Robert Godinez, business agent for the Iron Workers Union, Local 627, chuckled when asked to compare the recent launching of a Navy supply ship, which went off without a hitch, and the launching of another Navy ship 10 years ago.
Both ships--the auxiliary oiler explosives (or AOE) Supply and the destroyer tender Cape Cod--were built and launched at the National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. shipyard. But the vessels also symbolized different eras in the sometimes confrontational, but always rocky relations between the iron workers local--the largest of seven unions at Nassco--and the shipyard that spawned the group 50 years ago.
The company had gathered several dignitaries at the Aug. 2, 1980, launching of the Cape Cod, including Navy Undersecretary Robert J. Murray, as Nassco officials proudly waited to present their latest ship.
Murray's approach to the podium was the cue for 200 iron workers, who marched toward the stage in a carefully planned demonstration and took over the platform. Stunned dignitaries, including a prospective Nassco customer, watched as some of the workers used bullhorns to give their own speeches, denouncing working conditions at the shipyard.
Embarrassed Nassco officials reacted swiftly. The company fired 27 of the protesters, including Miguel Salas, then business agent for Local 627. The union responded by staging a three-day wildcat strike that led to more firings.
One year later, an arbitrator upheld the firings of Salas and 12 of the 27 workers.
Local 627, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Saturday, has always had a raucous reputation. The men and women who make up its membership come from various ethnic groups and are as tough as the shipyard they work at.
Over the years, Local 627 has survived a near fatal rift within its ranks, an attempted takeover by communist radicals, a takeover by its International Union and negative publicity it suffered when two of its members were convicted in federal court of attempting to bomb the Nassco shipyard during a bitter labor dispute.
Turning to the present, Godinez, who has been a union member and Nassco employee since 1975, explained that the union's attitude toward management has been tempered somewhat since the 1980 incident. Indeed, in April, 1989, the iron workers and other unions joined management in a buyout of the shipyard after the former owner threatened to shut it down, following a $30 million loss.
"Concerted activities" like the one staged at the Cape Cod launching are not necessarily a thing of the past, said Godinez, but a tactic that is now used when all else fails.
"Now, we're making an attempt to work together," he said. "We brought our families to the launching (of the Supply) and everyone had a good time. But we also have to stand firm and defend our rights. That still happens more frequently than you think. Management doesn't really do us any favors."
Despite its adversarial relationship with Nassco, Local 627 owes its existence to the shipyard. The union was founded in 1940 at what was then called National Iron Works. Lloyd Sanders, one of 30 men who organized the local, recalled that during World War II the company built mostly barges and refrigerator boxes for the military.
Sanders, 77, said that it was not until after the war that Nassco began building its first boats for the tuna industry.
"The first 70 or 80 boats we built were tuna boats. Hell, we didn't know if the first one we built was going to float until they put it in the water, and it didn't sink," said Sanders in a telephone interview from his St. Joseph, Mo., home.
Fred Hallett, Nassco's chief financial officer, noted the "highs and lows" that the company has experienced over the years in its labor relations with Local 627, but agreed that both sides are less confrontational these days.
"I think our relationship is excellent. Over the last several years, both sides have learned that it's extremely important to talk to each other," Hallett said. "We don't see everything the same, but we have learned to sit down at the table and understand the other's position."
However, both sides agreed that it was not too many years ago when sitting at a table was merely a prelude to frustration. It was a time when Local 627 represented more than one-third of Nassco's 8,000 employees and the union, led by a group of young and intelligent radicals, relished the power and influence it could muster.
It was also a time when the union appeared to have more leaders than followers.
"Local 627 has had a long and interesting history," said local labor attorney Richard Prochazka. "But the late 1970s and early 1980s were certainly some of their most interesting periods."
Local 627 president Tom McCammon recalled the labor strife that prevailed at Nassco in those years, much of it brought about by union complaints of unsafe working conditions at the shipyard. Worker dissatisfaction with the company also led to a split within the union, which was eventually torn apart by internal squabbling.
