Anyone familiar with longtime SIU Government Services Division Assistant Vice President Chester “Chet” Wheeler won’t be surprised by the fact he’s staying quite active in retirement.
A tireless worker throughout his decades as a mariner and an official, Wheeler, 74, officially called it a career earlier this year. He’s enjoying the new lifestyle, but if the particulars of a given day have changed, the pace isn’t much different.
“It’s fine and I’m busy,” said Wheeler, who lives with his wife, Becky, in Cobb, California. “I realize now all the things my wife did without me, and now those are my jobs. I’ve remodeled a house and was already helping out at a senior center, which I’m continuing. I’m service-oriented anyway, but it’s nice to be able to give back. There are some real characters there.”
Wheeler also plans to accommodate his wife’s request for European travel – admittedly not a huge concession from someone who said travel was the highlight of his 32 years as a mariner.
He cited “family considerations” as the driving force behind his retirement, which officially commenced March 28. Wheeler also said he thoroughly enjoyed both his time at sea and the years spent working as an official.
SIU Vice President West Coast Nick Marrone stated, “Chet had a very steady attitude towards his fairness and diligence in representing his mariners. He definitely was dedicated. He grew up in that fleet and was involved as a delegate under Buck Mercer (the late vice president of the union’s Government Services Division). Chet understood the complexities of the Military Sealift Command (MSC) and was able to navigate effectively through the various processes.”
SIU Vice President Government Services Kate Hunt said, “Chet and I worked well together over the years. I always respected him as a union representative who really had the best interests of the mariners at heart.”
Wheeler came ashore to work for the union in 1997, first as a representative and soon thereafter as an assistant vice president. Prior to the SIU’s merger with the National Maritime Union in 2001, he handled all West Coast representational efforts for MSC and the Suisun Bay reserve fleet. In fact, since 1997, Wheeler was involved in every MSC and Suisun Bay contract negotiation and “instruction and policy” negotiation.
Colleagues described him as instrumental in ensuring the safety and health of mariners by negotiating afloat and ashore habitability agreements, watch hours, standards for shipboard water potability and air quality, and shipyard working conditions. He was a guiding force in the three-year negotiation of Civilian Mariner Personnel Instruction (CMPI) 610, a key document covering hours of work and overtime pay. Wheeler also played leading roles in representing mariners aboard joint high-speed vessels, and in securing significant compensatory time for travel for many CIVMARS.
“Most importantly,” said retired SIU Counsel Deborah Kleinberg, who worked very closely with Wheeler, “Chet guided thousands of CIVMARS, wage mariners and Suisun Bay boat handlers, representing employees in grievances and disciplinary actions, and assisting employees who were injured or ill. He helped mariners leave their vessel assignments to attend to ill family members. He assisted many employees with the medical exam process, retirement counseling, workers’ compensation advocacy and making sure mariners could return home from afar when sick or injured.”
Never one to worry about popularity, Wheeler definitely earned respect and appreciation both from fellow officials and from rank-and-file members. This was reflected by his having not one but two retirement parties – the first at the Oakland, California, SIU hiring hall in February, the second closer to his home in northern California in late April.
At those gatherings, Wheeler received large binders packed with appreciative messages from people he represented and worked with through the years. Here’s a small sampling of those sentiments:
“Thanks for all the advice, support, wisdom and guidance you so gracefully gave to all the mariners. You will be sorely missed.” – Bill Machie, Second Asst. Engineer
“Thank you for looking out for us, your brother CIVMARS, all these years. You always commanded attention with your booming voice and no-nonsense talks about our rights. Many mariners benefited from your advice.” – Rob Cruz
“I have known you for close to 20 years and have admired your work and indefatigable efforts to make the working conditions, quarters and lives of CIVMARS better. I have seen firsthand how CIVMARS and agency folks alike respected, liked and in some cases, loved you.” – Joe Vincenzo, SIU Asst. VP
“It has been an honor to have worked with you. I have learned so much from you and am grateful for all of your efforts. Your dedication to the Seafarers is unmatched.” – John Madden, SIU Associate Counsel
When presenting the albums, Kleinberg said, “If a person’s career is measured by how many people he has supported and helped during their life’s work, then your career is truly without measure. You were instrumental in helping me and all you have come in contact with, obtain a better understanding and appreciation of the unique working environment of federal mariners. Your extraordinary passion, hard work, persistence and exceptional dedication to seagoing workers and their families inspired me each day to live up to your example. I know for certain that your advocacy and unwavering efforts will never be duplicated.”
Reflecting primarily on his time as an official, Wheeler said, “I’m proud of the representation we gave them. It was a 24/7 job and it’s a complicated unit. Also, issues affecting government services can also affect the private sector.”
Wheeler said Kleinberg was “the best support I could have,” and expressed solid confidence in Vincenzo as his successor.
Moreover, Wheeler said that while he never was pressured to enter the maritime industry, it came naturally. “My great grandfather was an indentured servant in the Swedish merchant marine beginning when he was 10 years old,” he noted. “My uncles all went to sea and I grew up around water on the coast. I was surrounded by seamen. But I didn’t have to go to sea; I like it.” He said his fondest memory of shipboard life is “I got to travel a lot of places. In the old days, when I sailed, it took maybe a week or two weeks to unload. There were lots of adventures.”
His advice for those entering the industry? “Get as much out of it as you can,” Wheeler replied. “It’s an adventure. Make this your adventure. The other thing is, learn everything you can. We have a great school (the union-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education). Keep going back and keep learning. It’s a wonderful occupation and I’m really glad I did it.”
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