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The Capitalist Shame of the Titanic

April 17, 2012

The weekend of April 14th and 15th marked the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. For many years, this event was not only a tragedy but a travesty. Investigations conducted after the sinking showed that White Star Line stewards kept third-class passengers locked into the lower decks while the available lifeboats (only enough for half the people on board) were loaded with the first- and second-class patrons. The survival rates of the poor on the Titanic were there for all to see: only 25 percent survived, as opposed to 63 percent of first-class passengers.

The Titanic was advertised as the grandest vessel ever built. No luxury was spared, and people clamored for tickets for the maiden voyage. First-class tickets started at $4,300 for the six-day voyage, at a time when an American middle-class family lived comfortably on $800 a year. And the most expensive first-class suites cost approximately $120,000.  Part of what the passengers paid for was security: a new design of the lower bulkheads meant that Titanic had less chance of sinking than an ordinary liner of its time, a fact touted by the White Star Line.

The sinking might have been avoided if Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, had not ordered the ship to change to top speed on the night of April 14. He wanted to get into New York City a day early to garner more publicity—despite ice warnings on the seas reported earlier in the day. And at least one ice warning received by Titanic was ignored amid the onslaught of first-class telegrams being sent out about on-shore plans.

But one aspect of the Titanic disaster has only recently come to light, and that was a corporate trick monstrous in its callous disregard of its employees. Individual letters sent to crew that survived and to the families of crew members who died informed them that the employee had been fired in the early morning of April 15. The charge was “gross insubordination” for abandoning ship and “disembarking on the high seas.”

Many passenger claims were made against the RMS Titanic after her sinking: claims by individual families for wrongful death; claims by countries such as Belgium for “loss of countrymen,” and claims for jewelry, paintings, U.S. mail, and an automobile.

By firing all of its crew, the corporation did not have to pay wages for the final voyage, pension claims, or any insurance policies of its employees, saving the company thousands and thousands of dollars. It sounds like the kind of heartless strategy that might be used in a massive corporate layoff today, but this happened 100 years ago.

And who these “insubordinate” crew members? They were not saving themselves. Only 214 crew members survived out of the nearly 800 employees on board. The band famously played to the very end; less well known are the boiler-room crew who worked until they drowned in an attempt to keep electricity going so distress messages could be sent out. The ship’s chief baker immediately went to the kitchens and filled sacks with freshly baked bread and other provisions and threw a sack into each poorly equipped lifeboat. Stewardesses ran back and forth looking for the parents of children who had been separated from their families, and finding the children seats on the lifeboats. Second Officer Charles Lightoller personally saved 31 passengers and crew members after the ship sank by organizing them to stand on top of an overturned lifeboat, and then had them all shift their weight at the same time to keep the boat from tipping over. He was the last person to board the Carpathia, staying in the water until he was sure that every lifeboat passenger was saved.

Stunned families, who saw how Ismay was vilified by the press, kept quiet about the shame of the firings, and how the crew members were treated afterward. That might account for the fact that it took so long for this story to emerge.

When the surviving crew members reached New York on the Carpathia, they were penniless because there were no pay packets waiting for them. They had no clothes but their uniforms. Usually, the White Star Line reserved hotel rooms for crew members and then handed out new assignments to return the crew home to England and Ireland. This time, there were no return passages on offer.

Fortunately, Woolworth’s, hearing of the plight of the abandoned crew members, offered them jobs, free meals, and free clothing. Meanwhile, families back home had to scrape together the money for return voyages. And many of these surviving crew members were never able to get jobs on ships again, with the black mark of being fired by White Star on their records.

Titanic’s sinking destroyed the lives of thousands of families, but the corporation’s unnecessary destruction of employee reputations and ability to earn livings in an effort to improve its bottom line is a new and shameful page in the history of the White Star Line.




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