Throughout the past decade, the Seafarers International Union has earned numerous hard-fought victories, as well as worked through some devastating losses – including the deaths of 17 SIU members in a tragic accident at sea.
In some ways, the decade mirrored prior ones. The union celebrated (and facilitated) new tonnage entering the American-flag fleet (click HERE for separate story). The SIU-affiliated school in Piney Point, Maryland, made substantial improvements in its curriculums, training tools and campus itself. Members approved abundant contracts that consistently boosted wages while maintaining industry-leading benefits. New hiring halls opened in Houston; Jersey City, New Jersey; and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Seafarers upheld the finest traditions of the Brotherhood of the Sea by participating in numerous humanitarian relief efforts and by executing many rescues. They stood up as part of the nation’s fourth arm of defense by supporting our troops around the world. Rank-and-file members also joined with officials and staff for grassroots outreach supporting pro-maritime, pro-worker political candidates (regardless of party) and related legislation.
Overall, under the leadership of SIU President Michael Sacco and the executive board, the union kept its membership numbers steady despite an overall decline of jobs elsewhere in the industry. Additionally, the Seafarers Plans improved various benefits while keeping its individual components fully funded.
The following is a recap of some of the decade’s notable stories.
One of the top stories in the nation – not just in the maritime industry – was the Deepwater Horizon disaster, which began April 20 with a deadly oil-rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. SIU members, including CIVMARS from the union’s Government Services Division, assisted in the months-long cleanup, but the tragedy quickly took a bizarre and job-threatening turn when some news outlets and legislators wrongfully stated that a crucial maritime law called the Jones Act somehow was impeding operations.
Following that initial round of erroneous claims and inaccurate reporting, the truth gradually emerged. Statements from industry groups, senators, congressmen and the head of the Deepwater Horizon Unified Command, Adm. Thad Allen, exposed the critics’ arguments as flawed at best, as did certain news articles. SIU President Michael Sacco was a forceful spokesman for the Jones Act throughout this ordeal. His comments were picked up by news outlets, and those remarks helped set the record straight.
SIU members were among the first to mobilize for Haiti relief operations after that nation was struck by a 7.0-magnitude earthquake on Jan. 12. Within the first few days after the earthquake, several Seafarers-contracted ships were activated for the relief mission, and several others (already in full operating status) were assigned to it. More than a dozen Seafarers-crewed ships would sail in Operation Unified Response.
When those vessels and others were sent to help the earthquake victims, U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood stated, “It is another example of why our country’s merchant marine is so important. Sending these ships will help those on the front line of this effort save as many lives in Haiti as possible. These ships will add crucial capabilities by supporting operations to move large volumes of people and cargo.”
SIU Secretary-Treasurer David Heindel was elected chair of the Seafarers’ Section of the International Transport Workers’ Federation, thereby becoming just the second American to hold the prestigious post. (The other was late SIU Executive Vice President John Fay.)
On Capitol Hill, the first annual maritime industry “Sail-In” delivered key messages to members of both houses, on both sides of the aisle, about the need for a strong U.S. Merchant Marine. SIU Executive Vice President Augie Tellez helped lead the SIU’s participation.
The union continued its efforts, both in U.S. and international forums, to reduce and ultimately eliminate the scourge of maritime piracy. Political action was a key part of this ongoing struggle, as was the ongoing “Save Our Seafarers” campaign.
Credible studies reinforced the importance of the Jones Act and cargo preference laws, while the second maritime industry “Sail-In” on Capitol Hill successfully delivered the industry’s message to new and long-serving legislators alike.
The SIU joined with other unions in blasting the maritime administrator for inexplicably accepting and releasing a report that the unions said undermined the agency’s very mission.
And, in a story largely associated with 2010 but which carried into January 2011, the non-partisan National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill and Offshore Drilling confirmed (yet again) that the Jones Act did not prevent foreign vessels with the cleanup.
