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Pilebutts--A Film Study Guide for Middle- and High-School Students

Pilebutts--A Film Study Guide for Middle- and High-School Students

By Maria Hetherton
Adapted from Maria Hetherton, "Boats & Butts: A Look at Two American Labor Culture Films, Study Guides" (Oakland, Calif.: Pile Drivers Local
       Union Number 34, Industrial Carpenters Local Union Number 2236, and Northern California Carpenters Regional Council, 2004). Used by

       Maria Hetherton holds a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University, Bloomington, and has taught in Bay Area middle and high schools for
       fifteen years. As a folklorist, she has interests that include oral narrative, life history, and occupational culture and lore. In addition to
       documenting oral histories of union members, she has also developed a curriculum for local unions and for the California Arts Council
       where she explored the musical traditions of East Bay Cajun and Mexican-American performers.

This is one of two study guides that are intended for use by middle- and high-school students and can be integrated into social studies and language arts curriculums. As introductions to aspects of labor culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, they foreground two documentary films:

Chris Simon's Red Alexander, Shipwright and Folk Artist (1998), which focuses on the life and craft of a retired shipwright whose exquisite models of working ships mirror his fifty-year career building ships on the Oakland Estuary.

Maria Brooks's Pilebutts, Working Under the Hammer (2003), which celebrates the camaraderie and tough, risk-laden work of men and women of Oakland's Pile Drivers Local Union Number 34, who drive the pilings for structures like bridges, docks, freeways and skyscrapers.

Although the Red Alexander film focuses on an individual, and the Pilebutts film on an occupational community, the films are linked in several ways. Bay Area shipwrights and pile drivers in fact belong to the same Northern California Regional Carpenters Union. And in the heyday of Bay Area ship production, they worked side-by-side; every ship was launched from timber ways constructed by pile drivers. Occasionally pile drivers would stay on the job, shifting tool and trade to that of a shipwright. Themes common to the films include: craft traditions, pride-in-work, community and continuity, and the dignity of blue-collar work that organized labor helps to ensure.

Using these films will enrich your social studies or language arts curriculum in several ways. Both convey a sense of labor history and occupational culture that is local and alive. The occupational handiwork of shipwrights and pile drivers features abundantly in our local landscape, and extension activities invite students to reach beyond classroom walls to engage hands-on with the products of shipwright and pile driver labor. Finally, in a society that tends to devalue blue-collar labor, the subjects of these films invite students to appreciate the professionalism, acumen, artistry, courage, and pride of workers in the skilled carpentry trades.

This learning packet includes the following resources:

• a background essay introducing the Pilebutts film,

• discussion questions for it,

• classroom applications that include whole-class activities and student projects,

• a field trip guide to the Hyde Street Pier and San Francisco Maritime Museum, and

• internet resources for further information on organized labor and occupational lore.

Teachers and students in other cities and regions can use the activities and projects in San Francisco as models for things they can do wherever they happen to live.


Pilebutts: Working Under the Hammer


The production of this film was sponsored by Pile Drivers Local Union Number 34 in Oakland, California. It focuses on a community of proud workers uniquely bonded by the demanding, risky, but also inspiring nature of their work.


Pile drivers set the foundations that secure structures like bridges, piers, freeways and skyscrapers to the earth. This job requires a lot of knowledge, and pile drivers are continually updating their skills and knowledge as technology improves. Because pile drivers work responsibly, the structures people drive over or work in, are safe. Pile driving is also incredibly hard physical work, whether you are a diver crawling into a decompression chamber or part of a team trying to secure a piling with a gigantic steel hook. Bay Area pile drivers work with a sense of pride, dignity and purpose. They can stand back and see the tangible result of their labor: "I worked on that bridge." "I worked on that overpass." "I worked on that high rise." What they do holds up everything.

Risky Work

Pile driving has always been dirty and dangerous work. Huge wooden, steel or concrete beams are positioned by enormous hooks and cables that could give way without a moment's notice. Pile drivers must walk with confidence across beams positioned at great heights above ground. The "Halfway to Hell Club" is, in fact, a society of workers who fell from the Golden Gate Bridge during its construction and survived. (Only halfway through the bridge's construction was a safety net--and not a very good one, initially--erected for worker safety.) Some pile drivers are also divers who with limited visibility play beat-the-clock as they examine and evaluate the positioning of underwater pilings. In this film, pile drivers from every walk of life comment on the dangers of their profession.

Inspiring Work

Any pile driver will tell you that in a construction project of magnitude and scale, they are "there first." The film's opening shot is of the Oakland Bay Bridge retrofit site with the project manager exulting, "It don't get any better than this."

San Francisco Bay Area pile drivers set structures like the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges into the bay. Over the last century, their efforts in constructing wharves, docks and seawalls have virtually transformed the contour of the San Francisco shoreline. If there is anything wrong with a structure's pilings, it will fall down. They can point out with pride that the only four square block that held up in the 1906 earthquake was the one that had been constructed on pilings.

In decades to come, local pile drivers will again revise the bay's physical aspect, this time in conservation/restoration projects that will include low wooden piers where visitors can enjoy salt marshes and other environments restored to their pre-industrial state.

Viewing Information

Students will enjoy the dynamic nature of this film. Be aware that the film does include incidents of situationally appropriate profanity. Middle school (and perhaps even high school) teachers may want to acquire parental permission before showing the film. Both the full or a language-censored version of the film can be obtained from the distributor.

