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Part 19 - In the Belly of a Love Boat

(I Got Them Old Fireroom Blues Again).

in a realm unknown.
No names, no lives, no loves,
just numbers and figures to be seen.
Bottom line profits,
costs and deadlines.
Faceless faces,
with no hearts or desires.

Eyes of the doomed,
pained by knowing,
but working regardless.

Just get the job done,
how is of no concern.

And the owners and their top cats,
never came to see.
Better not to know their crimes,
better not to see their victims glare.
Through their pushers,
the demand is again proclaimed,

Just get the job done,
the suffering is of no concern.

Lost souls sacrificed,
for the greater God of greed.
The union boss man passes by,
with a sad face for all to be seen.
"What a shame!"
said he for all to hear.
"Worst I've ever seen,"
he adds in a sorrowful sounding voice.
Still all seem to know the facts,
that not a damn thing would be done.

Just get the job done,
for work is work,
and things are slow,
besides, the union needs the dough.

The worse they have ever seen,
they all would say,
leadman, foreman, safetyman, shop steward,
business agent, and old time yardbirds.
On that they all agreed.
When the talk went to asking "Why?"
and "Who was to blame?"
Each would point to someone else,
that someone else who could make a change.
That someone else of mythical fame,
with that legendary hand,
that with but a wave,
could make everything better again.

Just get the job done,
for concerns are of no concern.

But the damned,
with their despondent souls,
could never find that someone else
to make a change.
With the death dust to breath,
rain of fire from above,
unstable planks below,

Just get the job done,
how is of no concern,
they all agreed.

Fate is as accepted.
All the while,
not knowing,
not thinking,
not realizing,
that it is they,
that was spoken of by all,
they are the someone else,
the only someone else, who can make the change.

Why would anyone work such a job? A Question I have been asked. But times they are hard, and survival now takes priority over survival later. For many, perhaps, this is difficult to understand, but this is the best we are going to have. Being a little better off means not being a little worse off, there are few other doors open for people like me.

Being of the working class is a fate with a curse placed upon it. Liars speak of the opportunity to escape such a fate, but if there were any truth in their words, we all would be someplace other than here. Then who would do the work of the world? Who would make that which needs to be produced? Then who would work this damn ship? And who would have those old fireroom blues again? If you cannot understand my words, then you have never been there, and fate has placed you elsewhere.

Working on cruise ships that cater to middle class decadence is never much fun for a yardbird. These ships are floating spectacles, unreal illusions - above the main deck these passenger playgrounds may look like floating grand palaces, but once you get below, you find a world unimagined by those above.

The ship we were working is Liberian registered. Iberia is a little West African country that has been torn up by a bloody civil war. They have a bigger merchant marine than the US, though most of their ships will never see their ports, and most of the true owners have never set foot on the continent of Africa. Like vessels registered in Panama and the Bahamas, they fly what is called the flag of convenience.

This, in short, means no unions, no licensed crews, no pollution control, no safety standards beyond insurance company requirements, very low pay, and a neo-colonialist social hierarchy.

Any time you see a ship with Monrovia on its tail, it's Liberian flagged. Most are older ships that could not pass inspection anywhere else. They are firetraps with greasy engine rooms, fire rooms and machinery spaces, and grease in their uptakes. A fire could burn through the ship before anybody had time to get to lifeboats. The shells are so rusted that even a minor collision could send these death traps to the bottom.

The fire-room contained three 40-foot boilers, some pumps that were leaking bunker oil into the bilge and the feed pumps. The job was to re-tube all 3 boilers (which entailed taking down a lot of pipe that was in the way), overhaul the soot blower pipes, and bring main steam and auxiliary steam up to 963 PSI and hold it.

There were catwalks all around the boilers but much of this had to be removed to get the tubes in and out. So we had to walk on boards. There were people working on all four levels at the same time with over 30 people in the fire room. There was asbestos everywhere, off the pipes, feed pumps and boilers, with asbestos dust up to 7 inches deep. At one point my partner was hit on the head by a 4-foot chunk of asbestos lagging that had fallen from an overhead pipe.

