For hundreds of years, seamen yearned to better their lot. From the whip-lashed oarsmen of Roman and Spanish galleys to the crews of modern windjammers, seamen were usually underfed, underpaid and overworked and considered workmen beyond the usual recourses of the law.
Along with the harsh and vigorous nature of their daily labors were the constant hazards of seafaring. Untold thousands of sailors have set out from port never to return, becoming victims of storms, collisions and that most dreaded foe of the ocean voyager--fire at sea. And in the pages of old shipping journals there was always this recurrent notice beside the name of a ship: "missing and presumed lost with all hands."
Much as they wanted to better their condition, seamen had little chance to express their dissatisfaction in any effective way, much less to organize for concerted action. Maritime laws of all nations gave absolute authority to the captain at sea. Quite appropriately was the captain called "master." He was that, in fact. Many protests by seamen during a voyage against poor food, overwork, brutality or unsafe conditions were branded "mutinies" and were suppressed by fists, guns or belaying pins. Only rarely was the seaman's voice heard as far as the courts, and then the masters, mates or owners almost always won the case.
All maritime nations had strict laws against a seaman leaving his ship before the end of the voyage. In 1552, for instance, the Spanish government decreed that any sailor who deserted his ship before the end of a voyage to America could be punished by 100 lashes, a sentence virtually equal to death. As late as the 19th century in England, the United States and other maritime nations, a seaman who left his ship before the end of a trip could be forcefully apprehended and brought back on board. If he wasn't returned, he automatically forfeited his pay and any belongings left on the ship. In the U.S., this law was only rescinded after passage of the "Magna Carta of the American Seamen"-- the Seamen's Act of 1915. This legislation was initiated by Andrew Furuseth, famous champion of seamen's rights and head of the old International Seamen's Union.
The sailor was always at a great disadvantage in organizing into a union because of the nature of his profession. He was at sea most of the time. And when ashore, his meager wages were soon spent, leaving him at the mercy of crimps, shipping masters, owners and the many other harpies of the waterfront.
A seaman with a reputation for protesting his lot would soon find it hard to get a ship. But the seaman has always been an independent fellow, and it is not surprising that the first labor strike in the United States was by the sailors of New York in 1803, when they refused to sail the ships until they received an increase in pay from $10 a month. There is little information available about this strike, but there is a reference to them getting $17 a month later, so the action must have been effective. But the sailors' efforts were only spasmodic and their achievements did not last long. There was a strike in Boston in 1837, when pay was little more than it was in 1803.
It must be remembered, of course, that many shoreside workers were not much better off than the seaman. If the sailor was unhappy with his pay, he did not have much chance of improving himself ashore. Once accustomed to the sea, moreover, the sailor did not take kindly to the boredom and drudgery of jobs ashore.
The first organization of seamen in the United States occurred in January of 1866 when the following notice appeared in a San Francisco paper:
Seamens Friendly Union Society
All seamen are invited to attend at the Turn Verein Hall on Bush Street between Stockton and Powell Streets on Thursday Evening, January 11 at 7 1/2 o'clock to form a Seamens Society for the Pacific Coast.
This meeting resulted in organization of the Seamens Friendly Union and Protective Society. Alfred Enquist was elected president and George McAlpine, secretary. It was the first organization of seamen in this country, perhaps the first in the world. In 1875, the United Seamen's Association was formed in the port of New York, and it sent a delegation to Congress to petition for laws to protect seamen. The delegation, according to a news report in The New York Times of January 21, was "graciously received by the President."
No more was heard of this organization.
The Seamen's Friendly Union and Protective Society in San Francisco did not last long, and the next organization to come along was the Seamen's Protective Union formed in San Francisco in 1878 with 800 members. It, too, had a short life.
When wages on the coasting vessels fell to $25 a month in 1885, seamen met one night on a lumber wharf along the San Francisco waterfront to protest. This was followed a week later by a second meeting, which resulted in formation of the Coast Seamen's Union, with Billy Thompson being elected president. By July, the union had a permanent headquarters and some 2,000 members. Only sailors were allowed to join. Dues were 50 cents a month. In the following year, seamen on steamships formed the Steamship Sailor's Protective Association, which merged in 1891 with the Coast Seamen's Union under the name Sailors Union of the Pacific.
In June of 1886, the SUP had called its first strike, forcing wages up to $30 a month.
With these organizations, the seamen's labor movement was off to a firm start, at least on the West Coast.
