SIU and Maritime History

A History of the SIU

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…

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.

— John Bunker, A History of the SIU

Born in a Storm

The Seafarers International Union takes pride in a long and storied history of championing the rights of seamen and mariners, but there’s no simple answer as to when that history began. While the SIU was formally chartered on October 14, 1938, its origins trace back even further to the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) and the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP). Without the dissolution of the former and the perseverance of the latter, there would likely be no SIU.

The International Seamen’s Union was created in Chicago in 1892 as the first attempt to unite the smaller, regional maritime labor unions within the United States under the banner of the American Federation of Labor (AFL). One of these regional unions was the SUP, which itself was founded in 1885. The ISU claimed many victories in the course of its lifespan, including essential pieces of legislation such as the Seamen’s Act of 1915 and the Jones Act of 1920.

However, the ISU began to falter as it progressed into the 1930s and dealt with the pressures of the Great Depression. The causes for the downfall of the ISU are too varied and complicated to explain in this summary, but chief among those factors was deep internal division. In 1936, two events in particular spelled the demise of the ISU.

First, in February, the ISU executive board revoked the SUP charter for violating the wishes of the ISU leadership. The SUP reorganized itself as an independent union, free from ISU control. Then, in March, a young upstart ISU member named Joe Curran launched a wildcat strike aboard the S.S. California in direct defiance of the union. By the summer of 1937, Curran and his allies formed the National Maritime Union under the AFL’s chief rival, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO). These two events destroyed not just the credibility of the ISU leadership, but also its membership numbers.

Realizing the importance of having a robust organization to represent seafarers, the AFL issued a new charter to the SUP and tasked SUP President Harry Lundeberg with the creation of a new union: the Seafarers International Union. On October 14, 1938, the SIU was formally given its charter with a membership nearly 7,000 strong.

With World War II sweeping across the globe shortly thereafter, the SIU sprang into action almost immediately. Its earliest victories included increases in hazard pay for those sailing into war zones; even before the U.S. entered the war, SIU-manned vessels were entering the fray to provide material support to the Allies. Shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor and subsequently the United States’ formal entry into the war, the first American seagoing vessel to be sunk by the Axis powers was the SIU-contracted Robin Moor.

World War II was a defining moment for U.S. Maritime, to put it lightly. With the War Shipping Administration in control of all U.S.-flagged merchant vessels, mariners were the backbone of the Allied supply lines. Shouldering this tremendous responsibility came with grave costs: The casualty rate for merchant seamen was higher than any of the branches of armed service.  Unfortunately, the sacrifices these men made for their country would not be properly honored until 1988, when mariners who served the war effort were finally granted veteran status.

As the war drew to a close, there were many public questions about the future of the U.S. merchant fleet and the future of American organized labor in general. Most of the country’s unions had pledged not to strike during wartime, but came out of the costly and disruptive war hungry for a raise. Both management and the government felt otherwise, wishing to keep low wages and tight controls well into peacetime.

Throughout a series of gestures and confrontations in 1946, the SIU made it known they would not be brought to heel so long as the interests of its membership were at stake. Tremendous gains were made in that year, including the Isthmian organizing drive and the general maritime strike. 1946 also saw the creation of the AFL’s Maritime Trades Department, which provided a reliable forum for the maritime unions to discuss their issues with the labor movement at large.

The Rise of Paul Hall

At the center of all the defining events of the late 1940s was a young upstart port agent working out of the SIU Headquarters in New York. His destiny would forever be intertwined with that of the SIU, and to this very day his is a household name among Seafarers. That man was Paul Hall. While Hall was a charter member of the SIU in 1938, it was during this time that he made his presence felt. By late 1947, Hall was elected secretary-treasurer and effectively took over day-to-day leadership of the union.

Paul Hall’s vision for the SIU was profound in its simplicity. A former boxer, Hall not only knew how to fight but when to fight. On one hand, the SIU under Hall was unapologetically militant—not just for its own interests, but taking to the streets in solidarity with other unions in the AFL. On the other hand, Hall stressed the importance of civic engagement and negotiation. “Politics is porkchops” was one of his most memorable aphorisms, a potent reminder to the membership that the fight for Seafarers’ rights took place in the statehouses and on Capitol Hill as much as it took place on the docks and in the streets.

Paul Hall and his lieutenants, such as Lindsey Williams and Angus “Red” Campbell, focused in the 1950s on enriching the union’s resources, along with the quality of life of the membership. Beginning first with hospital and death benefits, the SIU created the Seafarers Vacation Plan to provide union members with year-round financial and medical stability. The union also devised the seniority-based A, B, and C book memberships as a way to preserve the practice of hiring through the union halls, which was threatened by the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act.