Yeah, they came in once to check the air, but the dust had settled over-night, for we were only working but one shift. Once people got working, the dust would be kicked up again for all to breath. The bosses must have known this because none of them ever came in after the work began. Most of the time there was no ventilation for the smoke created by burning and welding. At times the smoke was so thick it burned our eyes and breathing was difficult even with respirators.

Everybody knew about the asbestos. Everybody understood that some of us could die, in time, from the exposure. This deadly dust was so thick in the air you could shine a flashlight and see the fibers. You could see in the faces of the workers the raw pain, hollow eyes and distant stares, staring at death.

Hey, man, don't you see? The death dust is on us, in our clothes and shoes, penetrating the pores of our skin and nesting in our hair.

Bad staging, debris falling from above, fire raining from welding and burning, fiberglass showers, black soot all over from the bunker oil they burn, and when the boilers are lit, working on top in 120-degree heat that rivals hell itself. Steam leaking out of broken joints; a cry of pain, a bum or broken bone; a 4-pound hammer dropped 40 feet onto a worker's back; a knocked out scaler from a dropped torch. HEADS UP! FIRE IN THE HOLE!

12, 13, 14 hours a day, 7 days a week 'til the job is done, the tool-pushers say. No time off for good behavior! For the forgotten souls who had to suffer that 40-foot money machine, this job will never be done.

"These boats ain't worth using as target practice," an old-timer proclaims. Some young wise-ass speaks back: "But this ain't no boat, it's a ship!"

The old-timer looks up at the kid and says in a voice low and stern with experience, "I have worked upon these here rust buckets for over 30 years. A 'ship' denotes a bit of respect from me. There are many boats on the water. There are few ships anymore."

After the old tubes were cut out and new ones placed into the boiler, we could test them. First the super heaters, then the economizer and finally the boilers themselves. Then we went after the main steam and auxiliary steam lines. Every time we tried to bring up the pressure a new joint would blow out.

Most of the main steam lines were 12-inch lines. We replaced about 15 gaskets on the line, which was a major problem because there were actually only two of us who were real steamfitters; thus we had to make up most of the joints between the two of us. This is a major drag as you must take a 10 or 15 pound hammer and beat the nuts tight until they won't move and then go around 3 times. It is very dangerous to have this work done by people who don't know what to look out for.

The pusher had a burner burn off the bolts on a bunch of flanges, without checking the line. Then he sent down a bunch of pipefitters to drive the bolts out and put in new gaskets. I was sent down to make up one flange where someone had already driven the bolts out. It had dropped down some, so I looked down the line to see why. I noticed there was no hanger on it, and at the other end was a pipefitter who was driving the bolts out from the flange at his end.

"Hey bud!" I yelled, "there ain't no hanger on that pipe and the flange on this end is loose!" He looked up in shock, realizing that a 12-inch steam pipe about 15 feet long was ready to fall on his head.

Some of my time was spent solving safety problems; getting scaffold boards wired down, turning off leaking gas and oxygen lines - at one point there were so many leaks, I told the so-called safety man that if he didn't shut the mainline down I was going to go out to the pier and cut the line with my knife. The main staging coming into the fire room on the third level (the main way in) was wired to an old steam pipe which someone had cut off its only hanger, so the only things holding it up were the rusty joints. I had to stand there yelling at the safety man that this problem had to be fixed NOW, and that he had to get a rigger to put a chainfall on it.

When you get working around a group, you get talking about one thing or another. One day we were talking about a collision between a Japanese fish processor and a Chinese freighter. The fuel from the fish processor stained beaches from the south tip of Vancouver Island all the way down the coast of Washington to northern Oregon. Everyone agreed there was no way to get all the oil off the rocks, and that you cannot clean up the marshes. There was not a worker there who believed a word the "Press" said. First it was a big news story, and then they said the area was cleaned, saying nothing about the true damage, nothing about how to prevent it happening again, and little about how the whole thing was handled.

