Cente: "All this stuff about welding being a difficult job doesn't faze me."
Ernie, 23, is a musician disguised as a milkman. He's an aspiring percussionist who makes his living in a drive-through dairy. By his own admission, the chores are elementary and tedious: stocking, waiting on customers, giving directions to freeway off-ramp strays, and sitting around, waiting. He spends much of his time at work high on beer, and all of his time at home wishing he had more hours to practice his music. Right now he is making less than $90 a week. If he had stuck with his last job he'd be making nearly $200 a week. But as far as Ernie's concerned, that last job ranks at the bottom of a list that includes three years of dishwashing and table-busing, four months of swamping for a thrift agency, three weeks of truck driving for a paint store, and four on-and-off years of college.
Ernie: "You're given jobs a veteran should expect. Welding overhead immediately, stuck in the inner bottoms, sparks covering your body."
In six months Ernie made more money as a welder for NASSCO than in all his previous occupations combined. It's a job he'd rather forget. (National Steel and Shipbuilding Company, Harbor Drive at 28th Street, employs 6000 people. Last year the company built seven vessels, including five huge tankers capable of carrying 90,000 tons of cargo.) Asa Logan Heights lifer, people still finger Ernie as a fool for passing up a salary that approximates three monthly welfare checks. When he got the job he was told by family and friends that he was "on his way." When he quit they told him where — down. He says he doesn't care; his success was accidental but his failure was deliberate.
Mike: "I wouldn't work in the rain."
"People have such a naive view of blue-collar jobs like welding. They think just because you're making almost six bucks an hour that you have to be happy. If you're not, they laugh. Working at National Steel was really discouraging, both to my health and my sense of dignity, however little that means. After a month there I wanted to quit, but how could I? I'd moved out of my parents' house, was living with my girlfriend, spending my money on candy, and trying to forget how much I hated what I was doing. But I just couldn't hack it. I should have quit when I first wanted to, but these people who believe so much in work, in the work ethic, they don't understand if you say it's degrading. They say you're spoiled, they say go out there and work till you kick the bucket; be a man! What they're saying is give me a model I can point to and say, 'look, look at his paycheck, look at his family, look at his ulcers, look at what he's made himself.' Shit!
Blake: "With all those torches going at one time it makes the smoke build-up awful."
"I don't think there's anything noble out of making something like welding a career; it's a have-to-thing. Once you're making the dough, and especially if you have a family, hell, you ain't gonna crave for something less. But the truth is, anyone who wants to know what it's like to be a slave should test National Steel. I say that to people, tell 'em exactly how bad it was, and they just think I'm a pussy. After all, that's what life is about, ain't it?
"But what I say about slavery is more like seduced slavery. When I first go the chance to get into a training program at South Bay Trade I thought it would be great. I never could conceive of that much bread, baby. And when I started at the school I thought, damn, this ain't shit. I am a man! But training school is nothing like NASSCO. In fact, looking back, it seems easy, even if I didn't think so at the time, really. Sure they pressured us to do good work, but the conditions were a lot different; there was plenty of ventilation, and the work wasn't half as hard as at National Steel. Everything at school was conventional welding. They'd show you how to do it, give you all the needed equipment, and test you as with any school. But when you got to NASSCO it was chaos. In the first place, the basic rule is: the first 30 days are death-or-life row. They expect you to make mistakes, obviously, but if you do, you're out. The foreman rides your ass continually. You're given jobs a veteran should expect. Welding overhead immediately, stuck in the inner bottoms, sparks covering your body. I was never briefed on that at school. Dangers you expect, do-or-die games you don't and shouldn't. I'm sure people who've been working there a long time would tell me I don't know how to play the game by the rules, but I don't care. No human being should have to face those kinds of hazards.
