Part Twenty-One - Spiraling Downwards
What is the mark of a system out of control? Could it be when it takes a suicidal direction? The dictionary defines suicide as "intentional self-destruction." As you read this article I believe that you will agree that "intentional self -destruction" clearly describes today's fishing industry.
Not all that long ago the fishing fleet of the northwest would fish the northern waters and then bring their catch into ports like Dutch Harbor, Alaska for processing. Then the greedy bosses hit upon a new idea to increase their profits, and to break the unions in the plants. That idea was to put the processing factory on the ships. This idea led to the fishing ships being built even larger than they had been before. In other words they became floating factories. Seattle alone has a fleet of over 55 factory trawlers.
The owners of these ships are no longer small time operators, rather they are owned by mega-corporations like Tyson, the giant Arkansas chicken company, which owns 11 factory trawlers. This new fleet, in a matter of a few years increased over-fishing from 39 over-fished stocks to the current 82% of all managed fished stocks which are fully or over-exploited, as determined by the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Now the capitalists realize that their "pot of gold" will run out if they continue to fish at this rate, but capitalism being what it is, rather than doing something to preserve and rebuild the fish stocks, they are trying to increase the amount of the fish catch. Instead of building even larger ships that will become obsolete in a few years, they are now converting old freighters into factory trawlers. So, now, old "rust buckets" are roving the seas sweeping them clean of sea life.
To make matters even worse, one company, All Alaskan Seafoods, took this idea one step further. They are buying up old Russian freighters very cheap and converting them into factories only, where a fleet of fishing ships will bring them their catch and the factory ship will process the fish and off load the "product" to another ship that takes it to port. These ships will stay at sea up to six months at a time and will service up to 125 fishing ships each.
This is where I come into the story. I have spent over 20 years working on ships as a pipefitter, but, since Reagan let most of the U.S. merchant marine reflag itself to get around environmental, health and safety laws, and rid itself of union workers, the shipyards have not provided steady work. About all that is left for people like me to work on are fishing ships and ferryboats. So, not long ago I found myself working on two of these converted freighters. One ship was called the Ocean Phoenix.
"When the fish are coming in we are working 16 plus hours a day. Throwing fish down shoots, casting back unwanted fish, and what we keep are sliced and diced into everything from fish meal to the packaged fish you buy in the store," my Chicano firewatch tells me. He went on to say that the workers on the ship sign an 80-day contract and are paid a percentage of the catch.
The Ocean Phoenix is the largest factory trawler in the U.S. fishing fleet. It is over twice the size of the regular factory trawlers, and like on other factory trawlers, the decks below main deck are working factories, in the case of this ship some of the factory is even out on the main deck. There you will find; cramped assembly lines of workers, long conveyors, fish tanks, refrigeration compartments and a hell of a lot of machines doing this, that and something else. Trawlers will lay out a net as wide as a circumference of two miles and catch as much as 550,000 fish a day. Once the catch is aboard, small fish and other sea life that is not profitable - wrong sex, size or species - is thrown back into the ocean dead. In 1994, the Seattle fleet dumped over 569 million pounds of dead fish and over 15 million crabs. That comes out to one in every three fish caught.
Back on the Ocean Phoenix, the firewatch continues to tell me about the make-up of the crew and of the working conditions, as we have some time to kill waiting for the welder to finish a weld so that I can make the next fit up on the firemain. He spoke of coming up to Seattle from East LA. a few years back and finding work on trawlers. These ships are like microcosms of the overall racist society; the officers, engineers and pushers are all white; the folks who do the real work are made up of Hispanics, Filipinos, Blacks from the Caribbean and East Africa, Native Americans and some poor whites (many of whom are biker types).
The ship carries a crew of around 300 people when it is at sea. When the ship is at port waiting for the next season to open, it has a small crew to do light maintenance, repair nets and work as fire watches for workers like me who come aboard to repair the ship or put in new systems. Living conditions on the ship start off with cramped living quarters that make overcrowded prison cells look like luxury suites. The working conditions are very dangerous, with speed-ups, long hours, and having to do your factory work while the ship is rockin' and a rollin' in high seas. I heard and saw numerous cases of physical abuse, and racial and sexual harassment. Few workers on land would put up with the disrespectful and degrading way the officers and pushers talk to the crew.
