Sky cowboys: The ironworkers who built the new Bay Bridge
The first thing you should know about ironworkers is that they don’t make things out of iron, like horseshoes. They’re builders. Ironworkers from Local 377 built the Golden Gate Bridge, the Transamerica Tower, and the Bank of America skyscraper right here in San Francisco. Today, the union’s biggest and most eye-catching project is the new Bay Bridge’s signature suspension span – the huge white tower and cables that reach over five hundred feet into the sky. The second thing you should know is that they’re pretty ballsy.
“We're 100 feet in the air,” said current job-site steward Matthew Cochran, “doing stuff that needs to be done.”
Steven Batiste, a former job-site steward, added, “You know, if we all stopped each time we cut ourselves or thought we hurt ourselves really bad, the job would still be only half way done.”
And Jerry Kubala Jr., who was foreman on the project summed it up, saying, “You know they call us cowboys of the sky.”
All three men have spent a good part of the last five years working for American Bridge/Fluor, the contractor for the self-anchored suspension. The job is winding down; there’s 44 people on the bridge right now, including Cochran. But at the construction’s peak in 2010, up to 110 ironworkers could be out on the bridge at one time.
Kubala, Jr. said their first job in 2008 was actually building a temporary bridge. The span has just a single suspension – instead of a double suspension like the Golden Gate – and crews had to build a structure around that big tower to temporarily hold the road deck until last November. That’s when the full weight of the bridge was transferred to the suspension system.
“We used a big Left Coast lifter,” said Kubala, Jr. “Something you might have seen it out there in the Bay. A huge crane that we used to lift like 300 foot sections at a time. You know they weighed about from two million to two-and-a-half million pounds. And we'll hoist that into the air, and you find a hole, and you sput it, pin it, and try to make bolts in it as fast as you can, you know.”
The ironworkers did other things too, like spinning the suspension cables and unbolting the equipment used to lift the tower sections into place. Cochran showed me a picture of himself suspended over 500 feet in mid-air, holding what looks like a big drill.
“And that is,” he said, “if you look at the very top, top of the tower, I'm hanging off the position hook, and there's nothing underneath me right now. And I'm taking this lifting lug off. That's how big the lug is just to lift off that tower section. That's what we do, I'm hanging off my ass there with nothing underneath me.”
I asked Cochran if he was ever scared of being up so high.
“You don't think about it,” he said. “It's not something you think about. If you see something to do, you go do it.”
Being an ironworker is dangerous. On average 15 are killed each year nationwide. No one has died working on the new Bay Bridge, but Kubala, Jr. told me that’s rare for a project this big.
“We're built to walk on iron,” he said, “and not everybody can do our job, but they've got us so restrained by safety cables and lanyards and 100% tie-off. When you're moving iron that's so big, it can move so fast that you can't get out of the way, and you're in sometimes more of a risk of not being able to move quick enough out of the way before it actually, it catches your arm and you know cuts your arm off or whatever.”
And there are distractions. Out on the bridge, the ironworkers get an up-close view of wildlife, like diving pelicans and the peregrine falcons who live under the old Bay Bridge. Batiste told me they’re actually trying to move the birds over to the new bridge before their nests are demolished.
“I was talking to one of the other ironworkers, one day,” he said, “out there on a Sunday building bird nests. And I said, tell me about this. And he started telling me about the birds they're trying to coax over to the new bridge. The birds are like, we didn't build that house.”
All three guys agreed the Bay Bridge is the hardest job they have ever worked. But it does pay well. They get an average rate of $33 an hour, plus they all worked overtime every day since the project started in 2008. That’s about $140,000 a year.
Sounds like a lucrative career, but you can’t just choose to be an ironworker. First, you have to go to school, then take a four-year apprenticeship at half-pay. Only 20 percent of people who go into that make it out. As Cochran said, money isn’t enough to make workers stick around.
“When ironworkers get hurt, they get hurt,” he said, pointing to Batiste. “They look like this, in slings. I don't even have a right bicep anymore. Things like that, broken fingers and constant broken hands and feet and cut and beat up and just keep steppin.”
Despite all that, Batiste said there’s an enormous sense of pride in being able to look up and point to a massive engineering marvel like the Bay Bridge that he helped build.
“It's gonna be like the Golden Gate Bridge,” he said, “where they say many generations of family members worked on that bridge long ago. What do they say, it's supposed to last 135 years? Something like that?"
It could happen. And that would mean these guys’ great, great, great, great grandchildren could drive over the bridge that they helped to build.