"Ventilation is the most unending problem. Okay, you got four dudes in a tank the size of a small room with one funky-ass blower. You stick your tape hose into this vacuum and that's supposed to keep you breathing good. But there's always too much smoke. Besides, you're always paranoid that somebody's gonna steal your blower. One time I had set up my blower and this Tijuanero puto took off my hose and ran off with it while I was going to the bathroom. They're pretty chicken shit down there. But it's hard to blame 'em. I mean the place just ain't safe; safety was what you made it. The scaffolds, for instance, were tightropes. I was on a scaffold once and the thing tipped, I almost fell, and if I did I woulda snuffed it. I seen this dude fall 80 feet below the main deck.
"Also, you have to work in the rain. A welder working in the rain is like trying to play an electric guitar in a bathtub. Well, if it's raining and you shock yourself, your brains would boil in your damn head. Bu they don't give a shit. They don't need you. They got a high turnover, they got a lotta kiss butts, illegal aliens, green-carders. It's like a bracero program. You aren't really protected. The unions don't care and their spirits' catching 'cause not many dudes seem to really care either. They just don't wanna lose their jobs.
"Me, on my last two weeks, since I told 'em I was splitting 'cause of health reasons, I got to kick back. Then when I got my last physical I was clean and put on rehire. It made the place look good and me like a woman. But I guess I should be happy that if worse comes to worst I got a job lined up. It don't delight me though, baby. Not as all."
Blake, 30, speaks guardedly over the telephone about his relationship with NASSCO. He is adamant about the sorry state of affairs for many of his fellow workers, but as a union shop steward, he feels he shouldn't implicate himself directly in any dissension. Separated from his wife, he uses every cent of his salary to support his two children and to make life comfortable for himself and the woman he now lives with. He emphasizes that he has no personal gripes and won't jeopardize his position, believing that anyone who comes flat out and criticizes the company, especially if it's in newsprint, is a good candidate for the unemployment line. He's willing to assist in efforts to show people how "shit really goes down at NASSCO," but no names, please!
"Man, I shouldn't say anything because I get treated good. I like the people I work with — couldn't ask for a better bunch. But anything you hear from dudes who have a complaint you might as well believe. I'm telling you though I can sympathize with them, I don't intend to lose my job for aiding in an article. Just leave my name out of this thing you're writing for. I also think you shouldn't mess anybody else up by putting full names either. When I split, if ever, it'll be my decision, and it won't be for someone else's crusade but for my health and hopefully better pay.
"I'd be lying if I said I'm real happy with the way things are. Conditions aren't cool when you come down to it — safety, worker relations, union relations, everything. I've been reading stuff about life expectancy for people like steelworkers — what with risks of cancer and emphysema. Now, I don't really know what the smoke is doing to my lungs, but I'll bet I could be knocking five to ten years off my life. That's something you can think about, but how can you do anything about it when everybody, from the higher-ups down to the workers, seems content to think put up or shut up?
"The ventilation problem varies, but it's damn bad in the inner bottoms. Too many people, I mean, like there's four guys to one blower. And with all those torches going at one time it makes the smoke build-up awful. The only immediate attention paid to the problem comes from old-wives remedies. Like they tell you to drink milk so the mucous in your chest will catch the shit and prevent you from getting sick. You can see that the most danger would be to the welders. There's others but that's a constant one. But there's no orientation on safety, on ventilation, burn risk, eye damage — nothing.
"I can't say what could be done to solve all the problems. i don't think you can fix it all: it's the reality of the job. But, man, the government subsidizes all those tankers. It's the taxpayers' bread. I can understand the company's schedule and the fact that the commitments must be filled, and that worrying about safety is just hassle on their end, but the goddamed government ought to care.
"The union, which should take those matters real seriously, doesn't do much. They handle everything as if it's a union company, meaning their honor goes to the higher-ups, not the workers. That bugs me. They choose who to represent, who to back in elections. You know, of course, that this means dissent in discouraged. Okay, I'm sure a lotta dudes have implied to you that guys who try to rally workers get roughed up. I can't say whether it's true, but the workers act scared, no matter how big they talk in private. Maybe it's this tear that keeps things down. Nobody goes to meetings. if 400 people went, then they'd take complaints and suggestions seriously, but with only about 30 guys giving a damn, nothing changes. Everyone thinks they have no piece of the pic, they just exist. Welders, who have the hardest job, are pretty transient at NASSCO. It's little wonder why they aren't heard. Now, the radicals who won't stand for any bullshit, I mean the ones who won't just get up and work after they're hurt because they've been given Darvon, or the ones who won't work in rain or stand on dangerous scaffolds, they keep things agitated a little, but there ain't any togetherness. The older guys are set in their ways, and the young guys, well, they come and go.
