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Baltimore Bridge Collapse Kills 6, Shipping Industry to Blame

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On March 26, the Dali, a container ship leased by shipping giant Maersk headed for Sri Lanka, lost all power while still in the channel in the Port of Baltimore. Despite the efforts of the pilots and crew, the 100,000-ton vessel struck the support beam of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, collapsing it into the Patapsco River in seconds. An eight-man construction crew fixing potholes on the bridge fell into the water, but two were rescued. Two bodies have been recovered; the remaining four are presumed dead.The accident shines a light on myriad maritime shipping issues, from widespread fuel fraud to the fact that 80% of global shipping capacity is controlled by three alliances of the major shipping firms – Maersk among them.

Shipping Monopolies Created Oversized Vessels

The Dali’s mass was the immediate cause of the Key Bridge’s collapse. Experts agree no bridge could survive a direct hit from a vessel that enormous, but the Dali is typical for its class. Container ships have outgrown the infrastructure around them—the result of intensifying maritime shipping capacity in recent decades.

Today, over half of global trade is shipped via containers. Since the 1950s, containerization—industry-wide adoption of shipping capacity standards—has ballooned profits for shipping firms and established the twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) as the chief measure of cargo capacity, outside bulk or liquid cargo. Swelling global trade in the 1980s compelled shipping firms to expand TEU capacity for fatter margins. Expansion accelerated post-2008: average container ship capacity has increased 50% since 2012, increasing total capacity by 2500% since 1980.

The Dali looks puny beside new ultra-large container vessels (ULCV); though it ‘merely’ has a capacity of 9,962 TEU, it destroyed the Key Bridge in seconds going 8 miles per hour. The latest ULCVs possess double that capacity.

Workers Prevent Massive Loss Of Life

Tragically, the Key Bridge disaster claimed six lives – all poorly paid construction workers from Latin American countries, working for a subcontractor on a state job. They were on break and had no access to radio communications that might’ve saved their lives.

But the Key Bridge’s destruction could have claimed far more lives if it weren’t for workers rapidly intervening on their own behalf. When the Dali lost power, the pilot, a port employee, rushed out a mayday call. Bridge authorities then coordinated via radio to stop all traffic from getting on the Key Bridge. Two tugboat crews rushed over in response to the mayday call as well. 

Still, if it weren’t for cost-cutting measures imposed by employers, those tugboat crews would have prevented the entire disaster minutes earlier. They could have escorted the Dali past the vulnerable bridge, a common procedure, but terms between ports and shipping firms meant the crews were instructed to turn around beforehand.

Logistics Workers Have Vital Role To Play

Tugboat work is specialized and critical; ballooning ship sizes accelerate the need for towing services as vessels travel through tightening channels. However, price negotiations between tugboat companies and port authorities force employees into smaller crews, intensifying shifts, and hazardous conditions.

Because ports pass the cost of towing onto shipping companies, both parties seek minimal services at the lowest possible rates. An escort for the Dali past the bridge would have taken 18 minutes; experts say it likely would have kept the ship on course after losing power, but neither the port nor Maersk wanted to pay the comparably small price this would’ve required.

But tugboat workers are far from powerless here.

Like the Suez Canal accident in 2021, the Key Bridge collapse has shown millions of people how vulnerable global production is. Workers at logistics hubs like the Port of Baltimore possess enormous power – tugboat crews in particular. As shipping further relies on tugboats, tug workers accrue leverage to dictate production. This is why the Panama Canal Authority, which collects $3 billion yearly handling 4.5% of global trade every month, made it illegal for tugboat workers to strike.

Everything that tugboat employees would need to better their lives – bigger crews, shorter shifts for the same pay, additional vessels, and mandatory escorts – aligns with the interests of every human being who needs reliable shipping for food, medicine, and critical supplies. Everything that ports, tug companies, and shipping monopolies have demanded – skeleton crews, fewer vessels, and minimal services – has made shipping less reliable while generating enormous profits for a few companies.

Port policies will lead to worse disasters if workers don’t organize and intervene.

Capitalist ‘Solutions’ Breed Crisis

The Key Bridge collapse is one expression of the chaotic forces unleashed by the current period of capitalism. The now-enlarged Panama Canal, which has increased the Port of Baltimore’s international trade by 61% since 2016, now faces low water levels from an unprecedented drought, leading to a $270 billion traffic jam. Shipbuilding firms are fitting new cargo vessels to run on liquid natural gas in response to the fuel crisis created by the Ukraine War, accelerating fracking and climate destruction. Economic, political, and military conflict – like the Houthi attacks on US ships in the Red Sea, which added a week to the Dali’s planned voyage – impair fragile supply chains.

Capitalism, far from handling the critical problems we’re facing, ‘solves’ today’s crisis by creating tomorrow’s.

Logistics workers control all ports, canals, shipping lanes, terminals, railways, and warehouses. If the maritime monopolies keep trying to handle these problems their way, more people will get hurt. By fighting for better working conditions, logistics labor is the only force capable of preventing people from dying in incidents like this while making shipping safer and more reliable. 

What was true at the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore remains true for all working people: besides us, there’s no one else who can respond to the mayday call – there’s no one else equipped to save ourselves, and the planet, from this rotten system.

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