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Fourth International, October 1942


Frederick J. Lang

Offensive Against the Merchant Seamen


From Fourth International, Vol.3 No.10, October 1942, pp.303-309.
Transcribed, Edited & Formatted by Ted Crawford & David Walters in 2008 for the ETOL.


The government of the United States long ago elaborated a well defined general program for the marine industry. This program was embodied in the Merchant Marine (Copeland) Act of 1936. It calls for the building of a merchant fleet second to none in the world – and for a “disciplined” personnel to man that fleet.

The National Maritime Commission was established under this Act. It is the grand daddy of all other government agencies dealing with shipping, and casts its shadow over all the activities of the various boards it creates. Such agencies as the War Shipping Administration and the Maritime War Emergency Board are creatures of the Maritime Commission. They were set up to handle specific problems in the industry, and to juggle these problems back and forth when they become too hot.

In working out the general program for maritime, the Roosevelt Administration drew heavily upon the experiences of” the American bosses during World War I in this field. It also borrowed many ideas from the British, especially in dealing with the problem of “discipline.” The Maritime Commission stems directly from the old United States Shipping Board, crossed with the British strain to temper it. Everything the Commission has done during the past five years testifies to its heritage.

Seamen During World War I

During the First World War the government constructed an emergency fleet and manned it through its own hiring halls. By this method, after the war, when a large part of the fleet was tied up, the government was able to smash the seamen’s union.

In July 1917 the Shipping Board established the Sea Service Bureau, which operated hiring halls in 21 American ports. While the wartime rush was on, with shipping booming and sailors at a premium, the International Seamen’s Union operated in cooperation with the Shipping Board. But this “cooperation” was a one-sided affair. The Shipping Board made various rulings concerning wages, hours and conditions of labor for men employed on Shipping Board vessels. While war lasted the effect of these rulings was that wages were kept up, but they never reached a figure comparable to those of workers in other industries. The basic wage for able seamen was fixed at $85 per month under the three watch system. Marine firemen received $90. In some instances the union was able to get a bit more.

Soon after the war the Shipping Board showed the power of its rulings. Ships were tying up. Thousands of seamen were thrown on the beach. The shipping industry was among the first to suffer the general post-war depression. The Shipping Board began a “solution” of the problem by ruling, in conjunction with private shipowners, that the union should sign a new agreement. The proposed agreement called for a 15 per cent wage cut. It abolished the three watch system, thus increasing the work week from 56 to 84 hours. With the increased work week, the wage cut actually amounted to over 40 per cent. Furthermore, all overtime pay was abolished and subsistence allowances were lowered. But this was not all. The Shipping Board denied seamen the right to have union representative present when they signed articles for a trip or were paid off after a voyage was completed. And with prospects of the depression deepening, the proposed contract was limited to six months, subject to termination on short notice.

Such an edict left no alternative to the International Seamen’s Union; the 1921 strike was called. The Shipping Board was prepared for it. The Sea Service Bureaus shipped 15,029 officers and men to break the strike. “Temporary agencies were reopened on the Great Lakes on May 1 and continued to the middle of June in order to help supply engineers to the coast ports during the national marine strike.” (Fifth Annual Report of the USSB, ending June 30, 1921.)

The Seamen’s Journal of May 25, 1921 reports an incident that many seamen who were in that strike remember:

“Admiral Benson, who will surrender the Chairmanship of the Shipping Board on July 1 to James H. Farrell, President of the United States Steel Corporation, has dropped his pretense of sympathy for the union ... He declares that he will take away from the operators all ships owned by the Board where the operators make terms with the union that do not provide for the 15 per cent cut in wages which he has ordered.

“As almost every steamship company in the United States is now operating one or more ships to which the Board holds title, this order by Benson is an ultimatum to shipping companies to join the fight to smash the unions or get out of the business.”

The Shipping Board accurately described itself in its Sixth Annual Report. “The division ... corresponded to the industrial relations department of any of the larger private industries of the country.” This report opined that “due regard should be given to the principles adopted by the conservative employers.” Andrew Furuseth was bitter. For a union policy of collaboration in support of the war, the government paid off by smashing the union. At the 1921 International Seamen’s Union convention, Furuseth charged: “The government, with its power and money, is to create, foster and perpetuate the non-union shop, proscribing the union man.” And at another time with equal clarity: “The United States Shipping Board has become the most potent weapon in the hands of predatory interests.”