"It's true that this town is no union own. Look at the cops at Campbell's. They were hassling the hell out of the strikers. That encourages scabs, discourages the basic right to strike. You don't get any of that jive back east. And it's funny because when the cops were bitching about their working conditions, they were begging for public sympathy. Who do they sympathize with when other laborers strike? The companies? Hell, when you come down to it, I believe the companies would use all illegal aliens if they could. That way they'd never even have to think about anyone complaining. They had an illegal alien check at NASSCO last year and a lotta dudes didn't show up for work. Coincidence my ass!
"Look, man, even down to basics things are lacking. You'd think a place with more than 6000 workers would have a cafeteria. All there is is a lunch truck. The equipment store always lags. No one cares to do anything. People are in the game for themselves. Only it ain't a game — it's life. But what can I do? My hands are tied because, after all, I'm a union man."
Mike, 26, doesn't share the paranoia of his comrades-in-harm. The two years he's been welding at NASSCO. Mike has built up a reputation as a chronic complainer, a fact that he and others believe resulted last year in a six-month, unpaid, unwanted vacation. He lives in a modest home in an above-modest East San Diego neighborhood with his wife and child. Last June, Mike was ostensibly fired for leaving his identification washer on his welding machine, a safety violation. Although Mike had the washer in his possession and was assured by union representatives that he had a good case, he was still dismissed. For the duration of the summer Mike found himself blackballed from other steelyards and ineligible for unemployment. he sold his car and went on welfare. This was followed by a debilitating stretch of union arbitration, unanswered letters, and unpromising phone calls. Finally, in December, Mike was rehired, minus any back pay. He returned in January still fighting for his back pay, and more antagonistic than before. He insists that this is what got him fired in the first place. But Mike doesn't care. He says he works there to make a living, but not at the expense of his life. He's determined to throw a light on the "injustices and spirit-breaking of big business."
"NASSCO's screwed. The turnover there is so big that they don't want to hear you gave them any hell. Ask anyone. The whole business is really shady. If they want to, they can find ways to mess you up. Everything is arbitrary. One day you will get a warning for not wearing a helmet; the next day you'll see a guy working in the inner bottoms without a helmet. If you're liked, you can slack off, but it's up to the foreman. I wasn't liked because I'd complain a lot; I wouldn't work in the rain, I wouldn't subject myself to being pushed to the limit. That's why I suspect the foreman took the washer out of my bucket the first time I was warned for that bullshit and stick it on the machine. You see, you get three warnings before you're canned. I figure my complaints about ventilation are to blame.
"Anyway, I had the washer. And the thing is I was fired at the end of the day. You're supposed to do it in the morning. After that I bitched to (union local) 627 and received jive, even though they promised me that I had a good case and promised full back pay. What I got was nothing. I was denied unemployment because the company and the union collaborated at the appeals office where I gave up my washer to Boulton (a company representative). Boulton threatened to have me arrested if I didn't give up my ID washer. Now what kind of shit was that? There was proof. I had it in my possession. They turned it around into something else altogether.
"I was lied to so many times by the union and its executive board members. Every time I took a step to inquire about my case they gave me basics. First, I was to get my job with six months' probation. On August 18, at an executive board meeting, the union said the lawyer who I received this knowledge from on August 9 didn't know what he was talking about. Two days later I got a letter from 627 giving me my job with the probation. I presented this letter at the next board meeting and they said they would tell the union lawyer it wasn't good enough, that the board was going to arbitrate my case for back pay. Time went on and another lawyer inquired. This time they offered my job back with no probation and no back pay if I'd accept the fact that that was the end of of my case.
