Workers in Their Own Words

Workers in Their Own Words

 Biography: Milt Seif Born in New York City in 1910, Milt Seif came to Baltimore in 1941 at the urging of “Uncle Izzy” who told Milt that “the shipyards were hiring bodies.” After several years at Bethlehem Steel’s Key Highway Shipyard, Milt was elected to office in Industrial Union of Marine and Shipyard Workers (IUMSWA) Local 24 as business agent for the local (“the youngest in the history of the Union”). Called before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1952, Milt was fired from his job at the shipyard and became a small businessman. He lives in Baltimore City with his wife of 67 years, Gert, and wrote a marvelous autobiography for his family, stating “All incidents related herein are fact. I remember them as if they happened yesterday.” Here Milt describes returning to the shipyard after World War II: “Returning veterans were allowed to return to their old jobs without penalty. That was the law. I came to the employment office; the interviewer starts and ends the interview, leaves, and he says he’ll be back in a few minutes. He says nothing for a short while, then tells me they’re not hiring because my time lapsed. I was not very surprised because I expected some shenanigan. Since I knew my rights, I was becoming furious and, in sarcasm, asked him if I could count to 30. He mumbled something but did not give me a favorable reply. I then said to him ‘Don’t hire me back; Bethlehem will pay me for every day I’m out and then we go to civil court. He looked a bit startled, left for a few minutes, and then said “Report the next day.’ “Next day I reported and soon met Cliff Burris, who was the shop steward in my absence. After all the pleasantries, he said ‘You’re our shop steward now.’ I said ‘I’ll wait until the next elections in our department.’ He said ‘No way. I’m resigning and you take over.’ I readily accepted….” Biography: Dick Ochs Born Pennsylvania in 1938, Dick Ochs moved to Baltimore with his family in 1942 and has been a prominent member of every movement in town for the past 45 years. Originally interested in chemistry in college, he was an active participant in the civil rights sit-in movement in Anne Arundel County, participated in the anti-war movements, became a printer and was arrested so many times that one chapter of his memoirs is a comparison of jailhouse cuisines. Dick lives today in the Lauraville neighborhood of northeast Baltimore City and ran for election to the House of Delegates as a Green in 2006. In 1998, Dick published his autobiography Memoirs: Forty Years in the Fray, which “recall the highlights of forty years of personal struggle for equality, justice, peace, socialism and the environment.” In them—anticipating this article—he wrote “This book also aims to encourage others to similarly chronicle their experiences.” Here Dick describes starting work at the Key Highway Shipyard in the same department (Welding and Burning) in which Milt Seif had worked 20 years earlier: “I was having trouble getting an industrial union job and I heard that the FBI was circulating a black list of ‘communists’ to potential employers. I gave a false name and social security number at Bethlehem Steel Shipyard and was employed at the Key Highway yard for the next ten years. For that period of time, my alias was ‘John Reynolds.’ A few years later, when management found out I had lied on my application, they tried to fire me. When I told them that my lawyer, Harold Buchman, cited legal precedent in my favor, they forgot about it. Courts have ruled that the only reason for a job application is to give an employer reason to believe a worker can do the job. After successfully doing the job for over six months, what is on the application becomes moot. “The shipyard union contract struggle was in progress. Several other radicals and I formed a caucus to agitate for a better contract when it appeared that the union officers were selling-out to the company. They had cushy jobs and didn’t want to rock the boat. We circulated a newsletter called The Shipbuilder/ itemizing improvements to the contract. The officers responded by calling us ‘communists’ at a crowded union assembly. An older worker who didn’t even know us then hollered, ‘So what, they are telling the truth!’ Some workers joined our caucus. “At the following union meeting, the officers brought in an American flag and had the meeting pledge allegiance for the first time ever. I did not stand or pledge because I had been battling US imperialism for ten years. The officers immediately pointed out my refusal at the meeting and I responded by saying flags are used to get workers of different countries to kill each other. An older worker named Dorsey Bowling hollered, ‘I have metal in my leg fighting for that flag!’ A few years later, after seeing how we fought for the workers, Dorsey became one of our strongest supporters even though I never saluted the flag at meetings. “I started out as a laborer, painter and sandblaster. After breaking my back for a year, I trained in welding at night school. A few dozen welders from Trinidad were brought to the States by the company to augment the workforce. They were subjected to the worst jobs and insulted by some supervisors. One was fired for hitting a boss who called him a racial epithet. I went to bat for him with some strong words to management, so they fired me too. Our caucus held a picket line to protest the racist treatment and we were joined by dozens of co-workers. I got my job back with back-pay, but the fired worker had returned to Trinidad. “I was then elected union shop steward of the welders and burners, the largest department in the yard. The sell-out union officers freaked and would not allow me to assume my duties. They said the elections were fraudulent. Another election was held and I was elected again. But they still would not let me take the position. Many workers were getting angry about it, so the officers let me be acting steward pending a third election. After I won three times, they capitulated and let me have it.” Biography: Thurman Wenzl Thurman Wenzl was an active member of Local 333 of the International Longshoreman’s Association in Baltimore from 1974 until 1982. Earlier he had intended to become a math teacher but left grad school in 1969 to become more active in the anti-war, university reform and labor movements. After leaving the docks he went back to grad school in public health and worked as an industrial hygienist and researcher for the International Chemical Workers Union and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. He is now retired but still very active in Cincinnati volunteering at the Cincinnati Interfaith Workers Center on day labor issues. An excerpt from Thurman’s memoirs: “Ruling in an equal employment lawsuit in 1973, a federal judge found that jobs were being allocated in a racist way between members of black ILA Local 859 and white Local 818 at the piers on the south side of Locust Point in the late 1960s and early 70s. Among other things, he found that the black gangs were being assigned the more dangerous and difficult jobs in the narrow forward holds, while the white gangs—even on the same ship—were getting the easier work. “As a result of this decision that forced the separate Locals to merge, a more open method of seeking work and joining the union came about. Previously, jobs were only available to young men who had a close relative or friend already on the docks. Bob B, a fellow activist who had already started working on the docks occasionally, called me on a Sunday evening in June 1974, to let me know that I could join the ILA if I got in line the next morning. At that time, ILA membership was a de facto precondition to seeking dock work regularly. In the AFL tradition, with an initiation fee of $510 I could join ILA Local 333 with essentially no questions asked. The next day on Hull St, several hundred of us gathered to join the union, and there I met many of the guys with whom I would regularly work during the next 8 years. “Because of this irregular schedule, even after I had become a skilled longshoreman after several years’ experience, I still had to struggle to get 1250 hours per year—the equivalent of about 24 hours per week. That’s how we kept track of our hours every year, starting in October when our contract year started. We needed 800 hours each year to maintain our seniority and benefits, and that was a regular topic of conversation around the hiring center. Any given day’s work might range from 4 to 14 hours, and a week would rarely reach 40 hours. With this irregular schedule the overtime rules were unusual. Any work that wasn’t between 8 and 5 on a weekday paid time and a half, so with a decent hourly wage in the coast-wide union contract, it was possible to make a living. We just could not assume a dependable series of 40-hour paychecks. “Three of us who were part of the democratic left tried to reform our ILA local and make it a bit more responsive to the members’ needs. Ray C, Bob B and I wrote and distributed an occasional 4-page paper called ‘The Talking Delegate,’ named after the title of our two full-time Local union reps, who are called Walking Delegates in the ILA. We published our little mimeographed paper about 8 times between about 1975 and 1979. Sometimes I was happy writing and working with them on editorial decisions about union representation issues, but occasionally they wanted to debate old left issues of no interest to me.”

Bill Barry is Director of the Labor Studies Department at Baltimore County Community College

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