Folkstreams | Contexts | Transcription, Pilebutts

Transcription, Pilebutts

Transcription, Pilebutts

Working script by filmmaker Maria Brooks: (510)451-9226




Fade up:

Visuals - from San Rafael Bridge barge then cut to various locations - collage of work shots

DONNELLY (voice over)

I look at structures and how they were built because that's what we do. We build them and we're the first on the job. We're the ones that without us the structure doesn't get built. Any of them.


We're always there first. When you go to a big job or a high rise… be there six months before when it's a mud hole and you're walking around in the stuff clean up to your waist and you're dragging chokers around… Yeah, we're the best. There's no doubt. I'm trying to be humble about this, but it ain't working for me.

visual - Ace on the Hammer


They are pilebutts.

They fix structures to the earth. They drive the piling. They build the piers, the bridges and the wharves. And to get the work done, they dive into deep, turbulent waters.

Freeways, skyscrapers, and airports are secured to the earth by their work.

They restore, they demolish - and they build again.

music up

Titles Up - music


Working Under the hammer

(visuals - collage of faces and work shots)

NARRATOR (con't)

Pilebutts belong to a spirited and democratic union, one of the oldest in the West. For over a hundred years, members of Piledrivers' Local 34 have worked in all kinds of terrain - from the ocean floor to the great Western deserts. They work in Northern California, Nevada and Utah.

On many jobs, they work out of public sight, rarely noticed by the millions of people who depend daily on their skills.

GREEN (labor folklorist)page 13

A guy who drives pile, he knows that he's doing something essential that no one else can do….Their confidence comes from the mastery of their trade. …They can do anything.


I have always thought of Pilebutts as the shock troops of the construction trade….When these guys come to a construction site whether it's afloat or ashore, it's completely undeveloped, it's bare earth. It's the most difficult stage to work with and pilebutts come in and they literally pave the way for all the other trades to follow.


Occasionally…a wise old timer would tell me the story that the men were strong because they could encompass the pile and cut it off…In those days the piledrivers would have their ass in the water or their ass in the mud and choking with dust all the time… It was hard, hard work.

(fade to black - and up on visual of lake dwellings)


Piledriving is an ancient craft, performed by cultures all over the world. In parts of Europe a thousand years ago clans gathered in villages on lakes supported by pilings, safe from wild animals and angry neighbors.

(sound effects up - animal noises, music)

(dissolve to animation)





(visuals - dissolve to pictures of Roman aquaduct)


Driving Pile for bridges, piers and foundations changed little for thousands of years. It required a drop hammer, a simple rig, and hard physical labor.

(visuals- pictures of Pilebutts in Mid Ages and Venice)

Pile drivers were recorded in Medieval Europe. In Venice Italy, they belonged to an esteemed guild. These craftsmen were crucial in creating this spectacular city built on pilings above lagoons. Thousands upon thousands of timbers were hammered into the clay, each pile driven by men with a drop hammer.

(visuals - dissolve to men carrying hand hammer at Manson yard)

NARRATOR (continue)

Today, old ways are not forgotten. For the fun of it, pilebutts practice their ancient craft on a hand built drop hammer. (visuals- dropping the hammer) Antoine Barada would be proud.

(visuals - Barada illustrations)

NARRATOR (con't)

He was a pile driving man. Born near Omaha in 1807, Antoine Barada, like Johnny Appleseed, became the subject of tall tales. Strong as an ox, they said he could lift timbers with one hand. He thrived on hard, fast work - but he had a quick temper.

One day while working with a dead beat crew, Barada's temper flared. He grabbed the drop hammer threw it across the River. The earth buckled. The hammer had created the "Breaks of the Missouri".

Barada was still pretty angry so he slammed his fist down on a pile. The pile drove down into the ground so deep it hit water. The whole state of Nebraska would have drown if Antoine Barada hadn't plugged it - by sitting on the gushing bung hole.

(visuals - black & white drawings by Patrie and others dissolve into one another)

NARRATOR (con't)

Over the years, piledrivers' work has been the subject of folklore. Artists have found their work a source of inspiration. Pilebutts have a rich history. On the West Coast, the city of San Francisco reflects the work of generations of pilemen.




