Race and Gender

Telegraph Hill – 1974

By Eric Johnson

I worked for Plant Bros. of San Francisco in the early Seventies.  After a probation period, they sent me to a jobsite that had just begun, in the shadow of Telegraph Hill, right by the waterfront. They had to completely overhaul an old grain warehouse and convert it into an upscale office building.  The location was great – you could walk at lunch-break over to the wharves, or just sit in a vacant lot and look at the Bay. And the building was interesting, especially as we began to mine our way into it.  It was a remnant of the industrial past of San Francisco’s waterfront, a brick five-story warehouse with rugged interiors.  We had to earthquake-proof it, tear up flooring, destroy the old freight elevator shaft, and then frame up the new sets of offices.  The flooring had been laid when mahogany was cheap, so we were cutting through two tongue-and-groove, inch-thick mahogany floor layers.  We burned out blade after blade of our skilsaws and spent weeks with crowbars ripping out and dumpstering the wood. Then re-flooring it with heavy plywood.

 This first month was not really carpentry, but I liked it. For one thing, I had an apprentice assigned to me – which was my first time having that responsibility. He was a young Chinese guy who I liked immediately. Eugene knew he was a token of integration for the union – there were less than ten Asian carpenters, and the local was under pressure from all minorities to open up. Eugene and I were attuned in the political culture of San Francisco in the early Seventies and we also both knew how to work with alacrity.  Things got even more interesting when they hired a Mexican-American woman named Inez Garcia. She was only the second woman in the union’s history.  I had worked with the other, at the General Hospital job. They had assigned her to simply push in all the snap-ties on all the forms, thus earning her the name “snap-tie Mary”. There was a quarrel in the union to get her boss to actually let her learn the trade.

 Now Inez was in that position, but it was more promising.  The foreman was civil to her and we formed-up a little team, with Eugene and I and Inez and an older Italian guy named Ron.  I was given the lead responsibility of cutting a big trapezoidal hole through all five floors for the new open stairway in the center of the building.   The foreman and I studied the blueprint, devising a way to place that trapezoid correctly in reference to the walls – then I explained it all and assigned us to different duties. It went ahead really well at first.  The challenge of the cutting was apparent and the two young recruits felt that I was teaching them things.  We had lively lunch breaks, and I started looking forward to coming in to work.

After the layout was agreed on, we built walls along those lines from the floor to ceiling, tightly wedged so that the weight of the floor above would be supported when we cut the shape out of it. We finished it late one day, and the next morning we were going to start the cut on the second floor. I woke up early with a clutch of anxiety. Something was wrong, I was sure of it.  I got to work early and studied the blueprint, stared at the lines, the walls…and suddenly knew what it was.  We had built one of the walls on the wrong side of our chalk line; it would be the width of the two-by-six too small! Oh shit, this will look bad. Good that I’d caught it before we cut through above, but… here we had this big twelve-foot-high wall we had to tear down. Luck was with me, as the foreman had to be at another job for the first hour. I told the others what we’d done, and they gravely considered it. I told them we had a slim chance to avoid detection if we all four went at this furiously; removing nails, sledge-hammering the walls over, adding some pieces to fill in, plumbing-and-lining it again…and re-nailing. So that’s what we did, everyone working twice as fast as usual… and just had the wall in place and nailed when the foreman came in. I was already upstairs laying out the cuts. He waved happily and we were home free.

Credit: Western Neighborhoods Project

Those cuts were not simple either.  Once we had lines snapped and were dead certain of them, we had to Skil saw through the double layers of mahogany. Then we confronted the huge joists, rough 4 x 12 timbers, some of them doubled-up.  The foreman got us a chainsaw, and after carefully extending the lines down over the angles of the joists, I started lopping them off, confident from my memory of doing the same thing on the roof at the Unitarian Church.  This all went very well, and we progressed upward the remaining four landings, making the same cut each time.  Inez and I became good friends, Eugene was becoming the job wit, and I was beginning to enjoy my own leadership. It was interesting to see the way what they wanted to have happen socially was allowing me to be more who I was. Not a leader with commanding certainty, but someone who would let others see my process, my confusions.  I could ask for help, and even make things fun.

