Production at any cost? Dockers say No!

Commentary



When longshore workers go to work in the morning, they hope to come back to their family at the end of the day in one piece, and able to go to work the next day.

But for five West Coast dockworkers, members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), that hope was permanently ended when they were killed on the job. And so, too, for another 1,163 ILWU members, those hopes were frustrated by on-the-job injuries, 696 of which caused the workers to lose four or more days of work.

Put another way, 16 percent of the 10,500 longshore workers who work the docks on the West Coast, from Los Angeles to Seattle/Tacoma, were injured on the job in just the first nine months of this year.

That puts longshore work just behind garbage workers and in front of construction workers on the list of occupations with the most fatalities in 2001, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics.

Among the victims of the shipping industry’s failure to provide safe working conditions in the relentless drive for new records in cargo handling:

• John Prohoroff, killed March 14 by a spreader bar that fell from a crane.

• Mario Gonzalez, struck by a hydraulically-activated door on an auto shredder at the port of Los Angeles on March 15

• Richard Peters, age 68, with 45 years on the waterfront, killed by a gantry crane that crushed him against the side of a ship in Eureka, Calif., on June 1. California OSHA investigated the case, found the company failed to provide a safe workplace by failing to properly guard the shipboard crane and fined it $2,250.

• Richie Lopez, Jr., age 40, the father of four children, run over by a fork lift at Port Hueneme, near Los Angeles, on June 23.

• Rudy Acosta, run over and killed by a Top Handler, a cargo-moving device at Port of Long Beach, Calif., on Sept. 3.

As recently as Oct. 11, a dockworker at the Long Beach terminal was shocked with 480 volts of electricity when unplugging a refrigerator container. He is still under treatment at a local hospital.

A Pacific Maritime Association (PMA) spokesman, John Pachtner, commented, “We are very concerned because we are not moving toward a normal level of production.”

Never mind that five workers have been killed and 1,668 injured on the docks since January this year, the PMA wants production!

Never mind that the ILWU has been trying in vain for years to get the PMA to agree to register and train more workers for longshore jobs to meet the increase in cargo handled at the ports.

Never mind that it was the PMA that locked out the longshore workers for eight days and caused the logjam at the ports in the first place.

“Production!” was the cry of the slave owners as they cracked the whip on the backs of the slaves on the plantations.

“Production!” was the cry of the mine owners while thousands of miners died from preventable explosions and rock falls at the mines and thousands more suffered and died from Black Lung.

“Production!” was the demand of the steel industry, textile manufacturers, construction contractors, timber companies and the profit-driven executives who sit in air conditioned offices collecting their fat salaries, bonuses and stock options totaling in the millions – and have the gall and the audacity to carp about the salaries of the longshore workers who put their lives on the line every time they walk through the gates at a dock.

The AFL-CIO has called for the U.S. Labor Department and the governors of California, Washington and Oregon to dispatch inspectors to the docks to check on the safety and health conditions there. Bush administration cutbacks in funding for OSHA have given the companies a free hand to ignore safety considerations, and CalOSHA’s fine of $2,250 in the death of Richard Peters indicates the low value put on the life of a dockworker. Adding a clerk at each hatch, instead of moving one clerk around from hatch to hatch, as is recently done, would avoid such tragedies.

Those clerk jobs – the ones that PMA considers expendable – are very much at the heart of the issue of the union’s right to jurisdiction for all jobs created by new technology.

The imposition of a Taft-Hartley injunction by the Bush administration adds a new weapon in the hands of PMA as they press for more production regardless of worker health and safety. This is a dagger at the heart of all working people, and should be condemned and opposed by all who care about the right to work in a safe environment – one that is free of the employer’s demand for “production at any cost.”

The author can be reached at ncalview@igc.org