SF’s last shipyard workers feel forgotten without jobs, severance pay

Berkeley-born Matt Bergamini spent 15 years crawling through stories-tall steel ships, wiring them to go.

And for 15 years he found himself working any number of jobs at San Francisco’s Pier 70 shipyard, finally becoming an estimator, an egg-head utilizing his ship-smarts to quantify how much money the company would charge to mend the metal of giant, sea-faring beasts.

San Francisco’s waterfront once bustled with thousands of shipyard workers just like him.

Now they’re gone, laid off amidst a vanishing industry, and fear they’ve been forgotten by The City. Some of those 250 or so workers are seeking their lost severance pay, $550,000. But to them it isn’t just about the money, it’s about honoring the last workers from an industry that once molded the world’s view of San Francisco as “The City by the Bay” — a true port town.

Pier 70 dock workers built and repaired ships since the Gold Rush, long before The City was even a city at all. They prepped ships for battle during World War II, and under the name Bethlehem Steel, crafted the underwater Transbay Tubes that BART trains run through safely — and dryly — every day. In a different era, and a different time, shipping and ship repair were once so vital to the Golden Gate that Harry Bridges’ 1934 longshoremen strike brought San Francisco to its knees, a bloody worker rebellion forever inscribed in the annals of our history.

Flash forward to 2017, and Pier 70’s crew were the last marine steelworkers in all of San Francisco, a comparably tiny group of roughly 250.

San Francisco’s waterfront once bustled with thousands of shipyard workers. Here, a ship in Pier 70 drydock awaits a repair crew who have now lost their jobs. (Courtesy/ George Bonawit)

Those last San Francisco shipyard workers were laid off May 2017 amidst legal wranglings between the last two stewards of Pier 70’s drydocks, corporate giant BAE Systems and the now-bankrupt Puglia Engineering Inc, of Washington. The shipyards now lay empty, the massive cranes rusting.

Just before the layoffs, Bergamini contracted prostate cancer. He was evicted from his rent-controlled apartment. His finances were in shambles. He still can’t afford healthcare. Divorced, his daughter starting college in New York, Bergamini found himself lost at sea.

“Am I going to be a lawyer now? A doctor? Will I work at Target stacking shelves? This was all we knew,” he said. “Ships.”

Now Bergamini and some of these workers are demanding what they say is owed to them: their severance.

Some workers speaking to the San Francisco Examiner have already moved on to other shipyard jobs, scant as they are nowadays, while others have retired, live on disability, or find odd-jobs to get by on far-smaller incomes. Bergamini now works with his younger brother as a handyman for an apartment complex in Carson City, Nevada. He’s paid little but is provided four walls and a roof.

Rick Brandt is another laid off Pier 70 worker, a Daly City native and former finance manager for the shipyard. He estimates the workers are owed at least $550,000 in severance payments not counting hundreds of thousands more dollars in retention bonuses and other promised money. Brandt said those final payments would come in handy when his three children —ages 12, 15 and 18 — pursue higher eduction.

“I’ve got 10 years of college coming up,” Brandt told the Examiner. “Hopefully ten.”

None of the entities who have a part in the workers past and future — The Port of San Francisco, BAE Systems, Puglia Engineering, and so far at least, The City — have helped.

For more than a year, The Port of San Francisco has tried to find a new company to take over the shipyard, aiming to rehire the laid-off workers, but they have had little success. At the Port Commission’s Nov. 13 meeting, Port Director Elaine Forbes told commissioners the proposals they netted so far are “infeasible.”

Washington state-based Puglia Engineering Inc. purchased the contract to operate the docks from BAE Systems on January 2, 2017, but found $9 million of dredging and repair was needed. After a legal battle, the two companies settled, but Puglia declared bankruptcy.

Though public records show BAE Systems transferred legal liability for the workers’ severance to Puglia, the company’s bankruptcy allowed it to claim its responsibility to do so absolved. Brandt and his fellow workers lawyered up to fight, but their representation dropped the case in the face of BAE System’s deep pockets.

Larry Mazzola Jr., business manager of the pipefitters union that works with the Port, represented some of those laid-off workers, but not all. He did not respond to requests for comment. The Port also declined requests for comment, instead referring the Examiner to Mazzola.

The workers lone high-profile champion amidst this upheaval is now dead.

On March 1, 2017, the now late-Mayor Ed Lee told the Examiner he would fight for shipyard workers.

“Our [number one] priority has been to protect those jobs at Pier 70 during this unfortunate dispute between the two private companies,” The Mayor’s Office wrote in a statement last year. “Pier 70 provides a vital service provided by hard-working skilled labor and we want to protect those jobs as much as we can during this legal dispute.”

There is one glimmer of light on the shores for these workers: Supervisor Malia Cohen, who represents the area where the shipyard resides, said she would seek funding for their severance amidst a newly unearthed $415 million surplus in county education funding revealed this week, some $181 million of which The City can freely spend.

“I would hope the city would consider, in light of the recent good news of unexpected dollars to the tune of $415 million, that they would take some time and consideration to make the longshore workers whole,” Cohen said.

Mayor London Breed’s spokesperson said it was too early to comment on next actions, but Breed would meet with Cohen to hear her request.

How that money will ultimately be spent, then, is still yet to be settled.

And with the waterfront forever changed, the bustling work to repair ships perhaps never to return, Bergamini, Brandt and San Francisco’s last shipyard craftsmen will wait to see if The City by the Bay will remember them at all.


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