Seamen organized on the Great Lakes at about the same time. The Seamen's Benevolent Union of Chicago was formed in 1863 but soon expired, mainly because its main objective was to take care of sick or indigent members rather than to raise wages and improve conditions.
In 1878, this organization was revived with the name Lakes Seamens Benevolent Association, under the leadership of Dan Keefe.
This was a real trade union, with its main commitment being financial betterment and improved living conditions aboard ship. Branches sprang up in the major Lakes ports. Within a few years, the ship owners had broken the union by setting up their own hiring halls and refusing to ship any men with known union proclivities. The Union, however, was revived in the 1890s and survived to become part of the International Seamen's Union.
Longshoremen of the Lakes organized in Chicago in 1877 and then formed the National Longshoremen's Association of the United states in Detroit in 1892. This became the International Longshoremen's Association in 1895. It was also on the Great Lakes that the first union of marine engineers was formed in 1854. It quickly faded away but was revived in 1863 and again in 1875 when it became the National Marine Engineers Beneficial Association. Captains and mates have a history of union activity on the Lakes dating back to 1886.
In 1892, a convention of seamen was held in Chicago, with delegates from the various unions now organized on the West Coast, the Great Lakes and the Gulf of Mexico. There were no delegates from the Atlantic.
At this meeting was born the National Union of Seamen of America, later to be known as the International Seamen's Union. It lasted until the 1930s, and out of its eventual wreckage came the Seafarers International Union and the National Maritime Union.
It was almost 100 years ago that American seamen belonging to various unions realized the need for a strong, single voice to speak for the sailor in the halls of Congress and in attempts to improve his economic situation. Convening in Chicago in April of 1892, representatives from the Pacific and Gulf Coasts and the Great Lakes formed the National Seamen's Union of America, later to become the International Seamen's Union.
A constitution was drafted, national officers were elected, and a chief organizer was appointed. Charles Hagen was the first president; Thomas Elderkin, the first secretary; and James McLaren, the first national organizer.
These officers were not just pie cards. They had solid seagoing backgrounds, a record of labor organizing, and a resounding zeal for the sailor's cause.
A native of Germany, Hagen sailed for 15 years on windjammers under many flags. A man of unusual energy and imagination, he organized the Gulf Coast union of seamen and firemen and the New Orleans Marine Council, an influential group of marine engineers, captains, pilots and other maritime workers ... a close parallel to our important Port Councils today. He was president of the Gulf Coast union.
Secretary Elderkin, a native of England, was also a deep water sailor who had become aroused over the conditions of seamen after making a voyage on the "hellship" Waterloo, notorious for the brutality of its officers. He shipped on the Great Lakes for some years and helped to organize the Lakes Seamen's Union. He also lent his talents to organizing the Chicago building employees. He was president of the LSU.
Organizer McLaren was a Nova Scotian who joined the Sailor's Union of the Pacific in 1887 and served as an officer in various capacities. According to an article in the Coast Seamen's Journal of 1893, McLaren was a man of "shrewd energy and unswerving devotion to the sailors' cause ... feared and respected by all enemies of seamen," especially the crimps.
Seamen enjoying the comparative luxury of today's ships and the good food and high wages won by union efforts in the past 50 years will be amazed by what the seamen of 1915 hailed as the major achievements of the act passed that year.
The seamen's bill provided a two-watch system for the deck force, and a three-watch system for the engine gang, plus a maximum nine-hour working day in port. It set a more liberal schedule for rations and a minimum of 100 cubic feet of space per man in the fo'c's'les. Previously, each man had been allotted 72 cubic feet, which Furuseth described as "too large for a coffin too small for a grave." Also, the law specified that bunks in fo'c's'les could be no more than two high.
The law also decreed that 75 percent of the crew must be able to understand commands given in the English language.
Spurred by the sinking of the Titanic and other marine disasters, the act was also concerned with more safety at sea, better qualified seamen, more and better lifeboats and more seaworthy conditions of ships.
It brought about historic improvements in the life of the sailor.
For one thing, the law decreed that the sailor no longer could allot part of his wages to creditors before signing on a vessel. This sounded the death knell to crimps, shanghaiers and shady boarding housekeepers who had preyed on the sailor, taking a "mortgage" on his wages in exchange for food, lodging, drinks and clothes.
