MIA: History: ETOL: Documents: International Communist League/Spartacists—PRS 3

8 July 1944

New NMU Hall–Facade to Hide Union Retreat

Written: 1944
Source: Prometheus Research Library, New York.
Transcription/Markup/Proofing: John Heckman Prometheus Research Library
Public Domain: Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line 2006/Prometheus Research Library. You can freely copy, display and otherwise distribute this work. Please credit the Marxists Internet Archive & Prometheus Research Library as your source, include the url to this work, and note the transcribers & editors above.

From the Socialist Workers Party’s Militant, 8 July 1944. Dick Fraser sailed out of the port of New York as a member of the National Maritime Union from 1943 to 1948.

The new hall of the National Maritime Union in New York City is now open and in full operation after a big National Maritime Day dedication ceremony. This is reputed to be the most elaborate union hall that American seamen have ever owned. It has an illuminated dispatchers’ board, recreational facilities including a bar with free beer on occasions, upholstered benches and, as President Curran promised, sweet music while the seamen wait for their next ship out. A good union hall is a good thing to have. All militants, of which the NMU has its share, are in favor of good and better things for the seamen; that is why they built the union in the first place.

After the government smashed the seamen’s unions after the last war (in 1921) and herded the “heroes in dungarees” into government fink halls, crimp joints, and shipowner controlled employment offices, the seamen conducted an unremitting struggle to establish their own hiring halls.

It was not until the great maritime strike of 1934, which culminated in the San Francisco general strike, that the seamen took the first step toward regaining union control of the hiring hall. In the strike of 1936-37, the 99-day strike on the Pacific Coast, the seamen were finally able to force the shipowners to sign written agreements embodying recognition of the union hiring hall.

For seamen, union control over the hiring hall meant an end to the vicious system of blacklisting by which the government and the shipowners victimized union militants; it meant an end to discrimination, favoritism, miserable working conditions, low wages, and a condition of sea-slavery. It meant, above all, the independence of the union, free from domination or control by the shipowners or their political agents in the government! The unions formulated their OWN shipping rules based on the principle of rotary shipping. Union members who violated the shipping rules, the union contract, union working conditions, were disciplined by the democratic action of the union membership. The union hiring hall for seamen became the symbol of free, independent unionism in the maritime industry.

It is against this background that seamen must assess the value of either old or new hiring halls. What are the conditions that go with the new NMU hall? During the last two years the shipping rules have been “modified” until there is little left of the rights of members. For example, the “Wartime Shipping Rules” of the NMU for the port of New York contain the following provisions:

Wartime Regulations

1. “All men between the years of 18 and 38 who persist in turning down ships without any good reason that they can substantiate, will have their names turned over to the Draft Board by the Agent and the Dispatcher as not being bonafide seamen.”

2. “All men over 38 years of age who persist in turning down ships without any good reason that they can substantiate, will have their names turned over to the War Manpower Commission as not being bonafide seamen.”

These provisions in the shipping rules mean that the union officials have become finger-men for government agencies upon whom they depend to enforce the union shipping rules! The union shipping card has been abolished and in its place there has been substituted the RMO (Recruitment and Manning Organization of the War Shipping Administration) time allotment card with the union’s name on it. These measures, only a few of a number of other like measures that have been put into effect by the Curran-Stalinist leadership, serve to undermine union control over the hiring hall. And flowing from these, there arise certain vicious practices, especially a system of favoritism.

Shore-time allotments run from four to thirty days. This inequality in shipping cards makes rotary shipping impossible, forcing a man, say, with a ten-day card to compete with others with thirty-day cards. A seaman is doubly penalized for quitting even a ship on which the worst conditions prevail. First, he has to take a short shipping card. Second, he incurs disciplinary measures by the union for getting off without a replacement.

A most vicious practice has resulted from this. The ship’s officers and company officials have fostered a system of favoritism whereby a seaman who permits himself to become so involved can get little protection against the stringent RMO rulings. This divides the crew and always leaves the company with a few stooges on the ship. With a divided crew a seaman willing to fight for conditions finds himself fined. Because of the short shipping card he will then get, along with other possible penalties, and the unwillingness of the Patrolmen to back him up, even a good union man becomes reluctant to fight.

The end result is that bad conditions get worse and there is no way to stop it. A seaman is cajoled or threatened into taking a job where he must sleep in a crummy bunk on a lousy ship, while the shipowner gets praise for keeping it in operation.

When a seaman comes in from a trip, he is confronted in the Union Hall with all the red tape of a first rate government agency. On the conveyer belt of this red tape he gets pushed from pillar to post and from office to office, and finally lands in the Trial and Rules Committee which, to save time, will read him the rules and give him a trial at the same time.

Enforcing the RMO rulings is the job of the RMO and not of a union. However, the NMU officials even use the practice of reporting violations of RMO rulings to the RMO and Selective Service officials!

The Union Hall is no longer a place where a union man can expect to find protection and just representation against a shipowner or a government bureaucrat. On the contrary, this system by which the Union has undertaken the functions of the WSA, the RMO and the Selective Service System makes going to sea just like being in jail, only more efficient. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the shipowners eagerly accept when they are invited into the Hall and are received with open arms.

At the April 27 membership meeting Curran boasted: “For the first time in history personnel representatives of 60 shipowners were sitting in the Hall, talking cooperation. I told them that for seven years we’ve been fighting to keep them out of the Hall, and now we’re fighting to get them in.” Shipowner Taylor of the Merchant Marine Institute dedicated the new Hall. An evil omen for the future!

Among the fruits of Curran’s “fight” is this, that, as everyone knows, recently there has been an epidemic of seamen shipping off the dock through company offices and on unorganized lines (Standard Oil, Isthmian, etc.). National Vice-President of NMU Meyers has complained to the War Shipping Administration that seamen do this in order to escape and evade the shipping rules of the NMU. The Pilot, official weekly of the Union, reported on May 5: “The union has even gone so far as taking drastic action against men who violate our shipping rules...after the union takes this action however its hands are tied because the individual...is free to go to any one of the few unorganized lines...”

The policies of NMU leaders in supporting the government and its bureaus become so oppressive that seamen are driven away from the Union Hall to the protection of—the shipowners and their crimps. This is virtually what the Pilot itself says.

This is the price that the seamen pay for the support their officials give to Roosevelt and the war machine. This is the price of the new Hall.