SIU President Michael Sacco describes the way forward for the U.S. Merchant Marine and the American Labor Movement
August is the birth month of a dedicated leader who served as the second president of the Seafarers International Union of North America, the late Paul Hall. While I realize that for our younger members, Paul’s name is primarily associated with our affiliated school in Piney Point (his brainchild), we could all benefit from remembering how hard he fought to advance workers’ rights and the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Paul was a visionary when it came to maritime training, but I know from directly working for him that he was also a battler who pushed himself – and who demanded maximum effort from everyone around him. He knew that nothing would be given to our union, and that we had to work for every single gain. He knew that we also had to fight to maintain those gains, whether they involved contracts or legislation or facilities or benefits.
That’s the right mindset for us now, just a couple of months shy of our organization’s 80th anniversary. The labor movement is under attack. The U.S. Merchant Marine is under attack. The future isn’t guaranteed for anyone, in any line of work, but if we don’t continue helping lead the charge to revitalize our movement and our industry, it won’t be pretty.
On the labor side, to name a couple of prominent examples, we go into detail elsewhere in this edition about the recent Supreme Court ruling in the Janus case, which can be a big blow to working families if we let it. This month, Missourians go to the polls to vote on repealing its so-called right-to-work (for less) law. There is regular talk about pushing national right-to-work (for less) in the private sector. For now, I’ll just say to anyone who truly believes that the people behind Janus and right-to-work actually have workers’ best interests in mind, I’ve got a nice bridge for sale.
On the maritime side, there are a lot of resources being lined up to take another shot at weakening or eliminating the Jones Act this year. I find those attacks disgraceful. The Jones Act is one of the most important laws in our entire country, not just in the maritime industry. It protects our national, economic and homeland security. It’s a huge source of good jobs.
These attacks are nothing new. For example, within just a few years of our union’s formation, we teamed up with the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific to protect America’s freight cabotage law. That was one of our first Jones Act fights (the law was enacted in 1920), and like all the ones that followed, it was a win.
We’ve got plenty of fight left in us today, as evidenced by two recent triumphs against sneak attacks on cargo preference. Those salvos, led by political extremists, would have eliminated at least a half-dozen American- flag vessels right off the bat (and the SIU jobs that go with them). We thank all elected officials, from both parties, who stood with us.
And our union brothers and sisters in the public sector aren’t taking Janus lying down. Make no mistake, the Court’s decision was anti-worker – but it has further awakened people, union and unrepresented alike, about why unions exist in the first place. Just like teachers across the country, it’ll make us work harder to spread the message, but that’s not entirely bad.
Put all of that together and you’ll understand why we reach out to rank-and-file members for grassroots support, both for maritime laws and for pro-maritime, pro-worker political candidates, no matter the party. You all know this is an election year. Make sure you’re registered to vote. Talk to your family members, neighbors and friends about getting out to the polls on Election Day. Talk to them about supporting the candidates who’ll back America’s working families.
If your port agent asks for help with a block walk or a phone bank, donate your time. If you’re not contributing to SPAD, the SIU’s voluntary political action fund, please consider signing up. It’s an important tool for us.
Brothers and sisters, if Paul Hall were with us today, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what he’d say. He’d tell us to roll up our sleeves and get to work. He’d remind us that politics is pork chops. And he’d exhaust every resource in the fights for workers’ rights and our maritime industry. That’s exactly what we’ll continue to do, no matter the arena.