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Salmon and Sabotage

category north america / mexico | economy | non-anarchist press author Sunday November 18, 2007 04:59author by Disgruntled Deckhand Report this post to the editors

A Season in Prince William Sound

An analysis of the salmon seining industry from an ex-anarchist turned deckhand. I spent the summer of 2007 working on a tender in Prince William Sound and came up with this summary of my observations of this part of the fishing industry.

Salmon and Sabotage in Prince William Sound

I wrote this halfway through my first season working in the fishing industry of Prince William Sound, Alaska. This is by no means an in-depth analysis of the social friction and economic contradictions here, but is instead one man's views and experiences. Like most people working out here, I was not raised in this area and came here solely for economic reasons. The last vestiges of the American Dream still survive up here. Anyone can find work on a boat and make a decent living. Man, woman, young, old, documented, undocumented, white, or black. In theory its open to anyone who is willing to do the hard work and long hours, though its mostly young white men. The fishing goes from mid June to late September for purse seiners.

Modern purse seining involves boats between 40-58 ft in length that drop nets 1/4 of a mile long. The lines attached to the edges of the net pull together to create a giant underwater bag of fish. Seiners are the workhorses of fishing in Prince William Sound. Without them no fish would be caught. Each boat operates like a small business usually run by the captain of the boat. This boat then works for one of the giant seafood companies (Peter Pan, Icicle, Bear & Wolf, etc) who buys their fish. Deckhands on seiners are usually paid 6-10% of the gross salary of the boat minus fuel and food. Crew come from all walks of life. Some are from the fishing towns of the area: Valdez, Cordova, Homer, and Seward. Some are ex-cons, drug dealers, single parents, useless alcoholics, and college students. The cross-section is varied, but most everyone is there to make money and get on with their lives. The few that truly love the art of fishing stand starkly apart from the other crew.

On a seiner, captains cannot act like a traditional boss for several reasons: crew are paid on a percentage, not a daily or hourly, and they live for weeks at a time with their employees. Technically, a deckhand is a private contractor, as you sign a work contract and are paid accordingly to it. As a contractor, you are a capitalist who's only capital is your labor. The captain is a bigger capitalist, as his capital is his boat and gear, his labor, and the crew's labor. He has greater bargaining power and controls the content of contracts with his crew. Unlike in traditional wage jobs, the captain's motives and the crews are very similar. While the captain might worry about the net being torn up and costing him to repair or replace it, the crew worries that a torn net means that fish with escape out and their shares will be smaller. Repairs and upkeep on the boat matter only to a crew if they will impair the boat from maximising their profits and shares, not if it will cost the captain in the long run.

Seiners cannot hold many fish, and it would be too expensive for them to run to and from processing plants(often 6-12 hours away) every day or two. Tender boats fill this gap. The are the link in the supply chain that transports fish from the site of the openers to on-shore or floating processing plants. While seiners hold between 25,000 and 55,000 lbs of fish, tenders can often hold up to 400,000 lbs. These boats are often used the rest of the year for crabbing, cod fishing, and long-lining. Boats that are too old and worn out for deep-sea work also are used as tenders. Along with transporting fish, tenders are the link to shore for seiners, bringing out supplies, spare parts, mail, freshwater, and fuel. On a tender, life is always on the move. The boat is either sailing to or from an opener, unloading fish at a processing plant, or is buying fish from seiners.

Tenders are crewed with a slightly different crowd than seiners. Deckhands are more often women, as the work is less physically demanding and the macho posturing less severe. There are often more college or high school students who want to save up some money before returning to school for the year. The crew are paid a daily pay for each day the boat buys fish, one day before, and one day after, as a buffer if there are not openers every day. Compared to seiners, the pay is comparable is average to slow years, but in good years seiners make substantially more money. The contradictions between crew and captain on a tender is much more obvious. Regardless of how many fish are bought or what condition the tender is in, a deckhand gets paid the same. There is no economic reason for a deckhand to want to work on the boat or do anything except what is required to keep their job. Laziness and a lack of motivation are the choice over outright sabotage because if the boat is out of commission, there is no pay for them.