During this time, the SIU expanded into a larger New York Headquarters building and constructed new halls and medical clinics in virtually every major American port city.  The membership rolls swelled as more and more seamen learned of all the advantages of sailing SIU, but this wasn’t the only reason the SIU family grew so much in the post-World War II era. In 1949, the Marine Allied Workers Division (MAWD, later to become the United Industrial Workers) and the SIU of Canada were granted charters under the larger umbrella of the Seafarers International Union of North America (SIUNA). In 1953, the Marine Firemen, Oilers and Watertenders Union (MFOW) and the Marine Cooks and Stewards (MC&S) also joined the SIUNA and fused with the SUP to create the SIU Pacific District.

The first inklings of an SIU-run seamanship school began to appear during this time. Starting with a series of upgrading courses for the deck department, the union offered classes at its Brooklyn headquarters in 1952 for Seafarers to further hone their skills. By 1955, union-operated training facilities opened in Mobile and New Orleans as well.

In 1957, Harry Lundeberg passed away suddenly of a heart attack; Paul Hall succeeded him as SIU president. Shortly thereafter in 1960, the union amended its constitution to vest the president with many of the responsibilities previously bestowed upon the secretary-treasurer. This change served as a potent symbol of how far Paul Hall’s visionary leadership had taken the SIU in the previous decade.

Full Speed Ahead

All the carefully laid groundwork of the 1950s was put to good use in the capricious and ever-changing 1960s and 1970s. Economic globalization and Cold War tensions provided new challenges as the world became smaller and more interconnected. While flags of convenience and foreign ship registries had been a plague upon the open waters since the beginning of the 20th century, greedy shipping companies began relying more and more on cheap foreign labor to cut costs. The SIU fought and won many battles to protect the Jones Act and cargo preference provisions during this time, such as keeping foreign-flagged vessels out of Puerto Rico (strictly in the domestic trade) and out of the American-Soviet grain trade.

By the same token, the SIU strove to revitalize the U.S. maritime industry so that it remained competitive in the face of these international challenges. On one hand, the union lobbied national leaders for a more robust, modern fleet including more U.S.-flag bulk carriers. On the other hand, it deepened and diversified the educational opportunities available to its members. While the number of union-run recertification and upgrading programs had gone up dramatically since the 1950s, it became clear that American seafarers needed a world-class educational facility to ensure their skills would be unmatched across the globe.

In 1967, Paul Hall negotiated the purchase of a former Naval torpedo test site in Piney Point, Maryland, in order to build such a facility. Within a matter of months, the Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship (HLSS) was no longer an attachment to the Brooklyn headquarters, but its own fully fledged center for maritime training and upgrading. No time was wasted in developing operations at Piney Point, as the Vietnam War tested the limits of the union’s manpower capabilities.

The first half of the 1970s were particularly fruitful for the maritime industry, heralded by the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1970. New U.S.-flagged ships were being built, and the SIU stood ready to man them. Through concerted political action, the SIU also fought for a much larger role in the handling of government cargoes. Starting in 1973, Seafarers took over crewing duties for formerly military-manned Military Sealift Command vessels.

Far from resting on its laurels, the SIU spent the remainder of the decade fortifying its position. The Lundeberg School bolstered its course offerings with recertification programs and training in new fields, such as shipboard automation and liquified natural gas tanker operation. Several smaller affiliates, including the MC&S, the Inland Boatmen’s Union and the Alaskan Fishermen’s Union, merged into the SIU.

Battening Down the Hatches

While the 1970s may have been a renaissance for the SIU, the 1980s were no one’s definition of smooth sailing. In 1980, two events in particular seemed to set the tone for the decade. First, in June, Paul Hall succumbed to cancer. While Frank Drozak capably took over as union president, Paul Hall’s lifetime of service to the labor movement in general and Seafarers in particular could never be replaced. The second ill omen of 1980 was the election of U.S. President Ronald Reagan, whose anti-labor policies had already been observed while he was governor of California.

Immediately after taking office in 1981, the Reagan administration eliminated several key government programs favored by the SIU. U.S. Public Health Service hospitals, which had been a mainstay of Seafarers’ healthcare, were shuttered. The generous subsidies for new U.S.-flagged vessels, guaranteed under the 1970 Merchant Marine Act, were cancelled. Sensing that the union’s upcoming battles would be fought in the national political arena, President Drozak made the decision to relocate SIU Headquarters closer to Washington, D.C. The new Headquarters building opened in 1982 in Camp Springs, Maryland, about 10 miles away from the Capitol.

Although the Reagan administration demoralized the broader labor movement more often than not, one aspect of SIU activity was robust during this period: the Government Services Division. The SIU survived this tumultuous time by fighting for new jobs aboard military support vessels and redesigning the curriculum at the Lundeberg School to align Seafarers’ skills with the government’s needs. The school’s campus also received some major renovations, including a new hotel, training center, shiphandling simulator and computer rooms.