Few of these ships go into the shipyards for work, unless they have to go into drydock. Most of the work on them is done by contractors who work the ship wherever it is docked. Contractors bid on different work and the contractor who is able to pay their workers the least amount of money and cut the most comers (quality, safety and what not) gets the work. Those who work for the contractors are really nothing more than skilled temp workers. The contractor may only have a few days of work, or maybe a few weeks or months; once the work is completed for one contractor, then it is on to the next one that has work.
These are small companies with few full-time workers and no benefits. They lack safety equipment and follow few health and safety laws. Unlike the shipyards, where workers only work within their trade, the contractors expect their workers to be able to do most everything. On the Ocean Phoenix, I not only repiped the aft firemain, and put in a new fish oil piping system, but I also put in a deck extension, a tank top and two new bulkheads, all of which was shipfitter work.
Contract workers are forced to work long hours and then sometimes fared with long lay offs. Work on the Ocean Phoenix started off at 10 hours a day, five days a week, but by the time the job was done we were up to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. Though I made a few good contacts on the Ocean Phoenix, I was not sorry to see that ship sail.
After taking a few days off, I worked a few weeks on a sternwheeler. Then I was sent to a ship the likes of which I had never seen before. By name it was called the MN Rybak Chukotai; the first of the Russian ships that All Alaskan Seafoods was bringing over to the U.S. Four more will be coming in to Seattle, and four will be going down to Louisiana. I have worked all kinds of ships, from tramp steamers of nearly ever flag of the world, to banana boats, and most every type of fishing ship there is, but none of these ships came close to being as foul as the Rybak.
The Rybak was built in Gdansk, Poland in 1980. I have only worked on a few ships built in Eastern Europe when it was a "workers' paradise," and my general impression has been that these ships are far inferior to other ships built around the world. The Rybak was the first such ship that I was able to get a good look at (maybe too good of a look at). Things that were standardized throughout the world in shipbuilding do not apply to the Rybak. Primary, secondary and sub structures are not square to each other, flanges not two holed, pipes not uniform with each other or square to the structure. This makes the work of pipefitters and shipfitters very hard. Though a ship is not a square, everything upon that ship is built as if it were a series of squares, and all angles are figured as degrees off square. Even with something that is round in shape, the circumference is figured off what is square.
I have no idea how you could build a ship as poorly as the Rybak. It was often commented by workers, that it must have taken a lot of work to make things as fucked-up as they were on that ship. It seemed as if the builders of this ship had neither the knowledge nor the skills to build a proper ship.
Before the Rybak made its way to Seattle, it spent six years unused at anchor in a port in Siberia. It seems that when Marxism fell in Russia their maritime industry collapsed, and their merchant marine fleet got mothballed. As one Russian crewmember told me, freedom came to mean the lack of work, thus, the maritime workers also got mothballed. So Russian maritime workers are forced to take any work they can find, no matter how bad the conditions are.
When the Rybak first came into Seattle it was so foul that you could smell the ship before you could see it. At first sight you would have to ask yourself how something so rusted out could still float? It looked as if it were a large bowl of light brown soup that had been overfilled and the soup was spilling over its sides. Rust just poured out of that ship. The closer you got to the ship the greater the smell got. If you were one of the unlucky ones who had to go aboard the Rybak you soon realized that it was not just one foul smell, but many different disgusting odors. Nowhere on the ship could you get away from the smell. Imagine, if you can, the combined smell of rotting fish and crabs, dead rats and a sewage system that was completely backed up with human shit and other foul things. The smell was so bad you could taste it, and the odor would get into your hair and clothes. I had to burn incense in my car to keep the smell out of it.
The ship was overrun with large rats. One crewmember told me that at night you could hear them in the ductwork and the bulkheads. They tried to bring on cats to deal with the problem, but they underestimated the rats. The rats killed all of the cats. You had to be careful where you put your hands for there were rattraps all over the place. I almost put my hand in one when I was tracing out a pipe. About the most disgusting thing I have ever seen was a rat that had chewed into a power line in one of the aft compartments and there it was all rotting with the top of its head burned off.