When you first come to San Francisco, the first thing you see is the Ferry Building. Most tourist see that. The Ferry Building was built by piledrivers and pilebutts.

(music up - lively)

(visuals - old San Francisco and photos of pile driving)


With the discovery of gold in 1848, San Francisco emerged from a sleepy backwater cove to become a bustling seaport.

Swamps pushed in on the town. Piers had to be built over the oozing mud. As more people arrived - and easy money flowed, construction took off. But it was nearly impossible to find men willing to do heavy work when gold fever was in the air.

(music fades)


For a short time, the townsfolk attracted piledrivers and carpenters by offering twenty times the wages these men would have made in New York City.

(music up -)


It didn't take long for the word to spread, and pilemen from all parts of country descended on San Francisco. When men arrived, they found had wages plummeted. Too many workers had drifted into town and the gold veins dried up. Now, to support their families, tradesmen once again worked long hours in dangerous conditions.

(music fades)


The work was extremely dangerous. There were no standards. There was no safety. I'm sure the ropes and howsers and cable and chains were used till they broke. And when they broke it was easier to buy a new piece of equipment than to save a man….


If you lost a leg or an arm or a finger or an eyeball, you paid you own doctor bills - if you could pay for them. You did the best you could with was left. …. If you couldn't do the job, you went home. The pay stopped. If you had a family that was just tough - you didn't survive….. Many times if a person got hurt and couldn't hold up his end. I'm sorry I get sentimental about this. It's what organized labor is all about…..


In 1877 men working on the piers formed a Pile Drivers Association. It was one of the first unions formed on the West Coast.

(music fades)

MUNOZ (p6)

Pilebutts get hurt. The nature of the work causes us to take care of each other…It was more fraternal than it was a union like today where you have things like trust funds and benefits….They were friends with each other. They saved each other's lives. They took all these things for granted.

GREEN (Pg 9)

Pile drivers are anonymous, but every man's labor, his tombstone in effect, or his monument is the piles that he drove….Everything this side of the sea wall was pile driver work.

(Music up - SF music)


Driving pile had changed very little over hundreds of years. But with the invention of the steam engine, pile driving came into the modern era. Yet the skill and know how of the old pilemen was never forgotten.


A lot of the old timers came out of the woods, Northern Washington, Oregon, places like that. They knew how to do the rigging. They could splice cable, splice wood line, knew how to tie all the knots we need in maritime industries. They were good riggers, good crane men, good bargemen. They were men who'd get out on the logs, run across them with their boots on. They had to do that in the old days because we drove wooden piling. Now we drive steel piling, concrete piling, all kinds of pilings.

(sound effects)


Driver Number Three sits near the Embarcadero in San Francisco. This hand crafted rig, with its steam driven hammer, is one of the last of its kind.

(Old Rig Sequence)

visuals: demonstration of dropping the steam driven hammer- Archie Green voice over describes work)


This old rig, like countless others, drove the pilings for the piers, the wharves, the docks and bridges that built the city of San Francisco.

(visuals - old San Francisco dissolves into pictures of pile driving rigs.)

(Music fades)


The piledriver's union remained small and independent. To gain strength in bargaining, pile drivers joined with the iron workers. Together, they formed a new independent union. But piledrivers wanted autonomy and this partnership had a short life. In 1920, they found a new home with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners.

(visuals - 1934 Strike footage)

NARRATOR (con't)

In the years that followed, violent struggle erupted on the streets of San Francisco as workers struck for better conditions. In the strike of 1934, longshoremen and seamen shut down all shipping on the West Coast. Jack Wagner, along with other Pilebutts supported the strikers and were manning picket lines when police open fire. Two longshoremen were killed. The workers of San Francisco responded with a general strike. After weeks of turbulence, the longshoremen won their demands.

NARRATOR (con't)

In this era of labor strife, Jack Wagner took the helm of the Piledriver's Union. A staunch rank and file unionist, Wagner had been educated by street wise radicals. In 1937 Wagner wrested an agreement from the Carpenters International. Local 34 would have its automony.