Although Frank Drozak navigated the union through a turbulent time and scored some key victories along the way, he would not live to see the SIU into the next decade. In July of 1988, he too passed away from cancer. With Michael Sacco assuming the union presidency, the Reagan presidency wrapping up, and the Cold War finally thawing out, another new chapter of SIU history began.

Running Before the Wind

The rapid changes in world politics that characterized the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s provided many opportunities for the SIU. Our members were going to sea on humanitarian supply runs to former Eastern Bloc countries the moment the Iron Curtain began to fall. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, there was no question that Seafarers would be standing ready to serve their country.

The Gulf War put the SIU in the spotlight. While naysayers doubted that the union had the manpower to handle the activation of the Ready Reserve Force fleet, not a single SIU-crewed vessel sailed shorthanded. With consummate professionalism, SIU men and women transported important materiel to the front lines and then back home to the United States when the war wrapped up in 1991. Government officials recognized the invaluable contributions of Seafarers by including them in the military victory parade, complete with the ‘Lundeberg Stetson’ white caps.

Thankfully, government officials rewarded the U.S. Merchant Marine with more than just a parade and a pat on the back. The first Bush and Clinton administrations began formulating maritime revitalization programs; after years of back and forth, Congress finally passed the 1996 Maritime Security Act. Seafarers were honored with the privilege of carrying the Olympic torch on the American Queen and the American Republic to the 1996 Atlanta summer games. In 1994, Bill Clinton became the first sitting president to tour the SIU’s educational facilities in Piney Point.

The 1990s were a transformative time for the Lundeberg School as well. In 1991, to commemorate Paul Hall’s birthday, the campus was named the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education. The school’s 30th anniversary in 1997 gave way to an ambitious redesign of the curriculum. New Coast Guard-approved Training Record Books were implemented, as was a nine-month unlicensed apprentice program. Recertification programs were also overhauled. In 1999, the Paul Hall Center christened the Joseph Sacco Fire Fighting and Safety School. By 2000, new dormitory facilities and an updated simulator were also added to the growing list of improvements. With so many gains, the rough seas of the 1980s felt more and more like a distant memory.

Tomorrow Is Also a Day

The events of September 11, 2001 had a profound effect on the lives of every American who remembers that day, and Seafarers were no exception. SIU members were among the first responders in New York, transporting evacuees on New York Waterway ferries. Seafarers also crewed the hospital ship USNS Comfort, which offered medical care to survivors and first responders alike. It goes without saying that SIU crews once again mobilized in the resulting military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. In acknowledgement of the SIU’s contributions, George W. Bush gave the 2006 Labor Day presidential address at the Paul Hall Center.

The Government Services Division wasn’t the only niche of the SIU getting attention in the 2000s. The union also gained new contracts with cruise lines, oceanographic research vessels, containerships and tankers. The renovations at the Paul Hall Center continued apace, including a substantial waterfront restoration project.

On top of that, the SIU family grew in size. The NMU, which was at times a partner and a rival of the SIU, agreed to merge with the SIU in 2001 after decades of talks. The American Maritime Officers union (AMO) entered the ranks in 2004 as an autonomous affiliate under the SIUNA, bridging the divide between licensed and unlicensed personnel.

Seafarers also performed a number of daring rescues during this decade, including saving passengers from the “Miracle on the Hudson” aircraft incident in 2009. Seafarers made the news again that year: The SIU-contracted Maersk Alabama was hijacked by Somali pirates. The crew was able to hold out until they were rescued by the U.S. Navy due to the anti-piracy training they received at the Paul Hall Center. Their story would later be incorporated into the film Captain Phillips, and the bravery displayed by the crew would be emulated by other SIU crews fending off pirate attacks.

Not every SIU crew would have the same fortune when confronted with the perils of the sea. Seafaring has always been an occupation replete with risk, and the history of the SIU has its fair share of shipwrecks and other disasters. Advances in modern technology have lessened the possibility of disaster, but—as the saying goes—the sea will forever be a cruel mistress. In the fall of 2015, the SIU experienced one of its deepest tragedies with the sinking of the SS El Faro and the total loss of her crew during Hurricane Joaquin.

While that tragedy still weighs heavy in the minds of SIU members, Seafarers carried on doing what they always do: turning to and delivering the goods. The history of this union is vast and complicated, full of triumphs and struggles in equal measure. Since the founding of the SIU in 1938, much has changed: The vessels we man and the cargoes they hold, the buildings that house our union halls, the officials who represent our members, the politicians who listen to our needs. Only one thing remains the same, and that is the stirring some men and women feel to go to sea. So long as our brothers and sisters hear the call, the Seafarers International Union will be there to fight for them.