The new elevator was going to be hydraulic, and it needed a hole as deep as the building was tall – for the piston to recede down into it when the elevator was on the ground floor. So there was a big drilling rig at the building’s edge, boring a four-foot-wide hole…sixty feet deep.  At thirty feet they hit some rubble. Pieces of the old waterfront fill.  Then there was stone.  The auger couldn’t penetrate it and they brought in a specialist.

 Mario was a Latino guy who was like a deep-sea diver. He was to be lowered down the hole with a jackhammer so he could break up the layer of stone. We saw him getting ready early the first morning and Inez asked him what the hell he was going to do?  It looked strange, the special winch they had for lowering him down, the cradle of canvas straps, the jackhammer hose, his oxygen mask.  He explained the whole thing as if it were routine, then says he never feels claustrophobic because he smokes a joint first. I had trouble understanding that part.  If I smoked a joint first, the last place in creation I’d want to be, would be thirty feet down a shaft too narrow to move around in. But he assured us it was the only way he could stay calm and focus on the simple task of it. I said, what if you space out and don’t realize you’re not getting enough air? He said he had a regular code of tugs on the rope and that they would frequently tug at him for response.  Jesus.  We watched him go down…and then felt the vibrations of the hammer.  He worked about a half hour and then they pulled him up, covered with dust.  He laughed at us, drank some water, and went back down again.  We talked about it all day, how…bizarre it was.  Mario was either a great hero …or a chump who would be dead tomorrow.

He didn’t die, but he did share his joint with Inez, Gene & me the next morning.  Two tokes was enough to make me want to go off wandering along the waterfront to study wave patterns and old fishermen. Gene and Inez were used to smoking more, and able to buoy me up those first few hours. The work we were doing was hilarious for a while. Gene started giggling at the stack of fresh plywood.  He said there were flies on it, it was ridiculous somehow.  I got a can of spray paint and wrote “ FLY WOOD” on it huge. We were hysterical. “Inez! Go get us a sheet of flywood!”  She exploded when she saw it. What fun!  But, but, … I was the lead man, I had to fight through this, I had to keep working and, like Mario, find somehow the even keel of bemusement yet purpose.  It wasn’t easy and I decided next day to pass on the offered joint. In fact it was fifteen years before I ever tried that again, and then almost fell off a roof. Not all of us are as talented as Mario.  At the end of the week we had decided that in truth he was a hero of the first order.  He had broken through several feet of hard rock and the auger went back at it.  Mario shook hands with a grin, and rode off into the fog.

Our foreman was transferred, and a new guy brought in. At first we liked him all right.  He seemed comfortable with the two young minority apprentices, and came over to yak with us often.  But after a week, he started being too comfortable…with Inez.  He kept her after work one day with a contrived duty, and a few days later switched her to a solo task, which broke up our team.  She was given the job of boring all the holes in the brick wall on every floor, that would allow the earthquake bolts to be set in from floor structure to exterior brick. There were hundreds of these to do, and one had to get down on knees or recline positions to hold the impact drill with any authority. It was…the worst job.  Each of us had done it for a few hours on other days, and at first we thought, well, someone has to do it, apprentices often get this kind of grunge work.  But then it went on the next day, and the next.  Inez came up to me after work and said we had to talk.  We went for coffee and she told me that Jim had propositioned her a couple of days back…and she had turned him down.  He was pissed and told her he would make life miserable for her unless she ‘dated’ him.

