Geraldine Walker is nothing short of amazing—a single parent raising five children, one of the first black supervisors at the shipyards, and vice-president of the Shipscalers Union. Instead of being frazzled by her load, she radiates a calm serenity.
I had this girl friend and we were both out of work and she heard about jobs down in the shipyards. That was back in nineteen seventy-four and it paid five dollars and seventy cents an hour. I probably thought about it for a month. I wasn’t really sure I could do it, because you had to start working at seven o’clock in the morning and I was used to sleeping late. And I wasn’t sure whether I could hold down a full-time job. I have five children. I knew nothing about shipyards and maybe I was just afraid of the men.
I decided to just kind of bluff it. The day I went down to the union hall, I didn’t really have time to think about being afraid because I was watching a little girl for a friend of mine. When I got dispatched out, I only had an hour and a half to find somebody to watch her, find some clothes to wear, and then go out there. So I really didn’t have time to think about it.
The first thing that struck me was I didn’t get any instructions from the union hall on how to get there and what I was supposed to do once I got there. I don’t know how I found it, but I did. I had a hard time parking. They’ve got big lots out there and I expected rules, but everybody just parked where they wanted as long as it wasn’t on the street. Once inside the yard, I still didn’t know where to go. I just stumbled on this little office that was personnel. It wasn’t like somebody met you at the gate and took you around. Down there you just happen to find what’s happening. The office sent me to a man on drydock. First I went with a quarterman and then a lead man. I remember walking down the passageway of a ship and him walking very fast and kind of losing me. One time he did lose me and had to come back. I remember telling him, “Did you do that on purpose?”
He said, “Oh, no, I wouldn’t do that.” But I kind of thought they were giving me the run-through. I expected it because I was a woman.
I felt very uneasy. Everything was in a jumble. A ship being built looks like confusion. You smell smoke, paint. Often it’s noisy—machinery, saws going, just a lot of noise. And a ship is gray or an ugly drab or black. Ugly! Everything seems awfully drab to me. Even the people look drab. My first impression was of dirtiness and everybody wearing the same clothes and everything torn up. But the people wear different-colored hats. There’s a lot of different-colored hats depending on the craft. Scalers wear orange hard hats and supervisors wear white—white cowboys.
Of all the crafts in the yard, the scalers had most of the women. At that time there might have been twenty or thirty women. There were one or two woman shipfitters and a few female welders. I think scaling was easier to get into because in the other work you had to know something before you started.
Another thing is there weren’t many blacks in the other crafts. In the total yard, besides scalers, there were one or two black fitters, one black electrician, and two black machinists. I think at one time black people would work at any job they could get and nobody wanted the scaling jobs, so for years and years blacks had control of the Scalers Union. Now more whites are coming into scaling. With the economy the way it is, more whites are looking for any job.
I’d never worked with so many men. Well, I did when I sorted letters at the post office, but there were also a lot of other women. And the men there didn’t make you feel like you were out of place, but they did at the shipyard. They were rude and stared and talked dirty about me. I’ve forgotten a lot of the feelings from when I first started, but I can remember after a big layoff there were times when there were maybe three women in the whole yard. You would go into a room where there were five or six men talking, and as soon as I walked in, they were all quiet, staring.
Back then my lead man was acting funny, very friendly. I decided to overlook it. I didn’t get angry or mad. In some ways I still overlook a lot. I figure it’s better than making a big deal out of it. You learn to be grateful to the men that are glad to have you there. For whatever reason, they were more pleasant than the others to be around.
When I was a firewatcher I especially heard a lot of really gross jokes about women. I didn’t like it, but tried to ignore “the man.” After a couple days maybe I would talk to him. When a man found out I did my share and sometimes helped him on his job, he would begin to accept me and find another woman to be rude to.
On firewatch you follow a burner around. You clean out the site and make sure there is nothing flammable. Then you make sure the asbestos covering was wet and cover all cables. If they would be hunting through bulkheads, you’d have to go check the inside of the bulkhead. Basically it was dragging a steel water can around the yard.
Some men resented my standing around with a water can while they worked and others didn’t. Some knew I was just doing my job and liked having me around for company, somebody to talk to and stuff. And then there were the others. I did get an awful lot about “You make good money for doing that.”
Scalers also do the cleaning around the yards. You start at the top of a tank and wipe it down and clean it out. We also use sandblasters to clean. You use a high-pressure hose and a fan to blast. You wear a special suit and boots and a respirator to protect yourself. It’s an awful job, but those that do it, like it. I think they like it because they can see what they’re accomplishing. A good one can sandblast very fast. Scalers also scrape the ships. One job that I never had, but some of the women did, was when a ship was out of the water, scraping the hull of the ship. Basically we just try to clean the ship up. For that we make around twelve dollars and fifty cents.
The greatest discrimination women face is not being taken seriously. For a long time there were just certain jobs that women weren’t allowed to do. I’ve worked on ships where women could just clean. They couldn’t lift or carry. The supervisors wouldn’t allow them to do more. Say a ship came in that needed the bottom power-washed. They wouldn’t pick a woman to do it. There were a lot of things we were not asked to do. They automatically picked men. Even if we were willing, they didn’t want to think that we could really do the job like a man could.