And no longer could the seaman be imprisoned on charges of desertion if he left his ship before the end of a contracted voyage. It also prohibited corporal punishment for offenses aboard ship.
For these reasons, the ISU hailed the seamen's bill as "the emancipation proclamation for seamen of the world."
It was union support that financed the years of effort necessary to arouse congressional and public support for the seamen's cause and successfully guide the seamen's bill on its rocky and often tempestuous course through Congress. Its eventual passage was a tribute to union organization and to Andrew Furuseth, who had devoted 20 years to the seamen's cause in Washington.
The National Seamen's Union was set up as a federation of a number of independent unions, including the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, which was the sparkplug in its organization; the Lake Seamen's Union, the Atlantic Coast Seamen's Union, and the Seamen's and Firemen's union of the Gulf Coast. The Atlantic Coast Seamen's Union had been in existence since 1889 but had not been very effective and was in such poor financial shape that it could not even afford to send a delegate to the Chicago convention of 1892. It could only afford a "good luck" telegram.
The new federation wasted no time . . . nor did organizer McLaren. Within a year, the dues paying membership of the "weak sister," the Atlantic Coast Union, was increased from about 400 to more than 1,000; several branches were reorganized, and wages had been boosted by about $12 a month. By the time of the new federation's second annual convention in New Orleans in 1893, the Atlantic Coast union was considered to be "on a fair way to becoming the largest seamen's union in the world." This prediction was actually realized in World War I.
The ISU supported a determined effort to improve the conditions of seamen through congressional legislation, eliminating abuses which had plagued the seamen's lot for generations. This battle was spearheaded by Andrew Furuseth, Washington representative of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific since 1893 and its longtime secretary. He devoted the better part of a lifetime to fighting sailors' battles in Washington.
Furuseth was elected president of the ISU in 1908 and from that time on was the respected voice of all American seamen, not only in the halls of Congress but in the press and to the hundreds of groups to whom he spoke on behalf of the "sailor's cause."
Over the years, several pieces of legislation were passed by Congress on behalf of seamen, but it was the Seamen's Bill of 1915 that crowned all such efforts for the sailor and has rightly been called "the Magna Carta of the American seaman."
The bill was sponsored for Furuseth and the ISU by Sen. Robert M. LaFollette of Wisconsin and was actively supported by Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson and a number of other congressmen. Furuseth labored for it passionately and untiringly day and night. After a two-year battle in Congress, the bill was signed by President Wilson on March 4, 1915.
The Seafarers International Union was born in the hectic, strike-ridden days of the Great Depression, the worldwide economic slump of the 1930s. The founders and many of the early members of the SIU came out of the International Seamen's Union, founded in 1892 as a federation of a number of seamen's unions on the four coasts of the United States.
The great achievement of the ISU was its support of the long-time battle to improve the legal status of seamen and of safety and living conditions aboard ship. This fight culminated in passage of the Seamen's Act of 1915. But the union's history, unfortunately, was plagued by frequent internal strife, a continually weak financial situation, and the not-always-successful effort to speak for its various autonomous parts, which could not always agree on common objectives.
In 1913, for instance, the ISU revoked the charter of the Atlantic Coast Seamen's Union because it would not support a national legislative program. The Eastern and Gulf Sailors Association, headquartered in Boston, was chartered to replace it.
There was a continual changeover in the makeup and leadership of unions within the ISU. In the space of a few years, as an example, the Atlantic Coast Seamen's Union became the Sailors Union of the Atlantic, and then the Sailors and Fireman's Union of the Atlantic.
Thanks to the shipping boom of World War I, the ISU enrolled more than 115,000 dues-paying members and enjoyed a brief period of financial prosperity. One of its major successes was the strike of 1919, which resulted in a base wage of $65 for ABs and $90 for firemen, an all-time high for deep sea sailors in peace time.
But this war-generated shipping boom soon ended, there was a worldwide shipping depression, and by 1921 membership rolls of the ISU had shrunk to 50,000. Owners refused to renew contracts and decreed wage cuts of up to 25 percent, which the ISU refused to accept. An all-ports strike started on May 1, 1921.
Shipowners set up their own hiring halls and hired non-union men or those who had dropped out of the union, a situation made more favorable for the owners because of the big reservoir of jobless seamen. After two months, the strike collapsed and the wage cuts prevailed.
This defeat weakened the ISU. It was further crippled by the continuing disruption by such radical groups as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and the Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU).
