YARDBIRD: LIFE IN THE SHIPYARD
By Kendall Hale
Yardbird is one chapter in Radical Passions: A Memoir of Revolution and Healing, by Kendall Hale (2008). For full information about the book, including how to order a copy, go to www.radicalpassions.com.
Oh we’re feelin’ the pain
Of the big man’s money game
And that’s where you’d better put the blame
If you intend to make a change.
And the plan took me to the shipyard.
Had I ever known the unbearable agony that welding at General Dynamics, the largest shipyard in New England, would cause me, I'm sure I would have renounced my political beliefs for a comfortable place in the suburbs, a professional job, and the nuclear family my parents had dreamed for me. But my life was a dare, and my politics thrust me into situations to cause disruption, discomfort, and change.
With my shield protecting me from the bright orange flame of the welding rod melting steel to steel, I asked myself how I’d gotten to this huge shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts. It was a bitter, snowy morning in 1976, and I thought back to that afternoon in 1967 when my father handed me a copy of the Communist Manifesto. “Here is a really good book you might like to read, Kendall,” Dad said emerging from his study, where for seventeen years I usually saw his back bent over his typewriter, his Ph.D. dissertation, or university duties.
“Karl Marx? Who’s he?” I asked.
“He was a philosopher who believed that we should create a society where social classes and class differences had been eliminated. A classless society is one that operates according to the principle, ‘From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs’,” Dad answered, his eyes tired from reading and grading papers. “Marx said if members of the working class stood together against the capitalist ruling class, they could overturn the government and create a new society. Worker solidarity would set them free.”
“Free of what?” I asked. I was still in high school.
“Oh, I get it,” I lied. Yet somewhere my heart understood and carried the message.
And so it went from late 1960s, Marx, and Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book, to Madison and the student rebellion, and now union organizing.
As the welding sparks flew around my body, I wished my Marxist-Leninist mentor Shanna could see me. After she was jailed for slashing a strikebreaker’s tire, I would need something like the shipyard to win my “red badge of courage.”
“Bang,” a thunderous sound reverberated on the steel beneath my boots.
“What the hell was that?” I gasped, catapulted back to the shipyard from my daydream. I flipped back my shield. An eight-foot long plank had landed inches from me. Glancing into the dark staging sixty feet up, I saw two pairs of boots.
“Watch out, you bastards!” I screamed, shaking my fist. “You could have killed me. You knew I was down here!”
Silence. Solidarity, I thought to myself. Worker solidarity?
Walking through the shipyard gates in 1976 was like going to war, with a constant battle between the workers and supervisors, the General Dynamics “white hats,” who punished and verbally abused most workers they came in contact with. Every morning I woke up at 5:30, facing blackness and the terror of being late for the 7:00 a.m. shift. The 45-minute drive to Quincy always left me and my co-workers running or hop-skipping into Joe's Lunch for coffee, the only restaurant that serviced the shipbuilders. I tried to blend into the sea of gnarled, weather beaten men who had given twenty to thirty years of their lives to the New England winters, the relentless, ocean wind forever imprinted on their features.
I wore what all the welders wore, a hard-hat, huge baggy coveralls, heavy work boots, and company supplied leathers that covered my shoulders and chest to keep from being burned by welding sparks. After a few weeks, I looked as tattered as the veteran welders, with spark burns on my sleeves and pant legs, along with dirt from lying in garbage heaps inside the tunnels. But my face was young and beautiful, smooth and round as the full moon, as I walked, shaking, past the crowded tables of tough, raucous men, my downcast eyes focusing across the room until I managed to get past the stares coming from all directions. Bottom line: I was female.
There were just fifty women hired at General Dynamics to work on the liquid natural gas (LNG) tankers, a requirement of a federal affirmative action program. Half of us were there because of our affiliation with the new communist party building movement. Women and minority workers walked into the yard to become “yardbirds” for the first time in history, except when women known as "Rosie the Riveter" had filled in for men at war in the 1940s. We were the other creatures, out of kitchens, bedrooms, grocery stores, and beauty parlors, wearing hard-hats and steel-toed shoes. I knew if I could see just one familiar feature, a nose, mouth, a gesture, while walking toward the coffee counter, I would begin to breathe more evenly, just to be able to say “Hi or good morning,” not enough to gain acceptance or be one of the boys, but just enough to connect for an instant. Unfortunately, the morning entrance into Joe’s never got comfortable. Familiar, but never friendly.
