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C. Curtiss

Class Struggle Issues Arouse
West Coast Maritime Unions

(18 December 1935)

From New Militant, Vol. 1 No. 52, 28 December 1935, pp. 1& 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

SAN FRANCISCO, Dec. 18. – The issue of job action has assumed great proportions on the West coast.

The recent convention of the maritime federation (organization of all waterfront crafts on the coast) has attempted to resolve this question of job action, with what success remains to be seen.

Job action is a term that describes a multitude of activities. But speaking generally it is action taken right on the job by the men involved in order to gain a demand or a set of demands.

Above all the seamen have been forced to take recourse to job action. The “award” they received some time ago has proven to be a cruel farce, and in order to maintain conditions of living and safety, the seamen have been compelled to utilize job action as an ultimate weapon.

The conditions under which the seamen live and work are described by Barry Lundberg, leader of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, and president of the Maritime Federation:

Conditions of Seamen

“The seamen are still working 56 hours a week or more for an average pay of $60 per month. No holidays for the seamen. It is only natural and just that they have a demand to claim overtime pay after working these long hours instead of time back.

“The living and eating quarters of the seamen as a rule are in terrible condition, poor heating and ventilation systems, rotten sleeping quarters, messrooms so small that men must wait in turn for another to eat. This condition and many others exist on most of the ships. The only way these conditions were remedied was by the action of the men themselves, refusing to live and work under such conditions. This action the men were forced to take, as the new existing labor relations hoard never was able to get anything for the men. The shipowners always manage to stall and block action.”

The Portland local of the Sailors Union of the Pacific, for example, in a letter sent to the Voice of the Federation, organ of the Maritime Federation, has the following to state, in part:

Job Action Gets Results

“After the 1934 strike the men were forced to job action practically all of the time, in order to force the shipowners to give them their due rights. On the strength of the united action of various ship-crews, the owners and the government were finally forced to hand down the present award, which they so recently have broken by denying the men collective bargaining. Job action forced the American Hawaiian, the Shepard Line, and various other companies to recognize the I.S.U.

“We could name hundreds of other cases where job action was the only weapon whereby the seamen got their just rights.”

Let us quote from another letter sent into the Voice, this time by a member of the American Radio Telegraphers Association, and approved by the Seattle local of that union.

(These articles were written in answer to an editorial published in the Voice giving the pros and cons of job action. The editorial was entitled Job Action, or Else!)

“Job action is not the spontaneous demonstration of the will of the crew as the author of Job Action or Else! states. It is rather the last resort of men who have fully acquainted the ship operators or owners with a condition they do not care to sail under. After being refused the request, the crew has no alternative but to use job action.

“Following is the case of the crew of the S.S. Suweid of the Nelson Line. The crew of the S.S. Suweid knowing the ship not to be any too seaworthy, decided that they wanted the added protection of radio in the event an S.O.S. should have to be sent. For the information of those who do not know, the Nelson line has been operating a fleet of ships in the intercoastal trade. It has carried as many as nine passengers on a ship without radio equipment. None of the Nelson ships are very modern seacraft. Out-moded laws have no jurisdiction over the specific case mentioned above. The steamship companies will tell you that they do not carry radio on ships where there are less than fifty lives aboard. In point of law they are right. But how about the crew? Have they no right to state under what conditions they will take chances with a watery grave?

“The case of the Suweid is no isolated one in job action. The crew were granted their just demands. Wireless apparatus was installed and a competent radio officer was placed in charge of the equipment.”

One thing becomes clear from the above extracts, and that is that in the opinion of the men themselves (and who should know better than they) JOB ACTION GETS RESULTS.

Yet job action has been under steady attack by right wing elements as well as by Stalinists, who under guise of being for “organized” job action, steadily oppose the virile action of the seamen, and emasculate job action.

Lundberg Answers Conservatives

Harry Lundberg, representative of the seamen, in answer to the editorial Job Action or Else! has the following to state:

Objection: “They (opponents of job action) believe that indiscriminate, unorganized job action will prove a boomerang. That it will not only fail, but that it will definitely harm the maritime workers’ movement.”

Reply by Lundberg: “Job action is never indiscriminate, unorganized or unjust. As long as the men mutually agree, they have a just grievance which cannot be adjusted otherwise than through job action.”

Objection: “Job action, like any other spontaneous elemental effort on the part of men goaded to extremity, has its drawbacks. Where emotion and antipathy can occasionally dilute cool reason, mistakes are bound to occur.”

Reply: “Job action is not spontaneous. Neither is it emotional. The men who use job action are the men on the job who are discriminated against. Who knows better than the man on the job. Surely not the committee which is in most cases slowing up or holding back the progress of the seamen.”

There are elements within the Maritime Federation who fear the organized mass movement of the workers. These are the right wingers who, basing themselves upon some of the better situated sections of the maritime workers, now find themselves in the position where they are in deadly fear of any disturbance of the status quo and their position. In answer to the demands of the underpaid, overworked elements for better conditions, they lift an admonishing finger. That there are dangers in job action is true, but these dangers must not blind us to the correctness (as proven by the effectiveness) of the seamen’s position for job action.

Stalinists on Reactionary Side

Opposition to job action is perfectly understandable from the point of view of a right wing bureaucrat who fears motion of the masses as the devil himself. The Stalinists, however, have also come out against job action, by coming out for “organized” job action. (The seamen stood for “unorganized” job action according to these worthies.) In the final analysis this means no action at all, as proven by their attacks upon patrolmen (stewards) of the seamen, who had come out in favor of crews taking action. For their pains the Stalinists received the following reply by Chas. Cates, second patrolman of the Seamen’s Union:

“The editor of the Waterfront Worker, the anonymous organ of the C.P. on the waterfront, has taken it upon himself to ridicule and condemn the actions taken by the patrolmen of the Sailor’s Union.

