“Bid Calling,” by Alpha Unit

You name it and it’s been sold at auction.

As long as humans have traded with one another, they have staged auctions. About 500 B.C. in Babylon, women were being auctioned off as wives. Ancient Greece and ancient Rome held auctions not just to sell people but to sell all kinds of assets, including war plunder and family estates. In seventh-century China, the personal items of deceased Buddhist monks were being sold at auction.

Auctions in the United States date all the way back to colonial times. Crops, livestock, tools, slaves, and sometimes entire farms were sold at auction. The National Auctioneers Association informs us that during the American Civil War only colonels could auction war plunder, which is why in honor of this history many auctioneers in America today carry the title “Colonel.”

In the early 1900s the first auctioneering schools opened in the United States. The Great Depression created great opportunity for auctioneers, whose services were needed to liquidate assets. Collectibles, antiques, used cars, heavy equipment, livestock, real estate, and all kinds of commodities are sold at auction in the US either by private parties or by government agencies.

No one knows exactly when rapid-paced “bid calling” became a feature of auctions in the US, but it is now the norm. Many of you are familiar with American-style auction calls, where an auctioneer delivers a rapid, almost hypnotic repetition of numbers and words to present items up for bid. Newcomers to auctions might find it indecipherable, but nothing could be farther from the truth!

An auctioneer’s entire job is to communicate clearly and effectively, and if you can’t understand him (or her), then he isn’t doing his job.

An auctioneer uses his chant to hold the audience’s attention and keep the auction moving along at a steady clip while he’s soliciting bids. He’s going fast because he’s responsible for selling all of the items within a relatively short time, and he’s got to create a sense of urgency among bidders. He must at the same time be very clear and specific with his language.

What the auctioneer is really doing is reciting numbers.

An auction chant consists basically of two numbers – the have (the current bid price) and the want (the higher bid being requested by the auctioneer). Between these two numbers are a variety of sounds and filler words to add rhythm to the chant and make the bidding more entertaining. To make it seem that he’s talking faster than he really is, the auctioneer will slur his words to shorten them.

An auctioneering student starts out learning a very basic auction chant, something like this:

One dollar bid, now 2,
now 2, will ya give me 2?

2 dollar bid, now 3,
now 3, will ya give me 3?

3 dollar bid, now 4,
now 4, will ya give me 4?

This hypothetical bidding would proceed in this fashion until the crowd stops bidding and the item is sold to the high bidder.

Filler words are rhythmic but they serve an important purpose: they provide a natural pause between the have and the want, giving the bidders a fraction of a second to make a decision.

Once the auctioneer’s want becomes the have, a new want is created. This number is called the next. A bid caller always has three numbers in mind – the have, the want, and the next.

Suppose you’re at an auction where a vehicle is up for bid. The auction chant might be something like this:

All right, folks, I have up for auction a 1994 Ford Mustang, cherry, lots of new parts, who’ll give me four large?

Four thousand, four, now who gimme four fiddy? Got four fiddy, got four fiddy from the man in the back, now who gonna go five?

Fi fiddy, fi fiddy bid, man in the back, now who gimme six? Fi fiddy bid, who gimme six?

Six thousand! Now who gimme seven? Seven on the board now, who gimme seven fiddy?

And on it goes.

Each auctioneer has his own style – his own favorite filler words, his own preferred speed, and his own cadence. Some auction chants are positively musical. The filler words are just carriers for the most important part of the chant: the numbers.

Keep in mind, though, that the auctioneer can only chant as fast as the bidders bid. So he designs his chant to create excitement and keep the auction moving along at a good pace. It truly is an art form.

There’s no telling where you might hear an auction call. Listen to Congressman Billy Long (R-MO) breaking into an auction chant to foil a protester during a hearing in Congress.

“What Should the Captain Do?” by Alpha Unit

 

Look, Cromie,  this isn’t a ship. You don’t have to go down with it!

  • from “Reilly: Ace of Spies”

In the popular imagination, there has been the idea that a captain is supposed to do everything in his power to save his passengers or die trying. But the answer to the question is “No.”  If a ship is sinking, and everything possible has been done to evacuate crew and passengers, the captain is under no obligation to remain at the helm and go to a watery grave. So where does this idea that a captain goes down with the ship come from?

Throughout history ships’ masters have shown this resolve to stay with sinking vessels, and it had less to do with lofty principle than with concerns over salvage rights. Under ancient maritime law, an abandoned ship could be salvaged by anyone able to put a line on it and bring it safely into port, according to Craig Allen, a Professor of Maritime Studies at the US Coast Guard and at Yale Law School.

The salvor may then be entitled to a substantial salvage award from the owners, based on the value of the abandoned ship and its cargo. So long as the captain or crew remained on the stricken vessel, however, the terms of any salvage arrangement can be negotiated, likely resulting in a lower salvage award.

So traditionally the captain stayed with a damaged ship to protect the ship owners’ interests. Even in the absence of potential salvors, with a captain on the ship it was easier for owners to arrange a towing contract to get the vessel back to port.

Maritime law holds that a captain is responsible for his or her vessel no matter what its condition. If his ship is in imminent peril, his responsibility includes executing the evacuation plan, which requires his presence for the duration. Out of a sense of duty, captains have believed that they must, if it can be managed, be the last person to get off the ship.

Although captains feel a moral duty to do so, it is usually not written that a captain must be the last person to leave the ship. The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea (SOLAS), adopted in response to the sinking of the Titanic, does not specify that the captain remain on the ship throughout the emergency.

In 1948 the United Nations created the International Maritime Organization (IMO). Its International Safety Code has been adopted by most maritime nations (including the US), but it doesn’t mandate that a captain be the last one off the ship.

Individual countries pass their own laws about the conduct of ships’ masters during catastrophes within their jurisdictions. “Abandonment” of a ship can be prosecuted in some jurisdictions; other countries have prosecuted captains for negligence, or if there are deaths, manslaughter.

Some captains have defended leaving their vessels during evacuation by pointing out that nothing required them to stay until the end. Unsurprisingly, this doesn’t help.

“LaborFest 2019,” by Alpha Unit

The annual celebration called LaborFest has been going on since July 2 in San Francisco. Various cities across the country have their own LaborFest celebrations, but in San Francisco it is a monthlong series of cultural and arts events, including a film festival, to educate the public about the history of organized labor in America.

LaborFest commemorates the 1934 San Francisco General Strike, a key episode in the rise of organized labor in the United States. It was the first time that a major US port city was completely shut down by a strike. The result of the strike was the unionization of all ports on the West Coast.

On May 9, 1934, roughly 10,000 longshoremen went on strike all along the West Coast, to protest below-subsistence wages and the humiliating daily hiring experience known as the “shapeup.” Writing for the San Francisco Chronicle, Fred Glass explains:

In this exercise in employer absolutism, workers gathered early in the morning on the foggy docks along the Embarcadero, competing with one another in a desperate race to the bottom of the Depression wage scale.  Once at work, the worker might remain there for 10, 12, 16 or more hours. Injuries accumulated faster than cargo on the dock because of the frantic pace of the work. And should they imagine complaining, there were always more workers waiting to take their place.

Among those who’d had enough was Australian immigrant seaman Harry Bridges, who had started working the San Francisco docks in 1921. Bridges reached out to other maritime unions – including sailors’ unions and Teamsters – in May 1934 and within weeks, the number of striking workers increased to 40,000. Almost every West Coast port was shut down.

Employers had the support of San Francisco government officials, the police, and the local press. Police and employers’ armed “thugs” sent hundreds of strikers and their sympathizers to hospital emergency rooms.

On July 5, known ever since as Bloody Thursday, police shot and killed two strikers near the longshoremen’s union hall – World War I veteran and longshoreman Howard Sperry and marine cook Nicholas Bordoise. After lying in state their bodies were moved to the front of an enormous, silent funeral parade, writes Fred Glass. The discipline of the marchers inspired solidarity among other groups of workers and an outpouring of sympathy from San Francisco’s middle class, “scaring the bejesus out of San Francisco’s ruling elite.” Glass continues:

The conflict escalated into a four-day mostly peaceful…citywide general strike. The work stoppage  brought virtually all industrial and commercial operations of San Francisco to a halt. Although the San Francisco Labor Council assumed leadership of the general strike, its heart was the maritime workers unions’ headquarters. After the display of determined collective power, the maritime workers gained union recognition, substantial increase in wages, and control over their hiring halls.

Every year on July 5 the International Longshore and Warehouse Union honors Bloody Thursday, as a memorial to the lives lost during the strike and as a celebration of what they achieved. For Harry Bridges, the real fruit of the General Strike wasn’t the winning of any particular demand, according to the ILWU website, but an ever-expanding union.

The longshoremen turned San Francisco into a union town and embarked on a warehouse organizing drive that didn’t stop until it reached Baltimore on the East Coast. The ILWU went on to organize the entire state of Hawaii and expanded into Alaska and western Canada.

Now consider the words of William H. Crocker, a prominent San Francisco banker during the time of the General Strike. Crocker had served as a leader and strategist for the employers.

This strike is the best thing that ever happened to San Francisco…Mark my words. When this nonsense is out of the way and the men have been driven back to their jobs, we won’t have to worry about them anymore. They’ll have learned their lesson. Not only do I believe we’ll never have another general strike, but I don’t think we’ll have a strike of any kind in San Francisco during this generation. Labor is licked.

Not yet.

 

 

"They’re Not Oysters," by Alpha Unit

Connecticut, West Virginia, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Idaho, Nebraska, and Alaska have at least one thing in common: each has a Panhandle (WV has two). The Nebraska Panhandle is the westernmost part of Nebraska, where the prairie turns into rocky mesas, buttes, and pillars, such as Chimney Rock. It’s where the Midwest becomes the West.

Cattle outnumber people by about three to one in Nebraska. While Eastern Nebraska has excellent cropland for corn, the rest of the state is abundant with grassland for cattle grazing. In the semi-arid Panhandle, cattle ranching dominates. That means Rocky Mountain Oysters are a celebrated delicacy.

This past April the Sidney Shooting Park held its 8th Annual Rocky Mountain Oyster Fry and Fundraiser at the Cheyenne County Fairgrounds west of Sidney, Nebraska. At the Silver Dollar Bar and Grill, also in Sidney, you can stop in for cold beer, onion rings, and Rocky Mountain Oysters – described by one satisfied customer as hot, fresh, and tender.

They might have been hot, fresh, and tender, but you and I know that there aren’t any oyster reefs in Nebraska. These Oysters are bull testicles – or, more accurately, calf testicles. In spring or early summer, ranchers dehorn and castrate bull calves that they won’t be using as breeding stock. They call these non-breeding stock steers. The males that keep their testicles and are later used as breeding stock they call bulls. The main purpose of castration is to calm their tempers, says Dr. Jake Geis, cattle rancher and veterinarian.

Simply put, bulls like to fight. They fight to establish dominance and even after they settle the hierarchy, they fight to re-assert dominance. Dr. Geis says that he’s worked on bulls that have been banged up fighting each other; sometimes the animal is so badly injured that a rancher has no choice but to put it down. Breeding bulls are essential so the problem can’t be entirely avoided, but castrating the non-breeding animals reduces the number of bulls from half the calf crop to three or four.

Also, bulls are more aggressive toward people than steers. Castrating bulls makes them mellower and safer to work with. A herdsman could be seriously injured or killed by a bull while loading or unloading them via trailers.

Another problem, says Dr. Geis, is that when bull calves reach puberty, they want to start breeding. Young females, or heifers, on the other hand, aren’t ready to breed. They can get pregnant but they can’t yet safely deliver and raise a calf. Castration eliminates this problem.

Arguably the most important reason for castrating bull calves is that Americans prefer the taste of steer meat to that of bull meat. The hormone profile of steers with their reduced testosterone changes the flavor of the meat. Dr. Geis says that not all cultures share this preference. He mentions that in Italian culture bull meat is preferred. This means they raise the bulls to harvest weight but have to manage all the problems with aggressiveness and fighting.

With a pair of organs coming off each calf, ranchers could easily end up with scores of them in a day’s work. The dogs get their share before the ranchers, herdsmen, and their families cook the rest just as they would any other part of the animal. The same as cattlemen have done for centuries all over the world.

When they’re not castrating bulls, beef cattle herdsmen are doing various other things with cattle such as feeding, giving vaccinations, tagging or branding, trimming hooves, assisting with births, performing artificial insemination, loading animals onto trailers, driving feed trucks, maintaining pastures, mending fences, and just about anything else that needs to be done on the ranch or feedlot.

"From the Mississippi Delta to South Australia," by Alpha Unit

Don Morrison salvages old galvanized sheet metal from sheds and farms throughout Australia. The older the metal, the better, he says; some of this reclaimed metal is over 100 years old. He takes it to his workshop in Summertown, South Australia, where he fashions it into metal-bodied acoustic guitars. Of his material he says:

Galvanised iron, or Galvo, is now an integral part of the Australian landscape and it seemed natural (to me at least!) to try it in a resonator guitar. The result is a truly awesome sound, very loud but with a surprisingly rounded tone. I should call it the Transcontinental guitar – genuine Aussie material, genuine Delta sound!

That “Delta sound” refers to Delta blues, one of the early forms of blues. This music arose in the Mississippi Delta, which, despite its name, is not a part of the actual delta of the Mississippi River. Rather, it is located in the northwestern part of Mississippi, bounded by the Mississippi River on the west and the Yazoo River on the east.

This alluvial floodplain is one of the most fertile agricultural regions in the world. It was here that Black field hands created the music we call blues, using chants, “field hollers,” and songs to make their work go faster. Ed Kopp writes:

While blues lyrics often deal with personal adversity, the music itself goes far beyond self-pity. The blues is also about overcoming hard luck, saying what you feel, ridding yourself of frustration, letting your hair down, and simply having fun.
The best blues is visceral, cathartic, and starkly emotional. From unbridled joy to deep sadness, no form of music communicates more genuine emotion.