I had enjoyed the eight weeks of welding school, as well as the attention I received from lots of young men. We started working on the "plats," an area of the shipyard in front of the tankers where the bulkheads were constructed and welded together. But welding school had not prepared us for the lion’s den, and I quickly became lost in a maze of metal cranes swinging like prehistoric creatures carrying huge pieces of metal without any safety bell ringing to warn workers when to run for cover. We joked about wearing a hard hat for protection from a piece of huge steel dropped from one hundred feet up. The school instructors had so terrified me of the boats, that I considered myself lucky with the plat assignment. But soon the foreman or white hat (in distinction from the workers who wore different colored hard hats), who never spoke directly to me, grumbled orders to the working leader and had me transferred to a tanker, the length of three football fields. Panic flooded my body, and I protested every step of the way, asking and begging: “Why, why? I was welding just fine. You didn’t give me a chance, I was only here three weeks!”
"Well, that's the breaks, sister, GD isn't fair,” he answered. “You can handle it.”
The foremen were trained to run the yard just like a military machine, barking out commands they carried out according to rigid, inflexible rules. The corrupt Shipbuilder’s union was just a name and a card. If a foreman wanted to transfer you, there was no choice. You went.
This transfer, however, was a blessing in disguise, because my new crew had a woman member, Dee. Red-headed, lesbian Dee. She was tough and kind, and she sensed my desperation. We immediately developed a deep rapport, and then I clung to her for psychic, emotional survival. The crew seemed to resent my being her pal and her protection of me, but for a few weeks life was good. This foreman put us on jobs together. Dee taught me how to weld, and we laughed, talked, and created a female dynamic that reverberated through the cold steel into the darkest, dampest, dirtiest holes. We paraded gleefully before the carpenters, burners, ship fitters, and all the male-only groups we were not welcomed to join. With Dee, I felt proud to be a woman and proud we were taking on new challenges together. In her presence my level of fear and timidity was halved. No one bothered us.
On rare occasions on an outside job, high above the decks, when the sky was clear, I had a spectacular panoramic view of the Quincy Bay, with seagulls, boats, blue ocean, and fresh, gentle breezes. On those days, I identified with the young Chinese woman shipyard worker glowing from the socialist poster I had bought in Madison, Wisconsin. In those moments, I merged with my welding rod and felt peaceful, accomplished, and almost happy.
Signs of solidarity frightened management, even two women friends, and Dee and I were separated. A few days after she was transferred to another tanker, pin-ups of naked, huge-breasted women started appearing on and above my toolbox. I seethed at this harassment that must have come from men on my crew. The deeper I worked in the tankers, the more chalk drawings of vaginas and breasts were scrawled on the bulkheads. I knew it was futile to report sexual harassment. In 1978 it was not recognized, just as my rape was ignored in 1971, blamed on women’s seductiveness.
The foreman I had been so grateful to had ruined our honeymoon by sending Dee to a different crew and me to jobs I could not do. One of those places was called wing walls, a space so closed in and filled with smoke, noise, gas leaks from acetylene torches, toxic welding fumes, dropping pieces of metal, and burners fumes, that I was absolutely terrified. I had to squeeze into spaces and lie down at angles that my body would not bend, and weld where my arms could not reach. Sometimes I welded upside down so the hard hat offered no protection and my hair caught on fire. Sparks fell into my shoes, burning through my socks and causing me to jump off the job shaking my boots wildly. Welders have lots of tattoos to show for their trade: burn marks dotting arms and chest, noses blackened by smoke. My eyeballs, temporarily dried out by welding flashes, felt gritty, like after a walk on a windy beach.
Our lungs took the worst abuse, breathing in cancerous chemicals that entered throats and air sacs through holes in the aluminum blowers that management refused to repair. Long-term employees developed welders’ lung, just as our fellow workers in the mines and textile plants suffered from black and brown lung disease. We were expected to weld wherever we were told, without questions, complaints, or demands, in the darkest, damp, garbage-filled holes often tainted with urine. “How is it that our country has the technology to put a man on the moon, but the management of General Dynamics can’t fix our blowers?” I repeatedly asked other workers.
Every day we had to find a new welding line, and plug it into a machine for amperage near the job we had been assigned. This was the most difficult part of the job because the lines were so heavy. But the chaos, disintegration of the work ethic, and disorganization of production would have made even Karl Marx a little nervous. At the end of each working day, lines were dropped where each worker stood. Heaps of lines got tangled in knots that literally took hours to undo, wrapped around debris, hanging down holes, and trapped under pieces of bulkhead. This caused a battle between welders because there were never enough lines to go around. People fought to be first to get a line since it could mean searching half a workday or longer for one.