"There were so many different slates (factions) formed at the time. We didn't know who our leaders were from one day to another," said McCammon. "Meanwhile, there was a tremendous number of people getting injured at the yard and people were getting killed regularly. The union was disintegrating. People would file grievances which wouldn't go anywhere. It was incredibly chaotic."
Anarchy reigned within the local and some members resorted to violence. Other union employees were involved in a break-in at Nassco's labor relations office.
Finally, in January, 1981, the Iron Workers International Union charged that Local 627 was operating "under a cloud of violence and threats of violence" and took control of the local union for two years.
Both McCammon and Godinez credit Salas and former business agent Reynaldo (Cherokee) Inchaurregui with making Local 627 an aggressive union that stood up to Nassco management for workers' rights.
Inchaurregui and McCammon, who has worked at Nassco since 1976, were among the 13 workers fired in 1980 for their roles in the demonstration at the Cape Cod launching. However, the arbitrator who reviewed the firings ordered the shipyard to rehire McCammon a year later.
"It was a rough place to work. Conditions were pretty primitive at the shipyard," said McCammon. "(Inchaurregui) had a different outlook on how unions should do business. He believed in a high-profile confrontational style. He set the pattern for the Iron Workers after that. He came up with the idea for petition drives, demonstrations and going to the press with our horror stories.
"He organized people's anger and focused it at the company," McCammon added.
It was Inchaurregui who came up with the idea for concerted activities, said Godinez. His style of leadership encouraged the local's members to get involved, he added.
"We were lucky that (Inchaurregui) became active at the right time. He made people feel a part of the union and like they had a say," said Godinez. "We were fortunate that there were a lot of active members. The unfortunate thing was that not everybody saw things the same way and this split the union into different factions."
The factionalism within the union's ranks also encouraged violent confrontations with Nassco officials, said Godinez.
"We used to have massive lunchtime rallies, attended by 3,000 or more workers, where people would direct their frustrations at the company. Everyone wanted to show the members that they could be tougher with the company," he said.
Godinez remembered one rally, where a Nassco official was seen taking notes.
"Everyone felt that his presence was an attempt by the company to intimidate us. One group, well, how can I say it. Truthfully, they started beating up the guy. Then everybody decided to share their lunch with him."
After that incident, the company outlawed the noontime rallies, he added.
But the worst was yet to come.
In September, 1980, the FBI and San Diego Police uncovered a plot by two iron workers and a member of the Communist Workers Party to blow up electrical transformers at the shipyard.
David Boyd and Rodney Johnston, both union members, and Michael Woo, a member of the Communist Workers Party, were arrested before they could go through with the plot and were tried in federal court. Johnston also admitted to being a party member.
The bombing case became a cause celebre among U.S. leftists. The trio was sentenced to six months in federal prison each, but each defendant ended up serving only four months in custody.
"They were caught up in the fervor of the times. They weren't really terrible people," said attorney Gene Iredale, who defended Boyd.
Hallett has a different opinion of the three men.
"Here were three guys who were threatening Nassco officers and their families. Their agendas were way beyond that of the iron workers," said Hallett.
Nevertheless, Hallett said he had grudging admiration for the would-be bombers and the union's leaders at the time.
"They were very brilliant individuals. These guys were smart, but they had agendas that went beyond local issues," said Hallett.
According to Iredale, Woo went on to complete his studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while Salas earned a teaching degree and went on to become a college professor in Arizona. Salas and Woo could not be reached for comment.
McCammon said the union's international leadership feared Salas' charisma and radical politics.
"He came from an academic background. He had a college degree, which is rare for a shipyard worker. (Salas) was extremely intelligent and highly educated. He chose to go work in the shipyard. Most workers end up at a shipyard out of necessity, not choice," said McCammon.
Looking back over his 14-year affiliation with Local 627, McCammon said the union has been able to survive because "it's like a fire that refuses to go out."
"This local has a long tradition, and different political factions are part of that tradition. You can blow it up into 1,000 pieces at election time, but when it comes time to negotiate a contract, everyone is together."