What Doomed El Faro?

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

El Faro in 2008. Peter Ferrary / Flickr

The hearts of all maritime workers stopped earlier this month when news hit that the ship El Faro, a US-flagged cargo vessel with thirty-three crew members aboard, was dead in the water north of the Bahamas with no propulsion power and directly in the path of a rapidly intensifying Hurricane Joaquin.

At 7 AM on October 1, within thirty hours of departing Jacksonville, FL, the captain made satellite contact with TOTE, the ship’s owner. While that conversation has not been made public, apparently the ship had taken on water in a hold, listing her dangerously. And without a powered propeller, El Faro was helpless before waves that reached fifty feet and a counter-clockwise spiral of winds up to 125 miles per hour. It was sucked into the eyewall of a Category Four hurricane.

Within twenty minutes of the ship captain’s final communications with the ship’s owner, the US Coast Guard reported that El Faro’s signals from her Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beam had stopped. The Coast Guard immediately contacted the shipowner and was informed of its daunting conditions. 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.

Now, at the same time the crews’ family and mariners around the world are in mourning, shipowners and their friends in the media are diverting attention from the real cause of the disaster.

On Monday, the conservative National Review cried crocodile tears, opining: “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.”

Passed in 1920, the Jones Act was promulgated to ensure that US coastal waterways trade remains open to American unions, i.e. ships were required to be built and manned by American citizens. A key sector of maritime interests complain that union wages make it too costly and would prefer highly exploited, nonunion crews from Third World countries and build ships elsewhere. Dumping the Jones Act would destroy maritime unions and make the maritime industry a free-trade zone on steroids.

But it wasn’t the Jones Act that sunk the El Faro and its crew. More likely is that it was TOTE’s drive for profit.

In fact, before the El Faro left from Jacksonville, it had already been forecast that then–Tropical Storm Joaquin would develop into a hurricane by the next morning — and it was heading directly into the ship’s charted navigational course.

Aware of the deadly weather prior to El Faro’s departure, TOTE Maritime could have ordered a course change or even delayed the departure. Had El Faro gone down the coast of Florida, it would have lengthened the journey. 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.

For whatever reason, on the Tacoma-to-Anchorage run, a Tacoma longshoreman tells me that TOTE ships took the Inside Passage from Vancouver Island up the coast to Alaska for safe sailing when there was a storm forecast. Why didn’t the ship sailing from Jacksonville similarly steer clear of harm’s way?

For TOTE and other shipowners, time is money. Typically that means captains are under tremendous pressure to deliver cargo as quickly as possible. But the opposite can be true as well. During the 1970s oil crisis, I was at the helm of a tanker traveling from the Gulf to New York. With lines at gas stations getting longer and longer, we were ordered to slow down — prices, and oil companies’ profits, were skyrocketing by the hour.

The drive for profit can also impel companies to forgo needed repairs. In the case of El Faro, 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. (One experienced longshoreman in San Juan who’d worked the El Faro frequently told me the ship was scheduled to have her engines replaced.)

Crew members and dockworkers alike complained about the lack of safety. Chris Cash, whose last voyage on El Faro ended in January, told CNN the ship was fit for the scrap yard. “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.”

It also appears that the past repairs might have undermined the ship’s seaworthiness. In 1993, the owner retrofitted it in Alabama Shipyard, adding a midbody and lengthening her ninety-one feet with stacked tiers to accommodate more containers (and thus generate more money). 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 US Coast Guard. They should have no problem opening their books to the public then.

There were other telltale signs of dangerous cost-cutting. The five Poles who perished on the El Faro were a “riding crew” — a group of additional workers brought on board to complete special projects due to inadequate manning for essential maintenance. Reduced to skeleton crews, many ships now rely on these ridings crews. The riding crew aboard El Faro, Cash said, was there to weld. But proper welding and repairs should have been done on the forty-year old vessel in a shipyard to maintain and repair the ship’s structural integrity and stop leaks like the one workers identified in the cook’s porthole.

But bowing to concerns about crew’s safety by delaying the sailing time or making potentially live-saving repairs diminishes profits. So, companies often don’t.

This is not a new sea story. Tales of horror — where lives were sacrificed at 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.

Anti-Red Purges

Unfortunately, the maritime unions that should be fighting such unsafe conditions are timid and conservative.

The unions representing the El Faro crew, the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU) and the American Maritime Officers’ Union (AM0), both pariahs in the labor movement for negotiating substandard contracts, actually support nonunion riding crews. They reject the principle that crew members, whether US citizens or foreign born, should be in the union, working under a decent contract. And because military cargo is a major source of jobs, many US maritime unions support imperialist adventures abroad.

How could seafarers’ conditions be in such a state of affairs? For starters, deepsea maritime unions haven’t had a major strike in fifty years — giving employers the upper hand at every turn.

The history of red-baiting is key to understanding this lack of militancy. During the McCarthyite witchunts, thousands of radicals who had built the maritime unions in the 1930s were purged and screened off the waterfront by the US Coast Guard, many of them black longshoremen and seamen. The result was a workforce pared down to the bone and a business unionism with little appetite for struggle against employers.

The SIU has been the main culprit in collaborating with companies and undermining workers’ conditions. Labor standards have been thrown over the ship’s gunwale and down the hawsepipe as employers scale back manning and introduce labor-saving technology that simply boost profits, rather than benefiting workers through shorter days or fewer voyages with no loss in pay.

US shipowners have found other ways to weaken unions. After World War II, the Marshall Plan’s lend-lease program permitted ships to be registered in foreign countries. They used this to circumvent unions and escape taxes by registering their ships in countries like Greece, Panama, and Liberia while retaining ownership. 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 with no union of their choice to represent them, no way for themselves to bargain for safe working conditions, decent wages, or good benefits and certainly no right to strike.

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. But the real pirates are the companies who put runaway flags on the ship’s stern to avoid taxes, unions, and environmental laws and abscond with billions of dollars.

The National Maritime Union (NMU), once the largest American maritime industrial union, which had one hundred thousand members at its peak, has been completely decimated by these anti-union forces. Anti-red purges thinned out its ranks. And the corrupt Curran union bureaucracy helped turn a union that integrated thirty years before the Civil Rights Act was passed into one that once-proud retired members now refer to 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.

“They’re All About Money”

For mariners and grieving family members of the El Faro crew, hard questions remain unanswered by TOTE. For instance, why wasn’t the Coast Guard contacted immediately when it was clear the ship was imperiled? When the Coast Guard desperately attempted to make critical contact with her, it was too late.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that the truth will ever come out about this horrible disaster — the Coast Guard, which has a notorious pro-company bias, will be a key entity in the investigation. The maritime industry’s “revolving door” — when Coast Guard officers retire, they’re often hired by the very companies they were previously regulating — has been common practice for years.

To make matters worse, there’s a heavy anti-union bias in the federal government. In 2012, during an International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) protest against grain monopolies at EGT Terminal in Longview, WA, 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.

Mark Tabbutt, the chairman of Saltchuk transportation conglomerate, of which TOTE is a part, also 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.”

With El Faro, it seems that TOTE’s fixation on profit led the company to spurn the safer, longer route along the Florida coast or delay the sailing time in the face of Hurricane Joaquin. The result was catastrophic.

No ship is stronger than Mother Nature’s awesome seas, jutting rocks, and powerful winds. Sailors know that before they go up the gangway. But for maritime CEOs, all they see is dollar signs.