Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. Photo: Public Domain
Francis Scott Key Bridge collapse. Photo: Public Domain

Fight for workers’ safety and job security

Jacob Bielski and Claire Bayler (former Baltimore dockhand), Independent Socialist Group USA

On 26 March, the Dali, a 985-foot-long cargo ship, collided with and destroyed the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which spans the outer Baltimore Harbor in Maryland. Authorities shut down traffic after hearing the ship’s mayday calls, but eight maintenance workers on break in their vehicles were left on the 1.6 mile-long bridge. Two survived, two were found dead, and the remaining four are missing and presumed dead.

While the exact causes of the ship’s loss of power, and subsequent steering control, are under investigation, one suspected cause is an industry ‘dirty open secret’: contaminated fuel. Fuel contamination, which poses risks to both worker safety and the environment, is often due to lax oversight, but deliberate dilution by providers does occur.

The supply chain is “maddeningly opaque” and regulation rare. Working-class people must demand compensation for the families of workers injured and killed by the disaster, as well as government relief for workers affected by the Port of Baltimore shutting down. The cost of relief efforts and rebuilding should be taken from the pockets of the corporations, not working people.

The port directly supports more than 15,000 jobs, with an additional 140,000 jobs dependent on port activity overall. 2,400 members of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) are soon to be out of work. The local union president described the jobs as, “very good and family sustaining” but “daily hire” with no guarantee of work. The Maryland Department of Labor has set up a dedicated unemployment line for affected workers, and the Maryland Senate president, Senator Bill Ferguson, promised to sponsor emergency legislation to provide income replacement. Similar promises were made in the wake of disasters like the Flint, Michigan water crisis and East Palestine, Ohio train derailment but failed to materialise.

The union, Baltimore’s working class, and the labour movement nationwide will need to mobilise mass pressure on the state and federal government to ensure relief efforts actually happen, are timely, and fully meet workers’ needs.

The closure of the ninth-largest US port (by volume) is estimated to cost $191 million a day in lost economic activity. It handles imported and exported cargo ranging from automobiles, machinery, agricultural equipment, liquified natural gas, coal, and sugar; is a launching point for cruise liners; and is a hub for freight, rail, and trucking. While most cargo types can be rerouted, the US coal industry, for example, will likely see greater disruption as exports require specialised port infrastructure.

During the pandemic, severely understaffed ports highlighted the ripple effect of disruptions like the Ever Given ship running aground in the Suez Canal. The impacts on vulnerable global supply chains are exacerbated by deferred maintenance, ‘lean’ operations with no redundancy, and minimal investment in infrastructure or equipment by both corporations and governments.

The Key Bridge, built in 1977, lacked modern protections for the bridge supports, which were not built to withstand the impact of today’s larger and faster cargo vessels. Since the Panama Canal was expanded in 2016, Baltimore’s shipping channel handles some of the world’s largest cargo ships, though the Dali is classified “mid-sized”. One civil engineer called it “an accident waiting to happen” and estimates it will take months to remove the debris and re-open the shipping channel. Maryland is to receive $60 million in initial emergency relief funding from the federal government to cover “mobilisation, operations, and debris recovery.”

While port operations are the economic engine of Baltimore, the Key Bridge itself was used by 30,000 people every day. President Biden pledged the federal government would foot the bill to repair the bridge. Such projects typically take a decade to complete, with securing funds the most time-consuming stage. At break-neck speed, the bridge would still likely require two-and-a-half years to reopen. The Key Bridge, instead of another tunnel, was originally built because of the need to carry hazardous materials around and through Baltimore.

Cost cutting

Lapses in maintenance, understaffing, and inadequate safety regulations – often the result of private companies trying to cut costs and increase their profits – are common causes of logistics and industrial disasters. Workers pay with their lives. The New York Times reports that the Dali “had a deficiency related to ‘propulsion and auxiliary machinery,’” noted during an inspection in Chile on 27 June 2023. The US Coast Guard did investigate the ship in September, but staffing issues have affected the frequency and thoroughness of inspections. Sal Mercogliano, a professor at the US Merchant Marine academy, raises concerns that vessels are not inspected as regularly as needed and ships are not under obligation at times to report problems.

The labour movement in Maryland and around the country should unite to demand answers to the disaster. The Key Bridge collapse is one high-profile example of incidents that happen systematically under capitalism. In the short term, public pressure could win relief for workers and families affected by the bridge collapse and the port shutdown. Maritime and logistics unions in Baltimore need to mobilise their membership and the broader working-class community. Additionally, a mass movement of transportation workers – whether they work on the rails, seas, roads, or skies – and community members should demand public spending to update infrastructure and safety standards, regulating the industry to prioritise workers’ lives over company profits.

Corporations and both corporate political parties have undermined and overturned regulations for safe working conditions for decades. Unions have been on the back foot, largely failing to defend working and living conditions. The labour movement can win better safety laws, real enforcement, and funds for infrastructure and equipment maintenance and updates by mobilising in workplaces and in the streets. The labour movement can fight to overturn anti-worker laws and win greater legal rights and protections by breaking from the Democrats and Republicans and running its own independent candidates.

These candidates could be a step towards building a new party for working-class people that can organise mass struggle for better wages and hours, public infrastructure, transit, and housing programmes, universal healthcare, environmental protections, and more. Such demands could help prevent, mitigate, and respond to disasters – whether man-made or natural. Additionally, workers and unions should call for the major logistics companies to be taken into public ownership, under democratic control by workers and communities, in order to create an industry where workers’ safety and efficient movement of critical goods take priority over the profits of capitalist shareholders.