Garnering well-deserved attention, the new standard freightship and tanker contracts were ratified around mid-year. Those five-year pacts featured annual wage hikes while maintaining medical and pension benefits and securing other gains. Many other SIU contracts were patterned after the standard agreements.
At times, it may have seemed as if SIU-crewed ships were competing to see who could pull off the most rescues. The Horizon Reliance and the Green Cove each handled two rescues at sea, saving lives along the way. Seafarers aboard the USS Ponce and on a NY Waterway ferry also upheld the finest traditions of the Brotherhood of the Sea by performing other rescues.
The SIU, other maritime unions and the Military Sealift Command culminated years of work on revisions to the Civilian Marine Personnel Instruction 610, covering hours of work and premium pay. Union representatives travelled across the globe to help introduce the updated agreement, which is considered a victory for both sides and a credit to maritime labor.
Even as the union continued domestic and international anti-piracy efforts, SIU-crewed ships including the Ocean Atlas, USNS Rappahannock and Maersk Texas successfully turned back attempted pirate attacks.
The International Labor Organization ratified the Maritime Labor Convention, 2006 – a move long-advocated by the SIU.
The SIU fought back against Washington budget cuts that threatened vital maritime programs. Attempts to gut the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and Food for Peace were met with strong opposition. The union once again showed its legislative might.
Seafarers also made many at-sea rescues and acts of bravery in 2013, culminating in several crews receiving recognition from United Seamen’s Service (USS) at its annual Admiral of the Ocean Seas event. The crews receiving awards included: the USNS Bowditch for rescuing the crew of a grounded ship near The Philippines; the Maersk Utah for rescuing 83 stranded Syrian refugees off the Italian coast; the Ocean Atlas for fending off a pirate attack in Africa; and the TS Kennedy, TS Empire State and SS Wright for aiding in the recovery of the New York-New Jersey region following Superstorm Sandy.
Despite facing near constant political attacks on key maritime programs, the SIU was able to score some big wins in 2013. Those victories started in earnest on Dec. 20, 2012, when President Barack Obama signed the Coast Guard and Maritime Transportation Act of 2012. That law included several key passages pushed by the SIU, including provisions that increased transparency with Jones Act waivers and made the TWIC process easier for mariners.
The union-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education also had a busy 2013. The campus’ multi-stage restoration project took a big step forward with the unveiling of the school’s waterfront park. The park’s scenic lighthouse highlighted a nearby brick walkway that began filling up with engraved bricks donated by Seafarers and loved ones to commemorate those they cared about.
In a year with no shortage of important stories for the SIU, none gained more attention in 2014 than the international mission involving the Cape Ray, the Seafarers- crewed ship which helped neutralize and destroy Syrian chemical weapons in the Mediterranean Sea.
The Keystone-operated Cape Ray returned to its home port in Portsmouth, Virginia, Sept. 17 at the conclusion of its successful mission of neutralizing and destroying 600 tons of Syrian chemical weapons. The vessel departed Hampton Roads Jan. 27 after the United Nations approved it as a chemical weapons destruction facility.
As the unprecedented mission wound down, SIU crew members and others involved in the operation were praised by the White House, the Department of Defense, and the Department of Transportation. At a pier-side ceremony in Portsmouth, U.S. Maritime Administrator Chip Jaenichen presented each crew member with the Merchant Marine Medal for Outstanding Achievement and bestowed the Maritime Administration’s Professional Ship Award upon Keystone and the Cape Ray.
Several SIU-crewed ships performed rescues. Those vessels included the Seafarers-crewed Liberty Grace, USNS Richard E. Byrd, and Manukai. Seafarers once again answered the call to duty as they mobilized for Operation United Assistance, sailing aboard the Cape Wrath and Cape Rise in the international fight against Ebola.
The union completed an historic move in mid-June, relocating its New York-area operations to a new hall in Jersey City, New Jersey.