Discussion Questions: Pilebutts: Working Under the Hammer

What is a pile driver (colloquially referred to as a "pilebutt")? They are "the first ones there" at what kinds of construction sites? Why is it important that pile drivers are very responsible in how well they do their job?

Pile driving is hard, dangerous work. What aspects of the job looked risky and dangerous?

What is the basic technology involved in pile driving? Drop hammer? Steam-driven rigger?

What training is involved? What do the designations "apprentice" and "journeyman" indicate?

Thirty-five workers' lives were lost in the construction of the Golden Gate Bridge. Pilebutt old-timer Harry Brandt reminisces that if you got injured and couldn't hold up your workload, you were out of a job. He says, "This is what organized labor is all about." What kinds of benefits do modern trade unions offer their employees?

What was the custom of ancient Roman bridge makers? What qualities does the folk hero pile driver Antoine Barrada embody?

Why did San Francisco dock workers go on strike in 1934? What were the casualties? What factors do you believe lead to labor demonstrations turning violent? Did the workers get what they were asking for?

Why are some pile drivers also divers? What are the challenges of this aspect of the job? What are the risks?

What events do pile drivers in this film discuss that show the sense of protection and community these workers have for one another? What about their job causes them to bond like this?

Can women be pile drivers? What do you think it takes for someone to be good at this occupation?

Classroom Applications and Student Projects

• Another excellent film source is the Discovery Channel's Extreme Engineering: Oakland Bay Bridge. To order, call 1-800-475-6636 or visit

• Make a model of a local bridge. Determine how it is grounded and stabilized. For a wealth of student and classroom activities, check out these internet resources:
[Excellent resource that documents the current project to replace the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge East Span. Presents profiles and interviews of workers involved on this project, including pile drivers from Oakland's Local Number 34. Middle School classroom units on earthquakes, bridge engineering and an introduction to the Bay Bridge's construction and its workers are also included.]
[The "Buildings and Bridges" section of the Kids and Teens Open Directory Project is a virtual clearing house of classroom activities regarding the design, construction and history of bridges. Several sites linked there are specific to SF Bay Area bridges.]

• Also regarding bridges, students can head to a vista affording a good view of any of the San Francisco Bay Area's major bridges (Golden Gate, Oakland Bay, Richmond Bay, Carquinez Straits, Al Zampa, Benicia, San Mateo, Dunbarton) and sketch its design, identify its type, and learn about its design and construction. A long-term project comparing several of the bridges in a combination sketch/photo book and report would give students an opportunity to combine hands-on field study with research and writing skills.

• Learn about the necessity of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridge retrofit projects. What does the retrofitting entail? Who works on projects like these?

• Construct a working model of a pile-driving rig (there are some beautiful models of steam-driven rigs made by pile driver Frank Gallegos on display at the Pile Drivers Local Number 34 offices in Oakland).

• Learn about the newest bridge to span the Carquinez Straits. It is called the Al Zampa Bridge. Sketch the new bridge and examine how it has been engineered. Find out about the pile-driving phase of its production. Who is Al Zampa? By naming the bridge after Al Zampa, what other people are being honored?

• Other local construction projects students may be interested in are the BART Oakland-to-San Francisco Tube and the Webster and Posey Tubes.

• Interviews: Contact a contractor or Pile Drivers Local Number 34 for names of pile drivers willing to talk about and explain their work. Students should ask for memorable stories pile drivers have about their work--the humor, the danger, etc. Have students compose a transcript of that conversation and in a separate essay explain what they learned.

• Research projects: Learn about the construction of famous landmarks like the Golden Gate Bridge. Focus on the engineering that secures such structures safely to the earth. Alternatively, focus on the workers who drove the pilings and performed other skilled tasks during construction. What were their wages? Their hours? How were workers protected from injury? What happened if they were hurt on the job? Present your findings in a variety of ways: in a scrapbook complete with your sketches or historic photos, or perhaps in a diary written from the perspective of a bridge worker.

• Learn about other skilled carpentry trades, and the steps to becoming a journeyman within a union. Start by contacting the Carpenters Training Committee for Northern California (CTCNC):

• Interview someone who belongs to any sort of a trade union. What are their obligations to the union, and what does the union do for them?

• Study the insignia used to identify the Pile Drivers Union Local Number 34. What images are included? What do they represent? Is there a motto? What does it mean, and how does it relate to this form of labor?

• Learn about the San Francisco Dock Workers Strike of 1934.

Additional Resources

Websites on the History and Culture of Organized Labor:
["WORK 'N PROGRESS: Stories of SOUTHERN LABOR," Southern Labor Archives. Resources Available for Teachers]
["Great Sites for Teaching about Labor Day and U.S. Labor History" on Education World website]
[Patricia K. Zacharias, "How Labor Won Its Day," The Detroit News]
[Allen Lutins, "An Eclectic List of Events in U.S. Labor History"]

Books on Labor and Occupational Lore:

Green, Archie. 1972. Only a Miner: Studies in Recorded Coal-Mining Songs. Urbana and Chicago: Illinois University Press.
------. 1993. Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations. Urbana and Chicago: Illinois University Press.
------. 1996. Calf's Head & Union Tale: Labor Yarns at Work and Play. Urbana and Chicago: Illinois University Press.
------. 2001. Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press.

Munoz, Michael S. 1986. "Pilebutt": Stories and Photographs about Pile Driving. San Leandro, Calif.: Pilebutt Press.

Robinson, John V. 2004. Spanning the Strait: Building the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge. Crockett, Calif.: Carquinez Press.