This waste of labor time and money was astronomical, but apparently General Dynamics could absorb the loss, and since management didn't care, neither did anyone else. “Don't do anything you don't have to” became the motto. Standing around doing nothing was not my style, so for weeks, each morning I cried while stumbling over piles of junk, pulling until my arms could hardly move, getting a line half way to a job, and giving up with exhaustion. Most people gave the company at best half a day’s work, and then found a hiding place to smoke a joint or sleep. As long as we were somewhere on or near the job, most foremen were cool, but a trip across the yard to the bathroom was suspect and timed to the minute. Women were watched carefully since we all crowded into the bathroom for fifteen minutes at the morning and afternoon breaks. It was the only place we had to give ourselves comfort, support, and protection from the constant confrontations, invasions, and harassment. We would arrive depressed, and, in the winter, stiff with cold, each with a story to tell, taking turns listening with empathy and sisterhood.
“I never thought drinking mud could taste so good,” commented a petite welder, her blue lips sucking in the machine-made hot chocolate.
“My fingers are so stiff I can’t even hold my cup long enough to taste it,” another woman moaned, running hot water over her hands.
Some winter days I huddled on the asbestos covered steam pipes, too numb to complain or care about my safety. These "shithouse" meetings, as we called them, became the most glorious time of my day. I used to count down as I anxiously watched out for the meanest foremen, the real "ball busters," as the men called them. They would nail us for having to piss by handing us a pink slip, the equivalent of a demerit, and then scramble down the ladders and planks off the boats to their safe, warm shacks. Three slips meant suspension or even firing. But the punishment was applied unfairly, depending on the foreman’s likes and dislikes; often it was a matter of skin color or sex.
Unhappily for me, winters came earlier to the Quincy waterfront than to Boston. I had to wear so much clothing that in the spring when I began taking off layers, everyone thought I'd lost 25 pounds. I began the first layer with a leotard, then came tights, a pair of long underwear, a thin pair of socks, a heavier wool pair, a long-sleeved shirt, a pair of pants, two sweaters, a down vest, a jumpsuit on top, with a pair of woolen lined boots, a scarf, an ugly canvas brown coat with a knit hat that I put under my hard hat, and down mittens. I could hardly walk, never mind climb, but it was that or freeze. As I stared through the dark glass window in my shield into the arc of my welding rod, the bright light of melting steel drew me inward. I didn’t want to stop welding for fear I would begin to feel the pain shooting up my legs and torso. I got increasingly stiffer and less tolerant of the cold steel we had to stand on hour after hour.
Sometimes I wandered blindly off my job, just to keep moving. If I were stopped, I made up any excuse: my machine was down, I was out of welding rods, or looking for my foreman. Sometimes I climbed down beneath the tankers, and found groups of men and dogs huddled around burning trashcans or setting planks of wood on fire. The atmosphere of shadows, frozen beards with icicles, and crouched figures hovering and stomping was so primitive that I sometimes forgot it was a shipyard. The burners who ordinarily cut steel became the salvation of all the "yardbirds," with their torches capable of heating a whole bulkhead in a few minutes. The hot steel instantly relieved us with waves of warmth, making us grateful in a way I could never have understood before. Some workers stayed warm by destroying an entire welding machine, pulling out the coiled wires and attaching them to a stinger of a welding rod to generate heat. The only people who could work efficiently in winter were workers who didn't stand still, stage builders, carpenters, or others whose physical movements kept them warm.
During these moments of survival and sabotage, I felt like giving up, curling up in a dark hole quietly to die, or throwing off my hard hat and screaming till they carried me out of the yard on a stretcher with a welding rod between my teeth. The deepest depression came when I realized I was no different from these men I’d planned to lead into a revolution. I had no solution to this horror but to endure.
General Dynamics was a world unto itself, where staging broke, and injuries, even death, happened. There were no routine safety inspections. Each step I took I tested the staging for fear it was loose. I witnessed falling planks: once one landed inches from me as I welded. During my first year and a half, it was rumored that three people were killed, their bodies crushed and mangled, necks broken from falls onto steel 20-30 feet below. Frequently, the ambulance siren pierced the air, like seagulls crying out “accident, accident.” If General Dynamics could declare a worker dead on the other side of the shipyard fence, it was not liable for benefits. We were told that rarely did anyone actually die in the yard. One morning we heard the shocking news that an entire crane had fallen into a basin, leaving the operator in three pieces.