So that explained the sentence of hard labor.  Inez was furious, but she felt she had no grounds for saying she shouldn’t have to do the job.  Inez was really a rugged, working-class woman.  The last thing she wanted was to be perceived as whining about physical labor.  In fact, she was as strong as me, a formidable person – who also was not a bit afraid of Jim physically.  In fact, she was bigger than him. That made it even more disgusting.  He was unable to force her or convince her or attract her.   The raw power of the paycheck was what he had.  When she had complained that he was treating her unfairly with the hole-drilling, he’d simply said, “Okay; then date me or you’re fired!

 I advised her to go to the union in the morning before work. Apprentices are supposed to be instructed, for one thing. And then of course there’s the sexual harassment, a legitimate and potentially scandalous thing for the company. I told her who to see, the most reliable of the business agents, and asked if she wanted me to come with her. She said no, she wanted to be able to carry herself as a stand-up member of the local, not dependent on anyone.

Next day she was gone.  I called her that night and she said the union rep had taken her side with integrity and had called the company.  They agreed to transfer her to another jobsite and make sure she was treated fairly if there was no threat of a lawsuit.  Inez had agreed to this, but we both felt depressed.  I felt I had to apologize for the whole backward mob of jerks that populate construction work.  It was as if she had been a lantern in a cave, revealing our stupid scuttling ways.  Ugh. She told me to drop that rhetorical bullshit, that the only thing that depressed her about it was that she would miss all of us.  It was just one jerk, really… but one spoiled everything.

Jim was still foreman on that job for another two weeks – while we frosted him. Then, out of the blue, the union announced that contract negotiations had broken down and there would be a city-wide strike.  When that all blew over, I found another job.  Plant Bros. was tainted for me.

Eric Johnson is a printer who writes stories about his work as a carpenter in San Francisco.

My First Day Local 6

“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.

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall where I worked for two days
Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall where I worked for two days

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

Women Carpenters in 1903

My friend and sister writer, Pam Peirce, is doing deep research for a book about her Indiana family and came across an article in the 1903 Indianapolis News titled “What Hoosier Women are Doing.” It’s a list of occupations with numbers of women for each: “There are thirty-four women dentists in Indiana.” My guess is that it was compiled from the 1900 census. Pam passed it along to me, noting that in that year “Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of Indiana.”

Unfortunately, the clipping is out of focus, but it is still readable. I can see that “Four women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.” I wonder if any of these female crafts workers were allowed to join unions.

“Seven women carpenters belong to the building trades of IndianaFour women in Indiana are cabinet makers, and eight work in saw and planing mills. Indiana has two women blacksmiths and ten women machinists. Nine women work in the coal mines of Indiana. Two women are marble and stone cutters.”

We know that women have worked in the trades since before this country was founded. Still, I’m surprised that Hoosier women had such a good representation in the trades in 1903. In contrast, there were about 6,000 washerwomen and 2,000 stenographers.

Pam also turned me on to a book, The Fair Women: The Story of the Women’s Building at the World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago 1893. The World’s Columbian Exposition included amazing exhibits of the results of women’s activities–in the arts, industry, science, politics and philanthropy. Most of these were housed in the Woman’s Building, which was designed, decorated and administered entirely by women.

womensbldgcover
Handbill for the Women’s Building

In the book there is quite a bit of information about two women who were hired to do sculptures for the outside of the women’s building. One was Enid Yandell, who designed the caryatids, 24 identical female figures that held up the roof garden. It is said that the male workers with whom she shared a studio accepted her “without question.” One of the women managing the project said “Perhaps owing to the fact that almost all the workers were foreigners, and abroad it is not so unusual for women to do industrial work.”

At a party, Enid later had a wonderfully funny discussion about the propriety of women working with the widow of President Grant, who was prejudiced against Enid as soon as she heard that she was a “stonecutter.” Apparently the widow was still angry that her husband had spent too much time with a 15-year-old sculptor (Vinnie Ream Hoxie) who was doing a sculpture of Lincoln. Enid went on to have a career as a sculptor and in 1898 became the first woman to join the National Sculpture Society.

womansbuilding172
The Women’s Building

More sculptural work on the Women’s Building was awarded to 19-year-old Alice Ridout, who lived in San Francisco where she worked in the studio of Rupert Schmid. It took the fair managers months to convince her to come to Chicago to do her work on the sculptures they required, but she did it.

