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labor The Dali Disaster Is What Profit-Driven Economics Looks Like…

Like so many immigrants before them, the half-dozen workers’ sudden and violent death as a result of the Dali disaster, highlighted the precarity of their lives in a nation that both relies on — and reviles them.

On March 26, the day after the commemoration of the 113th anniversary of the Triangle factory fire that killed 146 mostly female immigrant garment workers in lower Manhattan — a crew of a half-dozen immigrant men in a non-union paving crew fell 185 feet to their deaths from Baltimore’s Francis Scott Key bridge after it was rammed by the Dali, a rudderless massive cargo ship that was trying to leave the port without a tug escort.

Police were able to close the bridge to traffic just before the catastrophic collision took place after the powerless and adrift Singaporean-flagged Dali got out a mayday call at 1:30 a.m. on Tuesday.

The alert, however, did not come fast enough to save members of the road crew who were doing dangerous construction work on the vital span while Baltimore slept. Like so many immigrants before them, the half-dozen workers’ sudden and violent death highlighted the precarity of their lives in a nation that both relies on — and reviles them.  

Fifty-six of the 4,700 containers aboard the Dali contained hazardous materials, a top Coast Guard official told reporters at a White House briefing Wednesday. Officials said there is currently “no risk to the public.”

The non-union highway crew from Maryland-based Brawner Builders were immigrants that hailed from Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Mexico. The corporate media is describing the catastrophic event as a kind of freak accident. Immigrant rights and labor union activists, however, see it as the  logical consequence of a brutal global trade regime that cuts corners to maximize profits — one that puts workers and the public at risk, while enabling officials and regulators to cheer from the sidelines.

On Wednesday, Maryland State Police recovered the bodies of Alejandro Hernandez Fuentes and Dorlian Ronial Castillo Cabrera inside a pick-up truck submerged 50 feet beneath the Patapsco River. The Patapsco flows directly underneath the 1.6 mile Francis Scott Key span, built a half-century ago. With four workers still unaccounted for, officials shifted from rescue and recovery mode — to a salvage operation essential to opening the Port of Baltimore for business. 

In the immediate aftermath, one worker was miraculously rescued uninjured from the water, while another worker was pulled from the frigid waters severely injured. Work-Bites reached out to Brawner Building for a comment, but has not gotten a response. Jeffrey Pritzker, the company’s vice president, told CBS News the company is “doing everything possible to support the families and to counsel the families and to be with the families.”

A GoFundMe campaign has been set up by the Latino Racial Justice Circle, the news outlet reported.

How Labor Views the Disaster

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Donna Edwards, president of the Maryland State & DC AFL-CIO, which represents 340,000 union members, tells Work-Bites the state confederation is deeply concerned about the fate of the Brawner Building non-union crew. 

“This is very dangerous work — there was an SOS. Did they even know what was happening?” Edwards asks. “They shut down the bridge so that some people did not get on who would have died in the collapse. What warning did the workers get? It’s opened all of our eyes to how quickly this can happen. In a manner of seconds that whole bridge came down.”

Patrick Moran is the president of AFSCME Council 3, which represents over 40,000 public sector workers in Maryland. He says the tragedy has prompted “a lot of unanswered questions” about maritime and construction sector occupational safety.

“Very little of the state work [like the bridge paving] that’s contracted out is union — it’s been a problem for the last decade or more,” Moran tells Work-Bites. “We all know that union jobs are statistically safer jobs. We know that union jobs are more economically secure jobs, and we know that on union jobs the workers are trained more proficiently. But when it comes to the [Maryland] Department of Transportation or general Services, they just look for the bottom line — and that’s it. Worker safety is just not in their matrix.”

George Escobar is the chief of programs with Casa, a national non-profit that advocates for immigrant rights and has 155,000 members in 46 states. Two of the Brawner paving crew were members. 

“This really underlines the overall story of our immigrant community that doesn’t get told often,” Escobar told MSNBC. “Yet again, we are the immigrant workforce being in the forefront of really helping this country to run and operate properly, while at the same time being disproportionately impacted by the failed investments in struggling infrastructure, healthcare and housing. Just the other month in Baltimore, we had another tragedy where three immigrants lost their lives in a fire inside a building that was in very poor condition.”