The union-smashing task that the United States Shipping Board began under the trying conditions of war, and succeeded in accomplishing after the war was over, was the same job handed the Maritime Commission 15 years later.

The Experience of the British Seamen

In 1938, while the Maritime Commission was still in its formative stage, President Roosevelt sent a commission of inquiry to England to study the conditions of seamen there. The British government had successfully regimented all seamen during World War I by means of the Continuous Discharge Book, issued to all seamen by the British Board of Trade. It contained a description of the man, his rating, and space for a continuous record of his sea service. According to US law a seaman is given a discharge at the end of each voyage. Under open shop conditions if he applies for a job he can produce these discharges to prove that he is an experienced man. However, since they are individual discharges and all separate, he can produce only a few of those he actually has. Thus, if he has made a number of short trips or has quit his ship before completion of a voyage, which is always true of a man who is marked in the industry for union activities, these facts are not readily apparent to the company shipping master. But with the Continuous Discharge Book, the entire sea record of a man is there. Anyone looking at the book can tell at a glance whether it belongs to a “loyal employee” or an “agitator.” The Book thus serves as a blacklist.

The Book was agreed to in England by the conservative union representatives. In exchange for this, the trade union officials received joint control of the hiring halls. That is to say, a government board comprised of shipowners, union representatives and government agents operates the hiring halls in England. Seamen are not shipped unless they are satisfactory to both the union and the operator. This arrangement has resulted in the shipowners collecting union dues from 90 per cent of the seamen by means of the checkoff system. Roosevelt’s committee reported: “There are no shop committees or union representatives on board ship; the union officials stated that, to maintain discipline, they ‘would not allow such a thing.’”

In the light of these facts it is not surprising that the President of the Sailors’ and Firemen’s Union of Great Britain and Ireland could write to Andrew Furuseth during the 1921 strikes:

“It seems strange to me that the owners in America are so strong on the ‘open shop,’ whereas the owners on this side are doing everything they can to make it the ‘closed shop.’ ... As a matter of fact, the great majority of the owners have turned the entire shipping of men over to us and many of them have expressed the view that they do not know how they could do without us.”

The success of this so-called “closed shop” system, with every British seaman carrying the Continuous Discharge Book as a blacklist in his hip pocket, is noted by Roosevelt’s Commission of Inquiry. “That this machinery works well,” says the report, “is attested by the fact that in nearly 20 years of its existence there have been no official strikes, and only two unofficial stoppages, one, an unsuccessful strike among the caterers (who at that time had a separate organization) and the other, a localized rank and file stoppage of seamen growing out of wage reductions which the Seamen’s Union had agreed to. In the latter instance, the union supplied men to man the ships.” But the report did not say how such a happy state of affairs could be achieved. That was the job for the Maritime Commission.

The fleet that the Maritime Commission was instructed to build was designed for the coming war. It was thus described in the Merchant Marine Act of 1936:

“the creation of an adequate and well balanced merchant fleet ... to provide shipping services on all routes essential for maintaining the flow of foreign commerce of the United States, the vessels to be so designed as to be readily and quickly convertible into transport and supply vessels in a time of national emergency. In planning the development of such a fleet the Commission is directed to cooperate closely with the Navy Department as to national defense needs and the possible speedy adaptation of the merchant fleet to the national defense requirements.”

This job was undertaken by the Maritime Commission with Joseph P. Kennedy, stockholder in Todd Shipyards Corporation, as its first chairman. The Act forbids an owner in the industry to be in any way connected with the National Maritime Commission. Roosevelt simply put the law aside and pushed Kennedy into the chairmanship of the Commission.