Adventures in VanCity

Vancouver, BC.

Carpenter/writer Kate Braid
Carpenter/writer Kate Braid

Whenever I visit I always look for tradeswomen in this city of high rises and construction cranes. On this trip I was lucky to meet up with Kate Braid, the tradeswoman poet laureate of Canada (my christening). I’ve known Kate for decades, and we published her poems in Tradeswomen Magazine regularly, but she and I figured we hadn’t seen each other for 30 years. If you’re not familiar with her writing, go to her web page, Katebraid.com. Her book of poems about working construction, Covering Rough Ground, was published in 1991. Her newest book, Rough Ground Revisited, includes some of the original poems and new ones as well.

Kate has a memoir too: Journeywoman: Swinging a Hammer in a Man’s World, published in 2012. She speaks to tradeswomen all around Canada, and she reminded me as we reminisced that the very first national tradeswomen’s conference happened in the nation of Canada in 1980! We discussed the possibility of Canadians hosting the next tradeswomen conference, since it looks like our building trades in the US have dropped the ball. Come on Canadian tradeswomen: Pick it up and run with it!

One does not always plant one’s feet daintily when one is covering rough ground.

–Emily Carr, Journals

 I was delighted to learn that Kate and I share an interest in the Victoria artist and writer Emily Carr. In fact, Kate is a Carr scholar, having published two books of poetry and a biography of Carr. These I can’t wait to read, but when I tried to order them from the San Francisco Public Library they were not in the stacks. So I have my work cut out for me when I return home. It seems we in the US are not very literate where Canadian authors are concerned, a prejudice that must be rectified.

Walking around downtown Vancouver I passed many high-rise construction sites but the only tradeswomen I saw this time were flaggers. I flagged down two of them and they assured me there are lots of tradeswomen working up above. While most of the signs here are gender neutral, I did find one of the old Men Working kind, an advertisement that this contractor discriminates against women. Why would anyone want to advertise that?

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.

Women Build Nations Sensational, Huge

Reporting on the Women Build Nations Conference in Chicago on May Day weekend: Two words: sensational and huge!

Mural at CWIT headquarters in Chicago
Mural at CWIT headquarters in Chicago

My old friend electrician Cynthia Long (IBEW Local 3 NYC) just texted me asking for news about the conference. Although it wasn’t her intention to guilt trip me, I felt bad for not having reported back to tradeswomen friends who couldn’t attend. Here are some highlights:

The climax for me was performing on stage for this gigantic audience of tradeswomen. My wife Holly and I wrote a song called Sister in the Brotherhood, and she accompanied me on the guitar. I was terribly page 4nervous, but we didn’t blow it and that audience of rowdy construction workers liked us! Friends were kind enough to video our performance, and I will eventually figure out how to post the video on this site. (I’m old and tech challenged. It will happen). This week Donna Levitt brought me a copy of Organized Labor, the San Francisco Building and Construction Trades Council’s newspaper. There was our picture on page 4! We feel like rock stars and the glow hasn’t yet worn off.

The conference was hosted by Chicago Women in Trades (CWIT) and North America’s Building Trades Unions (NABTU). A high point before the conference even began: CWIT’s fabu party at their headquarters and training center. I was delighted to connect up with old activists from way back and also meet young tradeswomen and CWIT trainees, many acting as greeters and volunteers.

Along with historian Brigid O’Farrell and sprinkler fitter Ella Jones, I gave a workshop called “Tradeswomen History: Learning From the Past to Change the Future.” We were able to include testimony from several “tradeswomen matriarchs” who are helping us learn from the past.

