Folkstreams | Contexts | Mike Munoz on Pilebutt Work and History

Mike Munoz on Pilebutt Work and History

Mike Munoz on Pilebutt Work and History

Excerpts from Michael S. Munoz's "Pilebutt":
Stories and Photographs about Pile Driving.

(Courtesy of Michael S. Munoz and Pile Drivers Local Union Number 34)

Pile Driver union man Michael S. "Mike" Munoz comments and tells personal experiences in Maria Brooks's film "Pilebutts: Under the Hammer." He himself has also compiled and written a book entitled "Pilebutt": Stories and Photographs about Pile Driving (San Leandro, CA: Pilebutt Press, 1986). The following passages are a sampling from it. To read the rest of his book and see its rare pilebutt photographs, order a copy from:
Pile Drivers Local Union Number 34
55 Hegenberger Place
Oakland, CA 94621


This book of pile-driving stories and pictures evolved over a long time period. "Pilebutt," a nickname for pile-driving men in the building, construction and maritime trades, helps explain my own sense of craftsmanship and unionism.

I was raised in a union household—my father a member of the Machinists, my mother a member of the Teamsters. My grandparents had emigrated from Spain to the Hawaiian Islands around 1910, where they worked as farm laborers on sugar and pineapple plantations. After moving to California, both grandfathers became union members—one a union boilermaker, the other a union foundry worker. Both of my grandmothers worked in the Del Monte canneries in Emeryville and were members of Teamsters locals.

In my father's house as well as my grandparents' homes, the union represented a special force. To be a unionist was like being Catholic. We believed that the union was as necessary as religion. God protected your soul, the union protected your family. Our family did not participate day to day in either "cause," but we understood and lived by the concepts of each.

I grew up being told that a trade was as valuable as a college education. After attending Chabot Junior College in Hayward, I decided to seek work. During the period of the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon's presidency, I began kicking around different jobs. At that time I spent hours in San Leandro with friends, discussing the pros and cons of politics.

In 1974, I joined Pile Drivers Local 34. My first job involved cutting off piles on the Southern Pacific Building at Mission and Steuart Street, San Francisco, for the Willamette Western Company. As I began to learn my trade, I also heard pilebutts talk about their recent wildcat strike over the Nixon wage and price freeze.

During my first day on that S.P job, I met Emerson Franks, the biggest black man I had ever seen. Covered in concrete dust, he held a 90-pound jack hammer in his arms. He handed me a small chipping hammer and told me to "just keep up." He would bust the piles while I would only have to chip them. I thought—what an easy job; he was old and I, young. That only shows how little I really knew about work. He worked me into the ground, my hands bled, yet there were no cuts on them. On that job I worked with real men, tough enough to handle the job and kind enough to teach me. Pilebutt Emerson Franks broke me in and I dedicate this book to him, as well as to Arden Searls, and to others who took the time to teach me.

As time passed, I enjoyed stories heard on the job. Stories about accidents taught me to recognize danger. Many pilebutts told funny stories about themselves and other crew members. They created legends in my mind about strong men doing the impossible. Men known by nicknames such as Wild Bill Keller, Roarin' Red Smith, Pruner, Banjo Eyes, Hose Nose, and Hit'em in the Cunt.

No old timers seemed to know the true story of the Local's origin. One account stuck in my mind. This involved a change from the International Association of Bridge and Structural Iron Workers to the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

During 1977, I was injured while working at Pier 39, San Francisco. With free time on my hands, Local 34 president Gary Bakke appointed me as an unofficial historian. I searched the union hall for old files and any artifacts I could find. While reading the minute books of past meetings, and looking at pictures in the hall, I came to understand that I was a product of generations of working men.

Pilebutts who had taught me my trade gained my respect. In turn, they had been taught by men they respected. This process has gone on for generations. While learning our trade's age, I realized, also, that except for mechanical equipment, like cranes and power tools, pile driving has not changed very much over the centuries. We see one example in drawings of bridges built by the Roman Legions.

