Folkstreams | Contexts | Archie Green on His Early Work Experience…

Archie Green on His Early Work Experience and Impressions of Pile Butts

Archie Green on His Early Work Experience and Impressions of Pile Butts

Archie Green grew up in San Francisco and took a B.A. degree at the University of California at Berkeley, graduating in 1939.  He immediately enlisted in the Civilian Conservation Corps and spent a year in a camp on the Klamath River near the Oregon border.  Completing his term of service, he returned to San Francisco, found a job as a shipwright, and continued in similar work during a war-time stint in the U.S. Navy and afterwards at home for fifteen more years.  Then he took a Ph.D. in Folklore at the University of Pennsylvania and began another career as teacher, writer, and lobbyist.  He retired from the University of Texas in 1982, after an influential teaching career.  His publications have established "laborlore" as a major field of study.  And he was instrumental in the creation of the American Folklife Center through his lobbying for the American Folklife Preservation Act passed in 1976.  In his "Afterword" to Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations (pp. 445-457), he incorporated an account of his own early years into a tribute to pile-driver/shipwright "Spokane Tom."  The recollections that follow elaborate on his first experiences as a blue-collar worker.  Adapted by Dan Patterson from an interview on April 25, 2008.

I had no desire—it wasn't even in my consciousness—to go to graduate school or to enter any profession that would have been suggested: law, government service, accounting, teaching.  I was caught up by the spirit of the times, and I wanted to be part of the work force, or part of the labor movement.  It was the New Deal, and labor was a strong component of the New Deal—organized labor.  Workers generally supported Roosevelt enthusiastically, and my parents did, and I did.  At Cal I had been president of the Young Democrats, which was a rather large student organization and pretty effective in educating students toward the political campaigns.  In terms of politics, it would have been close to the Obama campaign amongst young people today—the same sort of vision and spirit of organization.  With that background I knew that—I don't know how I knew it, but maybe it was part of the spirit of the times—I would have to be a skilled worker or good worker before I could attain any sort of position in the labor movement.  By going to the CCC camp—I was interested in conservation and forestry, in trees and nature, Indians—it all fit, but I didn't see it in terms of permanent employment.  So I returned to the city, San Francisco, and immediately began looking for a job.

       The main jobs were maritime, either sea-going, or inland boatmen on the bay, or ship repairs of some sort, or long-shoring.  In Pittsburgh it would have been steel, in Akron rubber, in the South—say Gastonia—it would have been in a textile mill.  But growing up in California and liking the Bay Area, it was maritime work.  Actually I had no preparatory knowledge.  No one in my family had been in the maritime industry, and I didn't know anyone that had worked for a shipping company or a stevedore's company.  I was just an eager, inexperienced youth.

       Through a friend in San Francisco, through a friend of a friend of a friend, a lady knew Arthur Ross, knew one of the Scottish shipwrights who was working at Western Pipe and Steel.  That was a steel-fabricating plant in south San Francisco, near the current airport.  She told me to go down and see her friend, boy-friend, but he was an adult of course.  I went down.  He didn't know me, I didn't know him, but that was enough of a recommendation.  He told me before I could go to work I would have to join the union.  Normally, that might frighten some of the youngsters off, but for me it was welcome.  I said, "Great!  Just tell me when and where."  And he gave me a note.

       Western Pipe actually was a steel-fabricating plant, or boiler shop, that was situated between two points of land that jutted out into the Bay, Sierra Point and Oyster Point.  They can be found on a map.  They're actually in San Mateo County, on the coast, not the Pacific side of the peninsula but the Bay side of the peninsula.  They're just north of the airport but south of the San Francisco city line.

       There were a number of crafts involved: our craft (the shipwrights), the ship fitters, the ring machinists, the electricians, the painters, the sheet-metal workers, riggers of all sorts, welders—that's a start.  There was no choice.  It wouldn't have made any difference.  I didn't know what I was in for.  I just wanted to go to work.  But this particular gentleman, Arthur Ross, was a Scottish immigrant and skilled shipwright who had learned the trade in the old country.  There were many shipyards on the Clyde River, and Clydesiders, as they were called, were known for their skill.  They worked all over the world, where they migrated from Scotland—Malta, Belfast (Ireland), Australia, South Africa, and all over America.  So he was a shipwright in the shipwright's union.

       At that time the shipwrights' union was affiliated with the carpenters' United Brotherhood of Carpenters & Joiners of America or U.B.C.J.A.  The carpenters had a Class A local for the journeymen, but the lesser workers—the lumber and sawmill workers and factory workers of all sorts—were in Class B locals, that were subordinate locals where the membership didn't have the rights or benefits of the Class A.  The local to which I was assigned was the local of the helpers, that is, shipwright helpers, marine ways men, boat builders, and dry dockers, all of the crafts in the shipyards that were auxiliary to the shipwright workers. 

