Stewards See School, Union as Gateways to Success


June 2015


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Seven Seafarers Complete Recertification Course at Paul Hall Center


With heartfelt blends of friendly humor and valuable insight, the union’s newest group of recertified stewards formally completed their training and received graduation certificates May 4 at the membership meeting in Piney Point, Maryland.


In keeping with tradition, the graduates – Janice Gabbert, Solomon Darku, Robin Ballard, James Kelly, Dulip Sookhiram, Ali Matari and Don Irvine – capped off their coursework by addressing fellow members, union officials, apprentices and guests. They spent the previous three weeks tackling the top steward department curriculum available at the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education.


The course includes hands-on training, classroom sessions, and meetings with representatives from different departments within the union and the school. While most of the class takes place in Piney Point, it also includes day trips to SIU headquarters (located in Camp Springs, Maryland) and the AFLCIO building across from the White House. All content is aimed at bolstering shipboard performance and strengthening the American maritime industry.


In their respective speeches, the stewards consistently described the SIU and the school as attractive avenues for career stability and advancement.


Gabbert, who has sailed with the SIU for a dozen years and has upgraded a handful of times at the Paul Hall Center, was first to the podium.


“The most important thing is to say thank you to everyone here,” she stated. “This means family, and that’s what we are.”


Addressing the apprentices in the crowd, she said, “You are beginning a lifelong journey. It will be filled with ups and downs. You will have many experiences that people would be thrilled to have. You will visit many countries and cultures. You can go as far as you want to, and you will learn every day. We are on the edge of new technology, so take the education and use it to better yourselves.”


Like most of her classmates, Gabbert also spoke in favor of SPAD, the union’s voluntary political action fund. She encouraged all members to donate “to keep the people in Washington knowing what we do.”


Darku told a humorous story about his reaction to seeing a photo of SIU President Michael Sacco at a White House dinner featuring the Queen of England. But his message was serious: The union president “has got the juice” to effectively lead the organization.


“Like you always say, Mike, it’s all about jobs,” Darku said. “I appreciate what you are doing for us and your leadership.”


He then offered the apprentices a checklist based on the letters RAAT – which he said stands for respect, attitude, aptitude and training.


“You’ve got to have self-respect,” Darku stated. “Attitude is going to take you more than anything else in this world. Know the chain of command (aboard ship). And your training is what’s going to get you ahead in this business. This is the only business that I know where you don’t go to the boss and ask for a raise. If you need a raise, you come here and you upgrade.”


Ballard said that although the maritime industry isn’t for everyone, it’s the right fit for him.


“People often ask why I do this,” he said. “The answer is simple: I’m a U.S. Merchant Mariner. Whether the call comes from Crowley, TOTE, APL or Maersk, we are there. We are the SIU – brothers and sisters of the sea. We are the brave men and women the military calls on when a helping hand is needed.”


He thanked the union’s officials and staff in Camp Springs and Piney Point for their behind-the-scenes work and also thanked the instructors.


Ballard also told the apprentices, “The challenges to come will require hard work and dedication. It is these things along with a commitment to excellence that give us the drive and determination to be a merchant mariner.”


Kelly said the recertification course was very worthwhile. “This experience has been great,” he stated. “I’ve enjoyed meeting new people, reconnecting with old friends, and I’m going to take back all the information I’ve received on this journey.”


He continued, “To the apprentices, keep in mind safety first. Work hard, take advantage of everything your department head is willing to teach you, and come back to this great facility to upgrade.


“To the membership as a whole, SPAD is vital to the union.”


Kelly also thanked his family – especially his mother, who was in the audience. “I remember you telling me I could be anything I want, as long as I worked hard,” he said. “Well, mom, I’m a recertified steward with the SIU.”


Sookhiram recalled joining the National Maritime Union in 1991 and said the union’s eventual merger into the SIU a decade later was a godsend.


“Although I was happy, our NMU officials told us that as a union we were in trouble,” he said. “This was in 1997. They said we may merge with the SIU. Two years later they were looking for volunteers to attend the Paul Hall Center. I and three other members took the time to improve ourselves. Coming to this place, which none of us knew at the time, is the best thing that could have happened to us NMU members. When we got here we met Priscilla Labanowski, John Dobson and John Hetmanski. They treated us well and when I went back to the hall, I encouraged my friends to come to Piney Point because this is the way to go. This is the place to improve yourself so you can get better jobs. That is still true today, and it’s why I say at every shipboard union meeting, go to the school and upgrade.”


He continued, “On a personal note, please take the time to understand our health plan. The coverage is very good when you use doctors in the network. I speak from experience; I’m a cancer survivor and I had some of the best possible treatment because of our benefits. It was affordable, too. I also applaud the union and the school for the wellness program. It’s important for all of us to take care of ourselves.”


Matari, another frequent upgrader, said the recertification course “could not have been more beneficial.”


Thinking back to when he first signed on with the SIU 15 years ago, Matari said, “I had nothing before I joined the union. Now I have a beautiful family and home and a great life.”


He thanked the union’s officials “for their hard work on our behalf. They have protected our jobs. And to help them to their jobs, we all need to contribute to SPAD.”


Matari went on to thank the instructors and then said to the apprentices, “Study hard while you are here, learn from your instructors, and learn to be a team. When you go to sea, work hard, listen to your supervisor and never be afraid to ask questions. This school really starts you in the right direction.”


Unruffled by being the final speaker, Irvine described his graduation as the fulfillment of a dream. “Having sailed with the SIU for the past 35 years, this would be the pinnacle of my career,” he noted. “I would like to express my gratitude to my family, who have supported and tolerated my occupation; to the various people I’ve worked with through the years; and to the Seafarers International Union, which has provided me with steady employment and has sustained my family for years.”


Irvine added, “As all of you know, it is not easy to be away from loved ones for months while at sea. It is lonely and confining. But knowing that the union is doing its best to ensure that living conditions are comfortable for us gives me assurance and peace of mind every time I sail. That’s why I have lasted this long and still going.”


He concluded that the chance to sail to different parts of the world “is something that most people can only dream of, and I am very thankful for that.”



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