All the fish that are purchased are taken to processing plants: either on shore or floating out in the Prince William Sound. The processing work is the lowest paid and hardest work; it takes 16-20 hour days and minimum hourly wage. Most of the processing crew consists of Eastern European and Southeast Asian immigrants. Processing plants are directly overseen by the seafood companies themselves and are some of the worst in the Alaskan Wild West. People are frequently seriously injured by the filleting line or the canning line (losing fingers, breaking limbs, deep cuts, etc). The plants are pushed to produce as much as can be squeezed out of the workers and the machines. As their economic role dictates, the directors of seafood companies do this to maximize regular profits at the expense of their employees. The contradictions inside a processing plant are the most glaring. Processing plant work most closely resembles orthodox anarchist or marxist theory. Any extra work or ingenuity from a processor goes directly to the company as profit. There is no reason for loyalty or class collaboration with either the managers or directors.

For anyone interested in driving a wedge between these contradictions there seem to be two real possibilities: sabotage, mutiny and wildcat strikes. On board individual seiners, the most anger is directed at the captain on board. Any action taken against him is on a personal level. This can be trashing his personal possessions, throwing overboard spare parts, or it can be as direct as a deckhand punching out his captain. If the entire crew is against the captain, they can easily conspire to disable the ship (perhaps by snipping a few important wires) until he capitulates to their demands, or they can mutiny and refuse to work en masse.

Sabotage is easy enough on a tender too. All sorts of things can have bolts loosened or taken out and tossed overboard. Much like a seiner, most anger is also directed at the captain, so an angry deckhand could damage the computer or auto navigation onboard, forcing the captain to work double-time to sail the boat anywhere. Tender captains are more at the will of the director of the processing plants, so outright mutiny or wildcat strikes would not be nearly as effective at getting one's disapproval across.

Disrupting the flow of a processing plant is much like a factory anywhere else. The production line can always be damaged by sabotage and the employees are likely to get paid extra to fix it! More discretely its possible to do so a poor job that it takes twice as long and if enough people join together you can create severe work slowdowns. Like a regular factory on land, its also possible to organize enough people together to go on a strike either in one section of the plant (the canning line for example) or as an entire plant. Housing for plant staff is on sight, so coordinating discussions of plans and tactics should be much easier.

Insurrectionary action and social war are not out of the question in the realm of salmon fishing. Every job has is discontent; every workplace has its angry worker. Even when the pay is decent, there is still the possibility for organization and subversion. While the schism between boss and worker is a thick grey line in fishing, there are still those above you whom profit from your labor. Sabotage is always a possibility, even if its only done one bolt at a time. Don't get mad, get even.

author by Robertpublication date Mon Nov 19, 2007 22:01author email vagabond2684 at gmail dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

I've done seafood processing in Alaska for six years. This article is pretty much right on the money.

I've got one thing to add though. Processors are migrant workers that come from all over the world. We endure the long hours of toil only thinking of making it to the end of the season.

For many, Alaska is not home and leaving is the first thing that we do after the work season. Also processing is usually done for a few years at most, it isn't a career people intend to commit their lives to.

There may be a lot of room for improvement, but the processors have little motivation to demand it as they are all focused on their individual short term goals. Whenever work is disrupted and people end up off the clock, tensions rise quickly between the processors. The polish, the czechs, the turks, the ukaranians, the americans and all the rest of the groups turn against each other, fighting over whatever work is still available. Any wildcat strike would result in ill-will towards that whichever group the strikers belong.

There is no solidarity in process.

author by Prerzmpublication date Fri Mar 26, 2010 16:51author address author phone Report this post to the editors

This is retarded, and why flat out do not work with 'wagers' and 'unioners.' If your organization does not make profit, you don't make profit. Everytime you work slowly and poorly you make yourself slower and poorer. Have some pride.

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