Although the sound of a resonator guitar is iconic to blues, blues musicians didn’t start out playing the resonator. The earliest bluesmen played an instrument called the diddley bow.
The diddley bow has been called “the godfather of American roots instruments.” It is the simplest form of the guitar and is the first type of slide guitar used in America. It was very easy to make, consisting of a string of wire tensioned between two nails on a board. A bottle or can wedged under the wire would create tension for pitch. The player would pluck the string while sliding a piece of metal or glass on it to produce notes.

One-stringed bow instruments date back to antiquity and developed in various parts of East Asia and in the west coast and Congo regions of Africa. Rural Black Southerners crafted these instruments and taught their children to play them. They would sometimes build one-stringed zithers on a wall, “with a strand of baling wire, two thread spools for bridges, and a half-pint whiskey bottle for a slider,” as slide guitar player Big Joe Williams recalled to one researcher.

Boys who showed promise on the diddley bow could graduate to a guitar if they were lucky enough to get a hold of one. Musicians such as Lightnin’ Hopkins, Elmore James, and B. B. King all first learned to play on the diddley bow.

Once musicians could afford guitars they quickly abandoned the diddley bow. And when the resonator guitar came along, they had a way to present their music to even larger audiences. The resonator, with its crisp metallic ring, created the signature sound of Delta blues. When you listen to Charley Patton, Robert Johnson, Son House, or Bukka White – among many others – you’re listening to Delta blues. Others, such as John Lee Hooker and Muddy Waters, started out playing Delta blues.

This Delta sound is what craftsmen like Don Morrison aim to re-create. His resonators, like the very first of their kind, have built-in amplification – a feature that came about by demand.

Back in the early 1920s guitar players performing with dance orchestras couldn’t really stand out from the other players. Since there were no amplifiers, guitars were considered a part of the rhythm section instead of lead instruments. A vaudeville performer and promoter named George Beauchamp wanted an acoustic guitar that could play melodies over the orchestral instruments. He turned to John Dopyera, a violin repairman and luthier whose workshop was close to Beauchamp’s Los Angeles home.

John Dopyera and his brother Rudy experimented with various designs to achieve a smooth and balanced amplified sound and decided to mount cone-like aluminum resonators, similar to speaker cones, inside a metal guitar body. Dopyera found that using three smaller cones instead of one big cone gave the guitar the sound he’d been looking for. The tri-cone resonator guitar was born.

Beauchamp was impressed with the new design and proposed a business venture to Dopyera, who agreed. They created the National String Instrument Corporation in 1927. National guitars quickly became best sellers. The company soon created a wood-bodied model.

There were differences, though, between Beauchamp and Dopyera. Beauchamp preferred a single-cone resonator, not only because it was louder but because it was cheaper to make. For Dopyera, excellent sound and quality were top priorities. The two men finally went their separate ways when Dopyera found out that Beauchamp had claimed the patent for the single-cone resonator. In 1928 Dopyera quit National, with the intention of manufacturing his own single-cone resonator. John and his brother Emil formed the Dobro Manufacturing Company (named for the Dopyera Brothers).

Because National held the patent for his single-cone resonator, John Dopyera had to develop a new style of single-cone resonator. The single biggest change that he made was to the bridge of the guitar.

On a standard acoustic guitar, the bridge is glued directly to the top of the guitar. It has several functions: it holds the strings securely, sets the spacing of the strings, and acts as an external brace to the guitar body. Its other important job is transferring vibrations from the strings to the soundboard of the guitar. On a resonator guitar, the bridge is a part of the resonator cone.
For single-cone resonators, the cone has either a “biscuit” bridge or a “spider” bridge.
The National resonator used a biscuit cone, which is convex (pointing outward). Inside the tip of the cone sits a round wooden bridge (the biscuit), and set into the bridge is a small piece typically found on a guitar bridge – the saddle. The saddle keeps the strings elevated at the preferred height above the fretboard. The saddle transfers the string vibrations to the bridge and the bridge transfers them to the cone. The cone in turn vibrates, moving the air volume inside the guitar out through the sound holes.

For his Dobro resonator, John Dopyera decided to make his cone concave (pointing inward) and used an eight-legged “spider” bridge which straddled the cone. The vibrations from the strings travel from the saddle and down the spider “legs,” providing the cone with eight contact rods for vibration. The result is a loud, full-bodied tone.

Resonator guitars became popular in both blues and bluegrass. Dobro-style guitars, especially wood-bodied ones, were preferred by many bluegrass players. Blues players tended toward National-style tri-cone resonators. But plenty of guitarists break with tradition and use resonators in their own preferred ways.

Players liked resonators because, being louder than regular acoustic guitars, they could play for larger crowds in rural areas that didn’t have electricity for amplifiers. Street musicians, who had to set up without amplifiers, liked resonator guitars for the same reason.

Don Morrison makes both single-cone and tri-cone resonators. For his popular Rustbucket model, he says he flattens the corrugated steel sheets by walking on them so he can fit them through his ancient set of sheet metal rollers. Some of this old metal will still bear the makers’ stamps: Trademark Redcliffe, for example, or Lysaght Queen’s Head Australia or Emu Best. You’ll see these stamps on the backs of his guitars.

On some Rustbuckets he takes naturally weathered Galvo and adds an artificially rusted cone and sound holes, giving the guitar a distinctive, vintage look.

When he isn’t building resonators, Don Morrison is performing music, often Delta blues. During the ’90s his band, The Elmores, played blues classics by Elmore James and John Lee Hooker. He and his band Prawnhead are also a part of a “roots revolution” in popular music.

We honed our style on the streets and markets of Adelaide. We found the faster we played, the more money we made. We don’t play blues or folk, we don’t play country, we don’t play bluegrass, nor do we play rockabilly. But we play a mixture of all of those. We call it bluebilly.

Image courtesy of Slide Guitar for Beginners

"Fishing on the Big Black," by Alpha Unit

The Big Black River, flowing southwest across Mississippi, is the site of a pivotal battle during the Vicksburg Campaign of the Civil War. After a decisive loss at Champion Hill, the Confederates reached the Big Black River on the night of May 16, 1863, under the command of Lt. Gen. John Pemberton, commander of the Confederate Army of Mississippi.

The Confederates constructed earthworks on the river’s east bank and placed 18 guns behind the works. Large sections of Pemberton’s line were protected by a bayou of waist-deep water. A planked-over railroad bridge and another makeshift bridge provided access to additional artillery overlooking the river on its west bank.

Union forces led by Maj. Gen. John McClernand encountered the Confederates early on the morning of May 17. It just so happened that the men led by Brig. Gen. Michael Lawler actually got to the Rebels first, wading through the bayou to overrun the Confederates on the east bank of the river. Inspired by Lawler’s attack, other Union formations surged forward.

Overwhelmed, the Confederates broke for the makeshift bridges to get to the west bank. Most of Pemberton’s men made it across, but Pemberton’s chief engineer set fire to both bridges to cut off any Union pursuit. Many of the Confederates tried to swim across the river and drowned. About 1,700 Rebels were stranded on the east bank and subsequently captured. It was the final battle before the Siege of Vicksburg.

After floods you can still sometimes find artifacts from the gunboat battles that took place on the Big Black River during the War. But most people on the river nowadays aren’t really interested in Civil War artifacts. The big payoff during springtime on the Big Black are flathead catfish – also called tabby cats, shovelhead cats, yellow cats, flatties, and who knows how many other names. The Big Black River will overflow her banks that time of year. As Cliff Covington tells it:

Foraging catfish move into the flooded timber in large numbers. Catfish anglers take advantage of this feeding frenzy by setting multiple trotlines in likely spots along the main channel. Chicken livers, cut skipjack, live goldfish, and pond perch are the baits of choice when a boatload of catfish is the big objective.

Muddy and slow-flowing due to the large amount of sediment it carries, the Big Black River is renowned for yielding blue, channel, and flathead catfish of what Covington calls “mythical proportions.” It is one of the premier handgrabbing destinations in the South. A handgrabber catches fish by placing his hands directly into a catfish hole, and some anglers are very good at it. Covington refers to Woodie Reaves, who says there is no better place for handgrabbing catfish than the shallow waters of the Big Black.

While Reaves’ personal best is a 93-pound whale of a catfish that he wrestled from its underwater bed just a few years ago, his group routinely lands up to 25 big cats, averaging 50 pounds each, every time they venture out on this stream.

Sportsmen say that the Big Black River is also a good place for bowfishing. Bowfishers use highly specialized bows to catch fish, usually on a boat set up just for bowfishing. Hunting fish using a bow and arrow isn’t new at all and is a traditional way of fishing all over the world. Bert Turcotte of Vicksburg has been an avid bowfisher since high school and says that anyone with a regular bow can also fish this way. As he told Phillip Gentry:

All kinds of bows can be used for bowfishing. People who like traditional archery can easily equip a recurve bow for fishing. Any compound bow can also easily be set up, but the range of draw weight is the key. Forty pounds of draw weight or less will get the job done here in Mississippi.

Unlike hunting bows, fishing bows come with reels for retrieving your prey.

In Mississippi you can legally catch carp, buffalo, gar, shad, bowfin, and catfish with a bow. There are restrictions, however, on when and where you can catch catfish in this way.
Gentry says that nearly all bowfishing is done at night when carp, buffalo, and gar can be found hiding in extremely shallow water. Buffalo and carp feed on aquatic vegetation and are especially fond of newly planted areas that have recently flooded from spring rain. Gar are the most commonly sought daytime species, he says, and can be found “sunning” in shallow water or lurking near the surface in deeper water.

Sean Ford of Madison, Mississippi, uses a gas generator on his bowfishing boat to power either sodium or halogen lights for night fishing. He says:

The platform will allow two of us to fish at the same time from the front as we ease along in shallow water with the trolling motor, looking for fish to shoot.

An angler will use a trolling motor on his boat in order to move quietly through the water. You don’t want to spook the fish.

"Old-Fashioned Pig Farming," by Alpha Unit

Woodlands are a pig’s natural habitat. But pigs are adaptable to just about any environment. They live on every continent (except Antarctica).

In the forests and woodlands where wild pigs live, trees and vegetation provide them with shelter and their preferred foods. They like places where they’ll have year-round access to water and moist ground for wallowing, such as swamps and marshes.

In spring they graze on grasses and clover. Throughout the year they’ll forage for berries, nuts, acorns, mushrooms, insects, and sometimes small rodents. But one thing a pig was designed to do is root. A pig’s snout allows it to navigate and interact with its environment – sort of like a cat’s whiskers.

The nasal disc of a pig’s snout, while rigid enough to be used for digging, has numerous sensory receptors. In addition to being useful as a fine and powerful tool for manipulating objects, the extensive innervation in the snout provides pigs with an extremely well-developed sense of smell.

Pigs can smell roots and tubers that are deep underground and in the wild can spend up to 75 percent of their day rooting and foraging. Some homesteaders put pigs’ rooting instinct to work for them and use pigs to “till” garden plots.

Daniel MacPhee and his wife use Guinea Hog piglets on their New England farm, but unlike some farmers, they don’t plan to eat their pigs.

Instead, the piglets are meant as an environmentally- and -budget-friendly cleanup crew of sorts, rooting around to clean out tough, tangled roots after a small flock of sheep has grazed at the couple’s farm, Blackbird Rise in Palermo [Maine].
By having the animals do the work, “we’re not buying machinery and we’re not wasting fossil fuels,” said MacPhee, 35. “They’re eating the roots and vegetable matter, processing that and putting nutrients back in the soil through manure. They’re doing all the same things a tractor does but without the environmental impact.”

The Guinea Hogs on their farm are a “heritage breed,” the name given to any of the distinct breeds that can be traced back to the period before industrial farming. Generations ago, there were hundreds of pig breeds on homesteads in Europe and the United States. But a lot of the historic breeds fell out of favor as the pork industry moved toward leaner carcasses and began large-scale confinement operations. This was in part the result of corn production.

As the larger settled farms of the Midwest began to produce excess corn, the availability and low cost of this feed attracted pig production and processing to the region. By the mid-1800s the states that produced the most corn also produced the most pigs, and production declined in the East and New England. The industry was becoming geographically centralized as well and the number of breeds of pigs began to decline. Several breeds became extinct by the early 1900s.

Pigs are for the most part no longer produced and sold by independent producers on open markets. Since the late 20th century, pig production in the United States has come to be dominated by a few large, vertically-integrated corporations that control every step along the way from the selection of breeding stock to the retailing of pork. A lot of the farmers who are still in the business are contract growers for the corporations. But there are independent pig farmers who are dedicated to bringing back the old breeds and are raising them in the traditional way, on pasture and in woodlands.

Some heritage breeds are very rare and are listed as critically endangered by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Among heritage breeds is the very popular Berkshire pig, a black pig designated “first class”. Farmers say that Berkshires have an excellent disposition and are very friendly and curious.

The Tamworth is a golden-red pig and a direct descendant of the wild boars that roamed the forests of Staffordshire. They are considered very outdoorsy and athletic. (They make the best bacon in the United States, according to some fans.)

The Large Black retains the traits of its ancestors that lived on the pastures and woods of England in the 16th and 17th centuries. They are hardy animals that can withstand cold and heat. They are well-known as docile hogs.

The Hereford is a medium-size pig that is unique to the United States. Its name is inspired by its striking color pattern of intense red with white trim, the same as that of Hereford cattle. These pigs also have a reputation for being easy-going.

The Red Wattle is especially in danger of extinction. It is a large red hog with a fleshy wattle attached to each side of the neck. These pigs are very hardy with an especially mild temperament.