Most of the equipment was broken, old and rusted from the inside, and rather than make repairs, GD gave the deteriorated cranes and other machines a second coat of paint, or hid them temporarily, to fool the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors. OSHA had to notify the company before arrival. We were then instructed to pick up garbage and welding rods. The yard was swept and tidied, trash cans painted or new ones put out in visible spots, and all welding in the shops ordered stopped. When the inspector came, all she or he saw was an orderly, spotless, safe shipyard: the biggest, cleanest show on earth. One afternoon a woman inspector walked into our daily shithouse meeting while we were talking about what a farce the inspection was. We surrounded her, pouring out our complaints:
“Shirley’s six months pregnant and she’s still climbing ladders and pulling lines. She should be on the plats.”
“Judy has carpal tunnel syndrome in her wrist and can’t hold her welding rod any more.”
“My voice has been hoarse and sore all winter because of smoke fumes.”
We told her the truth, but nothing changed. The Nixon Administration’s anti-worker policies had already destroyed OSHA’s ability to enforce the law.
“This wouldn’t happen in worker-run states, like Cuba or China,” I angrily argued to Dee, who now sympathized with my politics. They’d report the shipyard and the inspectors! And they’d all be sent to jail!”
Red-headed Dee, who had heard this from every socialist cadre in the yard by then, threw me a yeah-dream-on look. “It’s OK babe,” she said in her sexy, hoarse voice. “What goes around, comes around.”
“Right, in another hundred years!” I shot back.
One hundred years was too long for even the most dedicated cadre. I wanted to see what the “new socialist” man and woman looked like now. Socialist Cuba was the paradise closest to the shipyard, just ninety miles off the Florida coast.
Havana, Cuba, 1978
Across the table drinking coffee with lots of Cuban sugar sat two members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO). I had escaped from the shipyard for a week to experience a “real” socialist revolution. The Palestinians spoke quietly of their fight for a homeland as I shook my earrings expecting to wake up from a dream. My shipyard credentials apparently qualified me to attend the International Youth Festival with a Boston contingent. Prior to 1978, the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc countries sponsored these festivals as a meeting ground for young Communist Party recruits and “fellow travelers.” Cuba was the first third world country with adequate resources and infrastructure to host this cultural extravaganza.
Being a “red” meant I had to keep my plans secret from my fellow workers and the management at GD. Explaining why I chose Cuba as a vacation was enough to keep me quiet. Getting fired frightened me more than being harassed by the FBI. However, I had announced my trip to everyone else I knew. Secretly, I imagined myself returning to the shipyard with glowing reports to deliver to progressive workers ready to hear the truth about socialism.
I was furious that we had to enter Cuba from Canada due to the US blockade imposed by the Kennedy Administration, but my spirits lifted when I saw the tiny revolutionary island, a red speck in the gigantic, Yankee imperialist ocean below. “Cuba, que linda es Cuba” (“Cuba, how beautiful Cuba is”), we sang with the adrenaline rush of prisoners being released from a lifetime sentence.
Landing in Havana felt hot, sexy, and clandestine. The absence of street beggars, so numerous in most of the underdeveloped world, alleviated my guilt enough that I politely declined to give my US-made sneakers to a young healthy-looking Cuban man who asked for them. With the sound of Latin music, the taste of fruit, rum, and the wild dancing, the revolution appeared successful. Everyone we met seemed optimistic about his or her individual and collective lives. Even the billboards were beautiful, with non-commercial, artistic, and educational messages that blended with the landscape. Through the bus window my camera snapped children holding hands under the large letters POR LOS JOVENES Y EL FUTURO (For Youth and the Future).
On our own, we traveled around Havana without Cuban guides, meeting people who seemed to be living with a sense of purpose and optimism. They welcomed us into their homes with food and drink, eager to discuss politics and their daily lives. Fluent in Spanish, my roommate translated positive statements about health, housing, jobs, and education in the new Cuba. Workers appeared to be valued. I evoked sympathetic nods as I broke in with a description of my life in the shipyard under capitalism.