The Rybak was full of wild stories as different mysterious things were found. Like the large compartment on the factory deck that had bars welded across the portholes, as if that space was used to imprison people. Then there were the bones found inside of a false wall that some thought were human.
These once proud seamen had to live in these conditions. They also had to endure the cold because the steam heating system did not work (that was the system I worked on the most). All they had were small electric space heaters. Even while the ship was in Seattle they had to live on it just to make their small wages to send back to families they had not seen in over a year.
The working conditions of us contract workers were almost as bad; be it the smell, the live and dead rats, oily bilges, asbestos dust and so on. At one point OSHA came in to test for asbestos in the air after they had gotten a complaint. Unfortunately they did their test before work started one morning and the dust had settled overnight. At the next so-called safety meeting, we were told not to talk to OSHA or the fire marshals, and that if we had a problem with something to come to them, the bosses. Anyone dumb enough to do that would find themselves out of a job.
Being that the so-called unions don't want anything to do with contract workers, we had to either put up with all this or move on to another job, if we could find one. In one case that I know of that happened; a pipefitter was sent down to an area with rotting crabs in it, after smelling it he picked up his tools and walked off the job without telling anyone. They sent another one down there and the same thing happened.
Jobs like this are dangerous because you have people working outside of their trade and they use people with no experience to perform jobs that only skilled people should be doing. Twice I was nearly hit because people who were rigging did not know what they were doing and they gave no warning when moving loads. I saved one young kid from braining himself with a steel plate when he lost control of it because of bad rigging. One worker got electrocuted because a lockout was not place on a system that was being worked on.
Fire was a bad problem on the Rybak. We had three major fires that forced us to evacuate the ship. One of these fires took four hours to put out; while I was on the dock I counted 14 fire engines brought in to fight it. The first problem was that the ship was a mess. Flammable liquids stored any old place without warning signs, oxidizers next to flammable, oily rags piled up in corners, and soon. Then there was the foam which is used on most fishing ships as insulation, and it has a lower flashpoint than gasoline, and when it bums it gives off cyanide gas. When we had to do hotwork on bulkheads we were not allowed to strip off all the foam first, only about a foot around the area of the work was taken off. The bilges were so oily that when I had to bum out a pipe in them I could only bum about an inch at a time before the firewatch had to put out the fire.
Then there were the firewatches. Since there were between 400 to 500 contract workers on the Rybak, and only a few crewmembers could speak English, All Alaskan had to hire a large number of firewatches. The job of a firewatch is maybe one of the most boring jobs one could have, yet it is one of the most important jobs on a ship. Federal and state regulations state that when doing hotwork we must have "competent" firewatches. Since all laws are written by liars and fools, no one really knows what "competent" means. To All Alaskan it means hiring people off the street, at minimum wage and not giving them any training. To me it means realizing the importance of their work, paying them a real wage, and training them so that they know the difference between the classes of fire, how to put the fires out and a number of other things.
The worst firewatches are those who know nothing about their job, but are enthusiastic about doing it. They will shoot water onto power lines and electrical boxes, not understanding that they could electrocute someone or damage equipment. One time I was burning a hole in a deck and no sooner had I finished the firewatch shot water up through the hole, across the red-hot steel turning it into steam and burning my face. When asked why he had done that he stated that the deck was red hot and he wanted to cool it off.
After one inspection by the fire marshal in which All Alaskan was cited for improper fire extinguishers, they realized that they could be held responsible if something happened. Rather than train their firewatches they passed the buck to us contract workers and made us responsible for the firewatches, their equipment and their actions. After the meeting in which they told us that, I checked out the fire extinguisher of my firewatch. Every fire extinguisher states what class of fire it is for and it has a rating, plus it is to be sealed. The rating was lower than it should have been and it was not sealed. I asked him to take it back and get another one, but he was told to use it anyway for there were no more to be had. I told my boss and he said to keep on working. Had something happened I would be the one blamed. There is that old capitalist story again, always blame the workers when in fact the blame lies in capitalist greed.