"In October I went back to another executive board meeting, this time with a witness. They told us the same thing. After we pointed out the facts they agreed I was wronged by the company. They said they were afraid to fight big business and were afraid to use their money to arbitrate my case. After we pointed out a few more facts they said leave the room for five minutes so they could vote. They came out, shook our hands, and apologized. They told me they should have gone all the way and I would know about my arbitration in two or three days. Two weeks went by and I didn't hear shit. I saw the union lawyer and he said I could have my job back but to forget about back pay. When I asked why, he said they couldn't win the case. I asked him if I could go back and still fight for my back pay and he said no way.
"That's when I notified NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) and they sent an agent down after I signed out complaints against the company and the union. They investigated my story and I signed a sworn affidavit and so did my witness. In December I got a call from an NLRB field examiner and he said they reviewed my case and I didn't have enough evidence, that I would have to appeal the decision through Washington. Meanwhile I could go back to work. Now I'm back and I'm still going to fight that bullshit. If I was wrong, the company wouldn't have offered me a thing, right? It's obvious to everyone why I was fired. A lotta guys get fired for really off-the-wall reasons. I don't think it'll happen again. It''l just seem too obvious."
Ray is, in his words, "a Jack Benny 39." At the moment he is having a "battle of the titans" with his six-year-old son. Ray is the Green Hornet; his son is Batman. It looks like the Green Hornet is losing, so he takes a different strategy. He grabs Batman by the seat of his pants, pulls them down and starts lightly spanking him. When Batman starts to cry, the Green Hornet heckles him by turning on a cassette recorder and shouting into it, "Ladies and gentlemen, I, the Green Hornet, have just discovered that the great and might Batman is a little sissy. When he met his match he started to cry. Boo hoo."
Between acts, Ray takes time to defend NASSCO. He is a pipefitter who has worked there long enough to know if all the terrible things attributed to the company are true. He maintains they're not, but though he has nothing but praise for the jobs, he doesn't want his name revealed, for fear of association with "radical puto name-callers."
"You know, with all the stuff you say these guys have to endure working at NASSCO, anyone would probably believe the place is really hell to work at. But I don't understand what all these queers thought they were getting into when they tried to get into iron work. It's no moron job like trash collecting, or no sissy sit-down thing. It's work; it's skilled labor. It's also hazardous labor and hard at that. But they knew that. There is such a thing as occupational hazard. But in the time I've worked at NASSCO I've never been burned; I've had quarrels with foremen and wasn't fired, nothing's ever fallen on top of me; and the guys who've been hurt or worse, well, I believe they were high on something.
"That's the thing with these young guys. Most of them didn't do anything worth talking about before they came to work there. A lotta them were goddamn street punks, not worth a damn. They bring all their habits to work with them and then expect some royal carpet treatment. They come to work stoned on dope or booze and then complain that the reason their jobs aren't up to par is because the safety conditions are lousy. This guy, the one who left his washer on. I don't know, so I can't say, but it seems to me that he doesn't deserve any back pay. He got his job back. These guys complaining ought to get down on their hands and knees and thank God that they have a job that pays them so good. Because if it wasn't for NASSCO, they'd all be selling dope or dropping penny-savers into gates, or taking taxpayers' money by being on welfare. They have a skill and they should shut up and use it to the best of their ability. That's all I have to say about it. Don't make an issue out of this on these softies' words. I really don't want to be bothered with this foolishness anymore."
It looked like business as usual for 'Cente — he was strung out and headed for another bust. He had been cruising the parking area of the 32nd Street Navy Exchange for more than an hour, hoping to find another nice CB radio he could turn into a few more hours of smack saturation. His frayed nerves were getting the worst of hm, so he parked his new '66 Volkswagen to take a break. He'd acquired the car a week before in a downtown parking lot for the bargain price of nothing, and it had served him well. It was only ten a.m. and already he'd relieved a couple of Navy wives of their CBs. But since he was in the vicinity, he figure he might as well bring in some surplus goods to tide him over awhile.