       So this helpers' union took in three categories of helpers—dry dockers (that is, men who worked in the dry docks that were scattered in the Bay Area), and marine ways men (the job of the marine ways men was to coat the ways with grease, and then they would do their work when the ship was under construction), and when we were ready for the launch (the ship was built on cribs, wooden cribs), the shipwrights would go down with their top mauls and drive wedges to raise the hull up above the blocks and then cut the lines at each end and the ship would go down with a splash.  It was real dramatic and very interesting.  But anyhow, I started out as a helper, and even though the shipwrights' union is in the Carpenters, we were working on steel ships.  Another branch of our trade, the branch exemplified by Red Alexander, the boat building, that's mostly wood.  But the principles of erecting a little wooden boat or a big steel ship are the same, except that on the steel ship the plates are riveted or welded instead of nailed or screwed or fashioned to the ribs in some other way.  Most of the men I worked for had over the years worked in both sections of the trade.  It was a challenge to learn the trade.  And it was a parallel process as in growing up.  I was just out of adolescence, young, but as I learned the trade, confidence increased, knowing how to do the work efficiently and safely (because it was dangerous), and learning about the men. 

       We had a polyglot crew.  So you were very conscious of ethnicity.  We didn't think of each other as American, but we all thought of each other as Irish or Maltese or Swedish or Norwegian.  Most of the skilled journeymen were Scottish, and the foremen were Scottish.  But the others were everything—Yankees, Irish, Maltese, and Swedish.  And also eventually we hired blacks or Negroes (as they were then called), and Chinese, and women.  That was of course new, and it was exciting, because some of the unions were discriminatory but some were progressive.  There was a strong parallel between skill on the job and growth in the union.  They complimented each other.

       Anyhow, it was a matter of a few months before this particular yard got another contract to expand its work.  When someone made the decision to expand the yard, they had to build parallel ways just across the water.  So I began to notice when a couple of pile-driving rigs came into the channel.  The rigs are really barges, old wooden barges, with up forward an A-frame.  In the pile-driving movie, Maria opens, I think, with a shot of the hammer descending, and the hammer is, in an old-fashioned rig, just a huge chunk of steel that's dropped.  The leads form a kind of box into which the pile sits, and of course that's the purpose of the A-frame, because it has to be taller than the height of the length of the pile.  And as the hammer drives the pile down into the bay or into the mud or the sand, the pile is driven, and then another pile is pulled out of the water.  There's a hoist up on the barge, and the hoist has a couple of spools or winches.  The lines are attached to the pile in the water.  It's hoisted up in the air and pulled into the leads.  Then the hammer starts slowly driving it.  We worked on the north side of the two ways, the two hulls under construction.  On the south side of the channel we could see the operation and hear the noise—the men shouting and the hammer descending.

       While I was learning my trade and watching the other mechanics (the ship fitters, and machinists, and boiler makers, and so on), I was also keeping an eye on this exciting work across the channel.  The pile drivers had to put down rows of piles, and they were then cut to grade.  And that's how the nickname started, "pile butt"—because they had three rows on land and three at sea, and then they were cut to different levels.  Then they were capped, and then came stringers, and on top of the stringers, decks.  It was all heavy wooden construction, and they didn't use skill saws, a lot of hand saws.  It was called the "misery whip," "Swedish misery whip"—two guys on a hand saw.  Then they drilled.  I think they might have used electric drills, because when the caps were put on the cut piles, there was bolting involved and spiking, like railroad spikes, driven with a spiking maul.  The main interest was in the lifting of the piles, the timber piles, and driving them into the channel.  Then after the piles were all driven, the two rigs, propelled by tugboat, were pulled or pushed out of the channel and taken away.

       I didn't meet any of the men.  They were distant.  But I would meet them in the evening.  There were a number of unions in the bay area, separated by the counties and the construction—carpenters in San Francisco were Local 22 and in Oakland Local 36 and then our Local 1149, Pile Drivers 34 and the mill wrights were 102 and the mill men 42.  Different locals would meet in what we called the District Council, in the evenings once a month.  There instead of the emphasis being on craft, it was on politics. 

       Politically, it was fascinating, because Hutcheson, Big Bill Hutcheson, was a bruiser and a life-long Republican.  In fact, he was the head of the labor committee in the Republican party all during Harding and Coolidge and Hoover.  All during the New Deal he was an opponent of Roosevelt.  Most of us liberals or progressives in San Francisco didn't like Hutcheson. 

       A number of carpenters' locals that worked on the waterfront were a part of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, which Harry Bridges of the longshoremen headed.  And in those New Deal years there was a big split between the AFL and the CIO.  The CIO was more progressive or interested in taking in minority members, and the AFL was generally more conservative, or reactionary.  In that political conflict the shipwrights, the pile drivers, the caulkers, and the lumber handlers—the four unions on the waterfront—were in the Maritime Federation.  Hutcheson, the Republican, he forced us out.  In that conflict I was observing the pile drivers from a distance.  (I didn't appreciate their work intimately.  I never worked as a pile driver.  I was not in their union.  I always observed their union.)  But at meetings of our District Council the pile drivers were in solidarity with the shipwrights.  We were in opposition to Hutcheson.