For about 10 years after the ill-fated 1921 strike, the ISU was relatively dormant. But it was projected head-first into the violent West Coast longshoremen's strike of 1934 despite the reluctance of its leadership to get involved. The ILA West Coast dockworkers had gone on strike May 9, 1934 for more money, a 30-hour week, union-run hiring halls and a coastwide contract. West Coast seamen walked off their ships in support of the dock workers and presented demands of their own for higher wages, union recognition in collective bargaining and better conditions aboard ship. East Coast officials of the ISU then decided to support the strike in all areas, asserting that 1933 demands for better wages and conditions had been ignored by shipowners.
The owners rejected all demands.
Shipping in San Francisco and other West Coast ports was soon at a standstill. Within a few days, more than 50 ships were idle at their docks or at anchor and piers were filled with cargo that could not move to its destination.
Shipowners and other business interests then determined to open the port, and plans were made through the Industrial Association to run trucks through the gauntlet of pickets and get cargo off the piers, with Pier 38 as a start. Trucks were driven to the pier on the afternoon of the second of July, with the drivers being evacuated from the water-end in a launch. On the morning of Thursday, July 3, more than 5,000 longshoremen, seamen and curious onlookers had gathered on the Embarcadero near Pier 38. At about noon, a convoy of loaded trucks came off the pier under police escort and headed for a warehouse on King Street, passing unmolested through the picket lines.
This operation was repeated several times to the growing discontent of the pickets. Finally, the strikers could stand it no longer, and when the trucks again tried to run the gauntlet, the longshoremen and the sailors bombarded truckers and police with bricks and stones. Police counterattacked with clubs and tear gas. The battle had begun. When it was over, one picketer had been killed and many hurt.
There was no action on Independence Day, but by 8 a.m. on July 5, some 3,000 picketers had gathered on the Embarcadero, and when a Belt Line locomotive came along with cars for the pier, the battle began again. Picketers set cars on fire, hundreds of policemen charged the massed picketers, and a full-scale engagement began, with bricks and bullets, clubs and tear gas on nearby Rincon Hill, a knoll along the waterfront. When police charged up the hill to chase the picketers away, shots were fired and two picketers were killed. Scores were wounded.
When the National Guard moved in that night and took over the waterfront, the Embarcadero became a no-man's land.
The unions retaliated by calling a general strike on July 16. This action paralyzed the city. Nothing moved. Stores closed. Only a few restaurants were permitted to open. Business life came to a standstill. The strike was called off July 19 when the Joint Strike Committee representing 120 striking unions agreed to put all demands to arbitration. The president had designated a National Longshoremen Board to arbitrate the dispute.
The 1934 strike, which lasted 39 days, resulted in substantial gains for both longshoremen and seamen, with the latter obtaining wage increases, a three-watch system onboard ship and better living conditions. Although the strike seemed to end with satisfactory results for all concerned, there were more strikes to come in those troubled days of the Great Depression, with labor unrest only one phase of the social fermentation and upheaval.
Labor unrest included a new form of on-the-job protest called the sit-down strike, in which men literally sat down on the job. There were a number of sit-down actions in the maritime industry, with seamen preventing ships from sailing as a means of getting immediate response from owners on demands for higher wages and union representation. Two new maritime unions, the Seafarers International Union and the National Maritime Union were born in these hectic times. Both sprang out of the old ISU, which faded away as an organization which had served its purpose and had outlived its time.
By 1936, the International Seamen's Union was headed for the rocks, buffeted by forces from within and without.
At a long and stormy Washington convention in February of that year, conservative elements retained control of the union and reelected the venerable Andrew Furuseth as president. More importantly, they pushed through a constitutional amendment giving the union's executive board the power to revoke the charter of any local union at any time.
The board then revoked the charter of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, which Furuseth charged was being taken over by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and other radicals. The ISU tried briefly in 1938 to set up a competing union, but this attempt soon died for lack of support. The SUP sailors remained faithful to their union.
Another factor in the weakening of the ISU had come about in 1934 with formation of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, a central labor organization containing some ISU units, principally the SUP, plus longshoremen and other groups. Harry Bridges, the longshoremen's leader, was the principal organizer of the Federation, which Victor Orlander, national secretary of the ISU, claimed was set up to destroy the International.
But it was also being wrecked from within.