The Aims of the Maritime Commission

Under Kennedy’s direction a vast training program was soon under way to supply a “disciplined” personnel for the new ships, long before a single keel was laid. How far this training program had gone was clearly stated in the Report of the Maritime Commission to Congress on Training Merchant Marine Personnel, published on January 1, 1939. Before its publication the Maritime Commission had established three “training ships” and was already looking around for a fourth. Two were on the east coast. One of them had 15 buildings on Hoffman Island in lower New York harbor “to train approximately 2,500 of the present personnel of the merchant marine at this station annually.” The other was in New London, Connecticut and “planned to train annually at this station approximately 200 of the present licensed personnel of the merchant marine.” The third training station was on the Pacific, at the US Coast Guard base, Government Island, Oakland, California, “to train annually approximately 650 present unlicensed and 100 present licensed personnel of the merchant marine.” So by the end of 1938 machinery was already moving to turn out more than 3,000 unlicensed seamen from government training schools. Union pressure forced the Maritime Commission to formally announce it would restrict the schools to “unemployed licensed and unlicensed men of the merchant service. They must be citizens with at least two years’ sea service in the American merchant marine, of which seven months must have been served within two years prior to application for enrollment.” But in this same report the Commission was quick to reassure Congress: “Regulations restricting enrolment are subject to change. The number of persons enrolled in said Service ... shall be determined, fixed and prescribed by the Commission in such manner and form as may appear to be necessary to maintain a trained and efficient merchant marine personnel ...” It added: “The Commission believes it most important to have at the disposal of the merchant marine a thorough system of training ... licensed and unlicensed personnel and, in addition, competent young Americans who have had no previous experience.”

The Maritime Commission had three big guns which were brought into play in its drive for regimentation of seamen. One of them was the training ship. Another was the government hiring hall. Both of these had been used before. The third was the Continuous Discharge Book. This weapon had been used by private operators in America, on the Lakes and the Pacific Coast. But it was new in the government’s arsenal. It was thought to be so valuable that it was incorporated in the body of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936, not even left to the discretion of an agency to, use at the proper time. When the Act became effective in 1937 the fink book was supposed to be automatically compulsory upon all seamen.

Such was the government’s union-smashing program. But to write and enact such a program into law is one thing. It is something else to enforce it. Nobody can say the government didn’t try. But it ran into a stone wall – the stubborn resistance of the seamen.

The cornerstone of the government program was the abolition of the union hiring halls, replacing it with government hiring halls like the Sea Service Bureaus of the last war. But, just as the hiring hall was the fundamental issue to the government, so was it to the seamen.

The Resurgence of the Seamen’s Unions

Union hiring halls had been re-established in the period just before the Maritime Commissions set out to destroy them. The re-establishment of union hiring halls was above all due to the west coast seamen after the 1934 west coast strike.

By 1935, union hiring halls were operating up and down the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Pedro. This was the result of direct action by west coast seamen. They refused to ship except through the union hall. If a man came aboard ship from any other source the rest of the crew formed a welcoming committee for him. Every man who quit a ship went to the union hall and registered. He received a card with the date of his registration. When he was ready to go to work again he went to the union hall and saw on the blackboard what jobs were needing his skill and experience. If he saw a job he liked he bid for it. If other members of the union were bidding for the same job, the one with the oldest shipping date to prove that he had been out of work longest was given the job. The next west coast strike, in 1936-37, was especially successful because it forced the shipowners to recognize for the first time in signed agreements with the unions the principle of the union hiring halls. The Steamship Owners Association of the Pacific Coast had to incorporate this provision in its agreements with all the west coast unions: the Sailors Union of the Pacific, the Marine Firemen’s Association, and the Marine Cooks & Stewards Association. Since that time every union contract on both coasts has embodied this provision.

This period saw the complete breakdown of the old AFL international, the International Seamen’s Union, which began when the reactionary officials of the ISU expelled the Sailors Union of the Pacific on Jan. 12, 1936. From that date on the crafts on the Pacific Coast – sailors, firemen, and cooks – began their separate independent existences. The Sailors Union of the Pacific was finally reinstated in the AFL in 1938 and given a charter to organize all American seamen. The Marine Firemen to this day are attempting to steer an independent course, not being affiliated to either the AFL or CIO. The Marine Cooks & Stewards are now formally affiliated to the CIO. This development on the Pacific had its counterpart on the Atlantic.