Unfortunately, when reflecting on 2015, the biggest story was obvious but tragic: the sinking of the SIU-crewed El Faro, which claimed the lives of all 33 people aboard, including 17 Seafarers. While en route from Jacksonville, Florida, to Puerto Rico, the ship fell victim to Hurricane Joaquin on Oct. 1, sinking in 15,000 feet of water. Along with the 17 SIU members who perished, 11 members of the Seafarers-affiliated American Maritime Officers were on board, as were five Polish nationals.
The SIU members on the El Faro were Bosun Roan Lightfoot, ABs Carey Hatch, Jackie Jones, Jack Jackson, Brookie Davis and Frank Hamm, QEE Sylvester Crawford, RE1 Louis Champa, OMUs Anthony Thomas, German Solar Cortes and Joe Hargrove, GUDEs Mariette Wright, James Porter and Roosevelt Clark, Steward/Baker Theodore Quammie, Chief Cook Lashawn Rivera and SA Lonnie Jordan.
When contact with the ship was lost, the SIU hall in Jacksonville, Florida, quickly became the gathering place for family members and other loved ones, and it also served as a briefing center with representatives from the Coast Guard, National Transportation Safety Board and ship operator TOTE Services. SIU President Michael Sacco and Executive Vice President Augie Tellez spent several days with the families.
Within a week of the sinking, the SIU established a memorial fund to benefit the families of the departed Seafarers. The union also received condolences from around the world, including messages from the White House and Congress, the AFL-CIO and the International Transport Workers’ Federation.
Early in the year, the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education completed a multimillion- dollar upgrade featuring new simulators and modernized classrooms. The project also included major improvements in the training and recreation center hotel and auditorium at the Piney Point, Maryland, campus.
In commemorating some of the milestones, the auditorium was named in memory of the late SIU Executive Vice President John Fay, while a new, multi-purpose building was named in memory of Thomas Crowley Sr., an industry pioneer.
The SIU of Canada scored several major wins for mariner rights and cabotage laws and helped defeat an anti-cabotage political incumbent.
The year 2016 served as a solemn milestone, as the one-year anniversary of the loss of the El Faro was memorialized at sea and ashore, including during dedications at the Jacksonville, Florida, hiring hall and at the Paul Hall Center in Piney Point, Maryland.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) located the El Faro’s voyage data recorder (VDR) on April 26, after which it was retrieved and analyzed by the NTSB’s investigators. Throughout the year, the NTSB conducted hearings in Jacksonville, during which maritime experts were questioned on various factors that could have contributed to the loss of the vessel.
On the anniversary of the sinking, many ceremonies were held to memorialize the deceased. At the Jacksonville hall, family members, union officials and union brothers and sisters gathered for the dedication of a lighthouse, adorned with 33 stars and shining its light towards the final resting place of the crew near the Bahamas. In Piney Point, members, officials and Paul Hall Center students gathered for a formal remembrance.
SIU members were involved in their fair share of rescues at sea. In May, the Maersk Kentucky helped rescue 11 individuals while en route to Singapore, pulling the men from a sinking fishing boat and transporting them safely to Colombo, Sri Lanka. Three months later, the Ocean Glory rescued a lone fisherman from his wrecked vessel in the Bali Strait on their way to Banyuwangi, Indonesia. Finally, the CS Dependable rescued 14 fishermen off the coast of Mumbai, India, in September, delivering them to the Indian Coast Guard before continuing to their destination.
Some union benefits also saw increases and additions in 2016. For the first time, members were able to choose to direct deposit their vacation checks, a frequent request from Seafarers. Additionally, the dental coverage increased substantially for mariners and their dependents, and a new smoking cessation program was launched to help members kick the habit.
The Paul Hall Center was a busy place in 2016, receiving a visit from then-MSC Commander Rear Adm. T.K. Shannon as well as U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Maryland). The school also hosted several special events, including the Paul Hall Center Advisory Board meeting, the annual Seafarers Waterfront Classic fishing tournament (benefiting the Wounded Warrior Anglers as well as the school) and the triennial SEATU convention.
Additionally, the school saw several major milestones, such as the first class to complete the AB to Mate program, the creation of the Engine Assessment Program, and certainly the most visible addition to the campus: the arrival of the school’s new training ship, the Freedom Star.
