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C. Thomas

Maritime Labor Displays Might in National Strike

All Unions Back AFL Fight to Block Wage-Cut by WSB

(9 September 1946)

From The Militant, Vol. 10 No. 37, 14 September 1946, pp. 1 & 2.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

NEW YORK, Sept. 9. – The greatest strike in maritime history paralyzed shipping in every coastal port in the country as ships were pinned down to their piers by picket lines of the AFL Seafarers International Union and Sailors’ Union of the Pacific.

This mighty demonstration of union power came in protest against Truman’s Wage Stabilization Board ruling that slashed wage increases gained in collective bargaining agreements with the ship operators.

The complete effectiveness of the strike was due to the unprecedented solidarity of all sections of the waterfront workers. Longshoremen, teamsters and harbor workers pledged to respect the AFL seamens’ picket lines. All seafaring unions, AFL, CIO and independent, declared their support and condemned the antiunion action of the wage-freezing WSB

Seamen Solid

The Danish, Swedish and Norwegian Seamens’ Unions wired their branches in this country to do everything in their power to aid the strikers. Other union branches representing foreign seamen in the United States sent messages of solidarity and support.

The primary issue is the right of the seamen to bargain collectively with their employers. After extended negotiations the SIU-SUP finally reached agreement with the ship operators. The agreements were approved by the War Shipping Administration, the government agency directly involved, and were then submitted to the Wage Stabilization Board.

Slashed by WSB

The WSB refused to sanction the wage increase. It arbitrarily ruled that any increases beyond the “prevailing” rates established in June for the CIO seamen were “inflationary.” This would automatically bar the AFL unions from concluding agreements with a higher wage scale.

This attempt to freeze wages at the “prevailing” level was declared to be “government policy.” If permitted to stand, the WSB decision would set ’ an adverse precedent for all unions.

The strike of the seamen is, therefore, immediately a strike against the Wall Street government’s wage policy.

The spirit of the strikers is excellent. Despite long ten-hour picket watches here in the port of New York, the men express their determination to stay on the bricks until the WSB reverses its decision. No one goes through the line without an OK from the strike committee. Members of other unions employed on the ships or docks contact the strike committee for instructions.

Ships Are Dead

With the sympathy walkout of the towboatmen Saturday the busiest harbor in the world is as placid as a frog pond. Ships now entering the port are unable to dock and are compelled to ride at anchor. Men employed on ship-to-shore launches check with the union on who can ride. Control over the movement of men and cargo rests in the hands of the strike committee. The ships are dead and the men vow they will stay dead until their demands are won.

Meanwhile the administration at Washington is stalling for time. In an effort to avert the walkout, the WSB requested the unions to postpone strike action until the board has met on Sept. 10 to consider additional evidence.

The SIU-SUP strike bulletin replied:

“... the Wage Stabilization Board has scheduled a meeting on Tuesday of next week to ‘reconsider’ its anti-union decision. On that day, our strike will be just five days old. We venture to predict that five days of strikebound shipping in all ports will generate enough steam to thaw out the wage freezing bureaucrats of the WSB.”

The Truman administration is in a dilemma. If the WSB is forced to reverse its decision, it will be a body blow at the government’s key wage-freezing agency. Such tri-partite boards derive their authority from the voluntary consent of the unions. The impotence of these boards is revealed once they are faced with the determined opposition of any important section of the labor movement.

The tremendous power of the strike and the overwhelming support for the striking seamen so far has forced Truman to soft-pedal on belligerent strikebreaking threats such as he hurled at the CIO Committee for Maritime Unity during the June crisis.

But the administration cannot duck very much longer. An extended tieup of such vast scope will create a major crisis. The shipping industry is too vital to Wall Street’s plans of world exploitation and domination. Indications are that the Truman “brain trust” is trying to devise a face-saving formula with which to appease the seamen while restoring the authority and prestige of the discredited Wage Stabilization Board.

The administration will very likely attempt to engineer a rotten compromise leaving unsettled the main issue in dispute. Such a compromise would only postpone the showdown which would not be long in coming.

The CIO maritime unions are directly concerned with the outcome of the present dispute. Most of the issues of the June 15 crisis remain unsettled. Among them is the demand for equalization of the wage scale at the maximum rates.

From the beginning of the present dispute, the National Maritime Union and other CIO affiliates have come out strongly in support of the AFL demands. All CIO affiliates are respecting the SIU-SUP picket lines. SIU-SUP men are picketing NMU contracted ships. Under the circumstances it is inevitable that questions arise daily concerning policy and practical arrangements in the conduct of the strike.

The NMU has requested a meeting with representatives of the SIU-SUP to work out a common agreement on matters concerning the conduct of members of the respective organizations. Such an arrangement is both just and necessary to prevent misunderstandings that might lead to conflicts that could otherwise be avoided.

The SUP on the Pacific Coast has reached such an understanding with the other maritime unions. Harry Lundeberg, President of the SIU and Secretary of the SUP, has urged the joint SIU-SUP strike committee in New York to meet with the NMU. However, at the time this is written, the New York committee has failed to take the indicated step. The tendency in the New York AFL group has been to oppose such necessary collaboration with the NMU.

If this tendency prevails it will serve to weaken the strike front. The New York boss press immediately seized upon this “disagreement.” The labor-hating Daily News carried a front-page scare-head: CIO Seeks Hand in Ship Strike – AFL Rebuffs Bid for Meeting. These jackals are quick to sniff any rift and to play it up in the hope of disrupting the fighting solidarity of the waterfront workers.

The strike is an epoch-making event in American labor history. Never before have the maritime workers succeeded in coordinating their action on a nationwide scale, Such united action can mark a tremendous forward step for maritime labor. Nothing must be allowed to undermine this magnificent solidarity.