The Cuban sunsets displayed the tallest buildings in Havana, outlined and lit up with images of huge fists, symbols of revolutionary victory. My sacrifices will be rewarded, I mused, imagining fists painted on the New York World Trade Center. (Instead, fast-forward, my firstborn daughter threw one of her two year old tantrums at the top of this building, and witnessed its destruction on 9/11.) Nightly we witnessed performances from around the world, my favorite being an Afro-Cuban jazz band. The lustful musicians followed us through the streets until we ducked into a doorway, hid for ten minutes, then ran screaming, “Viva la Revolution! Viva la Revolution!
On a humid, sweltering afternoon, my legs aching and my whole body almost cremated from the sun and bodies pressing from all directions, I crowded into the Plaza of the Revolution, where thousands of Cubans had gathered to hear Fidel Castro speak—for hours. At last, I was in the presence of this black-bearded, cigar smoking leader who had dared to defy US imperialism. The sound system was poor. But catching only a few Spanish words didn’t matter. I wanted to stay on Cuban ground more than anything, and was prepared to fling myself at Fidel's feet to beg for citizenship in case he felt my adulation hundreds of yards away.
After a week, a few of us were invited to a cultural exchange on a Soviet naval liner in the harbor. When a Soviet rock band played a poor imitation of Western rock and roll, I felt shocked that their music was not original. But I developed a mad crush dancing with a handsome young naval officer who seemed to feel equally excited. He took a hammer and sickle pin from his jacket and slipped it into my hand. I rushed to the podium, singing “Union Maids,” the most international working class American song I could remember, though none of the men understood a word of English. As a singer in a women’s band, I had been eager to share our culture’s protest songs. The tapping feet and applause vibrated a deep longing in my heart for Russian friendship. Tearfully, I was escorted off the ship back to Cuba, waving goodbye to the man I knew I’d never see again. I could not bear the thought of returning to the United States and to the dreary, gray shipyard. I felt homeless, like the people of the PLO. But I envied them. They had something to fight for, and all I wanted to do was elope with the first foreigner who would ask me. Only images of Lenin’s stern face and Mao’s Long March convinced me that my revolutionary duty was to make the revolution in North America. Cold, grey New England, in fact. Upon my return, I remained absolutely mute, afraid of more repression from fellow workers or dismissal by management. Not one of the 5,000 workers ever learned of my “illegal” visit.
At that time, I left Cuba to return to the shipyard, positive I had witnessed a social experiment that would create a “new man.” But as far as I can tell, twenty-four years later, these evolved humans are still embryos like the rest of us , and Castro only became an older dictator after the Soviet Union dissolved and the Berlin Wall crumbled.
After visiting Cuba, I felt bonded to fellow workers who came from the West Indies, Latin America, Puerto Rico, and Cape Verde. Most of them did not speak English, and the majority were welders, because it was the largest, dirtiest department. We were evacuated periodically when another unit was lifted overhead on the crane. A working leader yelled down to us in time to get out of the hole, but only those who were lucky enough to hear or understand English left for safety. Very few people bothered to communicate with these men because it took patience and care. Once I noticed that none of them followed me out, so I ran from person to person, taking the stinger from their hands, forcing them to stop and motioning with gestures to come. I learned that racism caused accidents just as easily as negligence. My best friends in the yard were minorities and my carpool always included three or four big black or brown men who also lived in the inner city. This led to taunts from other workers: "Kendall lives in Jamaica Plain with the jungle bunnies,” or “Kendall sucks black cock,” or “Kendall is a commie." Racism divided people almost as simply as the Revolutionary Communist Party made it sound: "Racism is a tool used by the capitalists to divide the working class."
The trouble was, we all hated the company, and in our own way each cursed the “capitalists and their running dogs,” but stood alone in our despair. It was only at contract time that the enemy looked the same to all of us. Months before the contract expiration date, I began talking to people about what they wanted. I climbed around with a piece of chalk, carefully watching for foremen, and writing demands on bulkheads and tankers: Strike for COLA (cost of living allowance), Dental Plan, Higher Wages, Sick Days, Two Weeks Vacation, More Holidays. This complemented the more popular “GD Sucks!” Expressing my will on the tankers lifted me from my daily ant-like existence.
“Why don’t you write something?” I asked Billy as I crossed the T on Two Weeks Vacation, a few feet above his head.
“I’m quittin’ for a better job” he lazily replied, the smoke from his last weld circling round his head, his blower dangling ineffectively nearby. “I don’t want nothin’ anyway.” He paused. “But if I do end up stayin’, I want more money.”
“Well, write that, man,” I urged, starting the M for “More” and handing him the chalk.