He saved face for us. He forced the International to recognized we have one man -one vote….

He'd stand up to anybody, fight a buzz saw if he had to, for the union. He'd do anything for the union….

(music up)


San Francisco grew. By the mid 1930's, construction projects tested the skills of a generation of craftsmen. Two bridges were commissioned over San Francisco Bay, both spectacular in design and construction.

(visuals - old bridge building footage)

(music fades)


They were remarkable people in those days. They drove the cofferdams and the timber piles for the East Bay Foundations. They sometimes drove a 100 piles a day, which is remarkable…There was a lot of very wonderful work that went on below the water.


The building of the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bay Bridge took the lives of 35 workers. The structures stand today as monuments to the skill and courage of the workers who built them - from those who drove the pile - to the men who stacked the steel.


You know, there's a lot of rivalry between us. Everybody thinks their gang is the best…..We do it all. Big, short and tall. That is a fact. Iron workers talk about building bridges and all that. I’ll guarantee you there wouldn’t be a bridge one in this Bay Area over water if there weren’t piledrivers there.

music up

dissolve to pilebutts

(visuals - pilebutts waiting on the docks to go to work)




visuals: arriving at Barge from tug boat. Pilebutts are preparing maneuver with hook and rigging….

WAGNER (voice-over)

It’s hard, dirty shitty work and you just got to love it. You got to love doing it. You know, some of these kids come in here and look at that and go oh my God you’re kidding me. You want me to do what?

visuals: Three pilebutts wrestle with hook….

Huge casting is suspended in air

WAGNER (voice-over)

There isn’t a time or a minute that goes by when you’re standing on a deck of a barge. I mean, the thing’s alive. You better know where you’re at and where you’re going if something turns to shit.

visuals: pipe is lowered into water


visuals: Diver is dressing on deck

LEONARD WELLS (voice-over)

You're an underwater pilebutt… We do just about everything that they do on top… And your suit is just a vehicle to get to and from the work. You try to do it the shortest and the best way because that's all you have to sell is your bottom time.

WELLS (sync)

Which you have to do on a big production job. You have to put out a 120%.

visuals: diver jumps into the water

WELLS (sync)

See, a diver's got so much time down there and he has to get it done. usually, if they don't get it done, they're down the road. I mean, you know, they'll get somebody that can.

visuals: diver swims in water to piling


He's got about one foot of visibility. So he can see what's right here, (holds hand up) What's right in front of his face. Everything's done by feel.

visuals: tender stands in front of gauges; noises walky-talky from diver


(visuals - diver climbs up ladder and walks to decompression chamber)

A diver's work is crucial in the bridge's retrofit. He operates in hazardous conditions, moving in underwater darkness, fastening structures, inspecting piles and foundations.

He's not out of danger when he returns to the surface. A decompression chamber sits at the work site. If the diver ascends too quickly, he may experience decompression sickness causing severe pain in his joints, muscles and bones.

WAGNER (pg 6)

Yeh, that's the essence of the whole operation (points) - the people. All I am is the orchestrator. It's like a big circus.

(visuals rapid shots of work - music up)

WAGNER (voice over)

I'm standing out in three rings, going da-dah-dah. Everybody else is out there executing things and making it happen. It don't get any better than this.

(visuals -end work shots sequence over sea foam)

BRANDT (voice over)

Being a piledriver man…., you're a hard working stiff. I don't think I was ever on a piledriving job that was easy. They're all hard….It's all hard work, very hard work and you're going full bore all day long.


(visuals - cement piling in San Francisco)

It takes many years to learn the skills required of a piledriver. After a four year apprenticeship, new pilebutts continue to learn from seasoned journeymen on the job. Often these young piledrivers must confront their own insecurities to get the job done.


I wasn't real fond of heights, to start off with. I remember the first time I got to grease the hammer. It was just 20 feet off the ground. I had a hard time letting go. They’re hollering at me, "Let go of your hand!" I was like this (shows hands) hanging on. I'd be like this. But you get over it. I love being here now. It ain't no big deal.

