Thursday, April 19, 2012

Sailors Shooting Guns Why Not 7-11 Clerks?

Marine Insight
by Joel Schor, member Sailors Union of the Pacific

My union hall in San Francisco, which is located at 1st and Harrison street and is the historic location of the "Battle of Rincon Hill", where maritime workers and allies battled it out with National Guardsmen in the midst of the 1934 city wide general strike. In a small corner office of the Sailors Union of the Pacific building is the training school, where sailors register for classes in small arms proficiency and weapons/ ordinance handling on ships carrying United States government cargo to bases overseas - civilian and military. The ostensible purpose of the small arms classes is to prepare the seaman on the government contracted ships to defend themselves and the ship in the event of an attack by pirates such as are common in the straights of Malacca between between Indonesia and Malaysia or through the Red Sea passage South of the Suez Canal between Somalia and Yemen.

The actual usefulness of such training on ships which transit these regions is doubtful in my estimation as a seaman on these contracted ships. It seems to me that the real purpose of such training is to continue the stream of money from grant sources which undoubtedly must include Department of Homeland Security funding at least in some part.

For the most part, container ships which pass through the Red Sea portion off the coast of Somalia are commercial container vessels and have their own security plans that are separate from that of vessels directly under the control of the US Navy's Military Sealift Command (MSC). When civilian crewed MSC or Ready Reserve Fleet - Maritime Administration ships do pass through such regions, they are usually accompanied by a contingent of National Guardsmen who stand by mounted machine guns at the ready in the event of an attack on the vessel. In any case the threat of piracy off the coast of Somalia seems very much from my experience on several occasions to be contrived and blown out of proportion.

I remember in 2003 transiting the Red Sea passage South from Suez into the Indian Ocean, there were numerous small boats undoubtedly fisherman for the most part. At the time there was no reported threats or incidents of piracy in the region, yet since then notices to Mariners and numerous international news sources have indeed documented attacks. The most notable here in the United States, which US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton proclaimed as an incidence of international terrorism linked to Al Queda , was the hi-jacking of the US flagged Maersk Alabama several years ago. The US Navy Seals were brought in to rescue the captain who had rifles pointed at his back and crew standing by. The accusation by Clinton that the pirates are directly linked to Al Queda is an alarmist, jingoistic statement meant to arouse the public and distort the real issues of poverty and international crime committed by the shipping companies in that region of the world.

But tit is undoubtedly true that lawless acts of piracy have occurred against civilian merchant ships of various flags transiting the region, holding hostage and threatening the lives of many a seaman making a living in those troubled waters. The origins of political instability in Somalia are however much more complex than the US State Department and the mainstream media would have us believe. During Bill Clinton's presidency one of the smaller and less noticed acts of US intervention occurred in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu after the collapse of the previous Islamic Council government, and the takeover by a warlord in the region. While the ostensible mission of the US army Rangers in Mogadishu was to protect humanitarian supplies as depicted in the popular movie Black Hawk Down, the fact that Chevron - Connoco Phillips had been set up there to receive the supplies in the area was never mentioned. The petroleum extraction business was the basis for the existence of US interest in the area to begin with, and the separation of this industry from the lives of ordinary Somali's exacerbated the instability due to the changing government regimes. Further, the dumping of toxic waste off the coast of Somalia by ships of all nations in violation of International Martime Law, has destroyed the fishing industry of many small fisherman and made them even more desperate.

About two years ago in 2010, the United States Navy sent an aircraft carrier into the Red Sea region just off the coast of Yemen when an insurgency was taking place there between the Northern and Southern regions of the country. I was on a ship transiting between Somalia and Yemen at this time on pirate watch on the bridge, and noticed that there were very few small fishing boats in the area as compared to 2003 when I had last been through the same waters. The very idea of a pirate watch under these conditions seemed a bit strange, especially when the radio telegram Notice to Mariners coming through on the ship's bridge communication system were telling of piracy attacks taking place only further out in the Indian Ocean and none in the Red Sea where we were. The US Navy ship was part of a coalition force in the region ostensibly to watch and deter piracy, but from what I could tell there was very little indication of any such threat in a calm open ocean nothing like what I had seen in 7 years ago when the waters were filled with small fishing boats.

In the Sailors Union of the Pacific we have brought into our organization several members who are not quite sailors by trade, but retail clerks - specifically union staffers of the old retail clerks/ meat cutters union now United Food and Commercial Workers Union (UFCW). 

In the United States, the job of a retail clerk, especially at convenience stores which are open late at night is a dangerous job and it would seem to warrant that these workers - even if they are owner operators themselves, should have their own armed protection and be knowledgeable in how to defend themselves with a firearm in the case of an armed robbery. Rather than stand your ground laws going into effect which encourage reckless vigilantism, why not organize more retail workers, bring them into the union, and train them to safely and responsibly use a firearm to defend themselves and their livelihood in the workplace? It would be useful training for those who could really use it on a daily basis, and would widen the appeal of the union to many who are out there and currently unorganized.


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