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Saturday, June 14, 2008

The last entry reminded me of something I think of each time I participate as one of the tour guides out at Kaiser Permanente Shipyard III ... .

During World War II this was the main shipbuilding site of Kaiser Permanente's four, or of the nine shipyards that ringed the Bay. It was the only Richmond shipyard that was built as a permanent installation. It's still a working port today serving in the capacity of auto warehousing for Pacific Rim auto manufacturers.

Due to extensive rail and trucking capacity for distribution across the country, the Port of Richmond is increasingly productive to the city's economy.

However ... I'm always struck by the stark contrasts brought about by changing technology. It's dramatic upon approaching this site. There are acres and acres of autos of every description parked in neat rows for as far as the eye can see. There are huge cranes unloading onto docks an endless parade of large containers from giant cargo ships awaiting movement onto the waiting fields of other new cars; an impressive sight.

Then, if you're sensitive to it (or old enough to remember), one notices the absence of human beings. There are no workers within sight. Not one sign of movement anywhere.

In a shipyard that was a beehive of activity with 93,000 men and women working 3 shifts a day 7 days a week and 52 weeks a year until the war ended in 1945, there are now few workers to be seen. Remember that it was here in Shipyard III that these workers produced 747 ships of the over 1400 that Henry J. Kaiser built in the four Richmond yards during that period.. Can you imagine the multitudes -- the crush of humanity this represents? There are photos in our exhibits showing a veritable sea of workers moving in and out of these yards in a steady stream where now one sees no movement of people at all; only products.

But it's only strange if one is not aware that this entire operation is computerized; that every car's color, location, equipment description, type of engine, has been entered into the data base; that with a limited crew of workers the entire operation can be controlled electronically -- perhaps with a few golf carts! Any auto can be retrieved on demand for loading onto rail or trucks for national distribution without much more than working the database. The detailing that is done before shipment is handled in the machine shop by the only visible employees -- and actually seeing them is beyond the scope of our tours.

There are few examples more dramatic than this Port through which to see evidence of fundamental and irrevocable change in the workplace.

Is it possible that we've forgotten that there is more to be gained from an economy keeping it's labor intensivity than mere paychecks? It may be that one day we the people will reclaim the right to provide employment because it enriches life for those who participate in and/or provide work for others. Until we find meaningful leisure (besides reality television), we may find that we're risking the sanity and stability which sustains us all in our ever-aspiring Democracy.

Not sure I understand all of this, but somewhere along the way something precious may have been sacrificed; something immeasurable having to do with human dignity and a sense of personal worth, maybe?

I suspect that the late Tim Russert would have understood what I'm struggling to say.
Such a sad loss ... .


Photo: From the Dorothea Lange collection of World War II stills. This one is called "Shift Change" (Oakland Museum)

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