Real organization of east coast seamen began to take form following the 1936-37 national maritime strike. Although the strike on the east coast was called in “sympathy” with the striking west coast seamen and longshoremen, it was really an organizational measure taken by the Stalinists who set up the National Maritime Union (CIO). But on the east coast there were still seamen who remained with the AFL. This body of seamen was brought under the wing of the Sailors Union of the Pacific in 1938 when the west coast sailors got an AFL charter – the Seafarers International of North America, AFL – which today is in the field and competing with the National Maritime Union, CIO, for the sympathy and support and allegiance of all seamen on all coasts.

The Union Hiring Hall Under Attack

While these divisions among seamen weakened them and often prevented the leadership from seeing the main enemy clearly, they also caused many a headache for the Maritime Commission. The Commission, with a docile union leadership of a single seamen’s union, might have by this time put over some sort of scheme which today would operate very like the shipping pool in England. But that wasn’t in the cards.

The first government assault on the union hiring hall was a flank attack: the attempt to enforce acceptance of the Continuous Discharge Book. As in England, it would have enabled the owners to weed out the militants from the industry and thus pave the way for smashing the union hiring hall altogether. Thus the government was attempting to do by law for the shipowners what they had failed to do for themselves in the 1936-37 strike.

The government’s scheme collapsed when the Pacific Coast seamen simply refused to take the Continuous Discharge Book. Who would enforce the law? The shipowners, just defeated in the three-months strike and with no stomach for another one, were scarcely ready to enforce it. Any attempt by the government itself to do so meant tying up the ship; at a time when the employers wanted them running. The government retreated. A compromise was reached whereby the unions agreed to a Government Certificate of Identification. It eliminated the worst feature of the Book – the space for the continuous record of a man’s sea service. As amended in 1938, the Merchant Marine Act makes the Continuous Discharge Book optional. No union seaman carries the Continuous Discharge Book today. That does not mean that tomorrow the government will not again attempt to establish it.

The next government assault on the union hiring hall was to open a government hiring hall in New York on April 1, 1938, another one in Baltimore a little later, and to prepare for still others elsewhere. Captain Conway, the government spokesman, announced what the halls were for: “We are not concerned with the union views or affiliation of the men. We accept all applications whether or not they are union men ...”

The showdown on this issue did not come on the east coast, where the principal union, the Stalinist-controlled National Maritime Union, refused to make a fight. It was left to the west coast unions, led by the Sailors Union of the Pacific,. to halt the government program, when the Maritime Commission attempted to extend government hiring halls to the Pacific.

In Seattle in March 1939,the Maritime Commission announced that it would operate ships out of that port under the following policy:

“Unlicensed personnel of vessels operated for the account of the US Maritime Commission are employees of the Commission. Masters of all US Maritime Commission vessels have the responsibility and the duty of selecting the crews of such vessels ... Crews shall be supplied through the office of the US Shipping Commissioner and subject to final acceptance by the master. No discrimination shall be made because of membership or non-membership in any organization.”

The answer of the west coast seamen was to throw picket lines around the ships involved. The whole north-west labor movement stood back of the sailors. The government dared not go through with its scheme. It found a face-saving device to retreat, setting up a group of Seattle businessmen as “private operators” who signed a contract with the union recognizing the union hiring hall. Meanwhile pickets kept a watch in New York at the government hiring hall, 45 Broadway. These pickets were representative seamen from every maritime union, even though the Stalinist leadership of the National Maritime Union did not support the picket line. Soon after the Maritime Commission’s Seattle failure, all government hiring halls were closed.

As has been seen, the brunt of these successful struggles was borne by the west coast unions. It must be emphasized. however, that they could never have been successful without the aid of the rank and file of the NMU, in spite of the Stalinist leadership of that union. All seamen, whatever their union, were against government intervention.

In some instances attempts were made to unite all seamen on this issue. The most notable example of this occurred in Mobile, Alabama, on December 14, 1938. A joint committee there of NMU and SIU seamen called a mass meeting to discuss the following questions:

“l. The betterment of conditions of the seamen as a whole.

“2. Unity in combating the opposition of the Maritime Commission, such as Fink Halls, etc.

“3. For greater unity and harmony among all seamen.”

