Anarchy 86/The Hull fishermen and workers' control

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The Hull fishermen
and workers’ control


It took the disaster at Aberfan in 1966 to bring home to people, in the most ter­rible way con­ceiv­able, that a pub­licly-owned in­dustry could be run with the same indif­fer­ence to human welfare as the system of capit­alist ex­ploit­ation whose habits and tradi­tions it inher­ited. And it has taken the loss of the Hull fishing trawl­ers early this year to remind us that the condi­tions and the ideo­logy of 19th century “private enter­prise” survive un­modi­fied in another basic in­dustry. As Tony Topham puts it, “Owners argue that the loss of trawl­ers is in­evit­able in winter fishing in northern waters; it is no one’s fault. This is a tragic example of the effects of market laws upon men’s minds; re­spons­ibil­ity is dis­sip­ated, and acts of com­merce become somehow Acts of God. Can we doubt that in a society freed of this fetish it would be re­garded as scan­dal­ous to operate small ships, under the hur­ricane condi­tions off Iceland in winter, not as an emer­gency oper­ation to feed starving people, but as a normal com­mer­cial activ­ity?”

  And just as it tran­spired, after the Aberfan disaster, that the Coal Board had had plenty of warning, ignored through inertia, indif­fer­ence and parsi­mony, of the ever-present danger, so the risks of cata­strophe in the trawl­ing in­dustry were as clear to the trawler-owners as they were to every out­sider who studied the in­dustry, and above all, to the trawler crews. “The fear of death per­vades the occu­pa­tion of trawl­ing, con­trib­ut­ing to it a flavour of gloom and fatal­ism” wrote Jeremy Tunstall in his book The Fishermen, pub­lished in 1962, where he re­marked that “the lull during the last few years in the mor­tal­ity rate may only be a pause before a big tragedy”. This lull fol­lowed the loss in January, 1955, off Iceland of the Lorella and the Roderigo, when forty men died as a result of the over-turning of the vessels due to icing-up of the super­struc­ture, which appears to be the reason for the loss of at least one of the three trawl­ers sunk in January and Febru­ary, 1968. Tunstall showed stat­istic­ally that fishing was the occu­pa­tion with the highest indus­trial death-rate in Britain.

  In 1965 Pro­fessor R. S. F. Schilling of the London School of Hygiene again ana­lysed indus­trial death-rates and con­cluded that the figure for the fishing in­dustry was twice that for coal-mining and many times that in manu­fac­tur­ing in­dustry. In the fol­low­ing year, in his
pres­iden­tial address to the occu­pa­tional medi­cine section of the Royal Society of Medi­cine, Pro­fessor Schilling ob­served that between 1960 and 1966, 223 fisher­men were killed on British fishing vessels—about one per cent of the work force.

  <span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: Rear-Admiral">Rear-Admiral Ievers, of the Trawler Insur­ance Company, has re­cently made a number of press and tele­vi­sion state­ments about the inev­itab­il­ity of the deaths of 59 fisher­men. He is further repor­ted in the Hull Daily Mail (Febru­ary 7th) as saying: “We are not sur­prised when a vessel is lost in a typhoon in the China Seasbut we express surprise when a trawler is lost in the cir­cum­stances which existed when the Ross Cleveland sank. I fail to see what more could have been done by the skipper or by anyone else at the time” (my italics).

  This attitude ignores the fun­da­mental fact about trawl­ing in winter in the northern seas: that such condi­tions are not unusual, and that there­fore it is wholly irre­spons­ible to defend the con­tin­ued opera­tion of ships in such condi­tions, not as some dire emer­gency need, but as a normal com­mer­cial activ­ity.

  Of course nothing else could have been done “at the time”. I know of no one who has sug­ges­ted it. Rear-Admiral Ievers’s com­par­ison with the Cina typhoon is de­signed to give the im­pres­sion that the recent condi­tions off Iceland were ex­traordin­ar­ily rare. But the fact is that all fisher­men dread black ice as a normal ex­pected hazard. Later in his state­ment Rear-Admiral Ievers is re­ported to have said that the problem of icing-up had been in­vest­ig­ated, but that no method had been found “of prac­tical value”, and that the devices which were tried out in­volved “a pro­hibit­ive cost”.

  So it comes to this: trawl­ers have been lost in the past, and men killed, by black ice; black ice forms regu­larly in the north­ern waters in winter, not just in the very severe weather of this year. The owners made some attempt to dis­cover a solu­tion, but failed, or were de­terred by the cost. They have con­tin­ued never­the­less, to accept fishing in those waters. Yet when at least one of the three recent tra­gedies was prob­ably caused by icing up, we are told (a) not to be sur­prised; and (b) that noth­ing could have been done: that no human re­spons­ibil­ity is in­volved. It is in­cred­ible.

  Perhaps the only form of edu­ca­tion which would cut through the fetish of inev­it­abil­ity would be for the next trawler to sail from Hull to be skippered by the Rear-Admiral, and crewed en­tirely by trawler owners.

Hull. tony topham.  

  On March 6th, 1883, oc­curred one of the worst dis­asters ever to happen to the fishing com­munity of Hull. Twenty-three fishing smacks and about 150 men were lost in a storm on this day. The dis­aster shocked the town and when the fisher­men paraded with banners against “winter fleet­ing” on October 1st, public opinion this time was on their side. The strike began form­ally about a week later.

  The strike was weak­en­ing in the early days of Novem­ber, with the owners able to get away with an in­creas­ing number of smacks, and on Novem­ber 10th the Trades Council, acting for the Fisher­men’s Society, accep­ted terms. The two main points were: that winter fleeting was not to be carried on beyond 55N; and that each fleet was to be limited to 50 vessels. Other points were that there should be no vic­tim­isa­tion, and the men should have a say in the ap­point­ment of the “admirals” of the fishing fleets.

<span data-html="true" class="plainlinks" title="Wikipedia: john saville">john saville: “Early History of Hull’s Water­front Workers”

(Humberside Voice).