Ocean Atlas Ordeal Shines Light on MDL


Defense Fund Vitally Important to SIU Members Since 1967


November 2012


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The importance of having a well-funded Maritime Defense League (MDL) was made abundantly clear this summer when Venezuelan authorities, including armed military personnel, boarded an SIU-contracted ship and detained the crew.


While the two-week ordeal eventually turned out to be caused by a customs misunderstanding, the SIU crew and the AMO officers of the Ocean Atlas were initially threatened with jail time in a Venezuelan prison. SIU officials knew they had to do something to prevent that from happening, so they turned to the MDL.


“With the Ocean Atlas we had a developing situation,” said SIU Counsel Leslie Tarantola. “During an appropriate drug search, weapons were discovered that were being carried on the vessel for use when the vessel travels through areas where the threats of piracy attacks are very real. It turned out to be a misunderstanding, as the weapons were declared, but we needed to immediately retain legal consultants and that is when we were able to turn to the MDL. I am quite certain that without it (the MDL), it would have taken a lot longer to resolve this situation and the mariners would have been detained and separated from their families for a substantially longer duration.”


Formed in 1967 after various laws and court decisions prevented the SIU from using dues revenue to directly help mariners who were facing job-related criminal legal problems, the MDL remains a vital tool for the SIU to help members who are in legal trouble. It is funded exclusively through donations and has repeatedly come to the aid of SIU members who find themselves entangled in often baseless legal attacks.


SIU Vice President Lakes and Inland Waters Tom Orzechowski, who regularly encourages members to contribute to the MDL, said situations like the Ocean Atlas show why donating is so important.


“There’s no better place to spend that money than when our brothers and sisters are detained overseas and we need legal help,” he said. “The next time it could be you.”


As the Ocean Atlas story made headlines around the world, Tarantola said company officials were able to retain a local Venezuelan lawyer for the crew while, thanks to the MDL, the union retained the counsel of a former U.S. congressman who knew and worked closely with high-level Venezuelan officials. The crew arrived safely in Houston soon after.


“He was really able to expedite the process of getting the ship released,” Tarantola said of the former congressman. “I can’t say enough about how important his assistance was.”


Members of the Ocean Atlas crew were certainly happy with the results. Without the MDL, it’s widely agreed that the process would have taken much longer than it did. Instead of potentially facing extended delays in Venezuela, the crew celebrated its homecoming in Houston.


“I’m very grateful to everybody that pulled us through and got it worked out,” Recertified Bosun David Hetrick told a reporter for the Seafarers LOG aboard the Ocean Atlas following its arrival in Houston. “It could have been terrible for all 15 of us.”


Prior to the MDL, mariners were often left to fend for themselves when facing criminal legal challenges. In a 1967 speech proposing the creation of the MDL, former SIU Vice President Robert A. Matthews said many mariners went bankrupt trying to pay for their own legal defense. Whether they were falsely arrested for striking for decent wages or detained due to a misunderstanding – like the Ocean Atlas crew – Matthews said mariners needed to know they weren’t one set of handcuffs away from the poor house.


“The law says the union can’t provide assistance, legal help or otherwise, unless the man is acquitted and released – even if the union believes it can help prove the man’s innocence,” Matthews said. “It’s too late then most of the time anyway because a union member has probably used up all his savings, if he has any – he’s hocked his house, car and everything else to pay for his defense – and after he beats the charge he’s back to where he started except for being broke and having a bad name.”


Matthews went on to cite instance after instance of mariners being falsely imprisoned and intimidated by the police simply because of certain beefs or picket issues – situations that could very easily happen today.


And that’s where the MDL comes in.


“It is a most worthy cause and … it deserves the support of every SIU member and every union in member in this industry,” Matthews said. “It is the only way to provide the help that is needed at the time it is needed.”


Thanks to the MDL, help was provided at precisely the right time for the Seafarers aboard the Ocean Atlas this summer.


“It should be comforting to our brothers and sisters that we have this fund available to provide a safety net when and where it is needed.” said SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel. “The Ocean Atlas is just the latest example of MDL’s importance. And even though its original intent was to assist members on picket lines and such, the world is a much different place today. Seafarers are governed by many different laws and regulations today, both domestically and internationally. The MDL is a vital tool that allows the SIU to protect our members’ livelihoods without having to be concerned with spending their savings or going into debt.”


When it comes to the difference between a member potentially going bankrupt or having his or her brothers and sisters donate a modest amount to the MDL, Orzechowski added, the decision should be obvious.


“What the heck is $100 a year to put into that? Guys will put a hundred bucks a week into cigarettes and beer,” he said. “The MDL is a safety net. It’s cheap insurance for when these types of situations happen.”


Orzechowski said the MDL is also about more than just getting mariners out of legal entanglements.


“It’s also important for their families to understand there is a fund there so they’re not wondering, ‘How do I get my husband, wife, son or daughter home,’” he said. “[The SIU] is a pretty close-knit group of people and this is important.”


While times have changed in the 45 years since the MDL’s founding, the legal threats facing mariners worldwide are still very real. As the case of the Ocean Atlas showed, the cause Matthews rallied for in 1967 is just as important in 2012.


“SIU men have been subjected to harassment, jailings and legal problems.… Seamen everywhere have always been fair game for this kind of thing, whether because of a strike or job action, and for any other kind of job beef.” Matthews said. “It’s happened before, it’s happening now and it will happen again.”



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