He reclined in his seat, lit up a filterless butt, closed his eyes, and thought about what a dead year it was turning out to be. The last three months had been pretty harrowing for 'Cente. In February he was arrested and spent two nights in jail on a bum charge of "conspiring to sell hard narcotics." In March, a Reader article detailing his life in and out of Logan Heights sparked a lynch-mob rage in a lot of his ex-friends, who felt that he had "degraded" the barrio. By the end of the month he was so immersed in drugs and fear that for sanctuary and a chance to clean up his system he went to a detox program and emerged unstrung. But by late April, without a home, regular income, or man's trusting friends, he was more desperately hooked than ever. He had no more illusions: the addiction had ruined just about everything for him.
But none of that mattered anymore. It was too late, and besides, he had work waiting and not much time to do it. He started up his new ride and cruised the length of this shopping market for a few minutes before spotting prime quarry: a nice green Datsun pickup. He parked next to the goods, left the motor running, pulled a screwdriver out of the glove compartment, and got to work. Looking at the half-opened window, he laughed to himself that this stupid swab was just begging to have his CB lifted. He opened the door, bent down, and stopped for no reason. Like the comic hero, Spiderman, paranoia ringled his senses. He turned around to see a black security guard walking towards the truck, a good 100 feet away. He jumped back into the VW, but before he could shift into reverse, the same black-and-blue cop popped his head inside the car and asked for 'Cente's ID.
'Cente screamed an obscentiy and managed to back out and take off, but not without a hitchhiker. The guard had fastened himself to 'Cente's running board and steering wheel. They made it out the gate, onto the curb, and into a telephone pole.
'Cente pulled a billy club from under the seat, but before he could apply it to the guard's head, he was dragged out of the car and thrown against the hood. The guard twisted 'Cente's arms like a vine to his anguished refrain. "What's wrong? I didn't do nothin'!" As 'Cente pleaded, he could see the same green pickup he had staked out approaching. It stopped, and a white plainclothes cop out to congratulate his partner for carrying out a dangerous assignment with true bravery. The swab was begging to have the CB stolen. It was a plant that had been waiting for 'Cente to come along since 8 a.m. It seems he had shopped there once too often.
In the last four years 'Cente had been busted enough times — seven arrests, two convictions — that he was almost disaffected by the whole ordeal. He knew he was going to do time; the credentials for 15-to-life were right on the back seat of his stolen Volkswagon assault with a deadly weapon, car tampering, and stolen credit cards he was forging as his own. Ironically, no one ever seemed to notice that the car in which he was caught wasn't his own.
'Cente had little reason to believe that he would be dealt with leniently, but one of the advantages of being a three-time lover in the minor leagues is that California's well-stuffed prisons have no need for you. In the plea bargaining phase of his trial, a deal was struck — plead guilty to credit card forgers and have everything else dropped. It was, in 'Cente's words, "an answered prayer."
'Cente's answered prayer consisted of two months in county jail and three months in Camp Morena, a firefighting camp in East County. After his release in October, 'Cente occupied his time by doing what he had for years, nothing. His system was cleared of hunger for smack, but with no skill to speak of and no place to live. 'Cente toyed with the idea of being sent up again — at least he'd have a bed to sleep in rather than an all-night theater seat.
But instead of prison, he finally got admitted to ETL, a welder's training program. In one month he expects to pass his journeyman welder exam with a perfect score and began work at NASSCO shortly after. When asked about all the pressures, dangers, and responsibilities in an attitude he's never demonstrated for more than a few sporadic moments. 'Cente plans to make welding a lifelong occupation. He even plans to get married after he begins work.
"All this stuff about welding being a difficult job doesn't faze me; I can take it. I've been through worse. Besides I'm a man now. I'm not a hard vato anymore. And soon I'll have a wife and some little brown babies so that'll increase my determination to remain there for the rest of my life. The money is fantastic. How can these guys complain? Besides, I have some friends there, too. I'm a solid citizen now. I can hardly wait.