Dissidents in the ISU charged that officials were not holding the required elections and had negotiated contracts with shipowners without approval of the membership and demanded their removal. Probably an equally important factor in undermining the union, however, was the general temper for change that was sweeping the country in the 1930s. It is possible that no change within the old union structure would have satisfied the activists who wanted new leaders and a more aggressive program in tune with the times. A coastwide strike started in October of 1936 as seamen demanded a new agreement to replace the 1934 pact with the shipping lines. ISU officials resisted efforts to call a general sympathy strike on the East Coast, and this incited more unrest among the rank and file. Numerous unauthorized sympathy strikes took place.
In March of 1936, crewmen of the liner California went on strike at sailing time in San Pedro, Calif., refusing to cast off the lines unless the Panama Pacific Line met West Coast wage scales and overtime.
Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins persuaded the crew by telephone to sail the ship and promised to look into their grievances when it docked in New York. But Secretary of Commerce Daniel C. Roper branded the action a mutiny, and when the ship docked, the strike leaders were logged and fired. Many ISU men blamed their officials for not backing up the crew in this beef, and the leadership was further weakened.
They were fast losing control over their members.
In October of 1936, ISU crews staged a sit-down strike in sympathy with West Coast seamen and against orders of union officials, starting with a sit-down on the S.S. American Trader in New York. This "sitting down" on the job was a new type of action that was to become common during the labor unrest of the 1930s.
ISU officials called on the men to live up to their agreements and sail the ships and threatened to expel those who didn't, but these threats had little effect.
In November of 1936, ISU men in Boston struck in support of the West Coast and issued a daily mimeographed strike bulletin in which they denounced both union officials and shipowners.
Unhappy about the reluctance of their leaders to call out "all hands" in support of the West Coast, a group of dissidents set up a Seamen's Defense Committee in October of 1936. Joe Curran, a 34-year-old newcomer to the maritime labor scene and a spokesman for strikers on the liner California, became chairman of the strike strategy committee, the beginning of his rapid rise to power. Curran was described by The New York Times as a "young and militant disciple of Harry Bridges" and as a "key man in the rank-and-file of seamen here."
The Seamen's Journal, official publication of the ISU, pointed out the inconsistency of Curran's sudden disenchantment with ISU leadership, saying he had only been a member of the union for one year during his seafaring career. But Curran was aggressive, articulate and ambitious, and the times suited him well.
And it was evident, judging by those who surrounded and supported him, that Curran was willing to front for the strong cadre of left-wingers in the new union. He later repudiated these associates and helped reduce their influence in the NMU.
In November, Curran headed a so-called Insurgent Seamen's Committee, which negotiated contracts with two small steamship lines, Prudential and Transoceanic, this being made possible by support from the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, the American Radio Telegraphers Association, and the Masters, Mates and Pilots, which were striking these companies at the time.
In May of 1937, a large group of the ISU rebels led by Curran and Jack Laurenson broke away from the old union entirely and formed a new organization called the National Maritime Union, claiming 27,000 members. They filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board to hold an election and determine which group should be bargaining agent for the more than 70 ISU lines operating out of the East Coast and the Gulf. The voting started in June of 1937. The NMU was victorious on most of the ships, although the crews on some lines, notably the Eastern Steamship Company, remained faithful to the old union. But with the new organization dominating the elections, it was evident that drastic action had to be taken to maintain the AF of L's role in maritime labor.
And so in August of 1937, the AFL took over the remnants of the ISU in order to rebuild a seamen's union within the Federation.
William Green, president of the AFL, requested the resignation of ISU officials, and the Federation's executive council placed the union's affairs in the hands of an executive committee which included Green, ILA President Joe Ryan and AFL organizer Holt Ross.
At Green's request, Harry Lundeberg, head of the SUP, sent a top assistant, Morris Weisberger, to New York to set up a nucleus for this rebuilding, straighten out the union's financial situation, and organize a new dues structure for the Atlantic and Gulf divisions. A Seamen's Reorganization Committee was established for this purpose in December of 1937, with Lundeberg naming Robert Chapdelaine as temporary head of the new union. During this time, it operated under a federal charter.
Once it was stabilized and in firm hands, the executive council of the AFL issued a charter. This was done at the Houston convention on October 15, 1938, the charter being handed to Lundeberg by President Green. By then about 7.000 members had been organized on the East Coast and the Gulf, and Green was predicting that there would soon be 30,000 on all coasts. The new AFL seamen's union, the Seafarers International Union, was now under way and going "full speed ahead."