Three hundred and fifty seamen from all unions were present. The chairman opened the meeting with these words: “There will be no need for a brother to give his name, book number or organization. We are not gathered here as members of different unions – but as brother seamen for an open discussion of our problems.” He reviewed briefly the history of the seamen’s struggle against the fink halls, recalling that they were used as far hack as 1909 on the Great Lakes. “The same tactics that the Lake Carriers used were inaugurated on the Pacific Coast – there it was called the fink halls, headed by a former Police Captain from Portland, namely Captain Peterson. The Steamship Owners Association, under Peterson, regimented all the maritime workers under this nefarious scheme of the owners. The maritime workers threw this yoke off their necks in 1934 and since 1934 have made wonderful gains for the organized workers. The shipowners have now formulated another scheme through their conniving lobbyists in Washington and have come out with another hellfire plan, namely the Maritime Commission Fink Hall and the Training Ship Schemes.” (Quotations from official minutes.)

These remarks undoubtedly expressed the sentiment of all seamen. They never achieved organizational unity; jurisdictional conflicts and prejudices among the competing unions remained; but the basic unity of sentiment of the seamen was an important factor in defeating the Maritime Commission.

After its defeats on the hiring hall and Continuous Discharge Book issues, the Maritime Commission’s most powerful remaining weapon was the training ship, which at bottom was but one phase of the general drive against the union hiring hail. The training ships were the factories where a substitute for the skill and experience of union men would be turned out on a mass production basis. Thereby the government hoped to get enough seamen independently of the unions.

The union seamen were just as conscious of the anti-labor role of the training ship as they had been on the other issues. In September 1938, when recruiting began for the training ships, the ports were crowded with unemployed seamen. The Maritime Commission wanted some of them on the training ships, to cover up its recruiting of new men outside the industry, but few bona-fide union men would accept the bait. Even after December 1938, when the Stalinist leadership of the National Maritime Union endorsed the training ship program, few seamen joined. With most of the maritime unions opposing the training ships, the government was faced with the fact that those completing the training course would not be able to ship except through the union hall. Moreover, it was unable to get sufficient trainees: the universal hostility of the seamen discouraged many a candidate. Then, in August 1939, came the Stalin-Hitler pact, and the NMU leadership, in line with the pseudo-revolutionary anti-war program of the Communist Party, reversed its endorsement of the training ships. All these factors combined to prevent the training ship program developing at more than a snail’s pace.

Nevertheless, if the government had had time enough, the training ship might have solved its problem. Direct action of the seamen could stop government hiring halls and the Continuous Discharge Book, but could not stop the training ships. In time there might have been thousands of such seamen outside the unions.

The War – And New Anti-Union Tactics

But time was precisely what the government did not have. Long before the training ship program had served its purpose, the war caught up with the Maritime Commission. Since 1936 the Commission had tried to work against time to be ready for just this war. But the unions had upset the timetable.

The formal entry into war necessitated a change in tactics both toward the unions and in the ship construction program. The original plan was to build 500 ships over a ten year period [1]; this now had to be stepped up. Ships built before the war were carefully designed and constructed. These were the Maritime Commission’s Cl, C2 and C3 types, capable of 15 to 22 knots, most of them speedy enough to outrun submarines. On the other hand, the present mass production Liberty Ship is a jerry-built job, made to be sunk. They are thrown together with thin plates, and can make only 11 knots under favorable conditions. Construction of these sea cows is in line with the repeated misconception of such people as Secretary of Navy Knox who for the first six months of this war thought “We can build ’em faster than they can sink ’em.” The fact that already in less than ten months of open warfare on the high seas the Nazis have sunk more ships than the Maritime Commission planned to build over a ten year period may necessitate still another change in this field.

The war, creating an extreme shortage of seamen, altered the previous significance of the training ship issue. While this shortage enabled the Commission to put over its training ship program, the shortage has also further aggravated the problems of the Commission. Men come off the training ships into union crews and are generally absorbed as union men. The most the training ships can now do is to provide supplementary personnel, instead of a body of men separate from and opposed to the unions. Thus for this period the training ship has lost much of its significance.

Faced with the bankruptcy of its original plan, both as to the number of ships and the regimentation of seamen, the government tried a new tack. In the first frantic days following Pearl Harbor, a meeting of all seamen’s representatives and steamship operators was called in Washington. “National unity”’ for the war effort was now brought forward to do what the previous anti-union program had failed to achieve.