There are other heritage breeds, some of which number as low as a few hundred worldwide. Heritage pig farmers want to increase demand for their breeds, because to eat them is to preserve them, they say. There is, in fact, a growing market for heritage pork, which is more tender and tastes much better than mass-produced pork. Just looking at a cut of heritage pork you see a striking difference. It’s typically darker than pork from industrial farms, some as red as beef.

Of course, there are heritage pig farmers like the MacPhees, who just like having pigs on the farm, performing those unique tasks that pigs do.

If you’ve got children, there are heritage pig breeds they would easily get along with. Brian Wright raises heritage pigs and says that some are considered docile while others are seen as “evil, killer hogs” – in other words, very aggressive. You’ve got to do your homework before picking a breed.

The Rossi Farm in Rhode Island began breeding Gloucestershire Old Spot pigs several years ago and the pigs have become a favorite. Nicknamed Orchard Hogs, these pigs originally foraged for windfall apples and are distinguished by the black spots on their white coats.
The Rossis say Gloucestershire Old Spots are extremely friendly and laid-back. When the pigs are in the pasture, the children are often out there with them. And the pigs love having their ears scratched by the kids.

"Southern Sweet Potatoes," by Alpha Unit

Pierre Gustave Toutant-Beauregard was a military officer who became the first brigadier general of the Confederate States Army. In 1987 at Louisiana State University Dr. Larry Rolston, an entomologist and Civil War enthusiast, came up with a high-yielding, disease-resistant strain of sweet potato that saved the sweet potato industry in Louisiana. He named his variety after General Beauregard, of St. Bernard Parish. It remains one of the most popular varieties.

Sweet potatoes, a type of morning glory, come in over 400 varieties grown around the world. Louisiana’s soil and climate are ideal for growing sweet potatoes. But Louisiana sweet potato growers have some great competition in Mississippi. The Mississippi Sweet Potato Council will tell you.

No other sweet potato can compare to the ones we grow in Mississippi. We produce premium Number One sweet potatoes bursting with flavor and freshness. The rich, fertile soils of North Mississippi make our sweet potatoes appealing both inside and out.

Last year Mississippi planted just over 23,000 acres of sweet potatoes. About 500 of those acres produced organic sweet potatoes, mostly for baby food. Ricky and Jamie Earp are second-generation sweet potato farmers who run the operation their father started in 1968 near Houlka in Chickasaw County. About 60 percent of their crop are Beauregards.

As with almost all other growers in the country, labor is of prime concern to the Earp brothers (pronounced ARP, as in “sharp”). But unlike so many other growers you talk to, the Earps say they have a reliable local labor supply made up of people who have worked with them consistently over the years. Jamie Earp says that his wife and Ricky’s wife also help in the business.

Sweet potato farming is not highly mechanized. About his labor force Jamie says:

For planting, we’ll need 20 to 22 workers for about two and a half weeks, and at harvest 30 workers for about eight weeks. We have three harvester machines, each requiring eight workers. Then there are those who run the tractors and forklifts and other operations. Some of those same people help out in packing and shipping throughout the year.

Danny Clark of Vardaman, Mississippi, is in the same business. He is a third-generation sweet potato farmer. He says that sweet potato production is very hands-on labor-intensive, and that a lot of growers in the area use H2A workers, who are mostly Hispanic and work seasonally. But like the Earps, he says that most of his labor is local, mostly women who have been with his operation for many years.

At harvest time he operates digging rigs that move through the field at less than 1 mph, scooping sweet potatoes onto conveyor belts on each side of a trailer, where an eight-person crew sorts them into bins according to grade. It’s still going to be a while, though, before the sweet potatoes are ready for market.

The thing about sweet potatoes is that you don’t want them “green.” If you eat a green sweet potato you might be convinced that you don’t like sweet potatoes. Between 15 and 20 percent of the sweet potato harvest in the US is washed, packed, and shipped immediately after harvesting. These freshly dug sweet potatoes aren’t very sweet or moist.

Unlike a lot of other freshly harvested produce, sweet potatoes have to “set up” to be really enjoyable. They are cured by storing them at 85-90 degrees F and about 90 percent humidity, for 5 to 10 days. This is when they start developing their sugar-creating enzymes. This process also heals any bruises or skinning that occurred during harvest and allows the sweet potatoes to be washed and packed with less outer damage.

Afterwards the sweet potatoes are stored at 55-60 degrees F for six to eight weeks. The sugars continue to come to life. In due time the harvest is ready for packing and shipping. When you get them home and put them in the oven, the sugars really kick in.

You can’t tell by looking at a sweet potato whether or not it’s been cured. But a lot of growers assure you that they only ship cured sweet potatoes – especially those sold from September to the end of the year, when they sell the most. Edmondson Farms of Vardaman says through their highly advanced storage method they can provide consistent and exceptional quality sweet potatoes year-round.

Edmondson grows mostly Beauregard sweet potatoes in northern Mississippi and in Oak Grove, Louisiana. They’ve clearly got the best of both worlds.

"Picking Blueberries Isn’t What It Used to Be," by Alpha Unit

People from Washington County, Maine, which borders the Canadian province of New Brunswick, will readily tell you about the natural beauty of the area – and about how friendly and hardworking the people are. But some of them will also tell you not to move there unless you don’t need to work.

Maine’s six “Rim Counties,” the rural counties just south of the Canadian border, are among the poorest counties in New England. Washington County has more unemployment and poverty than the rest. Paul Constant, who hails from Maine, says that the popular conception of Maine as nothing but lighthouses and lobsters is far from the truth. Once you get away from the relatively affluent parts of southern Maine, you see how tough it can really be to live there.

But Washington County, the poorest part of Maine, is special. It is the wild blueberry capital of the world.

Maine has 44,000 acres of wild blueberries that bring in about $250 million in annual revenue. Cultivated blueberries from other states dwarf the production of wild blueberries that grow on Washington County’s “barrens,” says Philip Conkling. These areas got their name because only blueberries and a few other plants could grow on the sandy soils left by the receding glacier. A spokeswoman for the Maine Wild Blueberry Commission told him that Maine grows a very special product but most people don’t know the difference between a wild blueberry and a cultivated one.

Philip Conkling offers a hint: the fat watery ones with less flavor are the cultivated ones.

In the summer of 1974 Conkling jumped at the chance to make some money raking blueberries at the Deblois barrens in Washington County, as part of a crew assembled by some neighbors who also owned blueberry land. He says that the wild blueberry harvest was the one time of year when just about anyone between six and 60 could earn a small pile of cash “to spend like a grasshopper or save for the coming winter.”

One week later I was in the back of Ralph Jr.’s two-ton, stake-body truck with a motley crew of neighbors, lurching off Highway 193 onto dirt roads that curved around endless vistas of blueberry fields on the barrens. When we stopped, Ralph handed me a bucket and a blueberry rake. He explained that when I had filled my bucket, I was to bring it over to a hand-cranked winnowing machine to separate the leaves and stems from the berries and then pour the berries carefully into wooden boxes. For this, I would make $2.50 a box. Seemed simple enough.

It turned out to be back-breaking work.

For generations most of the laborers in the blueberry fields were Native Americans, from the local Passamaquoddy tribe and Mi’kmaq from Canada. But with the expansion of the industry, blueberry farmers started hiring migrant workers to increase their labor force. Since the 1960s the harvest has been picked mainly by migrants, most of whom are Mexican, Mexican-American, Filipino-American, Jamaican, Haitian, Honduran, and Guatemalan. They work alongside Passamaquoddy and Mi’kmaq families.

Still, there are fewer migrant laborers in the barrens than there used to be. Since the 1990s growers have been using mechanical harvesters. Some blueberry operations are almost completely mechanized, and others are planning to make the transition. These machines can harvest about 10 times what a typical person can harvest with a hand-held blueberry rake.
Some analysts say that mechanization is the consequence of uncertainty over immigration reform. Without any long-term clarity on what the law will be, growers can’t easily plan for even five years ahead.

What about hiring native Mainers to replace migrant workers? Not really an option, according to some growers.

“There are people who say if we just paid more, Americans would do the work. But that’s a joke,” said Ed Flanagan, president of Jasper Wyman & Son Inc., Maine’s second-largest blueberry grower. Flanagan says hard-working pickers make as much as $20 an hour here, almost three times Maine’s minimum wage of $7.50.

Even though Washington County has high unemployment, the seasonal jobs in the blueberry fields find few takers among local residents.

Another grower works with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) to make sure its seasonal staff are in the US legally, but a spokesman says every year it’s a gamble. “You never know if enough people are going to show up to get the job done,” he says.

“The Last Trip From Jacksonville to San Juan,” by Alpha Unit

A US Navy salvage unit is headed to the debris fields near the last known location of the SS El Faro, a US-flagged cargo ship that sank last week during Hurricane Joaquin. What they want to recover immediately is the voyage data recorder, which captured the ship’s course and speed as well as onboard audio from the bridge. Once submerged, the recorder would have begun pinging. It has a battery life of 30 days.

The El Faro is a “roll-on/roll-off” cargo vessel designed to carry vehicles that are driven on and off the ship. It left Jacksonville, Florida, last Tuesday on its weekly run from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It held 294 cars, trucks, and trailers below deck and 391 containers topside carrying groceries and other retail products.

There were 33 crew members, including Captain Michael Davidson, a veteran mariner of over 25 years’ experience. Twenty-eight of the crew members were from the United States and five were from Poland.

TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico operated the El Faro and says the 40-year-old vessel was sound and well-maintained and that it had passed its annual Coast Guard inspection in March. The question that has been floating around for the past week is “Why did the captain set sail in the face of a hurricane?”

Experienced mariners say that it isn’t at all unusual for a captain to head out under those conditions. One Merchant Marine captain, Laurence Wade, told the Portland Press Herald that sailing in bad weather, even in hurricanes, is part of the way of life for mariners.

You do the best you can. You ride it out. If the [El Faro] hadn’t lost power it would have been in San Juan by Friday and back in Jacksonville today.

Others remind us that the decision to sail rests with the captain, not with the company, and that no captain would take a ship and its crew into harm’s way. Wade says that he never likes to see people questioning a captain’s decision, particularly those with no experience at sea.

A former merchant mariner and current maritime lawyer named Rod Sullivan told the South Florida Business Journal that the El Faro probably sailed due to routine.

People get wedded to their schedule. There are vendors, stevedores, truckers who are all expecting the ship to arrive. There’s pressure to keep on schedule.

That’s putting it charitably. Other mariners say that pressure from the shipping office is intense. On all kinds of forums where people are discussing this disaster, you’ll find sea veterans making comments like this:

To answer your question, the most likely reason that the El Faro sailed when and where she did was because she had a schedule to keep at San Juan’s container port, and that was paramount over the concern of risking the ship and the lives of those serving on her…

Some flunky at a desk in an office building somewhere scheduled a particular vessel to be at a certain place within a specified time window, and that’s pretty much it…details like war or weather or other such things are treated as just another thing that the crew is expected to “deal with.”

Executives at the parent company of TOTE Maritime acknowledged on Monday that the company could have vetoed the captain’s decision to set sail but say that Captain Davidson had a sound plan that would have enabled him to pass clearly ahead of the storm. Had the El Faro not lost propulsion, Davidson would most likely have succeeded.

Why the ship lost propulsion is still unknown. The ship left Jacksonville on Tuesday, September 29. At 7:15 AM on Thursday, October 1, the Coast Guard received distress alerts from the El Faro. Just before the alerts went out, Captain Davidson had notified TOTE Maritime that the ship had lost propulsion and was listing 15 degrees in the midst of Hurricane Joaquin. The captain also noted that the ship had taken on some flooding but that the crew had the situation under control. This was the last contact anyone had with the ship.

According to Rick Spilman of The Old Salt Blog, these vehicle carriers have an inherent weakness that might have doomed the El Faro.

Ro/ros have wide vehicle decks. They are essentially parking lots at sea. The wide and open decks are necessary for efficiently driving vehicles on and off ships. The problem is that even moderate flooding of the vehicle deck can dramatically destabilize a ro/ro. The sloshing of water on the vehicle deck, referred to as the “free surface effect,” can cause the ship to capsize rapidly and without warning.

In addition to the sloshing water in the vehicle deck, vehicles can become unsecured in heavy seas and slide to one side, causing a ship to list even more. That is what happened when the Korean ferry Sewol capsized in 2014.

The El Faro‘s emergency beacon sent out a signal briefly and then stopped. The beacon is designed to float away from the ship and continue sending a signal. If the El Faro capsized, the beacon could have been trapped underneath the ship, says Spilman.

In the estimation of Captain Joseph Murphy of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, two essential things to the survival of the ship were its ability to maintain propulsion and its power. He explains:

Propulsion so they can maneuver it and power so they can maintain communication. The other one is watertight integrity so that the ship is able to float. By all reports, she had a 15-degree list, which would have made it difficult for them to launch lifeboats. And she had lost power and communication so my suspicion is that they did not have either propulsion or power.

My personal belief – and I don’t have anything to go on other than experience, years of going to sea – is that the ship actually did capsize and sank very, very quickly.

Most people don’t think that much about mariners or the vessels they work on until tragedies like these occur. The fact is, almost everything we use and consume every day arrives to us by ship. The goods flow day and night, but transporting them is a risky enterprise. In addition to the grueling work schedules and battles over pay, there is the fact that mariners work in a wilderness as deadly as any other on Earth.

“Mother Nature is merciless and more powerful than we give her credit,” says a former maritime instructor to those who wonder why this happened. In a discussion at the Service Academy Forums, he says there is an evolution you go through.

Stage 1 is, I’m a little scared, but I trust you guys. Stage 2 is, I’m strong, I’m invincible, I can handle anything, BRING IT. A lot of people stop there. A lot of people LIVE under the illusion that because they can turn up a thermostat, turn on a faucet, flip a switch and cook a meal, that they have bested nature. Technology only takes you so far.

