The Titanic, its construction, the sinking and the aftermath revealed all the huge divisions that existed in society not just in lifestyle but in the different value placed on different lives. It was a disaster not of chance but of a society driven by serving the interests of the rich and the profits of the shipping industry with little care for the lives of working people
The Titanic was the biggest ship of its day. It represented the height of luxury afloat. On board were some of the world’s richest people. Yet life for its crew and third class passengers was far from this.
While the 700 first class passengers enjoyed the fine restaurants, swimming pool and Turkish Baths, the 1,000 third class passengers shared two bathrooms, one for women, one for men. Even the toilets reflected the class divisions, iron for third class, porcelain for second and marble for the millionaires.
No surprise then that such a gap would exist between the crew; the captain was paid £1,250 a year, a radio operator £48 a year, a fireman £5 a month and a steward £3 a month. While the captain and officers were salaried, the crew were signed off after each voyage. If a ship was ashore for two or three weeks the crew had no work.
Life on the Titanic reflected the chasm that divided society on land in the years running up to World War One.
Built in Belfast at the massive Harland and Wolff shipyard by an army of over 15,000 workers, then as now such projects had a human cost many would like us to ignore. Over 245 injuries were recorded with six people killed: not accidents but products of the drive for profits over safety, then as now, fought out between the bosses and the unions.
In the disaster itself the self-interest of the super-rich and their callous disregard for the rest of society was revealed for all to see. Tragically less than a third in total survived. While 37% of first class passengers died, 74% of third class passengers and 78% of the crew lost their lives.
Yet the calamity that such a ship set sail with only enough lifeboats for a third of the crew and passengers reflected not some mishap but the pressures for profit and to accommodate the needs of the first class passengers. Those left on board were thrown into the icy waters and died in minutes. Just 13 were pulled from the sea into half-filled lifeboats. Crew training had been minimal and cost many their lives.
Southampton paid a heavy price. Over 50% of the crew were from Hampshire, the rest mainly from Liverpool who had moved south. It had a massive impact in Southampton. Every street in the city lost someone. At a time when there were no benefits, families were cast into poverty.
Much is trumpeted about the “lessons learnt”. But the inquiries held were seen by many as a whitewash. Not one third class passenger was called to give evidence. Laws and regulations were to change but only after pressure from striking unions. Just days after the Titanic sank, the crew of another White Star Line ship, the Olympic, took strike action to force the company to increase the number of lifeboats.
The British Seafarers’ Union had to fight for its 4,000 members to have better pay, shorter hours, decent sleep aboard with better conditions and accommodation.
Follow the reams of coverage of this anniversary and most of this will be glossed over: not by accident but to hide the brutal reality from society. Tasteless razzamatazz and profiteering surrounds this anniversary.
Just last week a first class menu from the Titanic was sold at auction for £76,000. The auctioneer commented: “What we have to consider is that the Titanic was regarded as the finest restaurant afloat and this does illustrate that point. There are over 40 different options for one lunch.”
The best tribute to those who lost their lives and the families who were affected would be to defeat the austerity agenda today and fight to build a mass movement to ensure a decent future for working people who continue to be exploited in the shipping industry and the city as a whole.
Candidates for the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition are standing candidates across the city in May with this message booming out loud and clear.