When Donald Bensman retired from sailing in late 1992, the former SIU port agent and organizer offered two messages to new members of the union.
First, he said, don’t take for granted all the benefits of union representation. And second, remember the importance of the union-affiliated school in Piney Point, Maryland.
Bensman passed away Dec. 5 at a medical rehabilitation center in Maumee, Ohio. He was 90.
“He worked hard to try to make other people’s lives better,” said his son, Jonathan. “He would help anybody at any time.”
Bensman remained politically active following his retirement, especially in the Lucas County, Ohio, Democratic Party.
“He paid attention to everything from the local precincts to the White House,” U.S. Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) told the Toledo Blade. “Donald was an extraordinary labor leader and patriot. He knew the Great Lakes and championed their cause throughout his life. He tried to make a difference in the lives of working men and women across our region.”
Bensman entered the maritime industry at age 15 – he started sailing on the Great Lakes in 1945. His career spanned nearly half a century, only interrupted by service in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, and included substantial time both as an engine department mariner and as a union representative. Bensman was part of the SIU’s early organizing efforts on the Lakes; he helped bring American Steamship Company, Reiss, and Kinsman Marine Transport (among others) under the SIU umbrella. He became the union’s port agent in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1962 and helped establish AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department Port Councils in the Cleveland, Detroit, and Toledo, Ohio, metro areas.
He returned to sailing in the mid-1970s; his last vessel was the Paul Thayer.
When Bensman visited SIU headquarters upon his retirement, he reflected on the progress made by maritime unions throughout the years.
“A lot of people forget how rotten the companies were back then (before significant numbers of mariners gained union representation),” he said. “A lot of new members don’t understand that and don’t know what we fought for.”
For example, Bensman said the pre-union era was one of firings on the spot for little or no reason. No seaman had a right to a grievance procedure or fair hearing. He also said it was a period of almost legalized blackballing.
During that same interview, he was asked what advice he would give to a person entering the union. He replied, “Get an education. The greatest legacy (the late SIU President) Paul Hall and others left this union is the school in Piney Point. That is the only reason we are alive as a union – because we have stayed up-to-date in technology advances and we train people to stay that way.”
Bensman was preceded in death by his wife of 59 years, Patsy, in 2012. Survivors include two children, a brother and two grandchildren.