I was able to talk with one crewmember for a good while one day, and he spoke rather depressing. words about the Rybak being 'the end of the line' for workers like him. In his view, there was no lower point that humans could fall to than to work on such a ship. In thinking about it, he was not only speaking for the Russian seamen, but for all the workers upon that ship. Of all the talk of the Marxists and Capitalists, of the bleeding-heart liberals and other such liars and con artists, the fact is that all current social/economic systems are dominated by a few on top, issuing commands to those down the social/economic ladder. These systems exist only for the self-interest of those on top.
The only gains we have made have come through the use of force, and any time we let up on that force upon our masters we lose what little we have. Because of the weakness of the modern resistance to exploitation, a reactionary tide is sweeping over us, and for the working class this has meant a freefall downwards.
As for the exploitation of the oceans, it is but another example of the wrong direction humanity has taken. Whatever words influence you, be it those of the scientists who warn of the rapid extinction of life, be it the working-class militants who speak of the increased exploitation of working people and of the world's resources, or be it the spiritual warnings of the original people of this land, all of them have reached the same conclusions; human society is heading in a suicidal direction.
Ten years ago I went out to Dineh and Hopi land with a group to videotape elders on the issues surrounding the struggle at Big Mountain. The elder woman of one family set up, in a traditional way, an interview with Thomas Banyacya, a Hopi spiritual elder. After we completed that interview he asked if we would return the next day. Nothing in my life prepared me for what I heard that day. There is a kiva within an old village where the three eldest Hopi spiritual people met each day. Sitting upon the ladder going down into the kiva, where I could keep an eye out for the police of the Mormon-controlled tribal council who would arrest us if they found us there, I listened intently. They spoke of Hopi prophecies that go back thousands of years, and of the wrong path that human society has taken. They gave warning that if we did not return to the right path that grave consequences would befall us all; and they explained in detail what would happen. I could clearly see that they spoke the truth. For me no other words are needed to explain what is going on and what we must do about it.
But for those of you who need more, just last week there was an article in the paper that put their words into scientific terms. A study compiled by 1,500 scientists worldwide gave warning of extinction to the world. These scientists, the engineers of the industrial monster, have come to realize what the Hopi have known for thousands of years; that if we continue as we are extinction will be the result. Within that study the over fishing of the seas was one of the things they pointed out.
The work on the Rybak was not completed before it had to set sail. Because I was not willing to sail that death ship to Siberia I was laid off. Back when I was working on the Ocean Phoenix I issued a flyer from the Industrial Transportation Project of the I.W.W. That flyer explained the destruction of the oceans because of over fishing, and about working conditions, and the need of working class solidarity to deal with these problems. It also, explained that we need to stop blaming environmentalists and Indian fishing treaty rights for the decline of the fishing industry and that we should place the blame where it belonged, on the greedy master class. I placed that flyer throughout both ships and one Russia crewmember asked for copies to take back to Siberia with him. I gave him 500 of them. My Chicano friend took another 500 copies to Dutch Harbor with him.
The Eurocentric mind tends to isolate problems. Rather than see the whole problem they divide it up into competing "issues." When looking at the dangers that humanity faces, some point to environmental abuses as the danger that may destroy us, others point to the weapons of mass destruction, still others point to the way we treat each other. What the Eurocentric minds fails to understand is that it is our society and its wrong direction that will destroy us all. At the center of most Native traditional beliefs is that all things are connected. Working those two ships, for me, clearly showed the truth in that; the environmental abuse, the exploitation of working people, racism, sexism and the overwhelming greed of the capitalist class, are all symptoms of our rush to extinction.
There is no difference between the way the capitalist treat working people and the way they, treat Mother Earth. The capitalists feel they have the right to exploit both. They will net the last fish, fall the last tree, foul the last breath of clean air, and exploit working people to the fullest extent possible in their madness driven by their lust for wealth and power. It is for this reason that this system cannot be reformed. It must be driven from the body of humanity, every aspect of it, every thought pattern that justifies it, must be ground into dust so that it can never again raise its evil head upon our world. Then we can rebuild our world based upon the well being of all. But first we must come to realize that our struggle of today is not just about better conditions or a more humane economic system, it is also about the survival of all of us.