(visuals: Walking on the Beams)


A couple of things that we deal with, day in and day out, is heights, especially if you do bridge work. We pick up large four by fours and walk H beams or I beams whatever you want to call them… Probably for me the most frightening thing was to take those first few steps early in the morning and on a new job carrying the four by fours in place until we had enough of a deck established that we could throw some plywood down and no longer just walk the beams…. I have this little chant in my head that I would go through to help calm myself down. Most people are afraid of heights and I would meditate with this chant while I was doing my work, and I would slap my leg to work up the nerve to take the first couple of steps so that my legs weren’t shaking as I stepped forward…Then after I done that a few times my heart rate would go down and comfort level would be greater and I could get out and do what I needed to do and my fear was much less.

Lisa WALKER p8

When I'm out here, there's risks and I have to take them. And in back of your mind you're saying 'Well, ok, I've got to be careful, you know.'

But actually, some things have to be done and there are risks involved… If it can be done, hey, I think I can do it.


Piledriving is dangerous work. Accidents happen and they are often deadly. On any given day, a broken chain or a falling object, can maim or kill a worker who happens to be standing in the wrong place.

(visuals - ambulance at work site)


Everybody thinks about injury and death. It's right there in front of you. With a hundred and twenty tons falling out of the sky, you know, everybody learns to scatter.


Two or three times a year, those of us who have in the trade a while know someone who has been killed that year.


I have broken bones and I've been hit on the head with hooks and I've been knocked in the Bay. I've had hernias, broken fingers, broken feet.


I've had my back broken it three places, just above the belt line. My syatic nerves are gone in my legs. They're very bad. My feet burn real bad, sometimes it flares up. I almost lost this arm over in Kuwait. Two hundred stitches. My girl can still dance though. (points to arm)


If I thought about being - getting hurt or danger, I actually (laughs) wouldn't get out of bed. It's my job. I like it. It's an adventure for me. I don't think about it - coming out here getting hurt. But I know there's a lot of danger around.

(visuals sequence - San Mateo Bridge, music under)

WHITE pg. 21

If my partner’s down there in the water diving and I’m up here as the standby diver and he gets in trouble, I’ll go down there and get him. And if he don’t come back, by God I’m not coming back either cause I’m not going to come back here and tell everybody, 'By God, how he’s down there and I’m here alive!' I’m going to die with the son of a bitch, or I’m going to bring him back on the deck.


(visuals - dissolve to faces)

It's the people, it's the men and women that are a part of this craft. Even the old guys that retire, that's the thing they miss. They don't miss hooking chokers up and slinging shit around, they miss the people that they stood next to doing that for all the years.


(visuals - in welding shack)

These men and women belong to a union that insures a decent livelihood. It has fought for 125 years for health, welfare and safety regulations on the job. But Local 34 provides more than material benefits. It brings together working people who care for one another in deeply felt ways.


The union to me is like a family. It's been good to me.


I'm real passionate about this union and it’s the best thing really that's ever happened to me. Otherwise, I'd still be back in Petaluma milking cows and throwing hay bales. I mean, who'd have thought?


When your kid gets hurt and is in the hospital, the union can put out a call and you can have a meal delivered every day. That happened to me. It happened to me when my daughter had her surgeries. And it was union sisters and brothers that night after night after night brought a meal so that we didn’t have to go shopping, we didn’t have to

cook, so that we could continue to function.


I was hurt on pier 39 and I went in the water and a dock collapsed on me. When I came to the surface, I saw…the men dive in the water after me…. They didn't know what debris was in the water, what could have fallen on them. They just threw themselves in the water and saved me.


…. I own a home, I have a family, I raised kids. They went to college. These guys helped me establish myself and make a success, as much as I could, in life.


Pilebutts bring skills to the job that take a life time to master. Protective of one another, they work under the hammer with confidence and pride. Although their jobs are hazardous and uncertain, they are shielded by their humor, their know how and a shared fearlessness. They are certain, no matter what the odds - if a job can be done, pilebutts will do it.

fade out - credit roll begins