole walk with the Gang. By the time he died, at the end of 2016, he had not been walking far but, at 89, he kept walking. His wife of 64 years, Yvonne, a remarkable poet, would always be with him on the walks and I feel so lucky to have become friends with her as well. Yvonne became my writing teacher when I joined her group at a local senior center. Yvonne and Chuck raised three daughters together and found acceptance as a bi-racial couple in their Inner Richmond District neighborhood.

gangsealrock
Lunch at the Seal Rock Inn

The deaths of the members of the Fort Point Gang mark the end of an era. The old commies represent a generation of people who sacrificed much in the service of justice and equality. They inspire me to fight the good fight.

Carla Jean Johnson Presente

PreScript: The New York Times published my tribute to Carla in its year-end “The Lives They Loved” section:

http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/storywall/the-lives-they-loved-2016/stories/carla-jean-johnson?smid=fb-share

I was delighted to be asked to eulogize Carla at a memorial for her at the Bayview Opera House on July 23, which would have been her 57th birthday. The Opera House is just now reopening after a restoration which Carla, as head of the Mayor’s Office on Disability, had a big part in. Her office provided vital funding for disability access, and now wheelchair users can enter through the front door. Here’s what I said about Carla.

Photo of Carla by Anna Kuperberg
Photo of Carla by Anna Kuperberg

Carla Johnson was my bestie. I loved her. I introduced her to her wife Anna. Carla and I worked together as building inspectors through the 90s; we worked on each other’s old houses for decades (of course we had permits for everything). Together we negotiated the prejudices we faced as women in the building trades. There were many. Still are.

From the time she made her first cutting board in high school shop class, Carla Johnson wanted to be a carpenter. She quit school at Cal to follow her dream and didn’t finish college till years later. She became a builder, working for small contractors and for a women’s carpentry collective called Seven Sisters Construction.

Carla's CCC card
Carla’s CCC card

In those days, it wasn’t easy for women to get training (still isn’t). Carla learned the carpentry trade by reading. She told me she would just ask at the end of every day, “What are we doing tomorrow?” Then she would go home and open her carpentry books and the first thing the next morning she’d start throwing the terminology around. “So, we’re going to put the joists 16 inches on center, right. We’re going to start with the header joist.” She was assigned to be crew boss because she was the one who consistently showed up on time.

Later, she did maintenance on Victorian buildings for a property management company. She got a lot of love from tenants for keeping the systems going. She was a skilled locksmith. She could rehang a door that had been kicked in before the tenants got home from work. She could jerry rig the boiler so tenants would have hot water till the boiler repairperson could get there. Carla loved old buildings. She loved old houses, old trucks, old things. Things with some history in them.

With my friend Huli at the restored Bayview Opera House
With my friend Huli at the restored Bayview Opera House

For a time she had her own business, Carla’s Custom Care Construction. No doubt she worked on the homes of some of you in this room. Then she got a civil service job working as a carpenter at the Department of Public Works where she felt privileged to work on City Hall and other historic public buildings.

I didn’t meet Carla till after the saw accident that mangled her left hand and changed her life. It was shocking that such an accident could happen to her. She was the most risk-adverse safety-conscious person I ever met (a trait that sometimes drove her friends crazy).

She told me she couldn’t even remember the date it happened in 1992, which she said is a good thing for people with PTSD. She lost her little finger and she suffered through many long surgeries to repair her ring finger, and a year of rehab. She was disabled. She couldn’t earn a living as a carpenter anymore.

She told me the first thing that her workers comp attorney said to her when she got out of the hospital was, “I want to tell you about this new law that just went into effect.” Her employer had an obligation under Title 1 of the Americans with Disabilities Act to provide her with a reasonable accommodation–to place her in a job where she could still use the skills without the tools. That’s how she came to work at the Department of Building Inspection. Carla was happy when she was assigned to the Castro as a district inspector. She always loved working with “my people.”

One job of a building inspector is to perfect the art of saying no, not always an easy thing to do, especially if you’ve been on the receiving end as a contractor who has to do the job over after you fail inspection. Carla, with her quiet thoughtful demeanor, could say no and make you feel grateful for her advice.

She developed a reputation as a stickler for the building code’s technical details. Competent contractors who played by the rules liked her. Sloppy mechanics with poor workmanship hated her. Stairs are required by code to be the exact same height for a reason. Varying stair heights can cause falls. Carla carried a measuring tape and she used it. Our friend Nina Saltman just now told me about a job she ran that failed Carla’s inspection because it was a quarter inch off. She is not the only one who tells that story.

Carla became an expert on disability access. And she became a skillful advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. At DBI she saved us taxpayers money by resolving disability issues out of court. Then she moved over to the Mayor’s Office on Disability and she eventually was promoted to head that department.

When Carla called me to tell me she had just been diagnosed with stage IV metastasized breast cancer, I said, “I’m coming over now.” I ran the five blocks to find Carla and Anna standing in front of their house conferring.

“I need help,” Carla said when I got there.

“Anything,” I said, grateful there was something I could do to help my sick friend.

“I need you to get up on the roof.” She wanted me to accompany her to check whether the roofers who worked on the house next door damaged her roof. This was so very Carla. She wouldn’t be able to rest until she made sure her roof was sound.

Carla was fascinated by the details of city government. She would entertain herself during nights of insomnia by watching commission meetings on the public TV channel. I will especially miss talking about city government and politics with Carla over a beer at the Wildside or the Lucky Horseshoe. It was a topic that bored our wives and most friends.

Carla was the kind of civil servant all citizens want working for us, who understands she is there to make our lives better. But at heart she was a carpenter, a builder. She built a life that impacted so many of us, she built institutions, she built buildings, she built a marriage, a home, a neighborhood, lasting relationships.

We marvel at her legacy. And now those of us who are left must do the maintenance.