In response to changing STCW requirements, the school also added two new Basic Training courses, designed to help members stay compliant in the most efficient ways.
On December 12, the union dedicated and opened the newly constructed Houston hiring hall, the SIU’s first newly constructed hall since 1981. Rank-and-file members, retirees, family members and a veritable Who’s Who of Texas politicians packed the hall at 625 North York Street for an uplifting dedication that culminated with Theresa Corgey, wife of SIU Vice President Gulf Coast Dean Corgey, breaking a champagne bottle along the corner of an exterior wall.
Had Mother Nature kept her temper in check, 2017 might be remembered as an especially productive and uplifting year for the SIU. But, she did no such thing. Starting with Hurricane Harvey in late August and continuing through Hurricane Irma and then Hurricane Maria in mid-September, parts of the U.S. and its territories endured a relentless pounding.
Harvey is estimated to have caused nearly $200 billion in destruction, including in parts of Texas and Louisiana. It made landfall in the Lone Star State as a Category 4 storm in late August and would strike again two different times within the same week, resulting in 82 deaths.
Irma wasn’t far behind, hitting Florida on Sept. 10, also as a Category 4 hurricane. It is estimated to have caused almost $67 billion in damage and more than 100 fatalities (roughly a third of them in the U.S.). Irma was still a Category 5 storm when it hit the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) en route to the mainland. Maria then took center stage, doing more damage in the USVI (home to thousands of members of the SIU-affiliated United Industrial Workers) before striking Puerto Rico Sept. 20 as a Category 5 hurricane. As one reporter put it, “From a meteorological standpoint, Maria was nearly a worst-case scenario for the territory: The center of a huge, nearly Category 5 hurricane made a direct hit on Puerto Rico, lashing the island with wind and rain for longer than 30 hours.” There has been inconsistent reporting about the number of Maria-related fatalities, but around 3,000 deaths appear to have been directly related to the storm, according to data released by the island government.
For the SIU, assistance in the wide-ranging recovery took many forms, including starting a disaster aid fund, delivering relief cargoes to Puerto Rico and the USVI, working with the national AFL-CIO and state labor federations to secure monetary and other support, and helping mobilize a Seafarers-crewed Navy hospital ship that was deployed to Puerto Rico. The union also partnered with the American Federation of Teachers, Seafarers-contracted Tote Maritime and several other organizations for Operation Agua, a massive undertaking that delivered portable water purifiers throughout Puerto Rico.
On the political front, maritime labor applauded the respective confirmations of Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao in late January and Rear Adm. Mark Buzby (USN, Ret.) as head of the Maritime Administration in late summer. Both are familiar allies for the U.S. Merchant Marine – Chao through prior work as Secretary of Labor and at the Maritime Administration and Federal Maritime Commission, Buzby as former commanding officer of the U.S. Military Sealift Command (2009-13).
The SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education celebrated its 50th year through a special edition of the Seafarers LOG, a video, and a luncheon that featured remarks by Secretary Chao, Crowley Maritime President and CEO Tom Crowley Jr., and President Sacco, who worked at the Piney Point, Maryland, facility in its earliest days. The school also received proclamations from U.S. Rep. Steny Hoyer (DMaryland), whose district includes Piney Point; and from Maryland Governor Larry Hogan.
Economists from Boston-based Reeve & Associates and San Juan-based Estudios Técnicos, Inc. on July 18 released a joint report, “The Impact of the Jones Act on Puerto Rico,” that concluded the Jones Act has no impact on either retail prices or the cost of living in Puerto Rico. In addition, the report found that the state-of-the-art maritime technology, Puerto-Rico focused investments, and dedicated closed-loop service offered by Jones Act carriers provide a significant positive economic impact to the island, at freight rates lower or comparable to similar services to other Caribbean Islands.
These findings factually shot down claims to the contrary from Jones Act opponents, who seemingly blame the time-tested law for every problem under the sun and whose main strategy apparently is to repeat lies loudly and often.