Old timers Ronnie Sandler, Paula Smith, Lisa Diehl, Lauren Sugerman, Molly Martin, Dale McCormick
Old timers Ronnie Sandler, Paula Smith, Lisa Diehl, Lauren Sugerman, Molly Martin, Dale McCormick
Some organizers of the 1989 second national conference, Chicago
Some organizers of the 1989 second national conference, Chicago. I’m still looking over Lauren’s shoulder.

As it turned out we had a mini-reunion of some of us old tradeswomen activists from the 1970s and 80s. Carpenter Lisa Diehl, who’d been an organizer of Kansas City Tradeswomen, traveled from her home in West Virginia. She entertained us with stories of feminist actions from the bra burning banner hoisting days. Ronnie Sandler, carpenter and job training wiz, came from New Hampshire. Dale McCormick, the first female in the country to turn out as a carpenter who went on to win a place in the Maine state legislature and become state treasurer, represented Maine. We reunited with Paula Smith and Lauren Sugerman, two organizers from Chicago we’d worked with to put on the 1989 second national tradeswomen conference there. And some of the early tradeswomen organizers from Chicago were in attendance too, sporting t-shirts and sweatshirts from the 1970s.

This was the 15th Women Build conference and the 6th we have renamed Women Build Nations, including women from all over North America and other countries. It was the first in this series of conferences to take place outside of California and it brought in hundreds of women from the Midwest and other parts of the U.S. who’d never participated in the past conferences. Fifteen hundred tradeswomen of all crafts, allies and union brothers attended—the biggest tradeswomen conference ever!

The Bowels of a Cruise Ship

Rainbow
Our cruise ship, the Westerdam, with a visiting rainbow

My wife Holly and I just returned from a cruise to the Caribbean. I know, it seems like a pretty bourgeois activity, but this was a lesbian cruise with Olivia, a company that commandeers whole ships so lesbians can commune with each other, be ourselves and be out. Our ship, the Westerdam of Holland Line (owned by Carnival Cruise Lines), is one of the “balcony-laden floating condominiums” with stories of ocean-view staterooms. Cruise ships don’t have to be as seaworthy or built as strongly as ocean liners, which actually sail across oceans. Cruise ships sail in and out of the same port, and about a third of all cruises leave and return to ports in Florida, as did ours. I was ecstatic to be sailing with 1900 lesbians and figured there were probably many tradeswomen sisters among us.

We Meet a Sister Electrician

One day at breakfast Holly overheard a woman talking about her work as an electrician. Finally, another tradeswoman! We joined her table immediately. Her name is Stephanie Jackson, she’s from Mobile, Alabama, and she works maintenance at a steel plant in the hot dip section where steel is dipped in zinc. She’s the only woman in her trade working there. She said she was married and having trouble paying bills when she got a job at a power plant through an affirmative action program. After working there for several years and training men who would then be promoted while she was denied journey status, she decided to look for work elsewhere (that power plant was later destroyed by Hurricane Katrina). She worked construction for several years—not her cup of tea—and then got the maintenance job at the steel plant. I was thankful my wife is good at eavesdropping.

I’d asked to meet with the chief stationary engineer and had received a formal confirmation note on Holland stationery, sealed and signed by the International Guest Relations Associate. Stephanie came with me to meet the engineer. He is Dutch from Rotterdam. Most of the crew is Philippine and Malaysian. We started in the control room where we asked general questions about the ship. It was built in 2004 in Italy, where most of these cruise ships are built. These ships are also built in a few other places in the world, but none are built in the U.S. and none are built in the Netherlands. Too expensive, said our engineer. Some of the new ships will hold over 6000 passengers, but Holland ships are smaller. The Westerdam is built for a maximum of 2,200 passengers. The crew numbers about 800.