Particularly in the early days I did more than I should in order to prove myself. You know, ships have big, huge anchor chains that go all the way down and all this muck and mud collects in the bottom. Once I shoveled out a whole bottom by myself. A man was timing me, so I did it fast. I never should have done that. I wouldn’t say it was unsafe, but it was scary being way down there. The other people were on top, pulling my bags out. There were two sides and a wall with cutouts. There was a man on the other side who was crazy! Just loco! I think he was a little psycho. He tried to get another woman to throw a hose down over the side. It would have made the water come in over me! He yelled and cussed at her when she wouldn’t, and she cussed him back. That guy’s not allowed to work at the docks any more.
. . . For the first few years it wouldn’t have made any sense for me to get angry at the discrimination. It wouldn’t have done any good. But things have changed since then, basically because of legislation and lawsuits. They have to watch it more now. We women got tired of being pushed too far, tired of going along with whatever and not making trouble. Now we talk back a lot more.
In September nineteen seventy-eight I became a supervisor, so now I get to assign the work. With people it’s important that they work as a crew. There are some jobs that some people are better at than others, but there are some things, like knowing how to wind hoses and string them up, that everyone needs to know. Sometimes I try to give the women different things that they might not have an opportunity to do working with a man. Sometimes things happen because a woman just doesn’t know how to do a job. Like I had one woman pump out a bilge. Well, she turned on the pump, which was fine. The discharge from the hose went off the ship over the pier to a huge tank. When she started pumping, she didn’t even think where this oily water was going. It went over into this tank, which was full, and it overflowed. It’s not our job; it’s a pipefitter’s job to make sure those tanks are pumped, and a lot of times they don’t do it. The next time I had a woman work on the job, I told her to think about where the water was going. On little things like that I try to show the women how to do the job. I won’t just get a man to find hoses and check tanks. I’ll show a woman. If she knows how to do it, she might not avoid it [checking the tanks] later. On the whole, I’ve found women to be excellent workers. They’re grateful to be making that money, so they get out there and they work. Not like a man, who expects it. The women don’t mind getting dirty.
Being a supervisor is a lot of responsibility, and some days I feel like I would rather go back to just being a scaler. Sometimes I would like to not be responsible for anybody but me. I wasn’t sure I could do it at first, but mostly I like it. We’re nearing the completion of a ship that we’ve been working on for almost two years. Most of the hard work is done now and it’s more relaxed. A year ago my answer would have been different. Then it was dirt and water everywhere.
I’m trying to think. I might be the only black woman supervisor. I’m not sure. There was another black woman who might have been a foreman. I’m not sure.
I get so mad at the racial stuff. I’ve heard a lot about race from blacks, from whites, from Koreans. In the seven years I’ve been working in the yards, there has been more slurring of other minorities, more so than the blacks. Maybe they don’t feel so threatened by blacks any more. But I hear more about other groups. Not from females, though. I think women are less likely to pigeonhole someone because of color. But there’s always somebody who gets it. It’s really hard. You can’t make someone like you. If somebody is getting bothered about race and it’s not too much of a problem, I’ll advise him to ignore it. Sometimes I go to another supervisor about it.
It’s been hard working and keeping up a home. During my first year of work my husband was off work, so that was very difficult. I’d work and then I’d come home and work some more. I don’t think my husband liked me working there, so I couldn’t tell him about all the things that went on. He would have gotten too mad if I’d told him about the sex stuff. It would have been nice if I could have talked about things that were bothering me, but he probably would have started throwing things if I had.
Since I started working I don’t do nearly as much around the house as I used to. I would say one of the most important things is that my children have become more independent. I used to have kids who didn’t know where their socks were. I never thought I would leave my children to pretty much fend for themselves, but I had to do it. They’ve gotten used to it, so much now that I wonder how other kids learn anything when they don’t have to do it on their own. For the past two-and-a-half years, since their father and I split up, they’ve really been doing for themselves. The girls do their own hair. They sew. They iron. They wash clothes—everything. They don’t always get the good meals that they should, but they don’t starve. And I think they’re more self-sufficient this way.
I think working in the shipyards contributed to the divorce, but it was a lot of other things too. It was hard for him to adapt to my making good money and becoming very independent. Also I got involved in the union. I think if my marriage had been better, I probably wouldn’t have gotten so involved. I was basically bored. What sort of happened is that I went to a nominating meeting and got nominated for vice-president. As I started serving my term I got more and more involved. Our business agent wasn’t doing his job. He was a do-nothing and didn’t process grievances. At one point the Shipscalers was a good union, but under his leadership, or lack of leadership, it didn’t do well. So one thing lead to another and a bunch of the members got really frustrated and decided to make a change. In July of nineteen seventy-nine an opposition slate won all but one position. With all of this I was spending most of my time talking with people about the union and doing union work.
That’s pretty much where I am now in my life. I’m a lot stronger now than when I started in the yards. I don’t doubt now that I can take care of myself. Financially, emotionally, I’m more confident. Before I started in the shipyards I don’t think I would have imagined that I could be my children’s sole support. Now I know more what I can do and that’s good. But in some ways I am still adjusting to the divorce. Since the divorce I have put on weight. I thought it would be much easier. The first few months were okay, but as time goes by a lot of different problems come up. I feel insecure. My two older children are getting to the age now where I can see them leaving and it worries me.