“He (the editor of the Waterfront Worker) also states that this job action was taken without the consent of the rank and file.

“Now this action was taken right on the job by the men themselves with one idea in mind. And that idea was to get the full support of the Sailor’s Union, and not a lot of scares and threats that they would be breaking the award and probably be the cause of a coastwise strike.

“It was proven that job action is bringing results.

“I say instead of discouraging such action, steps should be taken to encourage job action.”

About the same time as the article appeared in the Waterfront Worker an editorial appeared in the Western Worker, organ of the Communist Party, attacking Harry Lundberg, leader of the elements standing for job action. The heading of this editorial is entitled We Need Maritime Unity – Not Beef Squads.

Workers Slam Stalinists

Harry Lundberg answered this editorial in an article that was unanimously endorsed by the Sailors’ Union.

The following is the heading of this statement by Lundberg.

Sailors’ Union Condemns Editorial

“The following answer to the vicious attack appearing in the Western Worker received the unanimous and enthusiastically acclaimed endorsement of the Sailors’ Union at their last meeting.”

The statement then went on to sharply condemn the attack on Lundberg, giving a picture of what actually took place rather than the distorted piece of fiction of the Western Worker.

In reply to this sharp statement made by the sailors, the Western Worker published a snivelling, creeping, crawling article of which the main theme was that an attack on the Western Worker is support for the shipowners.

In answer to this hypocritical statement let us refer that paper to an article written by two seamen, panning the little brother of the Western Worker, the Waterfront Worker:

“The San Francisco Chronicle, the American Seaman, organ of the official right wing in the Seamen’s Union, both took the same stand as the editorial in the Waterfront Worker in condemning job action. SO WHAT? In our opinion this is certainly no compliment to the Waterfront Worker, or any other so-called rank and file publication. Instead of questioning the sincerity of the writers of these three men (patrolmen who pushed job action) we believe that the sincerity of the writers of the article in the Waterfront Worker should be questioned.”

The Stalinists in this crucial question are following the logic of their extreme right turn. Within the mass movement they are a fetter upon its development. The Stalinists will have to be removed as well as the right wing in order for the union to make any further steps in advance.

Maritime Federation Resolution Ambiguous

A number of weeks ago the controversy was laid over for solution to a specially called convention of the Maritime Federation. The Maritime Federation has issued an ambiguous resolution, which generally supports the Stalinist version of job action – organized job action. Let us quote the resolution :

“Whereas, we believe and have demonstrated on numerous occasions that job action rightly used, with proper control, has been the means of gaining many concessions for the maritime workers on the Pacific coast, and

“Whereas, in as much as job action is and should be action taken when any group of maritime workers desire to gain a concession without openly resorting to a strike, and

“Whereas, in order to eliminate confusion and insure coordination of efforts in the best interests of all maritime groups concerned, it is apparent that an organized method of procedure for job action be laid down by this convention, therefore be it

“Resolved, that the term job action shall mean only action taken by any maritime group in attempting to gain from their employers some concessions specifically provided for in their respective agreement or awards and shall also mean action taken to enforce the award or agreement to the best interests of the maritime groups concerned, or to prevent employers from violating agreements or awards, and be it further

“Resolved, that job action should be confined to a job such as a ship, dock, shop, or warehouse, unless otherwise agreed by all maritime groups affected or liable to be affected should be notified and the. issue in question be placed before them, and be it further

“Resolved, that a committee of all maritime groups affected on the job be formed on the job to consolidate action and prevent misunderstandings; such committees’ authority not to exceed the constitution of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific Coast, and be it further

“Resolved, that when job action reaches a point in the opinion of the majority of the maritime groups affected by having their members pulled off the job, and that to go further may jeopardize the Maritime Federation as a whole, the matter shall be referred where and when possible to the district council for further action or adjustment.”

Instead of a sharp statement endorsing any action taken by the seamen in order to maintain and better their conditions, this resolution, endorsed by the Stalinists, comes out with a lot of ifs and whereases. In reality, this resolution does not answer any question, and leaves the important question still open: will the maritime leadership wholeheartedly support job action or will it try to spend its time proving to the San Francisco Chronicle, and the “good” shipowners how level-headed and sane they are.

For a Class Struggle Policy

Unqualified support of any group of workers struggling to better their conditions! No conditions must be given to this support! A class struggle policy, not a class-collaborationist policy will benefit the worker on the waterfront as a whole. And as part of the solution of this question we must present the following: the need for an industrial union on the waterfront instead of a federation of unions. The Maritime Federation was a progressive step over the lack of unity previously the rule off the waterfront. The first step should be followed by a second one: the organization of a Marine Transport Industrial Union. The conflict between one section and another section of the workers will then be done away with. The present situation with a number of agreements and awards, instead of one agreement, has many of the drawbacks of craft unionism.

It is necessary to also point out that the role of the Stalinists as progressives is a false one. Posing as left wingers, as rank and filers, their action has proved that in the final analysis they are an obstacle in the workers’ struggle. In reality they are closer to “progressives” of the John L. Lewis and Gorman type than to the rank and file. The creation of a genuine left wing union movement, free of Stalinist influence, is on the order of the day.

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