Forty-foot seas, 140-knot winds, no port to enter, no way off the ship, no one to negotiate with, no alternatives. Human beings can adapt to and overcome a lot of things, but sometimes there is a confluence of nature that makes it NOT POSSIBLE. And those people get to Stage 3: I am strong, I am trained, I am clever, and I have my wits – but I am a speck of dust on a capricious planet, and I am at its mercy.

"The Last Trip From Jacksonville to San Juan," by Alpha Unit

A US Navy salvage unit is headed to the debris fields near the last known location of the SS El Faro, a US-flagged cargo ship that sank last week during Hurricane Joaquin. What they want to recover immediately is the voyage data recorder, which captured the ship’s course and speed as well as onboard audio from the bridge. Once submerged, the recorder would have begun pinging. It has a battery life of 30 days.
The El Faro is a “roll-on/roll-off” cargo vessel designed to carry vehicles that are driven on and off the ship. It left Jacksonville, Florida, last Tuesday on its weekly run from Jacksonville to San Juan, Puerto Rico. It held 294 cars, trucks, and trailers below deck and 391 containers topside carrying groceries and other retail products.
There were 33 crew members, including Captain Michael Davidson, a veteran mariner of over 25 years’ experience. Twenty-eight of the crew members were from the United States and five were from Poland.
TOTE Maritime Puerto Rico operated the El Faro and says the 40-year-old vessel was sound and well-maintained and that it had passed its annual Coast Guard inspection in March. The question that has been floating around for the past week is “Why did the captain set sail in the face of a hurricane?”
Experienced mariners say that it isn’t at all unusual for a captain to head out under those conditions. One Merchant Marine captain, Laurence Wade, told the Portland Press Herald that sailing in bad weather, even in hurricanes, is part of the way of life for mariners.

You do the best you can. You ride it out. If the [El Faro] hadn’t lost power it would have been in San Juan by Friday and back in Jacksonville today.

Others remind us that the decision to sail rests with the captain, not with the company, and that no captain would take a ship and its crew into harm’s way. Wade says that he never likes to see people questioning a captain’s decision, particularly those with no experience at sea.
A former merchant mariner and current maritime lawyer named Rod Sullivan told the South Florida Business Journal that the El Faro probably sailed due to routine.

People get wedded to their schedule. There are vendors, stevedores, truckers who are all expecting the ship to arrive. There’s pressure to keep on schedule.

That’s putting it charitably. Other mariners say that pressure from the shipping office is intense. On all kinds of forums where people are discussing this disaster, you’ll find sea veterans making comments like this:

To answer your question, the most likely reason that the El Faro sailed when and where she did was because she had a schedule to keep at San Juan’s container port, and that was paramount over the concern of risking the ship and the lives of those serving on her…
Some flunky at a desk in an office building somewhere scheduled a particular vessel to be at a certain place within a specified time window, and that’s pretty much it…details like war or weather or other such things are treated as just another thing that the crew is expected to “deal with.”

Executives at the parent company of TOTE Maritime acknowledged on Monday that the company could have vetoed the captain’s decision to set sail but say that Captain Davidson had a sound plan that would have enabled him to pass clearly ahead of the storm. Had the El Faro not lost propulsion, Davidson would most likely have succeeded.
Why the ship lost propulsion is still unknown. The ship left Jacksonville on Tuesday, September 29. At 7:15 AM on Thursday, October 1, the Coast Guard received distress alerts from the El Faro. Just before the alerts went out, Captain Davidson had notified TOTE Maritime that the ship had lost propulsion and was listing 15 degrees in the midst of Hurricane Joaquin. The captain also noted that the ship had taken on some flooding but that the crew had the situation under control. This was the last contact anyone had with the ship.
According to Rick Spilman of The Old Salt Blog, these vehicle carriers have an inherent weakness that might have doomed the El Faro.

Ro/ros have wide vehicle decks. They are essentially parking lots at sea. The wide and open decks are necessary for efficiently driving vehicles on and off ships. The problem is that even moderate flooding of the vehicle deck can dramatically destabilize a ro/ro. The sloshing of water on the vehicle deck, referred to as the “free surface effect,” can cause the ship to capsize rapidly and without warning.

In addition to the sloshing water in the vehicle deck, vehicles can become unsecured in heavy seas and slide to one side, causing a ship to list even more. That is what happened when the Korean ferry Sewol capsized in 2014.
The El Faro‘s emergency beacon sent out a signal briefly and then stopped. The beacon is designed to float away from the ship and continue sending a signal. If the El Faro capsized, the beacon could have been trapped underneath the ship, says Spilman.
In the estimation of Captain Joseph Murphy of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy, two essential things to the survival of the ship were its ability to maintain propulsion and its power. He explains:

Propulsion so they can maneuver it and power so they can maintain communication. The other one is watertight integrity so that the ship is able to float. By all reports, she had a 15-degree list, which would have made it difficult for them to launch lifeboats. And she had lost power and communication so my suspicion is that they did not have either propulsion or power.
My personal belief – and I don’t have anything to go on other than experience, years of going to sea – is that the ship actually did capsize and sank very, very quickly.

Most people don’t think that much about mariners or the vessels they work on until tragedies like these occur. The fact is, almost everything we use and consume every day arrives to us by ship. The goods flow day and night, but transporting them is a risky enterprise. In addition to the grueling work schedules and battles over pay, there is the fact that mariners work in a wilderness as deadly as any other on Earth.
“Mother Nature is merciless and more powerful than we give her credit,” says a former maritime instructor to those who wonder why this happened. In a discussion at the Service Academy Forums, he says there is an evolution you go through.

Stage 1 is, I’m a little scared, but I trust you guys. Stage 2 is, I’m strong, I’m invincible, I can handle anything, BRING IT. A lot of people stop there. A lot of people LIVE under the illusion that because they can turn up a thermostat, turn on a faucet, flip a switch and cook a meal, that they have bested nature. Technology only takes you so far.
Forty-foot seas, 140-knot winds, no port to enter, no way off the ship, no one to negotiate with, no alternatives. Human beings can adapt to and overcome a lot of things, but sometimes there is a confluence of nature that makes it NOT POSSIBLE. And those people get to Stage 3: I am strong, I am trained, I am clever, and I have my wits – but I am a speck of dust on a capricious planet, and I am at its mercy.

"Rodbusters," by Alpha Unit

For millenia humans have created structures out of concrete. The Romans preferred concrete to all other construction materials, and their unique formula is the reason so many of ancient Rome’s monuments are still standing. The concrete we use today, while different from Roman concrete, is an excellent building material but as strong as it is, it has almost no tensile strength: it can’t withstand much pulling or stretching. For that reason builders reinforce it with rebar.

These metal rods, which have spaced patterns of bumps or swirls to help the concrete grip them, allow concrete to bend and flex without cracking or breaking. Rodbusters, the ironworkers who install rebar, have one of the most physically demanding jobs in construction.

Rodbusters will tell you that their shoulders especially take a pounding. They do a lot of lifting, and routinely carry heavy rebar on their shoulders. During hot weather, shoulder burns from hoisting hot steel rods are common. Here’s how one rodbuster describes his work:

Your back is shot, shoulders are raped, you can’t walk from being in the SLDL position all day long, and you literally have no free time aside from our [mandated] breaks.

Another rodbuster has pretty much the same view:

It’s good clean work…but it’s hell on the body. Carrying 150-180 pounds of 30′ rods all day gives your lower back, shoulders, and legs a beating. Not to mention tying [rebar] all day long as well. Picture being in the SLDL start position for five minutes at a time.

SLDL stands for Stiff Legged Deadlift.

Once a rodbuster positions the rebar, he ties it together with wire. He has to wrap wire securely around any area with two or more rebar sections that intersect or overlap. Tied corners are weak, so he installs bent rebar at corners. A job might involve cutting or welding.

Tying rebar requires fast, repetitive hand and arm movements while applying a lot of force. When a rodbuster ties rebar at ground level, he typically works in a stooped position, with his body bent deeply forward. A rodbuster informs us:

For a career as a rodbuster, you’re always bunched forward. You can always tell a rodbuster by how he looks.

Ironworkers in the United States have been represented since 1896 by the International Association of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers. But throughout the country there are rodbusters working without a union contract.

Some non-union rodbusters have walked off the job to protest working conditions. They report making significantly less than the national average for reinforcing ironworkers. They say they can work 18-hour days sometimes, without warning. There are no health benefits, and if there is an accident, it might not get reported to OSHA. Such protests have taken place in Vancouver, Washington; in Houston, Texas; and in Manchester, Tennessee.

Union or non-union, if you can set and tie rebar, you have a skill that’s in demand. Some ironworkers say that in their line of work, the sooner you get in and get out, the better off you are. As one of them put it:

I was a rodbuster for over 30 years, and if you go that route you will find out GOD fucking hates you. The first two weeks every muscle in your body will fucking hate you. But remember this, you are not the only one that will do it or has been through it, and you will survive.

"Is a Meal Break This Big a Deal?" by Alpha Unit

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 was a landmark piece of legislation that changed life as working Americans knew it. Among the things it brought about are the 40-hour work week, the national minimum wage, guaranteed “time and a half” for overtime, and the end of what it called “oppressive child labor.”
But progressives in California were ahead of the federal government on worker protections. Twenty-five years before Congress passed the FLSA, California created the Industrial Welfare Commission to establish regular wages, hours, and working conditions in California. The state continues to enforce Wage Orders mandated by the IWC.
What most people would consider obvious requirements for workers has been the subject of intense litigation in California for years: providing meal periods and rest breaks. It’s common sense that people working all day need breaks. But workers and employers have been fighting it out in court over this issue regularly in California. Employers say that providing a meal break isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.
Under California law, workers are allowed:

  • a 30-minute meal period for every work period of more than 5 hours
  • two 30-minute meal periods for every work period of more than 10 hours
  • rest periods at the rate of 10 minutes per 4 hours worked, in the middle of the work period if possible
  • an additional hour of pay for each day that the employer fails to permit the meal period or rest break

Employers, however, find these rules cumbersome and vague, says Allen Matkins. The issues confronted by employers are:

  • What does it mean to “provide” a meal period?
  • Do meal periods have to be provided in rolling 5-hour increments?
  • Are early (or late) lunches allowed?
  • Must employers ensure that their employees actually take these mandated breaks?
  • Are meal and rest period claims suitable for class action adjudication?

According to the California Restaurant Association, these regulations can be a headache for supervisors, who feel they have to play lunchroom cop. Clocking in after a break even one minute early subjects restaurant operators to class action lawsuits. It also says these laws are inconvenient for employees.

  • Many table servers are forced onto mandatory breaks in the midst of the busiest times of day when many would prefer to delay or forego a break to collect more tips.
  • Others would prefer to work through their break to be able to leave 30 minutes early to go to school, pick up kids, and so forth.

But employees aren’t of one mind on how inconvenient these regulations are.
In 2004 five employees of Chili’s restaurant filed a case, Hohnbaum v. Brinker Restaurant Corporation, in which they claimed the restaurant illegally denied them meal and rest breaks. They said that the restaurant would have them take “early lunches” shortly after starting work and then work them another 5 to 10 hours without receiving another meal break.
They also said that they should have received a rest break before the first meal period and that they worked “off the clock” during meal periods.
Brinker argued that meal periods need only be “provided” as set forth in the Labor Code. Whether or not any particular manager discouraged or prohibited breaks should be decided on an individual basis and not as a class action.
The case was indeed certified as a class action involving more than 60,000 current and former employees. Brinker appealed this order and prevailed, with the Court of Appeal vacating each subclass. The California Supreme Court accepted review and agreed to settle the uncertainty over meal and rest breaks and the suitability of these claims for class action.
The California Supreme Court finally ruled in 2012, siding with Brinker. It stated:

  1. An employer’s obligation to “provide” a meal period is satisfied if the employee is relieved of all duty for an uninterrupted 30-minute period and is free to leave the work premises. The employee can use the meal period for whatever purpose he or she desires.
  2. An employer does not have to ensure that no work is done during a meal period. Nor is the employer liable for a meal period premium if the employee chooses to work (unless he or she is pressured to work).
  3. The first meal period must be provided after no more than 5 hours of work. The second meal period must be provided after no more than 10 hours of work.
  4. Rest breaks and meal periods do not need to be taken in a certain order.
  5. A 10-minute rest period is owed for every major portion of 4 hours after an employee works 3 and a half hours. Thus, an employee is entitled to 10 minutes rest for shifts from 3 and a half to 6 hours, 20 minutes for shifts of more than 6 hours up to 10 hours, and so on.
  6. Meal and rest period claims can be suitable for class action litigation if the employer has a uniform policy that conflicts with break requirements.

So you would think that the issue of meal and rest breaks in California was made simple by the Brinker case. But it wasn’t. Companies can claim that they are exempt altogether from complying with meal and break regulations. This was the issue in Dilts v. Penske Logistics.
Mickey Lee Dilts, Ray Rios, and Donny Dushaj worked for Penske Logistics and Penske Truck Leasing. At the time in question, Penske provided transportation and warehouse management services to Whirlpool Corporation in California. Employees inventoried appliances and loaded them onto trucks for delivery and installation.
Dilts was a “driver/installer.” Rios and Dushaj were “installers” whose job was to unload and install appliances at their destinations.
Penske had a systematic policy of automatically deducting 30 minutes of work time to account for daily meal periods. It didn’t ask whether workers actually had a 30-minute meal period. Furthermore, company policy didn’t permit the driver/installer to leave the truck unattended. Workers had cellphones for communicating with dispatchers, supervisors, and customers during the day but Penske didn’t allow workers to turn off the cellphones during breaks.
In spite of all this, the issue wasn’t simply whether Penske violated California law but whether those laws were preempted by the Federal Aviation Administration Authorization Act of 1994.
The FAAA Act declares that a state cannot enact or enforce any law involving prices, routes, or services of any motor carrier that transports property. Penske argued:

  • California’s law would force drivers to alter their routes. They would have to look for a place to exit the highway and locate stopping places that safely and lawfully accommodated their vehicles.
  • The law would require 1 or 2 fewer deliveries per day to schedule off-duty meal periods.
  • Off-duty meal periods and rest breaks would reduce driver flexibility and interfere with customer service.
  • The law would significantly impact prices. The company would incur the cost of additional drivers, helpers, trackers, and trailers to ensure off-duty breaks and maintain the same level of service.