I wondered if he’d even graduated from high school, as he painstakingly printed O R E. Half way through the M on money, I saw a white hat with a get-out-of-my-way look, huffing his way toward us.
“Look out,” I gestured to Billy. Ducking under our shields, we simultaneously struck an arc to avoid a pink slip or worse.
Never before had I felt so concerned with the interests of people around me. My arguing for a better pension plan when I was 25 years old, having worked in the yard just six months, struck most workers as odd. Young shipbuilders didn't care about much except higher wages, and attendance at union meetings was small in between contracts. But as the contract date drew near, the rank and file began to crawl out of the pits and into the union hall. Those who hadn't given up came prepared to yell and do battle with their leaders, most of whom had become lazy, corrupt, and comfortable. It was clear that defending management rather than workers was their priority. Meetings were run with an iron fist, with the union’s own interpretation of Robert’s Rules of Order or the union bureaucrats’ rules created on the spot.
I had been deeply touched by socialist historian Philip Foner’s History of the Fur and Leather Workers’ Union, a standard source for radical union activists. We didn’t get chairs smashed over our heads by union thugs, as Foner described happening to leather workers, but anyone brave enough to keep pushing a point our union leaders didn’t agree with was eventually shut up.
Young union activists eager to address working conditions and safety issues waved their arms at the older, overweight, white officers at the podium. Each leftist group, including mine, had its own caucus. Tensions and anger exploded as old timers and representatives from each organization fought to be recognized by the chairman, who was more interested in crowd control than in developing unity among the membership. It felt strangely exciting and out of control, like a Students for a Democratic Society meeting from the past. As I glanced around the union hall I was struck by the absence of blacks and other minorities. Only one woman was aggressive enough to be acknowledged. Boldly, I decided to risk individualism. Hadn’t my comrades Linda and Bob agreed that we should address racism? Trembling, I raised my hand just as the gavel struck the podium. “Meeting dismissed.” Rumbling complaints erupted everywhere. Angry and disgusted, the majority of men fled to the bar across the street where their grievances would be heard. Alcohol won again, numbing the pain and anguish, allowing people to forget. I decided it was not religion that was the opiate of the people, as Marx had stated; it was alcohol for the World War II generation and drugs for the younger Vietnam-era workers. I was the only sober person on my crews, and one of the few who did not daily pollute herself on the job.
The last crew I worked on before the actual contract expiration was Hank's. He was a young, handsome foreman who had not yet become demoralized or hardened and seemed to like and respect me. On his crew I met Ivy, a young African American woman longing for freedom from her traditional marriage, which included two children. A sharecropper’s daughter from the South, she and her husband had relocated to Massachusetts where he went to work at General Motors. General Dynamics and her contact with political activists in Jamaica Plain where she and I lived were catalysts for Ivy’s transformation. Because leftists in the yard pretended not to know each other, and my comrades Linda and Bob were a married couple, I had to rely on other workers for emotional support. Norman, my communist boyfriend, had left me months earlier, leaving me wide open to affairs with men, and to be truthful, women in the yard—Tommy, the sexy, after hours Irish cab driver from Somerville, six foot Kwami, the muscled ship fitter from Senegal, and Mike, the sweet one who’s heart I broke, from Quincy. Then came Ivy. She began pursuing me with irresistible cheerful energy, greeting me at the time clock with her silky, chocolate face and eyes. Work bonded us quickly. Both of us were restless, curious women looking for contrast and excitement, and we were open to the unthinkable.
“Hey girl,” her bright voice called down from the top of the deck. “Whatcha doin’?”
I stopped welding, peering upward from a comfortable job in a space where Hank had hidden me. It was large enough for two people but small enough that my droplight brightened all the bulkheads. Being alone in a small tank, our contact would be private, and I gladly put down my welding rod as she descended the long ladder.
“Nice bead,” she observed, running one hand over the surface of my welding and offering me candy from her back pocket with the other. Yesterday, the kinky story of how she braided her public hair for her husband really jarred my latent Mormon-Puritan sensibility. What would I hear today?
“It’s almost over, Ivy,” I looked at my watch, relieved it was later than I thought. “Hank hasn’t been down yet so I lost track of time.”
Smiling and reaching for my hand, she asked, “Are you coming over tonight?”
Her husband worked second shift so my visits to their home were a secret. Not that we had done anything bad yet.
