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4,000 Dockers Walk Out Over 5 Deaths in a Year

Times Labor Writer

About 4,000 longshoremen staged a one-day work stoppage at the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach on Thursday to protest allegedly unsafe conditions that have resulted in five deaths there in the past year.

The protest was precipitated by the death of Steve Suryan, 26, of Long Beach on Sunday, according to David Arian, president of International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union Local 13. He said Suryan was killed at 12:30 a.m. Sunday as he helped unload a ship at Los Angeles Harbor.

Suryan was crushed between between a crane’s spreader mechanism and a container on the ship, Arian said. George Godzak, of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Agency in Long Beach, said the death was being investigated and that he could provide no details.

‘Rash of Injuries’

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“There’s been a rash of injuries but no definite pattern,” Godzak said. He and officials from Cal-OSHA confirmed that five deaths had occurred in the past year. Some employers have been cited for safety violations and have taken action, he said. Other employers have appealed the citations.

E. Z. Burts, executive director of the Port of Los Angeles, said port officials are “watching this situation very closely. There is a very, very dangerous aspect to working on the waterfront.

“Conditions have changed here considerably,” Burts said. “When my uncle was a longshoreman here injuries were minor--a cut toe, lacerations. The equipment is much larger today. An accident is a very serious matter. People go to the hospital or get killed nowadays.”

He said there was no way to make an immediate assessment of the impact of Thursday’s work stoppage on port operations. Stan Westover, director of operations for the Port of Long Beach, said the stoppage had not had any impact on port revenues but had caused some “congestion” of ships waiting to be unloaded.

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Arian said the union has asked the Pacific Maritime Assn. to change safety procedures on the docks. He said that if an agreeable safety program is not formulated by Monday longshoremen would stop working on containerized ships in the two ports. Three of the recent deaths, including Suryan’s, occurred on or around vessels using containers, and two occurred during steel unloading operations, he said.

Half of Vessels

Arian said a work stoppage on containerized ships would affect about half of the vessels that normally operate in the two ports.

For the past several days the union and the maritime association have held negotiations over new safety methods but the talks broke off Thursday morning. Carrie Schwab, assistant area manager for the association, said union officials left the meeting after her group presented a counterproposal. “We are still hopeful of reaching an agreement,” she said.

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Arian told union members later Thursday that he expected talks to resume soon.

Charles Young, the maritime association’s labor relations administrator, said all the association’s 70 member companies think the safety matter is an important issue: “We’re having serious discussions with the union over changes in the fundamental outlook on safety.”

Arian asserted that safety problems had increased at the ports during the past year because shipping companies are pushing employees to work faster to increase productivity and profits. He said the union wants standardized procedures for unloading containerized ships and other docks operations. “There are no standardized procedures now,” the union leader said.

The union wants an enhanced safety training program and has asked that a safety steward be placed on each ship. The steward would teach workers proper methods and try to ensure that safety rules are enforced.

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“I think the technology (of dock operations) has advanced much quicker than the organization of safety and we have to catch up with it,” Arian said. “If there were one part of a highway with five deaths in nine months, you’d have a moratorium and figure out what to do. We’re just going to protect our membership,” he added.

Angry Group

An angry group of longshoremen gathered at their union hall in Wilmington Thursday afternoon to discuss the growing work hazards. “Safety has deteriorated,” said Frank Sandoval, who has worked on the docks here for 38 years. John Pandora, a crane operator, said he thought the employees as well as the companies had to take a greater interest in safety.

At the meeting, the union members approved a 22-point safety program to present to management.

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Godzak, the OSHA official, said that the management of some shipping companies had to transform procedures to keep pace with changes in the workplace. He said one of the five deaths occurred last March when a man fell from a stack of containers on the deck of a ship. Godzak said the man had not been provided with a safety harness by his employer. A hearing on charges filed against the company is pending.

“It’s not enough to say the individual volunteered to do that job,” Godzak said. “An individual volunteered because he needs the money. These people are not circus performers; they need to be protected.”

Legislative Measure

Earlier this year, Assemblyman Richard Floyd (D-Hawthorne) introduced a bill in the Legislature that would force ports to install elevators in container cargo cranes. The measure was prompted by the death of crane operator Steve Marinkovich at the Port of Long Beach last year. Marinkovich had just climbed a 100-step staircase when he had a heart attack at the controls of a port crane. His death is not among the five that the union cited in calling for Thursday’s work stoppage.

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Floyd said longshoremen believe Marinkovich’s death might not have occurred had there been an elevator but he said he was not sure of this. The bill cleared the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, which Floyd chairs, but it was killed two weeks ago in the Assembly Ways and Means Committee.


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