The US District Court ruled for Penske in October 2011. But the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the ruling, saying that meal and rest break laws are not preempted because they are not the sorts of laws related to price, routes, or service that Congress intended to preempt. Instead they are normal background rules for all employers doing business in California.
The Obama administration had filed a brief supporting the workers in this case, saying that the FAAA Act did not preempt state break requirements because it is squarely within the states’ traditional power to regulate the employment relationship and to protect worker health and safety.
Penske appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Among those who filed in support of Penske were the American Trucking Associations and the United States Chamber of Commerce. But the Supreme Court denied the petition. Dilts, Rios, and Dushaj prevailed after 6 years.
Does this mean there won’t be any more litigation in California over meal and rest breaks for workers? If only it were that simple. Employers and workers have a hard time seeing eye-to-eye on when and how a worker should take a break.

"The Rise, Fall, and Reinvention of an American Company," by Alpha Unit

Overseas competition mortally wounded the Faribault Woolen Mill Company. It finally died in 2009 and joined the ranks of similarly disposed of American companies, all casualties of the ongoing quest for “cheaper” manufacturing.
At the time of its demise, the company was nearly 150 years old. It had been created in 1865 when a German immigrant, Carl Henry Klemer, entered the woolen mill business after arriving in the village of Faribault, Minnesota. Prior to the Civil War, most woolen goods in this country were imported. Says Peter J. de Carlo:

After the war, domestic wool manufacturing increased as the country became more industrialized. The growth of wool production was aided by the Tariff Acts of 1867. The acts provided protection for domestic wool makers and made them more competitive. In Minnesota, the 1860s saw the beginning of many woolen manufacturing companies.

In 1882 Klemer moved his business to a building on the Straight River, in Rice County, Minnesota. A succession of fires over the next ten years ultimately destroyed the facility. In 1892 Klemer bought property on the Cannon River, built a fireproof brick building, and replaced the wooden dam that powered the mill with one made of stone.
During this period, the Faribault mill picked up a military contract with West Point that allowed the business to expand.
The company grew slowly during the early 1900s but built on its success with the military after being awarded a contract with the US Army in 1917 for 100,000 blankets. It also manufactured blankets for the military during World War II. In the postwar years Faribault led its industry with new products like washable wool and moth-proofed wool, with its profits peaking during the 1970s.
Things began to change during the 1990s. A lot of woolen manufacturing had moved offshore, and high-tech synthetics were beginning to inundate the market. Faribault was struggling. In 1998 a majority of its stock was acquired by a businessman named Peter Lytle who was based in the Twin Cities. The company became a subsidiary of a new entity, North American Heritage Brands, which also bought a cotton mill as a hedge.
North American Heritage Brands wasn’t up to the task of saving Faribault. The entity went bankrupt, taking both mills down with it. The Faribault Woolen Mill Company was finished.
The owners shut the mill down abruptly. Employees were asked to leave their posts; blankets were still on the looms half-woven. Nearly everything, from office supplies to spinning machines, was left behind.
To make matters worse, the mill flooded in 2010. The entire lower level had been filled with unattended machinery. According to John Mooty, everything that was still working was tagged to be shipped to a manufacturer in Pakistan. The rest was to be liquidated, and the facility would finally be emptied.
What was left of the once-thriving company was the empty building and the rights to its name and brand. Someone came along and decided that these were worth holding onto. That was John Mooty’s uncle, Paul Mooty, and Paul’s cousin Chuck Mooty. After consulting with the mill’s former controller, the Mootys decided that reviving the mill would deliver a good return on investment. They reopened the mill in September of 2011 and brought back many of the employees who had been let go.
“In less than six months, we went from not having a single usable restroom to selling goods in 50 states,” says Paul Mooty.
The new owners had decided at the outset on a particular strategy, according to Adam Platt. They were going to get the acrylic out of their products, for starters. But more importantly, they saw no point in trying to compete with output from India and China. They were going to bring their products back as a brand.
A major selling point was that Faribault’s products were American-made. Paul Mooty says that a lot of people are seeing now that the country has paid a price for shipping so many jobs overseas. The Mootys see great value in reviving a historic Minnesota business that they don’t want to see tossed by the wayside. In addition, they believe the art of textile manufacturing should be kept alive in America.
The Faribault Woolen Mill Company creates its products from start to finish under one roof, making it one of the last fully vertically integrated manufacturers in the United States.
Some analysts, including the Mootys, say that small manufacturers are going to be the key to bringing back jobs to the United States that big businesses sent overseas. Says Chuck Mooty:

The Chinas of the world were wonderful places for people to get value, but the middle market players are frustrated with rising costs of labor, energy, and transporting products. This is the time for people to step up and take some risks and invest in ventures that produce and manufacture products domestically.

It’s true that manufacturing in America includes many small businesses. Will the “Made in America” movement be the job creator people expect it to be?

"Shipyard Workers in Demand," by Alpha Unit

Ships are crucial to the day-to-day living most of us take for granted. But for some, sailing is in the blood, as they put it. Ships and shipyards loom large in the life of Jimmy Buffett.
Jimmy Buffett’s grandfather ran away from home at the age of 13. In the liner notes to his album Far Side of the World, Buffett tells how his grandfather jumped out of a second story window of his family home in Sydney, Nova Scotia, never to return. Three years later James Delaney Buffett became a whaling-ship cabin boy and went looking for his older brother, who had supposedly been shipwrecked. He eventually became a sea captain.
During the course of his travels he ended up on the Gulf Coast of the United States, living in a boarding house for sailors in Pascagoula, Mississippi. He got married to a local girl and began to raise a family. Their oldest was Jimmy Buffett’s father, J.D. Buffett. After serving as a mechanic in the Army Air Corps in World War II, J.D. Buffett moved his family to Mobile, Alabama, where he worked as a naval architect for the Alabama Dry Dock and Shipbuilding Company.
J.D. Buffett had met his wife while both worked at another Gulf Coast shipbuilding company, Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula. Ship production had begun there in 1939, just in time for World War II, when the shipyard put commercial production on hold and started building military vessels.
Ingalls has built troopships, destroyers, tankers, submarines, and aircraft carriers for the Navy and cutters for the Coast Guard. The company has been saying for some time now that there is a need on the Gulf Coast and nationwide for first class level craftsmen, especially welders, pipe welders, pipefitters, and shipfitters.
Shipfitters make molds and patterns for construction, basing their designs on the blueprints and schematics produced by the ship’s architects and drafters. They then make walls and structural parts and brace them in position for welding or riveting. Essential skills, indeed.
Companies and the military are so eager to recruit shipyard workers that they are investing in apprenticeship programs to grow a workforce for the industry. They find that plenty of their applicants require remedial math and English classes along with their blueprint-reading classes.
Hiring managers say meeting short- and long-term hiring goals is a challenge. The vocational pipeline from high school to industry has narrowed over the years, mainly because of the emphasis placed on college degrees. It’s the same thing they’ve been saying in the skilled trades for years now.
The investment does pay off, though, with more awareness being raised about the shortage of skilled tradesmen all over the country – and awareness being raised about good shipbuilding jobs, in particular.

"Who Wants to Work in the Logging Business?" by Alpha Unit

The logging business in Arkansas has been down so long, says Jan Cottingham, that people are skeptical of any predictions of an upturn. And yet some observers are that confident. What they wonder is whether or not the workers will be there to meet the demand.
Labor concerns in Arkansas reflect what’s going on nationwide: the lumber industry workforce is reaching retirement age and employers don’t know if they’ll see new recruitment coming in. Even with some modest increases in the labor force, challenges remain in drawing young people to the industry.
Much like farming, the logging industry is often multi-generational and family-run, says Matt Jensen. He is the vice president of the Great Lakes Timber Professionals Association in Rhinelander, Wisconsin, and a third-generation logger. He says:

This is a business that is really hard to learn and it’s really a lifestyle. If you don’t teach your children the work ethic, they’re not going to continue.

One of the biggest challenges facing the forestry industry is the negative perception about wood usage, according to Scott Bowe of the University of Wisconsin. He thinks it’s hypocritical, because people use wood everyday. “We need fresh, young people to carry the business forward,” he says. “We consume more wood every year. The wood’s got to come from somewhere.”
The question is, who will replace the current generation of loggers?
Logging is capital-intensive, requiring an initial investment of roughly $1 million for heavy equipment like fellers, which cut the trees; skidders, which move the felled trees; processors, which de-limb the trees; and loaders, which lift the logs from piles to trucks. Lenders are reluctant to provide money for new logging businesses.
Whether the businesses are new or established, the amount of work you do depends on the weather. In Arkansas, logging time can be about 40 weeks out of the year. So you’re not going to make a lot of money working in this business. The appeal just isn’t there for a lot of young people.
Steve Richardson owns a logging business in Arkansas and says that every logger has either gotten more productive with fewer people or has gone out of business. Some timber companies are considering forming their own logging crews, a practice that largely disappeared when workers’ compensation insurance rates soared. Vertical integration, in which a company owns the supply chain for its products, used to be typical in the industry, but Richardson is skeptical of its reinstation, saying that those companies don’t know how to work this labor.

These folks that work for me are fiercely independent. They’re not college graduates. They want to make a living, they want to go hunting and fishing on the weekend, and some of them want to start getting drunk on Friday afternoon.

And that mindset doesn’t fit with most business plans, Cottingham says.
Marvin Larrabee of Elk Mound, Wisconsin, says that logging almost has to be passed down in the family. He has four sons assisting him in the business but knows how hard it would be for them to strike out on their own. The expensive equipment is just the start of it. Loggers also have high fuel costs and extremely high insurance premiums. The occupation is consistently ranked one of the most hazardous in the country.
Larry Altman of Vermont was a logger for 20 years. He has pins in his ankle from the time a tree fell on him. On another occasion, his arm was crushed between two logs, but luckily he was working that day with a friend who freed him 45 minutes later.
“You’ll get hurt bad at least one time logging,” he says.
Altman says he’d still do it if you could make money at it, but you can’t.

In this whole picture, there’s a ceiling, and that ceiling is the price paid at the mill. There’s very little wiggle room for the individual logger.

The roots of logging run deep in Vermont. Its first sawmill opened in 1739, and by the middle of the 19th century logging had become Vermont’s largest and most lucrative industry. But today, says Larry Altman, many people, especially in Burlington, have no idea that logging still goes on in Vermont.
Those that become aware of it lump the local timber industry in with large-scale, ecologically devastating logging operations in the Pacific Northwest, Canada, South America, and Asia. The fact is, the vast majority of local loggers are sole proprietors, working alone in the woods, usually equipped with little more than a chainsaw, skidder, bulldozer, and truck.
Some young people are drawn, nevertheless, to the logging business. Will Coleman, 26, and his brother Wesley, 24, started Coleman Brothers Logging LLC, in December 2012. They operate out of Richburg, South Carolina, harvesting pulpwood and saw timber.
The Coleman brothers were able to buy a used Tigercat skidder and feller/buncher with a loan from Natural Capital Investment Fund’s Logging Initiative. NCIF is a business loan fund that provides debt financing to small businesses in West Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, south Georgia, and the Appalachian regions of Maryland, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Ohio.
The Coleman brothers say they doubled their loads in the first week after running the equipment they purchased with their loan.
Out on the West Coast, Billy Zimmerman, 25, has launched his own company, Zimmerman Logging LLC, in Rainier, Oregon. Zimmerman was raised on a tree farm his great-grandfather bought in the 1920s, and discovered his love of tree farming at age 10, when his father let him set chokers – setting cables around logs so they can be hauled away – for the first time. He helped his father with farming before and after school and after football practice.
In December of last year he decided to go into business for himself. His father gave him a bulldozer, saving him the $160,000 he might have needed for a new one, and his parents gave him $3,000 in seed money. He was in business by March, with a company consisting of Zimmerman, his best friend, and his father Ron.
Zimmerman works 11-hour days and is willing to underbid others so he can build a client base and his reputation. And his specialty are small jobs. As he puts it:

There are a ton of little 5- and 10-acre jobs that the guys with big machines cannot justify bringing out there to work that job. But we can. We found our niche in smaller jobs, at least for now, and for what we have it’s been working well.