Kevin Brown, N.J. Area Director at SEIU Local 32BJ, says that when a disaster like the Baltimore bridge collapse happens — union representation means accountability for the workers and their surviving family members.

“Collective bargaining and immigrant rights go hand-in-hand,” Brown says. “Workers need to be able to work and immigrant workers need to receive fair wages with benefits.”

32BJ SEIU is the largest building service workers union in the nation and has been very successful organizing in immigrant communities across 11 states and Washington D.C. 

The Dali, built in 2014, is a 1,000 foot floating behemoth that can hold 10,000 shipping containers, and is operated by just a 22-member crew. The ship had been inspected last year in Chile when a broken pressure gauge was replaced. According to the U.S. Coast Guard, it passed an inspection in September. Reuters reported the ship was involved in an accident back in 2016, when it was trying to leave Antwerp and its hull was sufficiently damaged to “impair its seaworthiness.” 

Roland “Rex” Rexha is the secretary-treasurer of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association. Established in 1875, it’s the oldest maritime trade union in the U.S, representing licensed deck and engine officers. Rexha tells Work-Bites the Dali disaster highlights the downside of not having ships escorted by tug boats until they are out on the open sea away from critical infrastructure — as well as the risks created with building larger and larger vessels while using automation as justification for reducing crew size, and the wide variance between U.S. maritime safety standards and the rest of the world. 

“As for having tug assistance when they are going under a bridge, these are changes of policy where we defer to what the mandatory policies are of the individual port; what they deem is the safest way to operate,” Rexha says. “I think in all ports there’s going to be a revisiting of how we operate and what’s the safest way to move vessels out into safe water. When you are talking about a large cruise ship or a cargo ship like this one, if they are out of the harbor and they lose power they are not going to hit anything, they are in the middle of the ocean. But as they are operating in local waters that’s where you have to be really diligent.”

Glenn Corbett is associate professor of fire science and public management at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. 

“In the overall scheme of things,” he says, “it would have been a bargain to have tug boats escort that ship as opposed to having to spend $12 billion to replace this bridge, avoid the loss of life and the major hit to that region’s economy.”

Cost-Cutting Automation Strikes Again

What’s been happening around the world as cargo ships have gotten bigger and technology advanced, Rexha points out, is they have all gone to minimum crewing.

“So, that where in the past you had ten officers per department, you have half that,” he says. “At that point, everything becomes more difficult when there is an issue, which is most likely going to happen when you are trying to maneuver the ship. That’s the most dangerous part of any transit for any ship. That’s when there’s the potential hazard — that’s where there’s the potential for a real tragedy.”

It is possible, however, to regain control of a ship that’s lost power through switching to manual control. But to do that, according to Rexha, you need sufficient crew strength.

“But you can’t do that with just two people, especially if you are running around to try and get the lights back on,” he adds. “If you look at the issues of East Palestine, the issues of Boeing, and now this maritime disaster — our transportation system is under attack and its corporate greed every step of the way that led to these issues. People are [now] opening their eyes and asking, do I feel safe driving over a bridge knowing there’s a vessel going underneath it. Do I feel safe with a train coming into the city carrying all these chemicals? Do I feel safe on a plane while there’s a company cutting corners on how they build these things?”

In the aftermath of the Dali disaster, it isn’t just labor raising red flags about the pre-existing conditions of America’s corporate-dominated maritime sector where ports actually compete with each other for business.

“This bridge was built in the 1970s, and the vessels now are much larger with much heavier capacities, so I think we need to revisit that and we expect that the investigation will help us to know how to rebuild this bridge in the most effective way going forward with the replacement bridge,” Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) told MSNBC. “Let’s build a bridge that provides maximum safety.”

Cardin also told the news outlet that the families of the lost workers needed to be compensated for their loss, and that there also needs to be compensation for the workers and the businesses that will feel the brunt of the indefinite port closure. “Those responsible have to be held accountable,” he said.

According to Corbett, the meticulous review that’s being done of the disaster by both the National Transportation Safety Board and U.S. Coast Guard will take months, if not years to conclude. He reasons that with the glaring vulnerabilities this disaster has exposed — the nation now requires the creation of a Disaster Review Board, which “within 90 days can come up with a basic report…so that the stuff that’s become apparent can inform the additional research that’s needed, or the rules and laws that have to be changed.”