Workers Vanguard No. 1073

4 September 2015


ILA Must Fight for Safety!

New Jersey Docks: Death Trap

On August 7 at about 1:20 p.m., 49-year-old longshore worker Judy Jones was struck by a top loader used to move shipping containers around the APM terminal at Port Elizabeth, New Jersey. Her leg was severed and she bled to death waiting for an ambulance to arrive. There are no medical or ambulance facilities on the docks and the nearest trauma center hospital is about eight miles away in Newark. Reportedly it took more than half an hour for the ambulance to arrive.

From a longshore family, Jones was a member of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Newark Local 1233, as is her brother, Wayne Jones. A veteran dock worker with 18 years experience, on the day she was killed she was a “holdman,” working containers on the dock. As reported by the Blueoceana website, in order to take a bathroom break, she had to get to a restroom 400 yards away. Jones was struck while walking through the busy terminal amid the many moving vehicles and equipment that transfer the containers (which can weigh up to 30 tons). Longshoremen told WV that there are no designated pedestrian walkways at the APM terminal (although the company is no doubt slapping some paint on the pavement after the fact) and that APM is the only major container terminal in the area that does not provide a passenger vehicle for “holdmen” to safely move about the terminal.

Cargo traffic at the New York-New Jersey (NY-NJ) port has increased almost 20 percent in the last decade, but the terminal area for handling this cargo has remained the same. The bustling container storage areas are jam-packed, and longshoremen are under tremendous pressure to keep the containers moving in and out of the yard. The drivers of the massive container-handling machines—top loaders, straddle carriers and transtainers—have limited visibility. Transtainer operators often have to rely solely on safety sensors and cameras (assuming they’re working).

On top of the speedup, ILA members on the Jersey docks work grueling amounts of overtime. During the busy summer season, it is common for workers to put in over 100 hours a week. According to the Journal of Commerce, overtime accounts for a staggering 61 percent of ILA work hours at the NY-NJ port. Unlike other ports with fixed work shifts, ILAers here work open-ended shifts until the ship is finished, which can be 24 hours or more (punctuated by breaks).

Longshoring ranks high among the most dangerous industries, but under these intolerable conditions of speedup and fatigue, avoidable accidents that maim and kill are inevitable—it’s industrial murder. In 2012, Earline Brundage, another woman member of Local 1233, died after being pinned between two containers, an accident ascribed to mechanical failure. With 24-hour operation, the port bosses care more about keeping the equipment in use than about safety inspections and preventative maintenance.

For the shipping companies—not least at the APM terminal, which is owned by Maersk, the world’s largest shipping conglomerate—injuries and the loss of life are simply collateral damage in pursuit of higher profits. This expresses the brutal reality of the relationship between the working class and the capitalist class: workers, even relatively better-paid ones, sell their labor power to survive; capitalists, who own the means of production, extract their profits from workers’ labor. How much profit the bosses extract from the workers under capitalism is determined by the struggle between labor and capital. In addition to limiting wages, the bosses seek a longer and more labor-intensive workday to boost profits. The union is supposed to be a basic defense organization of the workers to fight not only for higher pay and benefits, but also for better working conditions. Especially in industry and transport, it is safety that provides a direct measure of a union’s strength.

In this regard, the ILA leadership evades its own responsibility for enforcing safety standards against the bosses, while instead blaming the victim. In a Facebook statement mourning the death of Judy Jones, the ILA wrote that ILAers “will, in her memory, redouble their efforts to use only safe and designated walkways whenever they find themselves involved in pedestrian activities at any marine terminal.” But there were no “safe and designated walkways” at APM! The top loader driver has recently been charged with DUI. Blaming both the victim and the driver serves to divert attention from the company’s culpability.

Blaming the workers is standard for the bosses. But the union tops also place the responsibility for safety on individual members who are under tremendous pressure from the company to “get the job done” without delays. Workers are in a Catch-22 situation: facing company retribution if they flag too many safety issues, while facing company discipline and courting disaster if safety considerations are ignored. What is needed is to mobilize the collective strength of the union to enforce safety.

The push for increased productivity is felt by dock workers across the country, but working conditions are not quite as onerous on the West Coast. International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) bureaucrats are not fundamentally different from their ILA counterparts in failing to actively enforce safety, but the legacy of the 1934 West Coast maritime strike and San Francisco general strike is still a living heritage despite the many givebacks by the ILWU tops over the decades. The 1934 strike was won by mobilizing the mass strength and solidarity of longshoremen, seamen, teamsters and others in opposition to the forces of the capitalist class enemy. (For more on the 1934 strikes, see our new pamphlet, Then and Now.)

The main gain of the 1934 strike was that the union got control of the hiring hall, giving the union power over job allocation. The union hiring hall means employers cannot arbitrarily victimize or blackball workers for refusing to work under unsafe conditions. In disputes over safety, individual ILWU members covered by the master longshore contract have the contractual right to “stand by” (stop work) until a union rep arrives and the issue is resolved. They also work an eight-hour shift with a maximum of two hours overtime possible (but only if the ship is scheduled to sail at the end of the shift).

The ILWU and ILA both ultimately rely on joint company-union safety committees and arbitrators to adjudicate safety issues. But safe working conditions require constant vigilance and struggle against the employers. Longshoremen need their own union safety committees with representatives that have the authority to shut down unsafe work on the spot. Excessive overtime, which causes fatigue and accidents, is encouraged by ILA tops. British labour eight-hour-day advocates used to say: “Accidents come in the eleventh hour.” ILA higher-ups function like labor brokers in that union dues are based on a percentage of the income of each longshoreman, so premium overtime pay greatly increases the dues base.

Workers need a union leadership that understands that the interests of the workers and employers are directly counterposed and mobilizes the power of the union accordingly. Strong class-struggle unions are a necessary counterweight to the capitalist employers. But such self-defense can win only temporary victories as long as society remains organized for profit, in the hands of the capitalists. When workers take state power in their own hands, then worker safety, not profit, will govern the conditions in which industry operates.