What Doomed El Faro? Hurricane Joaquin was only the direct cause. The drive for profit sunk El Faro.

by Jack Heyman

The hearts of all maritime workers stopped when news hit the airwaves that the ship El Faro, a U.S.-flagged cargo vessel with 33 crew members aboard, was dead in the water with no propulsion power, and dangerously positioned directly in the path of a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Joaquin north of the Bahamas. She quickly became engulfed in the hurricane. At 7:00 AM October 1, within 30 hours of departing Jacksonville, Florida, the captain made satellite contact with TOTE, the ship’s owner. That conversation has not been made public.

Apparently, the ship had taken on water in a hold, creating a precarious 15 degrees list. Without a powered propeller she was being helplessly battered by a turbulent sea with waves up to 50 feet and a counter-clockwise spiral of winds up to 125 mph inexorably sucking the El Faro into the eyewall of a Category 4 hurricane. Within 20 minutes of the ship captain’s final communications with the ship’s owner, TOTE Maritime, the U.S. Coast Guard reported that El Faro’s signals from her Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beam (EPIRB) had stopped. The Coast Guard immediately contacted the shipowner and was informed of the daunting conditions facing the ship. But efforts by the Coast Guard to communicate with the El Faro were futile. The ship had disappeared into the deep. A quick, dark fate awaited the crew.

As the families of the crew and mariners around the world mourned the sinking of the El Faro and its crew, shipowners and their news media presstitutes tried to capitalize on this disaster. The conservative National Review (Oct. 12, 2015) cried crocodile tears and opined: “Hurricane Joaquin wasn’t the sole culprit; it had an accomplice, and that accomplice is a monstrous piece of legislation known as the Jones Act." In 1920, the Jones Act was promulgated to assure that U.S. coastal waterways trade remained open to American unions.

No, it wasn’t the Jones Act that sunk the El Faro and its crew. It was TOTE’s drive for the sacrosanct profit. In fact, before the El Faro departed her Jacksonville berth the then-Tropical Storm Joaquin had already been forecast to be a hurricane by the next morning and it was heading directly into the ship’s charted navigational course.

TOTE Maritime knew the weather forecast before El Faro’s departure and could have ordered a course change or even delayed the departure. Had El Faro gone down the coast of Florida it would have taken a little longer but she and her crew could have avoided the hurricane, sought a safe haven or at least had a better chance of rescue had Hurricane Joaquin turned in that direction. On the West Coast Tacoma to Anchorage run, according to a Tacoma longshoreman, when there was a storm forecast TOTE ships took the Inside Passage from Vancouver Island up the coast to Alaska for safe sailing. Why wasn’t the safe passage taken from Jacksonville?

Furthermore, TOTE refused to have the ship’s engines and structural welding repaired before departure or better yet to have her replaced with a newer ship. Matson runs roll on-roll off ships on the West Coast to Hawaii without such problems. I know because I’ve worked them as a longshoreman in the port of Oakland.

In 1977, I was an able-bodied seaman, a helmsman, on the Fortaleza, a similar ro-ro ship, on the same run from U. S. East Coast ports to the U.S. colony, Puerto Rico. For mariners and grieving family members of the El Faro crew, hard questions remain unanswered by TOTE. Why wasn’t the Coast Guard contacted immediately when it was clear that El Faro was faced with an imminent danger? When the Coast Guard did desperately attempt to make critical contact with her, it was too late.

Captains are under tremendous pressure to deliver the cargo in as short of time as possible. Of course, the opposite can be true as well. During the oil crisis in the ‘70’s I was at the helm of a tanker coming up from the Gulf to New York. As lines were getting longer at gas stations and angry tempers flying with a shortage of fuel, we were ordered to slow down to 5 knots as prices along with oil companies’ profits were skyrocketing by the hour.

For TOTE and other shipowners, time is money. Concerns about the crew’s safety like delaying the sailing time or making potentially live-saving repairs in port diminish profits. Such is the mantra of the Wall Street banksters, who historically have had a close relationship with shipowners and insurance giants like AIG. This is not a new sea story. Tales of horror-- where lives were sacrificed on the altar of corporate greed-- have been told by the greatest sailor writers: Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville, Jack London, Mike Quin and especially B. Traven in The Death Ship. All excoriate the base motive, profit for the capitalists.

A real investigation of the El Faro disaster needs to begin with the old ship’s seaworthiness. Crew members and dockworkers alike complained about the lack of safety . According to CNN (Oct. 9, 2015), Chris Cash, whose last voyage on El Faro ended in January, said it was time to send the ship to the scrap yard. "The El Faro was on its ... needed a death certificate. It was a rust bucket," Cash said. "They were bandaging the ship with extra steel all the time… It seemed like they didn't want to put any money into the ship. When things would break they would just patch it up rather than really fix it." One experienced longshoreman in San Juan, Puerto Rico who’d worked the El Faro frequently said she was scheduled to have her engines replaced.

When the ship was first built it was called Puerto Rico. According to one maritime union official in Puget Sound, the ship was renamed Northern Lights in 1991 when TOTE used her on the Tacoma to Anchorage run. The owner retrofitted in Alabama Shipyard in 1993, adding a midbody and lengthening her 91 feet with stacked tiers to accommodate more containers. The San Juan longshoreman said, “it would make it top heavy and less safe to maneuver under tough sea conditions.” TOTE claims that the El Faro was regularly inspected by the American Bureau of Shipping and the U.S. Coast Guard. Open the books and let’s see those reports.