This was one of those rare moments when you could look around and read the faces - everyone there wished the spill had not happened. At that moment all the workers were environmentalists. The talk soon came round to why the collision happened. Once you boil down the fat of illusion created by the media, the facts come out:

  • 1. Neither ship had proper radar and radio equipment, because there is no reason for two ships to collide in open water.
  • 2. The fish processor was carrying too much fuel in oversized tanks to avoid pulling into ports to refuel.
  • 3. Neither ship had any oil containment equipment.
  • 4. There is no one enforcing environmental standards and safety rules.

I shocked everyone when I said I believed the unions should be the ones to enforce the standards and safety. I explained that we couldn't trust the bosses to do it, because the bosses are out for maximum profit at the lowest cost. We couldn't trust the government because they are on the side of profits. We couldn't trust the "environmental organizations" because they will not listen to the workers to find out where the real problems lie, and because their solutions always make the working people pay, never the bosses or the environmentalists. If the unions could learn to work together, we could enforce environmental standards and safe working conditions in the maritime industries.

The talk then went to the great universal question: why? Why do they let sail so many ships that are known to be unsafe? Why do tankers run without oil containment booms or without an empty tank so there is someplace to pump oil that leaks? We came up with two points.

  • l. Ships can be built so that they are safe for both the workers and the environment. Tankers can use double bottoms and wing tanks that would provide against collision and running aground. These features must have forced ventilation to prevent the build-up of vapors from leaking cargo, which can turn the double bottom into a bomb. Most tankers have cracks. A study found that only one U.S. shipyard, and a few in Japan, have built tankers without cracks in them. Without double bottoms, the cargo leaks into the water.

  • 2. The maritime industries want maximum profit at the least cost. The public knows nothing about shipping, so the profiteers are able to do whatever they want. The environmental groups would rather talk down to the workers than talk with them, and most "worker organizations" do the same thing. (Classism is alive and well throughout society, including the left, this being one of the forms of bigotry that is still acceptable).

Slamming steam joints for hours on end; some of them were so tough you had to use a 15-pound hammer with full over-the-head swings. You have to slam together a steam joint just right for it not to leak. I had to change one gasket in between two 12-inch steam valves that were bolted down and rusted solid. It was so tight we had to drive in stake wedges to open it up. When we got the new gasket in and removed the wedges, the flange only sprang back on one side, leaving a gap. A steam joint has to be almost perfectly lined up, so over and over we had to slam those 4 bolts on the gap side, only moving it a little at a time. We finally got it made up, but all the heavy slamming took out my left hand.

In the fire room there were no winners among the slaves. The bosses made a bundle, and the ship made it down to L.A. to pick up the next load of suckers. You rich folks remember that you got rich by cutting corners. Some day those cut corners will catch up with you, and one of these ships will go down with everyone on aboard. The union did very well on this job because work had been slow and this job had a lot of union members working. We pay the union a flat rate per month, and a percentage off each hour we worked. It is true that the Business Agent did come down into the fire room once, shook his head and said that conditions were the worst he'd ever seen. He then proceeded to do nothing about it.

Something has been lost somewhere. The union should not be worrying about how much money it makes; rather, it should be an organization of workers, for workers and run by workers. The 8 unions in the shipyard compete with each other. Remember in the maritime industry the job (ship) can be moved in time of strikes; thus workers end up scabbing on each other all the time.

Like workers in other industries, maritime workers need a revolutionary industrial union. Such a union will have as its basic principle, THOU SHALT NOT SCAB. If there is a job action against a ship, no workers would sail it, no workers would tie it up or load or unload it, give it services or repair it. With an industrial union, that ship would be dead in the water until the dispute was settled. We can force the owners to sail only worker-safe and environmentally safe ships. We could work on international pay scales and fair distribution of work.

When the job was done in the fire room, and everybody went different ways. What percentage will develop asbestos related diseases? Whose lungs were scarred from welding smoke? This time, we did not use our power. This time we made no gain. Maybe next time we will fight back -- or maybe next time there will be no more next times.