       I conceived the pile drivers in very romantic or heroic terms, because they were strong enough to drive timbers into the earth.  I suppose today in terms of conservation it would be seen as violating the earth or disturbing the natural order, and it would be seen as less than positive.  But in the New Deal period heavy construction was a symbol of growth, of coming out of the Depression.  The picture of a power mill or a coal mine or using coal for energy and emitting smoke, instead of an evil polluting symbol, it was a positive symbol of growth.  So the combination of work and politics gave me a very positive image of the men as pile drivers, and in the evening I would see them as politically wise, or wise enough to be New Dealers.

       In the evening I met a number of pile drivers by name.  Some of them are in the film.  There's Jack Wagner, who was head of the pile drivers' local.  He was a Southerner from New Orleans, and he was an older man and very wise politically and a world traveler, and he had read considerably.  I think his father was a physician in New Orleans, and what circumstance led Jack to follow the trade for a while before he became a business agent is hidden in his biography.  And there was a fellow named Frank Gallegos, a Spaniard who was very sympathetic to the Spanish Civil War—he'd be like Mike Munoz—whose family and political connections made him anti-Franco and a good New Dealer.  Clem Clancy, one of the Clancy brothers, Irish.  Eventually—sometimes in our work on the water front, we would run out of work, but by being in the carpenters' union, we could transfer or we could work uptown on a permit—eventually I actually worked on a number of buildings with pile drivers as partners doing some intricate work on concrete buildings.  I have an essay in my book Torching the Fink about Jack Fitch.  He was a pile driver with whom I partnered when we worked on an elevator shaft on the Furniture Mart on Market Street.  One of the shipwrights to whom I was apprenticed, Jimmy Allan, he was Scottish, just a fine man, and we became good friends.  But his father was a member of the pile-drivers' union, and his father worked in the boat shop where the State Board of Harbor Commissioners had the jurisdiction over all the work in the Bay area, maintaining the docks.  So shipwrights and pile butts—there were family connections, and there were national or ethnic connections, and there were political connections, and when you combined all of these elements with skills, they must have seemed to be superhuman, really extraordinary people.  So meeting these Scottish shipwrights who were skilled and well read, and Scottish nationalists—they didn't want to be ruled by Britain, their attitude was something like the I.R.A.—it was just such a rich and powerful experience that it stays with me forever.

       I went in the Navy at the end of '43, but in the Navy I followed dry docking and shipwright work.  And I got out of the Navy in '45—end of  '45—and I went back to the waterfront and worked there until the work ran out, and then about '52 I transferred up town.  I worked in heavy construction until about 1959, and then I went to Illinois, at first as a librarian, and later to Penn for the Ph.D.  So my work experience was from 1940 to 1960, twenty years.  It was a formative time.

       Julie Ardery [1] always used to kid me.  If people said, "Who are you?" or "What are you?" I'd always say, "A shipwright."  I use that as a form of identity rather than professor or lobbyist.  She used to ask me why.  And I'd say, "Well, I don't know.  It just seems that was the thing I was proud of.  It seemed to me in retrospect that I had to work hard to learn to be a shipwright, and it was rewarding.  But if I must say so, the other things were easier.  I didn't think that, with all due respect, being a professor was all that hot.  Because it was easy to stand up in front of a class and give a talk.  I always seemed to know what to say.  I don't think I was ever challenged after I quit the shipyards.  The other challenges have not been vocational.  But learning the trade—I never learned it completely or never learned it adequately because that takes a lifetime, and the work keeps changing, and there's many kinds of ships.  When I look at my two sons—they're blue-collar workers, they're electricians—their work is dynamic, it keeps changing, it's exciting; but the other things that they've done haven't been that challenging.  That's the truth.

       As I work with young people now who are into computers, it's hard for me to understand them, and they don't understand me.  It didn't seem unusual to leave college and want to learn a trade and affiliate with a movement that was growing and represented the wave of the future.  But the thought now that anyone would get out of college and go to work as a pile driver doing dirty and dangerous work that requires so much exertion of physical energy—it's unheard of.  There are some apprentices who are attracted to that kind of work, but they don't come from an academic background.

       I don't know how else to sum it up.  I have such a firm memory of seeing those two rigs coming up the channel.  They were old, they were built of wood, and the men seemed so heroic.  And part of it was that the enterprise was important: winning World War II.

[1] Julia S. Ardery, editor of Welcome the Traveler Home: Jim Garland's Story of the Kentucky Mountains and author of The Temptation: Edgar Tolson and the Genesis of Twentieth-Century Folk Art.