As my interest in Local 34's history grew I began collecting photographs from old time members. Also, I searched for historical pictures in all the San Francisco Bay Area libraries. My library visits led to considerable reading in California labor history. During 1982, I met Archie Green, a retired shipwright who had left his trade to study and write in the area of labor folklore. His guidance, encouragement, and friendship helped me to complete this book. Sandy Cate assisted me in the layout and mechanics of this book.

As I prepare this book to go to press, I am conscious that American workers are under attack. The political process favors the rich. Corporations now have a free ride. The arms of the greedy reach beyond the job to terrorize and poison people in their own homes.

This little book on craftsmanship and unionism can begin to reach piledrivers everywhere. By revealing our trade's history, and focusing on our past, we strengthen ourselves. In conclusion, I am aware that my book makes but a start. I do hope that pilebutts throughout the Brotherhood will write histories of their local unions and craft experience. The docks and bridges that we have built have stood the test of time. The burden of our history should stand with the examples of our labor. (pp. 3-4)

Times of Change

. . . The twenties were a period of revolution for the unions in San Francisco. During the early 1920s the Pile Drivers and the Carpenter locals had their charters revoked.

The San Francisco Building Trades negotiated an agreement with the employers without ratification of the members. The strike that resulted was lost and San Francisco operated under the American Plan. Non-union men worked along side union men. The American Plan is very similar to today's Merit System.

The A.F.L. represented the Tradesmen, Carpenters, Ironworkers, Plumbers, Electricians, etc.—men who considered themselves craftsmen and as professional as any doctor or lawyer. They considered themselves the elite of the working class.

The C.I.O. represented the industrial unionists and pursued the Longshoremen, Mine Workers, Auto Workers and anyone who might not fall into the classifications of the A.F.L.

The C.I.O. was new and progressive—some say socialistic, while the A.F.L. was conservative and more inclined to fight only when forced to.

The tradesman was highly paid, so he stood to lose more. The industrial unionist was underpaid, so he stood to lose less.

The Pile Drivers Union was split into two factions: those loyal to the ideals of trade unionism and those loyal to industrial unionism. The majority of the work was on the waterfront. The Pile Drivers, who had belonged to the waterfront federations, were in tune politically with their friends, the longshoremen and the Sailors Union, both of which were socially progressive and more in tune with the beliefs of the International Workers of the World (IWW).

The members of Local 34 were active. It was nothing for a fist fight to break out. Men spoke their piece and the majority ruled. Pilebutts could disagree with one another but no one from the outside better. (p. 39)

Jack Wagner

Jack Wagner was born in Crowley, Louisiana, on July 10, 1903, the son of six generations of doctors. Jack's mother died when he was seven years old, leaving him to be raised by this father and two sisters, Ina and Helen.

He grew up in the town of Palacios, Texas, where his father practiced medicine until he died at the age of eighty-six. Dr. Wagner was held in such high regard that the hospital in the town was named Wagner General Hospital.

Being a rather independent young man, Jack decided to join the United States Navy. In 1919 he enlisted at the age of sixteen. He served in Europe on the Austrian ship Radetskey, which was taken as war booty. He served his country off the coast of Yugoslavia and in Constantinople. After six years in the navy he moved on.

In 1924 Jack Wagner came to Oakland, California broke and looking for work. He landed a job as a laborer on the Oakland-Alameda Tube, making thirty-six dollars a week. He spent the next ten years trying to make his fortune. In 1934 Jack joined Pile Drivers' Local 34 and worked on the Golden Gate Bridge until 1937, when he invested his savings with John O'Leary and Billie Moore and started their own pile driving company.

His union activity began during the General Strike of 1934, where he participated as a picket on Rincon Hill on Bloody Thursday.

In 1937 after an altercation over a 5-cent assessment to the Maritime Council, the Carpenters' International closed the doors of Local 34. Jack Wagner and ten other men took over the building and the books of Local 34, evicting the officers and electing new ones. The former officers opened up a union hall on Valencia St. and for some time there were two Local 34's in San Francisco. Seventy-five percent of the members stayed with Jack's Committee of Ten as they were called and twenty-five percent with the old guard. During this time, the Carpenter locals in San Francisco assessed their members one dollar to fight these rebels and many of the Committee of Ten were expelled from the Brotherhood. At one point the rebels or Blue Cards as they were known stopped all construction on Treasure Island which was preparing for the World's Fair.

