Tuesday, March 3, 2009

My Top Ten (or Five, actually, or maybe Six...): With Our Hands

Here's one you probably haven't heard of - With Our Hands: The Story of Carpenters in Massachusetts. Mark Erlich, the author, combines the scholarship of an historian with the cred of a working carpenter, member of Carpenters Local 40.

A lot of the book is based on an oral history project, so we hear the voices of carpenters whose memories go back to the (first) Great Depression, and even beyond to the stories they heard from their fathers and grandfathers.

It's a story of pride, hardship, and conflict. From the very beginning in the colonies there was conflict: "In 1633 the court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony set a ceiling of two shillings a day on carpenters' wages. According to John Winthrop, first governor of the colony, the court was forced to take this action because 'the scarcity of workmen had caused them to raise their wages to an excessive rate... They could get as much in four days as would keep them a week.' "

It's been a battle ever since. Mark Erlich is a union man, and the book is union-sponsored, so a bias is evident. To his credit, Erlich examines the unfortunate union history of discriminating (to put it mildly) against people of color and against women in the trades.

The oral history is great. Mary Ann Williams says: "I was harassed from the super all the way down. They told me to get my lumber out of what turned out to be the junk pile. The sent me over to dig out wood to make small footing forms. By the end of the day I had a rash all over - it was a mean little trick they played on me because that was where all the poison oak was."

Nazadeen Arkil, a black woman, says: "One day after payday, I told the guys that I was buying the coffee. My boss looked at me straight in my face and said to me, 'What did you do, hit the nigger pool?' And everybody went, 'Whoa.' The whole job just held their breaths. I turned to him and said, 'Does that mean you don't consider me a nigger?' He apologized and said, 'You know, I'm just so used to you.' But I said to him, 'That word just rolled off your tongue a little bit too easy for me.' You gotta find the gray areas between black and white without losing your own identity, because if you're black and proud on a construction job, you might be black and dead. The attitude is 'we let you in here, what the hell else do you want.' " And this was in the 1980s.

The adaptations to new materials and tools is a constant theme: "'On the big jobs, they had standard mixers for concrete. A truck would come with two batches of sand and stone. Then you'd throw in your cement bags - six of them. You put in the water, mix it up, and you'd have a yard of concrete. You'd start at seven in the morning and sometimes it was ten or eleven at night before you'd get home on a 100-yard pour. The old-timers used to mix it all by shovel and hand.' In the late 1930s, trucks began carrying premixed concrete to the job, ending the fourteen-hour days of hand mixing. The trucks were small, handling 2, 3, 4, or 5 cubic yards..."

Or there was that new-fangled machine, the Skilsaw: "One guy took the Skilsaw on the roof of the building and threw it off. He said, 'The saw's too fast, I'm going to cut by hand.' The Skilsaw symbolized a loss of control and a new order, but it brought external changes as well. The traditional image of the nattily dressed carpenter whose white shirt and bow tie were covered by a pair of white overalls gradually disappeared. The overalls had served a dual purpose: they protected the layer of clothes underneath and held an astonishing array of hand tools in dozens of pockets and openings. The power tools made some of the hand tools obsolete or redundant, and the modern carpenter found he could carry all the tools and nails he needed in a simple apron or pouch..."

There are about a hundred photos, and they are the best part, starting with that marvelous image on the cover. You get a sense of what's changed, and what hasn't. Other than the clothing, can you tell that this photo was taken in 1926?
It's out of print, but used copies can be found on the internet. Buy it. It's good.

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