We Get to See the Guts of the Ship

Then we started down the metal stairs, Stephanie and I uttering exclamations of wonder periodically. Whoa! First we visited the shops: upholstery, carpentry, electrical, machine. These were the cleanest shops I had ever seen. The ship has a crew of eight electricians, with two people just charged with changing light bulbs. Lighting is slowly being changed over from incandescent and fluorescent to LED and new ships are manufactured with LED systems. Next we saw the bakery where bakers were weighing dough and prepping rolls for baking. Stephanie asked if she could take their picture and I could tell they had big smiles under their masks. The ovens and equipment are all electric, generated from the diesel engines and transformed down to 120/230 VAC. We saw the storerooms and staging area for deliveries. There are rooms for everything, including a florist’s refrigerator, which doubles as a morgue and must be emptied if someone on the ship dies. Presumably all the unrefrigerated flowers are then used to make a funeral wreath. Or maybe the remaining living passengers all get extra bouquets.

Engines, Transformers, Scrubbers

The electrical system and most of the other systems work like a big building except everything is way more efficient. We saw the engine rooms where 11,000VDC is generated. Then it’s transformed to 960VAC 3 phase. I didn’t take notes, so may be misremembering some of these numbers, but they were voltages neither of us electricians had ever worked with. The ship has four generators, plus an emergency generator, and five big transformers. There are two kinds of diesel used; the heavy diesel is used while out to sea, but it’s essentially refined on the ship using centrifugal force! One kind of fuel is heated and the other is cooled and the equipment doesn’t always react well to that changeover, which occurs with regularity. Because of a California law (thank you CA!), the diesel products of combustion must be scrubbed before being put into the air, so scrubbers were added after this ship was built. We also saw a jet engine, which is used only in Alaska because the Alaska law requires that zero smoke be emitted. However, even though it doesn’t make smoke, the engine is twice as polluting and the fuel is much more expensive. It’s quite beautiful to look at though. The Azipod propulsion system developed in Finland automatically guides the ship.

What Happens to My Poop?

The HVAC system is enormous and also super efficient. Heat exchangers create condensation, which is then pumped to the laundry. And the ship makes its own potable water from seawater, which is compressed, heated and then condensed! I can testify it tastes fine. U.S. health regulations require the addition of a small amount of chlorine. Then we got to the vacuum toilet system. When you flush, a powerful vacuum pump sucks up the contents of the toilet. Don’t flush while you are still sitting! We are cautioned not to put anything but paper and the waste from our bodies into the toilets or they will get backed up. Then a plumber will have to fish out the thing or push it further into the system where it is retrieved. Other waste can’t be left in the system because the ship treats its effluent with digestive bacteria. The effluent can be dumped in the ocean only when it reaches a high level of refinement. There are three levels, and three distances from shore that it can be dumped. (We are always level A, says the engineer proudly). The treated water that results is clean enough to drink, but there’s a rather unappetizing smell so we are not required to drink it. Whew! Other waste on the ship is recycled and we visited the garbage center where workers were dumping the contents of our wastebaskets onto a stainless steel table, sorting every bit of our garbage. Food waste is ground up and dumped in the ocean. Plastic is compacted and taken ashore. Paper is shredded and burned on ship. So remember, some worker must handle whatever disgusting thing you dump in the trash.

Every Day Something Breaks

There were so many systems I fear I’m forgetting them. I was surprised to learn that even large complicated maintenance projects take place at sea. But since cruise lines operate their ships 52 weeks a year in order not to lose money, maintenance must take place at sea. Every day something breaks, said the engineer. On this day technicians were designing a system to reduce problems from changing the two types of diesel fuel. We learned that the Westerdam will be in dry-dock next year and then will sail a different route.

Holly and I had a fine time at sea and now we’re very happy to be back on solid land (we both got a bit seasick). I loved meeting so many interesting women, but meeting Stephanie, another electrical geek, and touring the guts of the ship with the chief engineer was the highlight of the cruise for me. I hope to connect up with her again at the Women Building Nations Conference in Chicago April 28-May 1.

I’ll be posting more about the cruise on our travel blog: travelswithmoho.wordpress.com.