"Railroad Workers to Union Leaders: This Deal Is Unacceptable," by Alpha Unit

Back in 2008, there was a head-on collision between a Metrolink commuter train and a Union Pacific freight train near Chatsworth, California. Twenty-five people were killed, including an engineer, who was evidently texting at the time and may have missed a stop signal.
After this collision Congress mandated Positive Train Control. This system monitors trains by computer and satellite GPS. It will stop the train if the crew doesn’t brake or slow down correctly. Had it been in place in 2008, the commuter train would have stopped before crossing into the path of the freight train.
With this new collision-avoidance system, rail carriers have found yet another way to cut labor costs. They now want one-man crews on freight trains. Currently in the United States, trains operate with at least two crew members, one engineer and one conductor. Some trains are over 10,000 feet long and more than 15,000 tons. Engineers drive and take care of the engines but conductors do everything else.
Engineers and conductors are licensed by the Federal Railroad Administration and undergo continual re-training and testing. But many of them – and their families – oppose the idea of one-man crews. They consider it an unacceptable safety hazard, and one of the main factors in their opposition is the grueling fatigue that train crews have to deal with.
Train crews are usually on duty around the clock and may get only two or three hours’ notice to report for work, any time of day or night. They can be called to work again after only 10 hours off. Their shifts can be for up to 12 hours. Some of the duties of a conductor:

  • hopping off the train to throw the switch that moves the train to another track
  • adding or removing cars
  • updating the list of cars that carry hazardous materials – crucial for first responders in case of a wreck
  • problem solving if a mechanical problem stops the train
  • conferring with the engineer about hazards, speed reductions, or crossings coming up

Opponents of one-man crews cite the case of a disaster that occurred in July of 2013. An unattended crude oil train broke loose and rolled down a hill, derailing in the middle of Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, igniting fires and explosions that killed 47 people. A sole engineer had been in charge of the train.
Last month, thousands of railroad workers found out that their union officers had negotiated with one of the biggest freight carriers in the country to allow one-man crews. The union is SMART, the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail, and Transportation Workers (formerly the United Transportation Union), which represents conductors. The rail carrier is Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway (BNSF).
Currently a SMART agreement requires a minimum of one conductor and one engineer in the cab on Class I railroads. But that agreement will soon expire. Conductors could lose jobs if railroads implement engineer-only operation.The deal struck by the General Committee of SMART would have a designated master conductor working either from a fixed or mobile location other than the train. It would be the first time that a conductor is in charge of train operation.
The deal would boost the pay of conductors and other ground service workers, such as brakemen, switchmen, helpers, and yardmen. All these workers are eligible for promotion to conductor.
The Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, which represents engineers, has clashed with SMART over the years. Many engineers’ jobs were eliminated several years ago when railroads introduced Remote Control Operation technology for railyards. As J.P. Wright and Ed Michael explain, inbound train cars can come to the yard to be received, separated, and regrouped into tracks so that outbound trains are built with cars all going to the same destination. A yard crew used to consist of engineer, brakeman, and conductor.
Now yard crews have been reduced to a lone conductor with a remote control device strapped to his or her body. He operates the engine’s throttle and brakes to move cars, uncouples cars, and throws switches, talking by radio to the yardmaster and incoming engineers.
At first BLET and UTU (representing conductors at the time) stood united against remote control, but an attempt to merge the two unions failed. The UTU broke ranks and agreed to remote control, eliminating engineers’ jobs.
SMART is now trying to hold on to conductors’ jobs since this new industry move toward engineer-only crews.
Rank and file members of SMART have to approve of the new deal, and a campaign is underway to get them to vote no on one-man crews. Both SMART and BLET are officially against one-man crews, but each union is willing to cut whichever deal benefits its members.
Railroad Workers United was organized to bring all workers in the industry together to oppose one-man crews, regardless of their craft or union affiliation.
As for the federal government, the National Transportation Safety Board has no objection to eliminating conductors on PTC-run trains. Amtrak, commuter railroads, and some smaller freight carriers already operate with lone engineers in the cab and haven’t found any reduction in train safety.

"The Death of a Young Sailor," by Alpha Unit

Ashtabula, Ohio, is a major coal port on Lake Erie. The coal dock at Ashtabula Harbor is a transload point for coals destined for electricity-generating plants and cement producers in Canada and the Great Lakes area. Coals from Ohio, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia arrive at Ashtabula by train before being sent on their way. Other commodities coming through the port include iron ore, sand, gravel, and stone.

Among the ships you could see at Ashtabula Harbor was the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald, a lake freighter that carried iron ore from mines near Duluth, Minnesota, to iron works near cities like Detroit and Toledo. A young man named Karl Peckol, barely out of Ashtabula High School, signed on to work on the Edmund Fitzgerald. He became a watchman.

Most of the crew on the Fitzgerald were veteran seamen. But there were some novices, including Karl Peckol, who didn’t necessarily aspire to a life as a sailor. Stacy Millberg says that Peckol was working on going to college. He didn’t get to go to college. He died on November 10, 1975, when the Fitzgerald sank in a storm on Lake Superior. At 20 years old, he was the youngest man on board.

"Tugboat Workers and Corporate Angst," by Alpha Unit

Iron ore is critical for modern civilization – and critical for corporate profits.
Hundreds of millions of dollars are at stake right now as mining companies, shipping companies, and employees stake out their positions in a bargaining dispute. At issue are pay and work hours for deckhands, masters, and engineers on tugboats at Port Hedland in the Pilbara district of Western Australia.
The tugboats guide iron ore ships in and out of the port, and if the workers strike it could cost companies $100 million a day in lost iron ore sales. The tugboat workers are employed by Teekay Shipping and represented by the Maritime Union of Australia (MUA).
This labor dispute involves the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, which has a contract with Teekay for tug services. BHP is the Anglo-Australian multinational mining, metals, and petroleum company, with headquarters in Melbourne. BHP would be directly affected by a strike, as would Fortescue Metals Group, the third largest iron ore producer in Australia, after BHP and Rio Tinto.
Nev Power, the Chief Executive of Fortescue, was not in a mood to negotiate with the MUA when he released this statement:

There is something wrong with our industrial relations laws when a small group of 45 people who would like to only work 22 weeks a year and be paid a base rate about three times the base wage of a nurse…can hold to ransom an industry that generates more export earnings than any other.

Actually, no, says Will Tracey. He is the Western Australia branch secretary of the MUA, which is seeking a 12% pay increase over four years and wants working time to be cut to five months a year down from the current six. He stated:

Over the course of a year, tugboat workers work six swings of 28 days, at an average of 12 hours a day, and sometimes up to 20 hours a day, depending on the volume of iron ore going through the port.
Total number of hours worked by a tugboat deckhand in a year equates to almost 54 weeks of a standard 37.5-hour working week.

It turns out that the MUA has just agreed to suspend taking industrial action against Teekay Shipping for a 30-day period while negotiations continue. Port Hedland is the world’s biggest export terminal for iron ore, and there would be huge losses for BHP, which ships about a million tons of iron ore a day.
It isn’t just corporate profits that are at stake. Mining royalties and tax revenues are also at risk. Iron ore is a major Australian export and Hamersley Province in Western Australia is one of the world’s best sources. The ores from the major mines are hauled to screening and crushing plants via truck and then transported for further treatment to port sites by train. After arriving at Port Hedland much of the ore is shipped to the Chinese port of Tianjin and then delivered to steel mills in China.

"Made Mostly in America," by Alpha Unit

Waterford Precision Cycles manufactures custom, hand-built bicycles 30 miles from downtown Milwaukee. It was founded by Marc Muller and Richard Schwinn, both formerly of Schwinn Bicycle Company. Richard Schwinn is the great-grandson, in fact, of the founder of Schwinn.
Waterford, established in 1993, is one of the few bicycle manufacturers left in the United States. The vast majority of bikes sold here are made in Asia, including Schwinn bikes, which are fabricated entirely in China. In 2012 another bike manufacturer began operations in America, in midtown Detroit. That company is Shinola, which started out producing hand-crafted watches and leather goods.
The company makes 80 to 100 bikes each month on a three-person assembly line. Waterford Precision Cycles provides the frames and forks. The company reveals on its website that the wheels are assembled in California, the frame tubings are made in Mississippi, the spokes are from Colorado, and the brand decals are made in North Carolina.
Other small parts of their bicycles come from Asia and Europe. The company says that right now there isn’t any at-scale manufacturing in the United States for some of the components they need. But no matter where the parts come from, their bicycles are assembled completely in their Detroit factory.
Shinola, says John Arlidge, is the creation of Tom Kartsotis, who founded Fossil, a watches and accessories brand. He poured much of his fortune into his venture capital firm, Bedrock, which invests in US-based manufacturers. He got the idea to set up Shinola after one of Bedrock’s managers made the “You don’t know shit from Shinola” reference when kidding around with an office colleague.
Shinola was the name of a shoe polish sold in the United States until 1960. According to Arlidge:

The joke turned into a discussion about restoring the brand. Kartsotis bought the name from the defunct shoe polish company with the idea of using it as a catch-all brand for domestic cottage industries.

In June 2011 executives from Shinola were scouting out locations for factory space in Detroit to manufacture high-end watches, says J.D. Booth. They found 60,000 square feet of empty space at 485 West Milwaukee, in what was originally a research and design laboratory for General Motors. The building is on the National Register of Historic Sites.
Shinola parts are produced in Switzerland by Ronda AG, which manufactures watch movements for a number of famous brands. The final timepieces are assembled on the fifth floor of the Detroit building. Shinola brought in watchmaking experts from Switzerland to train their workers – none of whom had experience as watchmakers – and imported a manager from Ronda to run their production facility.
When Shinola decided to branch out into bikes they hired Sky Yaeger, who joined the company two years ago. She had spent 25 years designing bicycles for companies such as Bianchi, Swobo, and Spot. Shinola produces two lines – the Runwell and the Bixby. As R. J. King tells it:

Inspired by the French style of Porteur bicycles, as well as American models that slightly mimic motorcycles with a faux, elongated gas tank, the urban cruisers retail for $1,950 for a 3-speed version and $2,950 for an 11-speed model.

Who among us will buy them?
The number one “frequently asked question” for Shinola is, indeed, why its bikes cost so much more than a lot of other bikes. The company points to the quality of the components and the craftsmanship that goes into production. “The value they represent is absolutely worth the asking price,” they declare.
And another question they’ve been asked is “Why Detroit?” Their rejoinder:

Why not accept that manufacturing is gone from this country? Why not let the rust and weeds finish what they started? Why not just embrace the era of disposability? And why didn’t we buy a warmer coat before we moved here?

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"Online Thieves and Corporate Puppets," by Alpha Unit

A musician spends time and energy creating a work of music – time and energy he or she can never get back. What is his effort worth? How do you place a value on what a musician has created?
The argument over this question goes back for years – probably to the beginning of commercial music, actually. I’m sure plenty of you can remember the battles over file sharing with companies like Napster, Limewire, and Grokster that have lost court battles over copyright infringement. While musicians are serious about protecting their intellectual property, many of them point out that they have no beef with their fans. The fans aren’t the enemy. Corporate America is. As Ellen Seidler puts it:

Online piracy isn’t about altruism, it’s about income. Today’s technology allows web pirates to steal content and monetize that content with a click of a mouse. Meanwhile, “legit” companies encourage and facilitate this theft while also profiting from it (ad service providers, advertisers, and payment processors).

Ms. Seidler explains that companies like Sony, Radio Shack, Pixar, ATT, Chase, Auto-Zone, and Netflix are generating an enormous amount of income by placing advertising on websites featuring streams and links to pirated content.
Of course the ads also generate income for those operating the pirate websites. Says Ms. Seidler:

This dubious connection to piracy is not limited to the companies whose ads appear on various pirate sites. Even more problematic are those companies, like Google (via AdSense), that generate their own robust revenue stream by providing the interface for the pirate-site pop-up ads themselves. In this equation everyone except the actual content creator makes money from this theft.

According to The Trichordist, this piracy isn’t about fans sharing music. It’s about illegally operating businesses making millions of dollars a year from the exploitation of artists’ work and not sharing any of the revenue with artists.

To the uninitiated, it might seem odd that what seems like a simple question of right or wrong is even being debated, but these sites that exploit artists are supported and promoted by faux civil liberties groups opposed to protecting creators’ rights – and internet giants are happy to throw their support behind them.
Together they have crafted a narrative of creator rights as quaint and outdated, offering artists a brave new online world where they can throw off the shackles of labels (or publishers, or studios, etc.) and give away their work to find fame and fortune. However, after a decade of half-baked ideas, faulty business models, and outright lies, we know this is simply untrue.

The artists at The Trichordist say they might not always be a fan of record labels, but at least the labels negotiate contracts, pay advances, market and promote artists, and are contractually accountable for wrongdoing. A musician has no such enforceable rights in what they call the Exploitation Economy.
As for the view that the internet is a powerful tool for distributing music more cheaply, these guys are adamant that pirate sites have no place in this scheme. They say that nothing is stopping musicians from sharing or giving away their music through legitimate sites like SoundCloud and Bandcamp. As far as they’re concerned, there simply is no justification for the existence of pirate sites.
Major companies such as American Express, Citibank, Direct TV, Levi’s, Macy’s, Princess Cruises, Target, United Airlines, and dozens of others have been cited as placing ads on sites that are receiving notices for copyright infringement. David Newhoff points out that this is about large American corporations supporting and legitimizing the exploitation of American workers.

I’ll say it again without equivocation. These sites are in the business of exploiting workers. Period. Don’t let’s get distracted by the fact that copies of files don’t cost anything to produce or distribute or that you think WMG is evil or you don’t like the RIAA. That’s all that bullshit again, and it has nothing to do with the way in which these sites generate revenue. All that “free” media represents hours or years or even decades of labor, either by one person or by hundreds of people.

And the idea that by downloading files illegally you’re “sticking it to the Man”? The truth, he says, is that the ardent file sharer is a corporate puppet that has no idea which companies are pulling its strings.
If you think this website is valuable to you, please consider a contribution to support the continuation of the site. – RL

"Auto Unions Moving Forward in Tennessee," by Alpha Unit

Industriegewerkschaft Metall was the largest labor union in Germany, and the largest union in any democratic country in the world, between 1950 and 2001. It represents workers in the motor vehicle industry. Half of the 20 seats on Volkswagen’s supervisory board are occupied by members of IG Metall.
Blue-collar and white-collar workers are represented in a works council. This is an integral part of Volkswagen’s corporate structure and gives workers a say in plant and company operations. This system of joint decision-making among employer, workers, and works council – known as Mitbestimmung – is accompanied by the usual negotiations between IG Metall and management over wages and benefits.
Berthold Huber, the former head of IG Metall, says Mitbestimmung keeps an eye on the system as a whole – the health of industrial employers as well as workers. “If you give people rights, they take on responsibility – that’s what Mitbestimmung has taught us,” he says.
IG Metall wants to establish a works council at the Volkswagen plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and has joined with the United Auto Workers to bring this about. The hurdle for the unions is that US labor law does not allow for company-sponsored unions. In order to have anything like a works council in the United States the company has to operate in conjunction with a labor union. Hence the push to organize workers at the plant in Chattanooga.
The UAW says that a majority of the workers at Chattanooga have signed cards supporting unionization. Some of the workers have said that the UAW and Volkswagen acted unlawfully in the solicitation and handling of authorization cards and filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board. The NLRB just determined, however, that neither organization violated US labor laws in their unionization push.
Volkswagen said in a statement that the decision by the NLRB confirms its legal position. It also stated:

Furthermore, we wish to reiterate that as a general principle, Volkswagen supports the right of employees to representation at all its plants and is in favor of good cooperation with the trade union or unions represented at its plants….For this reason, Volkswagen is currently working on an innovative model for the representation of employees’ interests which will be suitable for the USA. This model will be based on positive experience in Germany and other countries where the Volkswagen Group is active.