The ink was scarcely dry on its charter before the new Seafarers International Union began winning benefits for its members and proving its intention to play an aggressive role in maritime labor.
In 1939, SIU crews began a drive for more adequate bonuses on ships sailing into war zones. The union also signed improved contracts with the Savannah Line and other operators.
An 11-day strike against the big Eastern S.S. Co., operator of passenger ships and freighters, resulted in a contract for better wages and working conditions. A strike began against the Peninsular and Occidental Line (P&O), which operated car-ferries and passenger ships between Florida and Cuba. This strike lasted 14 months and was finally successful for the SIU, although the company later put its ships under foreign flags. The P&O beef showed that the new union could "stand together" when the going got rough. The SIU was most effective for its members in the war bonus beefs that began in 1939. These bonuses were for extra "hazardous duty" pay for men sailing ships to South and East Africa and the Red Sea.
The September 18, 1939 issue of the Seafarers LOG carried this headline: "SIU Strikes Ships for Bonus."
Crews walked off the Eastern Steamship liners Acadia and St. John and the Robin Line freighter Robin Adair. The St. John and Acadia had been chartered for returning American citizens from Europe and for carrying American construction workers to air base projects in Bermuda.
These actions resulted in the shipowners agreeing to a 25 percent bonus for voyages to certain Atlantic and Middle East war zones.
In September of 1940, the LOG carried a headline of vital interest to seamen: "SIU Gets Increase to 33-1/3 Percent in Bonus for African Run." There probably would have been no increase if it had not been for militant action taken by SIU crewmen on the Robin Line's S.S. Algic in July of 1940, when they walked off the ship, demanding a bonus of $1 a day from the time the ship left port in the United States until her return home.
The Algic action came after an announcement by the German Navy that it had planted mines in African waters.
As the war spread and both submarine and air attacks were intensified, the SIU pressed for a still more adequate war bonus for seamen endangering their lives in war areas.
SIU men again hit the bricks in July of 1941, tying up the Flomar, Shickshinny and Robin Locksley in New York to show they meant business. The ships were later released and allowed to sail when operators and the government agreed to sit down and negotiate.
The urgent need for action on bonuses was emphasized with the torpedoing of the SIU-manned Robin Moor about 700 miles south of the Azores in May of 1941. She was the first American flag merchant ship sunk in World War II. American ships and seamen were now on the front lines of the war, and there they served through VJ Day in 1945 to the official end of hostilities more than a year later.
When there was no progress in talks with operators and the government, the SIU initiated all-out action in September of 1941, starting with ships in New York that were loaded with cargo for new bases in the Caribbean. The tie-up soon extended to vessels in Boston, New Orleans, Mobile and Tacoma. Within a few days, more than 20 ships were tied up.
The U.S. Maritime Commission struck back by seizing three Alcoa ships and placing government-recruited crews onboard and threatening to requisition all privately-operated merchant vessels.
President Roosevelt told the union that the ships "must move or else." The SIU was up against the federal government, so on September 25, seamen met at 14 SIU ports and voted to release the ships pending negotiations to end the dispute.
Hearings began in Washington which ended in a victory for the seamen, for on October 5, the newly created National Defense Mediation Board (NDMB) recommended increased bonuses and set up a procedure for avoiding future disputes. It also recommended creation of a three-man War Emergency Maritime Board for maritime mediation, which was approved by the president. This board handled bonus matters for the duration of the war.
The NDMB granted an immediate increase in war bonuses for unlicensed personnel from $60 a month to $80 a month and an increase in special bonuses for the port of Suez and other Red Sea and Persian Gulf ports. Needless to say, the West Coast unions and the National Maritime Union were powerful allies with the SIU in its bonus battles, with the NMU respecting SIU picket lines, even though it did walk out of an important union-industry Washington bonus conference in 1941.
If it had not been for strong and militant action by the union before United States entry into the war, American merchant seamen would probably have been sailing dangerous cargoes through hazardous seas for regular pay. In its war bonus fight, the SIU proved that it could pinpoint an issue, "move the troops" and use the power of well organized action to win just compensation for its members.
Members of the Seafarers International Union were on the front lines of battle in World War II. They carried guns, planes, gas and "ammo" to a dozen beachheads and to supply ports and island bases all over the world from the Aleutians to Algiers.