The conference was not a complete success from the point of view of the Administration. Its real aim was to insure against strike action by coaxing the union leaders to give up the right of direct collective bargaining with the shipowners on questions of bonus rates. What resulted was a new agency, the Maritime War Emergency Board, as a recommendation of the conference. [2]

The government got a measure of insurance against strikes. This was given verbally by the majority of union representatives in conference with the shipowners. They signed a Statement of Principles which said: “Without waiving the right to strike, maritime labor gives the government firm assurance that the exercise of this right will be absolutely withheld for the period of the war; on a voluntary basis therefore this is a guarantee on the part of labor that there will be no strikes during the period of the war. Representatives of employers in the maritime industry also guarantee there will be no lockouts for the period of the war.”

In its first days the Maritime War Emergency Board ostensibly confined itself to such practical questions of the moment as bonus rates for various war zones. But this was only for the record. The Board was hardly two months old when its chairman, Edward Macauley, opened the campaign for “discipline.” He sent a letter to all unions signatory “to the Statement of Principles agreed upon at the Conference held in Washington during December.” The fears of the government are hardly concealed by the threats in the letter. We quote it:

“The Commission is in receipt of many statements reporting loose discipline on board US Merchant Marine vessels and improper behavior of American seamen in foreign ports. I am often forced to defend my belief that our maritime personnel are capable, self-respecting seagoing men who are performing their duty properly, creditably and bravely. The complaints are frequently reiterated, and there seems to be considerable evidence that some of the masters and other licensed officers on our merchant ships are unable to control members of their crews because of threats, real or implied, and fear of reprisals or pressure, which make their work more difficult and might eventually cost them their jobs.

“Last week I attended a meeting of the highest officers of our Navy at which it was again urged that the entire Merchant Marine be taken over and operated by the Navy under Naval conditions and discipline. I have consistently opposed such action. If we are to retain the manning of our ships by American seamen chosen from union membership through the hiring halls and are to make our ships efficient and of the greatest use to our war effort, steps must be taken to control those elements that have given rise to the complaints above referred to.

“Don’t misunderstand me. Having spent a great part of my life at sea and on board ship, I do not expect seagoing men to be angels, but they should be dependable, competent and obedient to orders from proper authorities.

“One or two cases of bad conduct will get more publicity and do more harm to our efforts to prevent the taking over of the Merchant Marine by the Navy than the favorable effect of 100 cases of exemplary behavior which are not conspicuous. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the unions cooperate to the fullest extent in the maintenance of that discipline that is necessary to the proper and efficient, handling of ships.

“Ships’ delegates should be most carefully chosen and impressed with the importance and responsibility of their positions. By example and advice these delegates should influence and control recalcitrant or non-cooperative individuals who by thoughtless or ill-chosen conduct or attitude may reflect discredit on the maritime labor movement to the detriment of its independence, progress and perpetuation.

“If the Maritime Commission, the Maritime War Emergency Board, and the Maritime Unions are to cooperate successfully in these critical times, as we should, then you must exert every effort to (put the organized maritime labor movement in the high position in which I believe it belongs. If we are to preserve the improved working conditions and advantages that maritime unions have gained in the past five years, it is up to you to see that not only some but all of its membership are responsible and disciplined, a credit individually and collectively to that movement and to our own nation.

“The adherence of the Maritime Unions to the: Statement of Principles agreed upon at the Conference held in Washington during December, the agreement by the unions not to strike, their faithful observance of this pledge, and their continued and determined courageous sailing of vessels into the danger zones are recognized and appreciated by the Maritime War Emergency Board, by the Maritime Commission and, I believe, in great measure by your fellow countrymen.

“It is important that a reply to this letter should be received at the earliest possible date.

Yours sincerely,
Chairman MWEB.”

Chairman Macauley got his reply, quickly. The Seafarers Log, official organ of the Seafarers International Union, published it in full for all members of the union to study. Seamen are pretty wise to this old hard-cop-soft-cop game.

The Maritime War Emergency Board is trying to use the Navy and other government agencies as bogey men, in an effort to cajole and conn the seamen along. Thus Colonel Knox of the Navy (Secretary) begins to “study” a plan for the Navy to absorb the merchant marine. But before the Colonel has completed his “study,” another government agency, the War Shipping Administration, which is supposed to be concerned only with big-time deals in shipbuilding and trading, suddenly steps forward with a full-blown plan to smash the union hiring hall.