Naturally not everyone is happy with what’s going on in Chattanooga. Business interests, Republican politicians, and anti-union organizations have been doing everything they can to stop unionization at the plant. Politicians say that if the UAW prevails it would hurt the state’s business climate. They want Volkswagen to disregard the card signings and insist on a secret ballot election instead.
If the UAW is successful, it would be the union’s first victory at organizing a foreign-owned assembly plant in the South in 30 years of trying.
If you think this website is valuable to you, please consider a contribution to support the continuation of the site. – RL

"He's Still a Mariner," by Alpha Unit

Richard Phillips is no hero. He himself said so. He was captain of the Maersk Alabama when it was seized by Somali pirates back in 2009 and says that the real heroes of the whole incident are the US Navy, the Navy SEALs, and the merchant mariners who sailed with him.
Some of the crew members who sailed with him swear he’s no hero. They’ve been telling the media that it was his recklessness that got the ship into the hands of the pirates in the first place. Nine of them have filed a lawsuit against the Waterman Steamship Corporation and Maersk Line Limited alleging that the companies willfully sent their employees into an area where pirates were attacking merchant vessels and showed a willful disregard for their safety – mostly for financial gain.
In their lawsuit they detail some of the physical injuries and mental anguish they’ve suffered as a result.
Captain Phillips admits that he ignored calls to stay at least 600 miles off the coast of Somalia, but he told ABC News that it didn’t matter. He had never been that far from Somalia before and ships are sometimes taken 1,000 miles out.
He also said that everyone in the Merchant Marine has to face pirates at some point, adding, “If you don’t want to deal with piracy, you need to get another job.”
Captain Phillips has the support of his union, the International Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots. Steve Werse, a union executive and a sea captain, told ABC that warnings of pirates off the Somali coast were so numerous in 2009 that if you listened to all of them you’d have never left port.
He also explained that the warnings were just advisories of suspected pirate activity and carried no legal weight or authority. There is nothing “magical” about sailing 600 miles off the coast, he said, because pirate attacks have occurred even beyond 1,000 miles off the coast.
The Masters, Mates, and Pilots union represents licensed deck officers, marine engineers, state pilots, unlicensed seafarers, and shore side clerical and service workers in the maritime industry. Captain Phillips and his union have taken advantage of the publicity surrounding the movie about his kidnapping to draw attention to the Maritime Security Program (MSP), which is run by the Department of Transportation.
The program keeps 60 ships ready to carry cargo for the US military at war, and it carried 95 percent of Defense Department cargo during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, from tanks to food. In return, the federal government provides the ship owners with an operating stipend to offset the increased costs of maintaining their ships under US registry. (It’s cheaper to register elsewhere, because of US labor and environmental regulations.)
Budget cuts due to sequestration were scheduled to reduce funding to MSP next year, which led the US Maritime Administration to warn ship owners that a third of the vessels in the fleet could be eliminated. But the fleet has been preserved now that President Obama has signed into law the bill to reopen the government. MSP funding is to remain at a level sufficient to maintain the entire 60-ship fleet. Congress has to approve funding every year.
The Maritime Security Program provides vital services to the military, but for mariners, it’s really about preserving jobs. He’s famous, but Captain Phillips remains a working seaman.

"How Happy Are Recent College Graduates?" by Alpha Unit

I remember reading an article roughly 25 years ago about recent college graduates who had jobs as bike messengers and coffee shop baristas. The author, the late William Henry, was asking if too many people were going to college.
People still want to know. Now questions about the employment prospects of recent college graduates are raised throughout the mainstream media continually, for good reason. There is a glut of college graduates but a shortage of jobs that college graduates want to take – or feel they deserve.
More and more of them are taking jobs that don’t require a college degree, which pushes people without degrees out of those jobs.
Alana Semuels, writing for the Los Angeles Times, compares past and present:

In 1970, only 2% of firefighters had college degrees; now 18% do, according to Richard Veddder, an economist at Ohio University. Fewer than 1% of taxi drivers had college degrees in 1970; now 15% do. About 25% of retail sales clerks have college degrees, Vedder said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that 48% of employed college graduates are in jobs that require less than a 4-year degree. For college graduates under 25, over half are in such jobs.
Not surprisingly, a third of 4-year college graduates don’t feel that college prepared them well for employment, as a report by McKinsey & Company found last year. Graduates who are most dissatisfied majored in visual and performing arts and liberal arts – although a third of science, business, finance, and economics graduates feel the same way.
McKinsey found that half of all graduates would choose either a different major or a different school if they had it to do all over again. Students most likely to wish they had majored in something else are those who studied visual and performing arts; language, literature, and social sciences; and accounting, economics, and finance.
Students who attended the nation’s top 100 schools fared somewhat better, but 4 in 10 settled for employment outside their intended area.
The group that fared worse than average in all measures were liberal arts graduates. They tend to be lower paid, deeper in debt, less happily employed, and slightly more likely to wish they’d done things differently.
In contrast, graduates from 4-year STEM programs were above average on most measures. They feel better prepared for employment, are more likely to be in a job that required their degree, are more likely to have an above-average income, and are more likely to choose the same major if they had it do over.
But Robert Charette warns against emphasizing STEM at the expense of other disciplines. He says that without a good grounding in the arts, literature, and history, STEM students narrow both their worldview and their career options. He cites a 2011 op-ed piece by Norman Augustine, the former chairman and CEO of Lockheed Martin, who said:

In my position as CEO of a firm employing over 80,000 engineers, I can testify that most were excellent engineers. But the factors that most distinguished those who advanced in the organization was the ability to think broadly and read and write clearly.

Charette’s view is that everyone needs a solid grounding in science, engineering, and math. In that sense, he says, there is a STEM knowledge shortage. To fill that shortage you don’t necessarily need a college or university degree in a STEM discipline, but you do need to learn those subjects, from childhood until you head off to college or get a job.

"Heavy Construction," by Alpha Unit

The Dockbuilders of New York and New Jersey traces its beginnings to the late nineteenth century, when a group of men got together to form the Independent Dockbuilders Union. The union worked on the New York City waterfront, building docks and piers and driving piles for marine foundations and structures. They were granted a charter by the American Federation of Labor in 1907.
After a fire destroyed its records in 1910, the union reapplied for a charter. That was when the Dockbuilders Union became the object of a tug-of-war between two other unions, the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners and the Bridge and Structural Ironworkers Union. Both these unions claimed the dockbuilders as part of their jurisdiction.
The AFL didn’t agree with either of them. It saw dockbuilding as a specialty trade and reissued the charter. So two dockbuilder locals were formed – the Independent Dockbuilders Union and the Municipal Dock Workers. The Carpenters Union wasn’t about to give up on the dockbuilders, though, and by 1914 was pressuring the dockbuilders to affiliate with them.
The Independent Dockbuilders gave in to the pressure. The Municipal Dock Workers would not. Along came the Ironworkers Union, claiming Municipal as part of its jurisdiction.
The AFL ruled that there should only be one dockbuilders union in New York City. So Municipal joined the already affiliated Independent Dockworkers as part of Dockbuilders Local 1456.
Commercial divers who did welding and installed piling in and around New York City had formed the Marine Divers and Tenders Union in 1920. By 1973 the divers had affiliated with Dockbuilders Local 1456, too.
Jurisdictional claims such as those in New York City are why piledrivers locals across the country are a part of the Carpenters Union. Pile drivers are described, in fact, as the elite of the carpentry trade.
Pile drivers are the first work crew on a construction site. They’re the ones who do all the foundation work on piers, wharves, drydocks, bulkheads, bridges, highway overpasses, skyscrapers, and parking lots. Pile drivers install piling – structural columns of wood, steel, or concrete – on the ungraded site.
Specifically, a pile driver lays out from blueprints the exact location of the piling and positions them correctly, then drives them into place. He (or she) then caps the piling after it’s been driven and prepares it to receive the superstructure.
This type of work involves strenuous labor. There is a lot of lifting and rigging involved and a worker will at times have to climb a piledriving lead – the track upon which a driving hammer runs – to properly align a pile beneath the hammer. Some of the leads are well over 100 feet tall.
Pile drivers get their work done with various types of heavy equipment like excavators, drilling rigs, and diesel and hydraulic hammers. They build but they also perform demolition work. Some of them are commercial divers who work in marine construction installing piling for offshore oil rigs and other projects. The divers weld, perform inspections, and handle salvage operations.
As you can imagine, this is difficult, noisy, dangerous work.
It takes about four years to become a journeyman pile driver. Whether you work inland or offshore you can expect to spend considerable time away from home. In addition to your regular work hours you’re likely to have extended periods of overtime on some projects. A pile driver has to travel, too, sometimes long distances.
Pile drivers, or “pilebutts” as they sometimes call each other, take great pride in what they do. To them, the undeveloped earliest stage of construction is the hardest to work with. But it can be rewarding for anyone who’s good at it – and becoming really good at some aspects of this job can take years. An experienced union man’s kindly advice to brand new apprentices is Keep your mouth closed and your ears open. Go to work every day willing to learn and the senior guys will show you the ropes.

"Tattoos in the Workplace," by Alpha Unit

It’s the most excruciating pain you could ever experience in your life. Or not.
It feels like being splattered with specks of burning hot grease – over and over. Or it’s like someone snapping a rubber band against your skin. It could be like rapid bee stings in succession. It all depends on who’s describing it.
What they’re describing is laser tattoo removal. People who provide the treatments usually downplay how painful it is. And why wouldn’t they? Business has been good for them the last several years. More and more people have been seeking their services after deciding that getting a job might be easier if they get rid of their tattoos – now the vestiges of youthful or drunken indiscretion.
The military also has restrictions regarding tattoos, so people seeking to enlist are undergoing laser treatments as well.
Federal law prohibits employers from denying someone a job based on race, gender, religion, or disability – but there is no such protection regarding tattoos. While more companies have become lenient toward employees with tattoos, others still restrict tattoos in their dress codes, mainly because of customers who have negative perceptions of tattoos.
If a company has a reasonable belief that tattoos will hurt its image or public relations, it’s within its legal rights to forbid tattoos. Where things can get tricky is if the tattoo is for religious purposes. The employee then has to be accommodated as long as it doesn’t cause undue hardship to the employer.
Cloutier v. Costco might serve as a guide to employers confronted with the accommodation of religious “body art” in the workplace.
Kimberly Cloutier had both piercings and tattoos when she started working at Costco. She subsequently got a facial piercing, never indicating that she did so in compliance with any religion. In March 2001 Costco revised its policies to prohibit all facial jewelry except earrings. Ms. Cloutier alleged that Costco failed to offer her a reasonable accommodation after she alerted the company to a conflict between the “no facial jewelry” provision of its dress code and her religious practice as a member of the Church of Body Modification.
Costco had told her that if she covered the piercing she could keep her job. She didn’t want to cover it, citing her religion.
The court expressed doubt that Ms. Cloutier’s claim was based on “bona fide religious practice,” noting that even assuming arguendo that the Church of Body Modification is a bona fide religion, it in no way required a display of facial piercings at all times.
The court determined that requiring Costco to allow Ms. Cloutier to display her body modification because of the way she chose to interpret her religion would cause the company undue hardship in implementing its dress code.
Many people out there just aren’t sympathetic to people who think employers shouldn’t care whether or not they have tattoos. One guy with tattoos says his tattoos don’t define who he is:

I am a hard worker and very friendly person to be around…Employers really should take the time to look at whether people are truly qualified or not and keep tattoos separate from that.

An employer responds:

I have hired literally hundreds of employees. I have a job app, and about 20 minutes of face-to-face interviewing to select someone for the next steps, which are a background check and drug screen before hire. Appearances count…Visible tattoos/piercings that cannot be covered up tells me that this person has little common sense and judgemental skills. They don’t think ahead.

After making a list of other behaviors that are a turn-off during an interview – and the snap judgements he makes about the offenders – his message to tattoo wearers ends this way:

Unfortunately I don’t have hours or days to “get to know you.”

"Mechanics On Call 24 Hours a Day," by Alpha Unit

When he got back from serving in Vietnam, Vick Kowell got a job as an apprentice working on elevators during construction of the Transamerica Building in San Francisco. He’s been an elevator mechanic for over 30 years now. He told Richard Bermack:

It was a privilege working with all the old timers who came up through the business. They were excellent mechanics, and I learned a lot from them.
When it came to teaching, the old guys were horrible. They never let you look at the layouts and had you running. But it was for your betterment. When I look back on it, I appreciate it…Back then you learned hands on, and if you were good enough, you got promoted. With the apprenticeship program, the young guys are given more knowledge and opportunity. They let you look at the elevator print, where the old guys were afraid for their jobs and didn’t want to share.
There were guys who had been helpers for 30 years and never got to be a mechanic. Now they are encouraged to become mechanics. I think it’s good for the business, and the mandatory schooling is excellent.