Later in the year, Seafarers’ Rights International (SRI), an independent center for mariner advocacy and research, released its full report – “Cabotage Laws of the World” – on the findings of their global cabotage study. The study, commissioned by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), provides the first independent analysis of maritime cabotage laws since the early 1990s.
Based on extensive research involving 140 countries, the SRI report revealed that 91 countries representing 80 percent of the world’s coastal United Nations Maritime States have cabotage laws restricting foreign maritime activity in their domestic coastal trades.
The union-affiliated Paul Hall Center and its Seafarers Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship continued pressing ahead to set the standard for maritime training. Located in Piney Point, Maryland, the school introduced a new class for storekeepers and launched a totally revamped steward department curriculum – collectively dubbed Culinary 2.0 – that was a hit with the first students.
On Nov. 8, the SIU officially opened the new hiring hall in San Juan, Puerto Rico, with an event that included food, drinks and a live band. The new facility, located at 659 Hillside Street in the Summit Hills neighborhood of San Juan, is immaculate, with all-new furniture in multiple member lounge areas, wheelchairaccessible restrooms, a modern galley and mess area, WiFi access and a second-floor conference room. Most importantly, it’s in a safe and secure neighborhood – a huge improvement from the previous hall.
The crew of the MV Green Lake, including SIU members sailing aboard the Central Gulf Linesoperated vessel, sprang into action on New Year’s Eve, using their rescue training to save lives in the Pacific Ocean. The Green Lake was the first vessel to respond to a Coast Guard alert from the Panamanian-flagged Sincerity Ace, a 2009-built car carrier sailing from Yokohama to Hawaii. The master had reported a serious vessel fire, ongoing firefighting efforts and the intent to abandon ship approximately 1,800 nautical miles northwest of Oahu. The crew and officers of the Green Lake spent the next 18 hours battling poor weather conditions as they rescued seven mariners and searched for the missing. In total, the crews of the merchant vessels that responded to the disaster rescued 16 members of the Sincerity Ace’s crew.
The crew of the MV Green Lake would receive several awards and commendations, including the U.S. Maritime Administration’s Gallant Ship honor and one from the United Seamen’s Service.
The SIU always answers the call, even when that call is a rapid activation of an unprecedented number of ships. TRANSCOM in mid-September launched the largest-ever sealift readiness exercise as part of its “Turbo Activation” series, ordering dozens of ships to sea. The SIU crewed up all 33 vessels, filling every unlicensed job.
In a speech later that month, Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby spoke about the activations, pointing out that the mariners reporting during the massive activation were all “on leave or training just a few hours ago. Now, they have been called, and they have answered. Someone said they’re patriots? You’re damn right they’re patriots. They answered the call and they are there today on those ships, ready to take them to sea.”
The SIU launched a new version of its website, www.seafarers.org, that’s easier to navigate from any device. As part of the project and like the main site itself, the member portal has been redesigned so it’s “fully responsive,” a tech industry term that basically means a site will look good and offer solid functionality whether the user is on a desktop, mobile device, tablet or laptop.
Alongside the website, the SIU rolled out another new online resource: the Seafarers LOG Digital Archives database. The database, seafarerslog.org, hosts every copy of the Seafarers LOG from the first issue in 1939 to the present day. Members, researchers, and the general public are free to view nearly 1,500 digitized issues on the browser of their choice, or they may download the PDF files to their electronic devices.
The Paul Hall Center added multiple new courses and facilities, including a state-of-the-art refrigerated container maintenance course and an all-new machine shop. The newly upgraded engineering shop features state-of-the-art trainer systems, real-world equipment and new lab environments that will give students the best opportunity for learning the various aspect of the engine department in a safe, controlled scenario.
The union also answered the call of solidarity throughout the year, supporting our striking union brothers and sisters in the Teachers union, United Auto Workers, Communication Workers Association and grocery store workers. The SIU also provided aid for furloughed government employees through what would become the longest federal government shutdown in U.S. history.