We both jumped as Hank came down to our level, playfully saying: “Hey what’s going on?” I flipped the welding shield over my face to avoid answering. Everyday on this job assignment, he appeared at least once. When I was sure he wasn't there just to check up on my work, I normally looked forward to his visit. Putting her hard hat back on, Ivy knew she was lucky it was Hank and not her foreman. She left, but before the whistle blew, Hank made clear what he wanted. Dropping into the tank inches from my shield he said,
“Kendall, why don’t you move to Quincy? You wouldn’t have such a long commute, and you could be my mistress.” Before hoisting himself out of view he looked back with a grin.
“I can’t Hank,” I smiled up at him, “I’m Ivy’s girlfriend. Besides, you’re a white hat.”
When the contract expired many shouting matches later, the union leadership ignored the rank and file demands for safety and better benefits. Management offered an increase of a few pennies and rejected the union’s counter proposal for a decent increase. All that remained was a struggle for higher wages. For days I was furious and then so depressed I could barely drag myself out of bed each morning. Nevertheless, I joined my comrades and the progressive workers in support of a vote to strike. We held a rally outside the main gate, near Joe's Lunch. I agreed to sing labor songs, with sound equipment I rented and brought in my car, making me finally feel important and recognized by the other leftists. The morning of the rally, singing at the top of my lungs, I drove onto the entrance ramp of the Quincy Highway. Suddenly my car veered over the median onto the down ramp. I turned the steering wheel sharply right, holding my breath. My old Dodge Plymouth jumped back over the divide as if nothing had happened, and I continued singing, “We’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll, we’re gonna roll the union on,” my foot steady on the gas pedal all the way to the main gate.
At last I was wearing two hats, union organizer and member of New Harmony Sisterhood Band, Boston’s now famous, feminist string band, singing outside the largest shipyard in New England while my friends, lovers, and co-workers swarmed out of the gates during lunch. It made me very nervous to perform right below management's office window, in full view of their cameras. But I wore a scarf, took off my glasses, closed my eyes, and held onto the microphone to keep from falling off the stage as I sang my favorite labor song, "Which Side Are You On?" Watching the familiar faces I saw at Joe’s every morning, together with friendly leftists and thousands of others I’d never seen, felt like a dream come true. Knowing that most of the yardbirds had probably never heard songs about workers or about their feelings gave me energy that left me trembling during the speeches that followed.
The first day of the strike, 3,000 spirited workers came out to picket, filling us with hope and excitement. However, within hours, the union president had destroyed the spirit by frightening everyone away with the company's threat of an injunction. The National Labor Relations Board investigator stated that he was pleased at how quickly the union had cooperated in curbing the mass picketing. It was the beginning of the end.
The left simply was not strong enough to fight a multinational corporate giant that had billions of dollars. We struck for three months, but did not put a dent in General Dynamics’ profits. We marched, chanted, caucused in the heat, and picketed round and round beneath the company's cameras designed to intimidate by taking reels and reels of film. Our picket shifts were five to six hours long, which we endured by chanting militantly at the "White Hats" as they crossed our lines into work:
"Listen Mr. White Hat, you really are a jerk, no use going in, you don't know how to work! The boats aren't finished, a single boat ain't done, and nobody works until our strike is won!”
Our picket lines were made up of young men and women leftists with no more than two years’ seniority and old timers with thirty to forty years in the yard. Other young men had motorcycles to ride and girlfriends to find. Family men could not survive on the meager strike benefits from the union. Blacks and minority workers were so alienated by the union’s racism they stayed away. So it was the commies and the original union builders, shoulder to shoulder, inspired by ideology and a dream of democracy, walking with pride, who watched the union weaken and the number of scabs increase.
General Dynamics went to the inner city in Roxbury to recruit unemployed minorities desperate for work, a classic strikebreaking strategy that succeeded. It was tragic for us to watch one of the few black foremen drive in everyday with a van full of minority workers, in full view of the white workers who had to watch them take their jobs, breaking the strike, and destroying the union. We were paralyzed seeing how racism worked for the company's interests. We were stunned that the scabs did not understand the game. Couldn't they see we were all part of the same working class? Didn't they know that once the strike was over they would be laid off? We pleaded with those who came on foot to the main gate, trying to reason with them, but many more crossed than turned away. Money talked to those who had been out of work for years and now had a chance to make $7 an hour. The bitter reality destroyed years of preaching about organizing, unity, and strength in numbers. We couldn’t reach most of the union membership, and the leadership had given up the first day of the strike. Our president sat on the curb with a bottle of booze the entire three months.
