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C. Thomas

AFL Seamen Win; CIO Unions
Hit the Bricks for Equal Pay

(15 September 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 38, 21 September 1946, p. 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NEW YORK, Sept. 15 – The unbroken solidarity of America’s waterfront workers in history’s greatest maritime strike has forced Truman to reverse the decision of his Wage Stabilization Board and to grant to the AFL seamen the full wage increases they previously negotiated with the ship operators.

But the national waterfront tie-up continues as CIO maritime unions, whose support of the AFL strike was an important factor in the victory, pulled out their members in a fight to enforce their demand for equality of wages in the industry.

As AFL pickets were being withdrawn, CIO picket lines took their place to keep the ships dead in all ports.

John R. Steelman, Truman’s “economic stabiliser,” announced the government’s capitulation to the AFL seamen’s demands over the radio on Thursday evening, Sept. 12, the eighth day of the AFL strike.

Increase Approved

The AFL seamen, organized in the Seafarers International Union and Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, wrested government approval for general wage increases ranging from $22.50 to $27.50 per month. These wage scales, previously accepted by the ship operators, had been rejected by the Wage Stabilization Board, which provoked the strike.

Claiming the AFL wage scale were “inflationary,” the WSB ruled that the $17.50 granted the CIO seamen in June after a strike threat constituted the “ceiling” for the industry. The AFL unions declared that the WSB’s wage-freezing ruling was a violation of “free collective bargaining.”

The strike called on Sept. 5 by the SIU-SUP completely immobilized U.S. shipping and was the most effective maritime strike action in history.

The Truman administration was caught on the horns of a dilemma. If the WSB reversed its decision, as the unions demanded, it would suffer a mortal blow to its prestige and authority, On the other hand, the strike had aroused such tremendous support from all sections of organized labor that Truman did not even dare to repeat the threat made in June to use the Navy against an impending CIO strike.

Bolster WSB

After stalling for a week, the Truman administration sought to resolve the dilemma by a typical maneuver. The WSB held a “rehearing” which upheld its previous decision. This threw the dispute directly into Truman’s lap. Steelman, Truman’s Economic Stabilization Director, then hastily announced a formula designed to bolster the crumbling authority of the WSB, maintain the government’s wage-freezing policy and grant the AFL seamen their wage demands.

The Steelman formula was couched in such ambiguous language that no one could quite make out what it meant. A joint SIU-SUP membership meeting, held immediately after Steelman’s radio statement, went on record unanimously to continue the strike until the government gave unambiguous assurance that all union demands had been met.

The men were in no mood to be trifled with. Both rank and file members and union leaders expressed their resentment at the cheap trick played by Steelman in making a public announcement of the government’s decision before communicating with the strike committee. The men who pounded the bricks for eight days to tie up every port in the country were not going to be stampeded back to work by any double-talk from, Washington.

Full Compliance

The unanimous decision of the joint membership meeting was that there would be no return to work until the agreements were “signed, sealed and delivered.” It wasn’t until the following evening that the strike was called off officially when union officials received confirmation that the operators and government had complied with the full wage demands.

In the meantime, the CIO had established its picket lines in all salt water ports and joined the pickets of the independent Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association who had walked out immediately following the WSB’s statement reaffirming its previous rejection of the AFL wage scales.

The CIO maritime unions early this year had joined with the independent Marine Firemen to establish the Committee for Maritime Unity. When the operators refused to accede to the CMU demands, a strike date was set for June 15. It was during this period that the Truman administration had whipped up a lynch hysteria against the unions following the strike of the railroad workers and miners.

Strike Still On

Truman’s threat to use troops to smash a CIO maritime strike called forth an immediate response from the AFL seafaring unions. They declared they would walk off the ships if any such strikebreaking attempt was made. The dispute was temporarily settled when the CIO unions accepted a government proposal for a $17.50 general wage increase, with all collateral issues submitted to arbitration. It was this scale that the WSB attempted to enforce as the wage ceiling.

With the AFL seamen on record to respect CIO picket lines the present strike remains in full force and effect. The original strike policy of the CMU, under the influence of the Stalinists, was to make numerous exceptions permitting various categories of shipping to operate. This policy was contrary to that adopted by the SIU-SUP. The AFL unions sought to shorten the duration of the strike and increase its effectiveness by tying up all shipping with very few exceptions.

If the CMU policy had prevailed, any effective strike action would have been seriously endangered. However, the dynamics of the struggle Itself forced a change in policy. The CIO National Maritime Union’s strike committee in the port of New York has adopted a resolution to tie up all ships. If, this policy is firmly pursued it Will deter that section of the AFL leaders who would welcome a pretext to declare the CIO strike “phony” and send their men through the CIO lines. Both the AFL and CIO rank-and-file oppose any rift in the solid strike front.

The only blot on the magnificent solidarity of the waterfront workers thus far was the action yesterday of AFL longshore boss Joseph Ryan, who tried to force his members to crash an NMU picket line around a struck ship. When the rank and file longshoremen refused to act as finks for “King Joe” Ryan, he tried to provoke them with the taunt: “Are you going to let a couple of punks scare you?”

Union Spirit

But it was not fear of the six NMU-CIO pickets that prevented two hundred AFL longshoremen from refusing to crash a picket line, as Ryan insultingly implied. It was their union spirit and class solidarity that made them repudiate Ryan’s strikebreaking order.

Ryan later declared he would make no other attempt at scabherding that day, adding that he expected the strike to be over by- Monday.

Ryan’s disgraceful fink action has alerted all maritime workers to be on guard to preserve their magnificent unity in action to the end.

It is that unity in action that has been the backbone of the greatest demonstration of organized maritime labor power in history.