1920s >> 1926 >> no-257-january-1926

How workers are displaced


The last word in labour-displacing machinery on the high seas is the s.s. “Gripsholm,” Swedish-American liner of 23,500 tons displacement, the first big diesel propelled passenger boat to put into New York harbour. She spells the coming revolution in marine transportation that will leave thousands of engine-room men on the beach without jobs. Her first engineer told me what her twin Burmeister & Wain internal combustion engines could do with a force of only 39 men :—

“It would require at least 150 men to get the same 22,000 horse-power and 17¾ knots an hour with the old coal burning system,” he said. “And about 75 men with an oil burning steamship. We need only 11 engineers, with 28 oilers, machinists and other engine-room attendants. Think what that means.”

It means a lot to the seamen’s unions, as half to two-thirds of the firemen, oilers, water tenders, wipers and coal passers find their jobs gone. And their jobs are going fast. Sweden is in the van of diesel construction with 85 per cent. of the tonnage now on her yards of that type, but the world as a whole runs over 60 per cent. Bethlehem Steel already has two 22,000-ton freighters, built in Hamburg, on the ore run from Chile to Sparrow’s Point, Maryland and the U.S. Shipping Board is fitting 11 ships with diesel engines.

The staff reduction is not entirely confined to below decks. Above, fewer deck hands are needed, for the diesel boat has neither smoke nor soot. The two stacks on the Gripsholm are dummies, concessions to prevailing fashions of marine architecture. The crude oil used as fuel is not burned under boilers, but is exploded under high pressure, much as gasoline is exploded in automobiles. Other savings to the management, besides those in wages, are affected, for the diesels use only half the oil of an oil-burning steamship. And this in turn, means a saving in cargo space, added to the cargo space gained by the elimination of the fire-room and boilers.

On this new smokeless liner you see electricity carried to the futhest point it has gained on the water. Even the winches, or donkey engines that work the cargo, are electrically driven and the cooking and heating comes from the same agency. There is less vibration and more cleanliness but for the workers the basis grievance of low wages remains—something like $40 a month, in American money, for the average engine-room man below the rank of engineer and about $52 up for the latter. And on these wages when the worker has made a few expenditures in port he is broke again and ready to ship out again on another low wage voyage.

(“Federated Press,” New York.)

(Socialist Standard, January 1926)

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