What was the reason for the five Polish welders called the “riding crew?” A riding crew is additional workers signed on for the voyage for special projects because there was not adequate manning on board to do essential maintenance. Many ships have been reduced to skeleton crews. The riding crew was there to weld, as former El Faro seaman Cash explained. Proper welding and repairs should have been done on the 40-year old roll on roll off vessel in a shipyard to maintain and repair the ship’s structural integrity and stop leaks like the one in the cook’s porthole.

Ironically, the unions representing the El Faro crew, the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU) and American Maritime Officers’ Union (AM0), both pariahs in the labor movement for negotiating substandard contracts, actually support nonunion “riding crews”. All crew members, whether U.S. citizens or foreign born, should be in the union, working under a decent contract not a “yellow dog” contract. Military cargo is a major source of jobs for U.S. shipboard unions. That’s why many U.S. maritime unions support imperialist military ploys cooked up by Washington chickenhawks.

How could seafarers’ conditions come to such a state of affairs? To begin with, there has not been a major strike in over 50 years by deepsea maritime unions. There’s very little real fightback from the unions, leaving maritime employers holding the upper hand. The SIU has been the main culprit in collaborating with maritime employers and undermining seamen’s conditions. Safety is jettisoned over the ship’s gunwale and down the hawsepipe as employers scale back manning and introduce “labor-saving” technology without the workers benefitting by receiving a shorter work hour or fewer voyages at no loss in pay. Maritime unions were left defenseless when thousands of union militants who built the industrial maritime unions in the 1930’s were purged from unions and screened off the waterfront by the U.S. Coast Guard, victims of the McCarthyite witchhunts. The result was a workforce pared down to the bone with little to fight back against their employers.

Furthermore, after World War II, the Marshall Plan, through its lend lease program permitted ships to be given to Greek shipowners after the war. U.S. shipowners saw an opening to circumvent unions and escape taxes by registering their ships in countries like Greece, Panama and Liberia while retaining ownership. That fraudulent capitalist scheme was not only legalized but encouraged. Today many corporations, following this paradigm, claim their operations are based ”offshore,”
to avoid taxes and unions.

That hole in the dyke turned into a torrent of “runaway flagships” resulting in the loss of thousands of jobs. The poor souls who man these newly-built “flag of convenience behemoths” work for slave wages with no union of their choice to represent them for safe working conditions, wages or benefits. There’s been much ado about pirates in the Indian Ocean and the ostensible “hero” Captain Phillips who endangered his crew’s lives to cut a short route through unsafe waters, saving time and fuel costs for Maersk Shipping Company. Actually, the real pirates are the companies who put runaway flags on the ship’s stern to avoid taxes, unions and environmental laws, and fraudulently abscond with billions of dollars.

It’s noteworthy that the largest of all American maritime industrial unions, the National Maritime Union (NMU), with over 100,000 members at its peak has been completely decimated by these anti-union forces. Anti-red screenings by the Coast Guard and purges by collaborating union bureaucrats left the NMU defenseless against employer attacks. The corrupt Curran-led union bureaucracy eventually scuttled a once militant union that had been integrated 30 years before the Civil Rights Act was passed. Sadly, once proud retired members now refer to NMU as “No More Union.”

Unless maritime unions start challenging maritime employers in united actions to defend safe working conditions and win decent contracts they may face the same fate as the NMU. To begin with ships’ crews should elect safety committees with the right to stop unsafe operations. That’s what rank and file militants called for in the NMU.

Will the truth ever come out on this horrible disaster, which took the lives of all the crew members and “riding crew”? Probably not since the Coast Guard, which has a notorious pro-company bias, will be a key entity in the investigation. Its “revolving door” policy has been common practice in the maritime industry for years. When Coast Guard officers retire they often become employed by the very companies for which they were supposed to have been enforcing government regulations. This sordid practice not only corrupts government oversight in maritime but in finance, FDA, OSHA and other government agencies.

In 2012, during an International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) protest against grain monopolies at EGT Terminal in Longview, Washington, the Obama administration sent an armed Coast Guard cutter to protect a scab grain ship. This act of intimidation was consistent with the government’s historic role in siding with employers, even using armed military to break union picketing. And Mark Tabbutt, the Chairman of Saltchuk transportation conglomerate, of which TOTE is part, has a notorious anti-union bias. Saltchuk ran its scab Foss Maritime tugs during ILWU’s Northwest grain conflict in cahoots with the Coast Guard’s union busting efforts on the Columbia River. As one veteran mariner said, “They’re all about money.”

TOTE’s decision not to take a safer, longer route along the Florida coast or just delay the sailing time in the face of Hurricane Joaquin would’ve cut into profits but saved lives. New containerships flying runaway flags also sink. Why? Because shipping companies make bad decisions based not on seamanship but the profit margin. No ship is stronger than Mother Nature’s awesome seas, jutting rocks and powerful winds. Sailors know that before they go up the gangway. Maritime CEO’s just don’t care.

Jack Heyman was an organizer of the Militant-Solidarity Caucus of the National Maritime Union, a class struggle rank-and-file organization in the 1970’s . In 1980, he received a Coast Guard commendation for saving the life of a fellow maritime worker in an explosion in the port of New York. In 1980, he became a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union in Oakland, California and initiated ILWU’s 2008 May Day West Coast Anti-War Shutdown.