Elevator construction combines skills from a number of trades, which sets it apart from other skilled trades, according to one elevator mechanic who’s been on the job for 20 years. The mandatory schooling takes about four years.
During your first couple of years as an apprentice you learn how to read the blueprints Vick Kowell referred to. You also learn materials handling, rigging and hoisting, installing a machine room, car and counterweight assembly, and basic welding. You proceed to learn basic electricity and how to install and maintain DC motors and generators.
This is just the basics.
During your third year you learn how to install the elevator cars – and how to install escalators and moving walks, too. For cabled elevators, workers install geared or gearless machines with a traction drive wheel that guides steel cables connected to the car and counterweight. The other type of elevators they install are those in which a car sits on a hydraulic plunger that’s driven by a pump; the plunger pushes the elevator car from underneath, like a lift in a service station.
After constructing all components of an elevator, mechanics put in all the electrical wiring and install all the electrical components for each floor and at the main control panel in the machine room.
It’s during the final year of apprenticeship that you typically learn the basics of solid state electronics and circuit tracing. Elevator installers called adjusters specialize in fine-tuning all the equipment after installation. Adjusters make sure the elevator works exactly to specifications. For this work you’ll need a thorough knowledge of electricity, electronics, and computers.
As with many other types of labor you will need excellent stamina to do this work. The International Union of Elevator Constructors – which has represented these workers since 1901 – tells all potential apprentices that they’ll be walking or standing about 90 percent of the time. They’ll be lifting up to 100 pounds about 75 percent of the time. About 70 percent of the time they’ll be stooping, forward bending, or crouching.
And they must be willing and able to travel almost all of the time.
Any kids you know who are good at math or physics, interested in electricity, physically strong, and able to focus on high-concentration tasks could be ideally suited for this trade.

"Roger Modjeski Has a Question," by Alpha Unit

Until the transistor came along, electronic amplification was produced by vacuum tubes.

These tubes were in TV sets, radios, hi-fi sysytems, and guitar amplifiers, and were also vital components of military applications like radar. In almost all these devices tubes have been replaced by solid state technology – that is, semiconductors – except in some guitar amplifiers. And that’s because to a lot of guitarists, there’s no replacement for the sound produced by tubes.

A tube is just a vacuum-sealed glass bottle with an electrode that emits electrons when heated (cathode) and an electrode that attracts electrons (anode). It also contains a grid, which modulates the flow of electrons, and a filament, or heater.

Dave Hunter tells us that when a guitarist plucks a string on his guitar, the pickup sends a small voltage to the input of his amplifier, where it’s passed along to the grid of the first preamp tube. The grid creates an increase in voltage by causing electrons to “boil off” the cathode, making the sound bigger. This bigger signal is passed along to the output tube, which makes it even bigger. This is then carried to the speaker via the output transformer.

Some listeners can’t really tell the difference between a solid state amp – or transistor amp – and a tube amp. But for many guitarists, tube amps are the only way to do it. Danny says that a solid state amp produces a clean, crisp, accurate sound and that it’s quick and responsive to your playing. It requires less maintenance and can emulate many different amplifiers at the push of a button.

The downside of a solid state amp is that the sound lacks “warmth” – it’s usually cold and sterile. Distortion is too sharp sounding. There’s no individuality to the tone and all amps will sound the same with almost any player.

Tube amps, on the other hand, are best known for their warmth, he says. They are pleasing to the ear. Scientists can’t measure the warmth, which is probably why they haven’t been able to duplicate it in a solid state amp.
Also, each tube amp sounds different, with its unique tone. No two guitarists will sound the same through the same tube amp, as the amp will respond to each individual’s playing technique in a different way. Tube amps sound fat and thick, and will sound even fatter as the volume is turned up, creating that famous wall of sound.

Tubes distort sound, compressing the sound in a most pleasing way. The transformer can’t handle the signal peaks and softly rounds them off, causing even more distortion (a good thing, he insists).

There are disadvantages to having a tube amp, though. Danny says that it doesn’t sound good at low volumes; it’s best to play it loud. Tube amps also cost more than solid state amps. And you need a guitar pedal to create different sounds. They’re also very heavy.

Some features of tube sound can be produced in a digital filter. Engineers have developed transistor amps that emulate the sound of a tube amp. Tom Scholz, rock musician and mechanical engineer, introduced the Rockman, which used bipolar transistors but created a distorted sound that some musicians like. Rockman technology was used exclusively for Def Leppard’s album Hysteria. You can also hear it on Eliminator by ZZ Top.

And yet for many guitarists, nothing sounds like tube amps. Many of these purists are great fans of Roger Modjeski, who’s been designing tube amplifiers for almost his entire life. He says that his design career began at 11, but he gained his first knowledge of tube amps at the age of 5, watching his father build a Heathkit Mono hi-fi system. Modjeski himself built a dozen hi-fi sets from Heath kits while growing up. And then:

Around 1964, my interest and the industry’s turned to the new “miracle” transistors. I, in my basement shop, and the giants of the industry all did our best to design good-sounding amplifiers with these new devices, and we all failed.

But Modjeski continued experimenting with transistor circuits and invented a few of his own. In 1969 he went to the University of Virginia to get his degree in electrical engineering, learning that he was the only one in his program who had built his own amplifiers. After graduating he got a job at IBM but he saw it as a dead end. He opened an audio repair shop in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia.

In 1975 he went to Stanford to get a Master’s degree, but after a year he gave up on it and returned to Virginia. He got to know Harold Beveridge mainly by being his dealer in Virginia, even though he had met Beveridge at Stanford. Harold Beveridge was an electrical engineer who had attended McGill University and then worked for Raytheon before designing amplifiers.

In 1978 Modjeski went to work for Beveridge as a consultant and later as Chief Engineer. He designed tube amps there but left after 3 years, and by 1981 he decided to start his own company, Music Reference. On his website you’ll read that MR products are known for their ease of use, reliability, and longevity. His company Ram Tube Works was established in 1982 and was the first company to offer premium tubes tested by computer. You’ll learn that several other companies have tried to take their market and failed.

Roger Modjeski has a separate concern, however. He is asking, “Where is the next generation of audio engineers?”

He says that for 20 years he has put out the call for young people to come and work for him. A few have come, he says, but as the years go by, they are fewer and fewer. He has run ads in Stereophile to get the attention of young people interested in science and inventing, and done the same in his comments and on his website. He’s gotten little reply, he says.

He was an apprentice under Harold Beveridge and he has served as a mentor himself. But not enough people are showing interest in the field. “If you truly love audio, what else are you doing that is so much more important?” he wonders.

The industry needs new talent.

"At Risk and Still on the Line," by Alpha Unit

Three years ago a lineman was electrocuted while working in an underground electrical vault in Benicia, California. He was employed by Pacific Gas & Electric Company. Two state investigations have held PG&E at fault for not having a supervisor monitor the work, and for other reasons.
In spite of the hazards of being a lineman, this 26-year-old man loved his job, according to his girlfriend. Since his death and two subsequent deaths, PG&E has expanded its apprenticeship requirements and required all existing linemen to take one or two weeks of refresher training. The work is indeed dangerous, so many linemen prefer to be with a union. Two popular unions are the Utility Workers Union of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.
Linemen can spend up to five years in an apprenticeship program learning the skills of their trade. They have to know electrical theory, transformer theory, pole climbing and setting, rigging techniques, wire stringing techniques, and safety on the job. The time they put in to learn the trade includes training in handling electrical lines barehanded.
“Barehanded?” people must wonder. “You can’t touch a live power line barehanded.”
Yes. The term “barehanded” is sort of misleading. A lineman doing barehand work actually wears a suit consisting of a hooded jacket, bib-overall-style pants, socks, and gloves. The suit is made of 75% Nomex, a fire-retardant material, and 25% stainless steel fibers. The metallic mesh designed into the suit, as Rich Maxwell explains, serves as a Faraday Cage, putting the lineman at the same potential as that of the conductor on which he or she is working.
The Faraday Cage principle is that no electrical charge can be present on the interior of a charged cage. While the lineman is wearing the suit, the static electrical field connected to the suit redistributes the charge around the outside of the suit and not through the lineman.
Barehand work minimizes disruption to customers while companies work on the lines, which is why demand for it has grown over the years. A 15-year veteran lineman, Karl Townie, enjoys the challenge of doing live-line work. He gets a kick out of some aspects of it, telling one writer that on the higher voltages, they can often hear the electricity arcing between their fingers.
“One time when it got dark before we could get off the wire,” he said, “we could actually see the arcing between the fingers, too.”
As with so many other things, the thrill and the danger go hand in hand. Karl Townie’s company requires a stringent certification process, after which a lineman is assigned to a working crew for 60 hours of close supervision. He has to do at least 25 hours of barehand work a year to stay certified.
Barehand work is highly specialized. Generally, a lineman’s work is building and maintaining electrical power systems. They do it all: set towers and poles, maintain and repair overhead transmission lines, work in underground vaults and trenches, and install and maintain insulators and transformers. On occasion they’ll be working on city lighting or traffic signals.
A lot of linemen love what they do and say that it isn’t for everyone. There are the obvious dangers of working with high voltage. And if you’re afraid of heights, forget it. The job might require a fair amount of travel, which could mean a lot of nights away from home. And you’ll be doing a lot of work in unfriendly weather conditions. After thunderstorms, hurricanes, fires, ice storms, and the like, people want the power back on – and it can’t be done soon enough.

"Sailors Wanted," by Alpha Unit

You mustn’t call a member of the United States Merchant Marine a marine. You call him (or her) a sailor, seaman, seafarer, or mariner – preferably a mariner. The Merchant Marine is the fleet of civilian-owned ships that moves cargo and passengers not only between countries but within the United States.
The fleet is privately owned but can be nationalized during wartime, when it becomes an auxiliary of the US Navy. During some other type of national emergency, the President can commandeer or seize a merchant vessel.
The Merchant Marine was always an excellent source of opportunity for men in this country regardless of their backgrounds. The US Maritime Service started training officers and crew members for the Merchant Marine in 1938. What’s remarkable is that the Maritime Service had a non-discrimination policy at a time when the US armed forces were segregated. Black men served in all positions in the Merchant Marine, from the lowest levels all the way up to captain, on integrated ships.
A 16-year-old can go to sea. That’s the minimum age to get a US Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), issued by the US Coast Guard in accordance with international standards. You’ll need a parent’s permission as long as you’re under 18, but the MMC allows you to work on a merchant vessel, whether it’s a cargo ship, an oil tanker, a ferry, or a passenger ship. You’ll work in either the deck, engineering, or steward’s departments.
The deck department oversees proper watchstanding and maintains the hull and cargo gear. Here you’ll find apprentices, Ordinary Seamen (OS). An OS doesn’t have to stand watch but he gets tested on his watchstanding and helmsman skills. He spends much of his time working on metal structures – removing rust, refinishing, and painting. He also secures cargo, does rigging, splices wire and rope, and launches and recovers lifeboats.
It’s the OS who gets swabbing duty – keeping excess water and salt off deck to prevent slipping and rust accumulation. It’s one reason an OS looks forwards to to working his way up to Able Seaman (AB).
An AB stands watch and acts as helmsman. He also performs general maintenance and repair and operates deck machinery and cargo gear. Some of his duties involve chipping, scraping, cleaning, and painting metal structures.
The senior unlicensed man in the deck department is the Bo’s’n (Boatswain). This is typically a senior AB. He’s in charge of of the able seamen and ordinary seamen, in a position between them and the ship’s chief mate. The bo’s’n is responsible for everything concerning maintenance of deck equipment and cargo. He also secures the ship for sea and oversees the loading and unloading of cargo.
A new seaman might instead find himself in the engine department. Seamen there handle the propulsion systems and support systems for the crew, cargo, and passengers. They maintain the electric power plant, lighting, water distillation, air conditioning, refrigeration, and such. The entry level position here is wiper. A wiper performs manual labor – cleaning, painting, and assisting with repairs.
An oiler’s main job is equipment maintenance, including oiling the bearings of the main engine and auxiliaries. His general duties also include pumping bilges. A watertender tends fires and maintains proper water levels in boilers. A fireman operates oil-burning systems to generate steam in boilers.
In addition to these crew members, the engine department might employ machinists, electricians, refrigeration engineers, or pumpmen – pumpmen are always found on oil tankers, operating the liquid cargo transfer system.
The other assignment is the steward’s department. Here sailors operate and maintain the ship’s galley and the eating and living quarters for the officers and crew. An entry-level position here is that of messman, also called a steward’s assistant (SA). The messman sets tables, serves food, and waits tables. He also cleans the galley, eating areas, and officers’ saloon. He might also have general housekeeping duties like cleaning living quarters.
The chief cook (or, cook) directs the preparation and serving of meals. The department is headed by the chief steward.
The US fleet of merchant vessels has been diminishing since the 1950’s. The pool of qualified mariners has been shrinking along with it. There is intense competition for skilled mariners, if you ask the operators of offshore supply vessels. But some mariners say that part of the problem is that companies don’t want to take on inexperienced sailors, creating a Catch-22: companies need qualified people but the trainees can’t get the experience they need to become qualified.
Because of international treaties, higher standards, and more required training and security rules, it can be hard to qualify for even entry-level jobs on a merchant vessel. The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, which has represented mariners since 1891, has had programs to make sure new union members have the proper training to find work.
I found, in fact, that the ongoing claims of a mariner shortage are controversial. Some mariners say that cost-cutting measures in the industry are leading to increases in workload and fatigue; others point to industry shifting to non-union labor. Some say the work schedule, where you spend more time at sea than at home, isn’t acceptable to men with families.
Other mariners say the workforce is aging, with veteran mariners retiring and fewer young people interested in going to sea. One vice-president of the Seafarers International Union thinks the industry and government should do a better job of recruiting high school kids.
“We’re a strong alternative to joining the armed services,” he told the press.