Even before the United States had officially entered the war against Germany, Italy and Japan, SIU sailors knew what it was to be torpedoed and put adrift in open boats hundreds of miles from the nearest land. On May 21 of 1941, long before Pearl Harbor, a submarine stopped the unarmed Robin Moor of the Robin Line on route from New York to South Africa. Capt. William Myers was given 20 minutes to abandon ship, after which the U-boat's gunners put 33 shells into the freighter and sank her. After the sub disappeared, the 45 survivors struck out for land in four boats. Fortunately, all four were picked up but not until the fourth boat had traversed 700 miles of open ocean.
When the first survivors were landed and news of the sinking stirred the nation, President Roosevelt sent a special message to Congress in which he said that American ships would not be intimidated. "We are not yielding," he said, "and we do not propose to yield."
When German U-boats brought the war to the very coasts of the United States early in 1942, SIU seamen were among the first to feel the brunt of it. The SIU-manned City of Atlanta was northbound off Hatteras on January 19, 1942, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine, with the ship going down so fast that there was no time to launch the boats. Only three men survived; 39 were lost.
Less than a week after this, the SIU-manned S.S. Venore, an ore carrier, was torpedoed off Cape Hatteras with the loss of 18 men. Following quickly in the wake of this sinking were a long list of SIU ships, all of them unarmed and unescorted. There were the Robin Hood, the Alcoa Guide, Pipestone County, the Major Wheeler, the Mary and many more as U-boats enjoyed a field day along the Atlantic Coast, in the Gulf of Mexico and in the Caribbean.
Two boats from the Pipestone County were adrift for 16 days before being picked up. The Major Wheeler completely disappeared. The Robert E. Lee, a passenger ship, was sunk almost inside the Mississippi Delta.
Despite this havoc, no SIU ship was held up for lack of a crew. Many crews steamed out to meet almost certain death. The Alcoa Pilgrim, loaded deep with 9,500 tons of bauxite for Mobile, caught a "tin fish" and went down in 90 seconds with heavy loss of life.
SIU men made the hazardous run to Russia, including the famous convoys of July and September, 1942, which were hit by subs and bombers and lost many ships in those cold, Arctic waters.
SIU crews made all the hazardous war runs?all the bloody beachheads. Unsung "heroes," in a way, were the crews who spent months on tedious trips to supply bases behind the tides of battle.
There wasn't a beachhead from Anzio to the Philippines; from Normandy to Okinawa, where SIU crews were not in the forefront of war. They took part in the longest battle of the war, too?the four-year-long Battle of the Atlantic?the fight to keep England supplied with food, gas, guns and other war supplies.
They had to run the U-boat gauntlet to get the goods through, and many ships went down trying to do it.
Thousands of SIU seamen took part in the greatest assault and resupply in the history of war?the invasion of the French coast in June of 1944. They had an important role in landing the 2,500,000 troops, the 17 million tons of ammunition and supplies and the half-million trucks and tanks that were put ashore there in the first 109 days after D-Day.
There were myriad tales of heroism as SIU ships steamed their embattled way across sub-invested seas.
Take the case of the S.S. Angelina of the Bull Line. This SIU freighter was westbound in October of 1942 across the North Atlantic when it became separated from the rest of its convoy in a violent storm in which waves were 30 feet high and more. Just before midnight on the 17th, a torpedo exploded in the engine room, killing the black gang and flooding the engine spaces.
Only one boat could be launched and, being overloaded with crewmen and Navy armed guard gunners, it was soon capsized in tremendous seas. Some managed to hold on to the grab rails on the bottom of the boat, but one by one they were swept away by the numbing cold and the battering waves, until only a few remained.
These would have died, too, were it not for the heroic efforts of the ship's carpenter, Gustave Alm. It was Alm who urged the weary, desperate men to "hang on . . . hang on." When one of them would drop away from exhaustion, he would bring him back and help to hold him on until he revived. When someone said, "I've had enough" and wanted to die, Alm would slap him on the face and yell, "Keep on . . . keep on."
When the British rescue vessel SS Bury finally found them many hours later, Alm continued to assist his shipmates while crew members from the Bury climbed down scrambling nets to bring them to safety. Alm was the last to be saved, and later was singled out for praise by the Bury's captain in a report. (The rescue is covered in a 1968 book titled "The Rescue Ships," by Brian Schofield and L.F. Martyn.)
Like many other SIU men in World War II, carpenter Gustave Alm was one of the merchant marine's true "heroes in dungarees."