The conflict ended when International President Hutchenson came to San Francisco and met with Jack Wagner and Don Cameron. The International agreed to all the Blue Cards' demands except that Local 34 must not stay a member of the Maritime Council. Two months later Jack Wagner was elected assistant Business Agent of Local 34.

During his twenty-five years as business agent for Local 34, he played an active part during the period of San Francisco's labor history when labor triumphed over management, and made this area the example it is today.

When Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese, Jack was called to organize companies of dock builders to go to Pearl Harbor to begin reconstruction of the harbors that had been destroyed. Four days later 300 men set sail for Pearl Harbor. Jack also acted as a consultant to the Army and Navy in regards to setting up their construction battalions.

Jack Wagner was a social unionist who followed the principles of the C.I.O. He believed in a strong rank and file, a feeling that still governs the operation of Local 34. During his reign Black men began to join Local 34 and though discrimination existed, he fought for men's right to work and make a decent living.

He retired at the age of 58 and traveled to South America, Canada and the Soviet Union. He and his wife stayed politically active in their community and with the Gray Panthers until his death on July 15, 1984 at the age of 81. (pp. 41-42)

Source: Taped interviews with Jack Wagner, San Leandro, CA, 1977, by Michael S. Munoz and by Jeff Johnson, Radical Elders Oral History Project.

Job Description

Work as a pilebutt can best be described as heavy construction involving specific skills in the area of piledriving, rough carpentry, cutting and welding.

Pilebutts generally perform foundation work on large scale construction projects such as piers, wharves, drydocks, breakwaters, underwater pipelines, bridges, highways, skyscrapers, and parking lots. They are also called upon to reconstruct, repair, maintain and even demolish existing structures. Whether constructing, maintaining or demolishing structures, their work is generally very strenuous.

Pilebutts perform all heavy labor, skilled and unskilled, incidental to their work. They load and unload their broad gauge lumber, construction forms and pilings up to eighty or more feet in length. They manhandle, rig, erect and drive wooden, steel and cement pile. They construct, move, set and scale all the forms and shapes used in the laying of cast-in-place structures. They construct, climb and demolish wooden and metal false-work. They shore and brace any excavations undertaken in connection with their work.

During demolition work, they perform all actual deconstruction with cutting torches, jackhammers and power saws. They also do any rigging and loading work associated with the removal of debris. They perform this work on a variety of maritime and shoreside locations including barges, work floats, tugboats, wharves, piers, pontoons, and foundation excavations. Because their work usually occurs during the early stages of construction, the sites are often unprepared, uneven and ungraded.

For the individual workers, these duties translate into physical evolution involving repeated bending, stooping, lifting, carrying and climbing. Pilebutts routinely work with heavy hand-held equipment and outsized material. They are often required to make unassisted individual lifts in excess of one hundred pounds. Depending on the job, day-to-day individual lifting and carrying requirements will run from fifty to one hundred pounds.

Bending and stooping, often for prolonged periods, are also a routine part of the work. Pilebutts are also required to climb. They must scale piledriving leads, the track upon which the driving hammer runs, up to one hundred and twenty feet tall. Access is provided by means of a vertical ladder. Safety belts are not always practical and are seldom worn. There is additional climbing on and around the job site which is as varied as it is strenuous. Pilebutts are ordinary five-day-a-week workers.

The usual work week is thirty-six hours long. However, as with all construction work, sixty, seventy, and even eighty hour weeks are not unheard of.

There is no light duty as a pilebutt. While the men are always happy to carry an injured man for a few days, there are no sheltered positions where he can safely spend the rest of his professional life. In order to obtain work out of the Hall, a member must be able to perform all the duties of his trade.

We think it is safe to describe work as a pilebutt as very strenuous. It requires a high degree of agility, strength and stamina. (p. 43)

For rights and permissions contact: Michael S. Munoz and Pile Drivers Local Union Number 34.