Chasing scab cars took our minds off the defeat briefly, but the truth hurt—worse than our sunburned arms, tired feet and backs, and hoarse voices. Learning more bitter lessons wasn't easy. The great proletariat had left me cold in the sweltering heat waves of the shipyard.
After the strike, I wanted to leave the shipyard, believing I would not survive another winter. But the steering committee of the Boston Party Building Organization asked me to remain at General Dynamics, although it was killing me to walk through the gate each morning. I endured for six more months, but then, at the end of a long day, I threw down my hard hat and walked out the gate for the last time, never again to see another person from Quincy or GD. I never contacted Hank, management never called me, and I abruptly severed my relationship with Ivy and other friends.
Like my confused grandmother, the dandelion puff who forgot everything in her frantic walks around the neighborhood, I wanted it all gone. Now.
My comrades encouraged me to train as a machinist at General Electric for another year. After that, the bomb dropped. But this time it was from my trusted comrades in the struggle. I received the following letter from the Boston Party Building Organization:
The steering committee has reviewed your strengths and weaknesses, and scrutinized your practice under the principles of Marxist-Leninist-Mao Tse Tung thought. After reviewing your case, we have decided that you have failed to carry out the main line.
Every member of BPO must work at all times, to keep our basic line in mind, to continuously raise our level of consciousness of the two-line struggle. You have failed to carry out struggle-criticism-transformation in the appropriate manner.
With further investigation and study and reliance on the masses you will learn from your past mistakes and avoid future ones.
You are no longer a cadre in BPO.
The Steering Committee
“What!” I yelled. “Seven years of sacrifice for this? Why those bastards are no better than the Russian politburo!”
The letter in my right hand began to shake. I paced round and round kicking the coffee table, rattling last night’s snack dishes under a half empty coke bottle. My friends. I had been fired by my friends. Lenin’s poster-smile now looked evil. Swiftly I grabbed the coke bottle and hurled it with all my might at his forehead. Wham! Thud, to the floor spinning like a top.
This was the ultimate betrayal.
Two years later, the new communist movement destroyed itself from internal contradictions. Five years later I could see the shipyard cranes twenty miles away on the horizon from my home in Mission Hill. Whenever I faced what felt like insurmountable hardships of any kind, I told myself, “You can do it, you survived General Dynamics.”
With a long look back, I now understand that without the extremity of the dogmatic Marxist-Leninist movement and my belief in its strategy for revolution, I would not have witnessed shipbuilding and the human dynamic between workers and bosses. Sweating and struggling with the working class gave me a profound appreciation for labor and its untold story.
Twenty years later, in 1998, I found my tan colored hard-hat with a faded, red women’s symbol in my barn inside a box next to a bale of hay. A spider ran across my New Harmony Sisterhood notebook, torn and ragged, but still protecting the lyrics to all our songs collected over seven years. Turning the rumpled pages matted with bits of hay, I found “Yardbird,” a song I composed and played with New Harmony after the strike. Softly I began to sing the first verse:
Here we go the start of another drive down to the Quincy shipyard
And we’re heavin a sigh as we walk toward the street
On the way to punch in that time card.
Jimmy’s complain’ ‘bout the heat and the smoke, welding down below in the tanks
Kathy her hand hurts from running the gun couldn’t care if the whole damn boat sank.
Oh we’re feelin’ the pain
Of the big man’s money game
And that’s where you’d better put the blame
If you intend to make a change.
Kendall Hale, New Harmony Sisterhood, 1977
By 1979 the rank and file elected some of the new communist and militant workers as union stewards and continued to wage campaigns focused on racial discrimination and better working conditions. In 1982, the welders managed to isolate the right wing and elected a radical president who spent three years fighting with the older conservative officers of the union. Only young workers who could take financial risks ever participated in the campaigns for justice. Unsuccessful on the world market, the Liquid Natural Gas Tankers were discontinued by General Dynamics in 1980, and layoffs left 1,400 of the original 5,000 workers in the yard. By the mid-1980’s all the radicals had “burned out” from a combination of union corruption and a workforce with no experience of how to fight the bosses. In 2004 the owners tore down the giant crane and closed the shipyard, leaving us yardbirds to the seagulls.
Founded in 1880, the General Dynamics Corporation is now the parent of several high-tech operating units involved in defense, aerospace, and advanced materials. The bulk of its revenue is derived from activity in the defense industry.