The plan provides for “Establishment of a Division of Manning in the War Shipping Administration which shall have responsibility for the personnel employed in ships of the American Merchant Marine for the duration of the War. The Division of Manning shall establish a central hiring setup in all ports of continental United States frequented by the vessels under the control of the War Shipping Administration.” And next the training ship program. The Division of Manning would “participate in the various Government programs for recruitment and training of personnel.” Also it would “coordinate the various Government agencies administering laws pertaining to discipline on board ship” and “eliminate disloyal elements from the present personnel of the Merchant Marine.” Last, but still very important to them, the fink book. The Division of Manning would “direct and coordinate the various Government agencies issuing seamen’s Identification papers.” The Book is still optional. And doubtless under this set-up the Division of Manning could convince most seamen to pack it.

The Latest Anti-Union Moves

Before there was time for discussion of the War Shipping Board’s proposed plan, the Beard itself chartered the entire merchant fleet of the nation. This was designed to make the War Shipping Board the employer. The Board was now in a position to issue its famous administrative Order governing personnel. Some interesting points in the War Shipping Board’s new regulations were the following:

“l. Selection of Crew. The master shall have the responsibility and the duty of selecting the crew and approving or disapproving any man for employment as a member of the crew.

“2. Complaints or suggestions for the good of the service. Whenever an unlicensed department head or special rating has a suggestion or complaint he may submit it through his immediate superior to the master for adjustment.”

The union hiring halls are relegated to a subsidiary role in the Order in the following way:

“3. The War Shipping Administration will establish and maintain pools of seagoing personnel, both licensed and unlicensed, who will be available for employment on vessels operated for account of the War Shipping Administration. Men will be furnished to these pools from training stations established and maintained by the Coast Guard and from union hiring halls. They may also be furnished to those pools from vessels temporarily laid up or from any other sources approved by the War Shipping Administration. It is the Policy of the War Shipping Administration to cooperate with the labor unions and to seek the cooperation of the unions in the proper manning of merchant vessels with civilian crews.”

The last sentence, the reader will note, comes at the end of a long series of Regulations which contradicts the entire meaning of the union hiring hall, denies men the right to union representation in the settlement of beefs on board ship, and does away with virtually all payment of overtime. And the War Shipping Administration says it wants to “cooperate” with the unions! This is more of the kind of “cooperation” seamen got from the US Shipping Board after the last war.

This move by the War Shipping Administration to charter and operate the entire American merchant marine under open shop conditions represents the high point of the government’s drive to smash the union hiring hall in this vital industry. Here again an attempt was made to use the tough method, the way of the old US Shipping Board. But the seamen’s unions today do not gasp and die simply by fiat of administrative order from Washington. Most of the unions were prepared to make a fight for self-preservation. The Seafarers International Union stated its position unequivocally:

“The time has arrived to fight! The time has arrived to serve notice upon our enemies that the SIU has no intention of folding up shop and returning the seamen to the days of the ‘Fink Hall and slavery! In 1939,12,000 men banded together in the SIU to protect themselves against the avaricious shipowners and the reactionary politicians – they will not disband now! Let the shipowners mark these words! Let the Maritime Commission mark them! Let Knox and Macauley and Admiral Land and Joe Curran mark them!”

By this time the Stalinists, with Joseph Curran as their chief spokesman in his capacity as president of the National Maritime Union, had gone so far in their pro-war frenzy as to openly advocate a government shipping pool for all seamen.

The Maritime Commission found itself faced with a united-front opposition of all marine unions except the National Maritime Union. It was compelled to countermand the Administrative Order of the War Shipping Administration. The “surprise” move was a bit premature.

The War Shipping Administration was forced to sign a “Statement of Policy” in which “it is understood that all disputes shall be settled through the regular machinery now in existence under the collective bargaining agreements between the unions and the steamship operators.”

But if the pool has not yet replaced the union hiring hall in this country it does not mean that the government has given up. It has simply taken another tack. It is forced to experiment for a while with other methods.

