Tuesday, December 3, 2013

When pacifists built warships

Ya, I know that ain't a warship.

But here's my point; I spent a couple years at Irving Shipbuilding back in the early '90s, working on the Frigate Program.

It was a good gig. Strong union, sensible management, fair wages.

I was a welder/steel-fitter with pacifist inclinations. As a shop floor guy who needed to feed his family, my attitude to the big questions has always been; if I didn't do that job somebody else would.

I realize at some level that's a cop-out. Any Nazi death camp commandant could make the same argument.

But back to the picture above.

That's a "megaload" making its way from Idaho to the tar sands developments in Alberta. Every Teamster, Ironworker, etc. on this job is approaching it in the same way I approached my shipyard gig; if I didn't drive this truck somebody else would, and I've got a family to feed.

I don't think we need to judge those folks for making that decision.

Many years ago I used to work for one of the biggest megaload contractors in eastern Canada, Lackie Brothers.

They had a lot of work taking big loads up to the Bruce Nuclear development.

I don't have any use for nuclear power. I think it's stupid to pursue energy sources when you haven't figured out how to deal with the waste from your energy-producing process. But again, me refusing to work on anything to do with nuclear energy is hardly going to slow down the development of the Bruce.

The theoretical socialists would of course point out at this juncture that if none of the overalls crew went to work, nothing would happen.

That's true in the long run. In the short run, the kids you feed need three meals a day whether daddy has a job or not.

So you fold up your principles and stuff them in the back pocket of your Big Bill coveralls, and you go to work.

I'd like to say that Lackie Bros. was a good gig but I'm not so sure. I came along at a time when the elder Lackie who had started the company was giving way to his offspring. I never saw any evidence that the offspring had any interest in the business other than storing their boats in the fenced yard of the shop on Centennial Ave. in Kitchener.

That's the shop where I worked.

Lackie Bros was what's known as a closed shop. You had the Ironworkers Union representing the outside guys, the Ironworkers Shopmens local representing the shop guys, and if I'm not mistaken, the Teamsters representing the drivers.

The shop was located in Kitchener, and had a lot of folks of German descent on the floor. There is something about the German attitude that looks askance at questioning authority. They just want to follow orders.

I'll never forget the day this German guy asked if he could leave early for his daughter's fourth birthday party. Most guys would just have left without bothering to ask. This guy asked, and the weasel who was our shop floor boss told him "no".

I saw that middle-aged man cry because his boss told him he couldn't go to his daughter's birthday party.

This was a completely closed union shop where one would presume that the union called the shots.

It doesn't work like that.

The machinery of intimidation works across union lines. The same kind of anti-authoritarian attitude will challenge authority in either environment; the difference is that in the union shop he will likely keep his job after that challenge.

My quibble in the shop was that the stewards had pretty much become management bumboys. They'd be writing their own overtime tickets and look the other way when that management weasel was pushing around some of the meeker guys.

I remember going at it with the shop steward over an issue that touched me personally. The outside guys were a bit slow, and some of them were brought into the shop just to keep them busy. I found myself welding flanges onto the end of a pipe while an outside Ironworker was welding the same flanges onto the other end of the same pipe.

At the time the Shopworkers rate was twelve bucks an hour, while the outside guys were making $20. That didn't work for me.

I took it up with the shop steward, an affable enough guy who spent 100% of his time building Lackie their own custom-spec floats. He was accustomed to writing as much time and a half and double time work for himself as he felt like doing.

Like I said, nice enough guy, but he could not see my problem. At the end of the day his concluding remark was, "well, we're not going to tell the boss how to run the business."

Well, that was enough for me. Remember, this was back in the day where if you could read a blueprint and run a bead you were pretty much golden to a lot of employers, so instead of staying and fighting the good fight I left for a job at Dick Cheney's Dresser Industries for a bit more money.

That's what you do when you have a family to feed.

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