The latest “clever” scheme to drag the American seamen into a pool was launched in May. This time the War Shipping Administration used officials of the International Transport Workers Federation as a union front. It was an attempt to establish a giant shipping pool of all seamen of the United Nations. It was proposed formally at the 12th session of the Joint Maritime Commission, a sub-committee of the International Labor Organization (of the League of Nations), in London, June 26-30, 1942. “The ITF proposal,” said Omer Becu, representative of the International Transport Workers Federation in this country, “vests sweeping powers in the proposed tripartite Maritime Commission and demands that seamen now serving in the armies of their countries be released for employment in the merchant marine. Several features of the plan are already in operation in Great Britain and corresponding action is as necessary on this side of the Atlantic as on the other.”

Although the Seafarers International Union (AFL) formally affiliated to the International Transport Workers Federation in June this year, government hopes for immediately establishing an Allied shipping pool were shattered when Morris Weisberger, SIU delegate to the London session, made known the following instructions from his membership:

“We (SIU-SUP) are opposed to joint boards of labor, operators and government. We firmly believe that the disputes and conditions relating to merchant seamen should be directly handled between the shipowners and the unions. With the three-cornered boards composed of government, operators and unions, the seamen have two strikes against them because, in the final analysis, invariably the government will take the side of the shipowner. Furthermore, the seamen do not want to be serfs or wards of the government. Seamen are free men and should be allowed to maintain their status as such.”

On this basis, the SIU rejected the pool. That kind of stand is pretty hard for the Maritime Commission to get around right now.

But the SIU position is essentially defensive. It is of course correct in rejecting the pool, but it betrays a misunderstanding of the part the government plays today in the shipping industry. All questions should be settled directly between the union and the shipowner. However, the government is the shipowner. Who are these people referred to as shipowners? They do not build ships. They do not own ships. They do not load ships. They do not route ships. And they have nothing to say about wages and conditions on ships today except in their capacity as appointed government representatives. These questions are all settled in Washington between the unions and the Maritime Commission or one of its agencies. In turn of course the Maritime Commission is underthe control of the handful of really big shipping magnates, who openly sit on the War Shipping Administration: Robson and Wilcox of United Fruit, Knight of the Isthmian Line, Bradley of Matson, and Cushing of American-Hawaiian. And certainly, having wiped out the smaller fry, the government after the war will turn the ships over to the big operators. But the essence of the problem of the unions today, and for a long time to come, is that they are confronted by the government and not by private operators.

This, then, is the crooked set-up that seamen face today. At the moment the Maritime Commission appears to be cooking up another scheme, perhaps awaiting developments within the union movement itself. Meanwhile the unions are being attacked from a new quarter, as the Army requisitions ships and operates them under open shop conditions, openly violating all the government pledges to the unions. When the unions demand that the Maritime Commission get the Army to live up to those commitments, they are given the off-the record apologetic answer: “You know how the Army is.” Just as the Army is thus used to intimidate the unions, so is it used against the individual seaman. He is being told that the Army will put him in uniform if he fights to save union conditions.

Thus seamen today have to take ships to the far corners of the world for a war that has meant only more concentrated attacks upon their democratic rights and more profits for the “private operators.” The operators, naturally, will be around after the war because they “operate” without risk of life or property today. But thousands of today’s seamen will not be here then. The seaman is in danger wherever he turns. At sea he faces the Nazi submarines. At home he faces the dictatorial government agencies and brass hats. The inspiring fact is that, in the face of all this, the seamen and their unions have come through with the union hiring halls still intact.

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1. Admiral Land, Chairman of the Maritime Commission, said on January 25, 1939: “This long range program of 500 ships was, and is, based on the Navy’s needs ... The merchant fleet is the lifeline of the Navy. It feeds it, fuels it and repairs it at sea. In addition, it transports troops when necessary.” These words make it clear that the 500 ship program was a plan for war. Yet, as of August 29, the number of vessels sunk in the Western Atlantic area since Pearl Harbor is 447, according to an unofficial tabulation by the Associated Press. Some 2,938 seamen lost their lives, 1,700 are missing, and 13,358 have been rescued. This does not take into account vessels sunk in other areas such as the Pacific or Arctic; we can assume that the total number is in excess of 500 ships lost.

2. The following men were appointed by President Roosevelt to the Board and were accepted by all parties to the conference:

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Last updated on 21.8.2008