The first pandemic-era class of stewards successfully completed the highest-level curriculum available at the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for their department, reaching what several of them described as the peak of their culinary careers.
Eight culinary professionals on June 7 graduated from the two-week Steward Recertification Course, which was modified due to pandemic concerns: Jatniel “Bam Bam” Aguilera, Marlon Battad, Edwin Bonefont, Dante Cruz, Mario Firme Jr., Kenneth Greenidge, Francisco Madsen and Albert Sison. During their studies, they learned and furthered their knowledge of nutrition, healthy eating, baking and sanitation, and improved other skills such as computer literacy, social responsibilities and leadership. In addition, the newly recertified stewards gained insight into how the union and school operates, with courses and workshops that detail the functions of various departments, the union’s affiliated labor partners and the inner workings of collective bargaining agreements.
To place a capstone on the program, each steward addressed the assembled crowd of upgrading members, apprentices and SIU officials and staff at the June membership meeting in Piney Point, Maryland. In their speeches, each member expressed gratitude and humility upon completing the program, and thanked the staff and instructors of the school for their help in achieving this goal. Without exception, each member thanked the union officials for their leadership and knowledge, as well as imparted words of wisdom to the future generations of mariners in attendance.
The following are excerpts from each recertified steward’s speech, presented in the order in which they spoke. These excerpts were bolstered by written comments and notes provided to the Seafarers LOG.
Greenidge opened with a quote from author David J. Schwartz: “Success is determined not so much by the size of one’s brain as it is by the size of one’s thinking.” He then discussed his SIU journey, saying, “The SIU has been a life-changing experience for me, and it has been a heavy journey.”
A frequent upgrader, Greenidge was born in New Orleans, and began sailing in 1989 out of Piney Point. He now primarily sails out of Oakland, California.
He continued: “The union has always stood by me. They have my back, and I’ve utilized all the facilities they have to offer. And I do mean all the facilities. The SIU really gave me the opportunity to be a productive citizen of the United States.”
To the apprentices, he offered the following advice: “You can apply your experience in life anywhere you go. You can have they lifestyle you enjoy, and love your life. But you must stay humble, and look out for your brothers and sisters. Treat people with respect and have respect for yourself.
“Go out there and work to the best of your ability, regardless of people’s attitudes. Sometimes a good attitude and energy can rub off on someone who does not have such a good attitude. Be yourself, be honest and good fortune will always come,” he concluded.
Next at the podium was Marlon Battad. Battad joined the union in Norfolk in 2004 and currently sails from Houston. He has upgraded at the Paul Hall Center seven times.
“Our union has been a very important part of my life,” he began. “The union has given me the means of providing for my family and loved ones. I am thankful for this opportunity, to be one of the chosen members to become a recertified steward. This accomplishment is one of the great achievements that I will always remember.”
He then praised the SIU officials, saying, “During my few weeks of staying here at the campus, I have learned how hard our union officials work to make sure that we all have a job. I am forever grateful for their hard work and dedication to our union, to ensure that every single member has the means to provide for our families.”
He added, “To our upcoming members, my advice is to take pride. Take pride in what we do, so that we can protect our jobs for the next generations to come.”
After urging fellow members to support SPAD (the union’s voluntary political action fund) and also participate in grassroots political activities, he thanked SIU President Michael Sacco and SIU Executive Vice President Augustin Tellez specifically, as well as the staff of the port of Houston.
Albert Sison, who joined the union at the Port of Wilmington, California in 1991, was the next to speak. He brought specific attention to the recent and ongoing upgrades to the school, praising the renovations as well as the all-new media center (which will open later this year).
“I’m finally here, after a 14-and-a-half-month COVID delay,” he continued. “I am standing on stage, in front of an audience of my brothers and sisters, alongside my colleagues, and I can now proudly say that I am a SIU recertified chief steward. I’m honored, I’m grateful, I’m blessed to have been given this opportunity, and I’m proud to be a part of this organization.”
He then praised the instructors, saying: “The knowledge that you give us is priceless. The classes here have provided me with solid information, and I can now take that knowledge and pass it along to my union brothers and sisters.”
Sison also credited all of the staff at the Paul Hall Center.
Dante Cruz spoke next. He’s a California resident who joined the union in San Francisco in 1993 and now sails out of Oakland. Cruz spoke about all he learned in the course, and touched on the importance of getting a COVID-19 vaccine, saying, “Brothers and sisters, your safety is their safety.”
He continued, “I was surprised when I met all of the union officials. They’re very friendly and approachable people…. I learned all about politics and how important it is to our union. I also learned how hard the union officials work to make sure members have a job in the future.
“The school’s accommodations were very neat, and the food was both delicious and healthy,” he added. “The facility was also very advanced, in terms of their level of technology.”
He concluded by encouraging the other students to study hard and stay safe.
Jatniel ‘Bam Bam’ Aguilera
Jatniel Aguilera, who goes by the nickname Bam Bam, is a Puerto Rican mariner who joined in Piney Point in 2009 and currently ships out of the San Juan hall. He is also the proud father of another Seafarer, as his son has joined the union.
Aguilera described the course, saying: “In the steward recertified class, I learned how and where to turn when you have any doubts or questions. I also learned how to be a better leader, and how to help others become better leaders. In addition, I learned the importance of supporting the Jones Act, SPAD, and the role of the Maritime Trades Department.
“That knowledge is what helps us be able to guide others, both on the vessel and outside the union, on the importance of what makes the union strong,” he continued. “I would describe my experience in Piney Point as, ‘This is a factory that makes leaders, skilled merchant mariners and future officers of the SIU.’ This school gives you a first-class education, and if you know how to take advantage of it, you will make the best of your career.”
He concluded by saying to the trainees, “Be the architect of your destiny. Follow orders; it’s not so hard. And support this union. Fight for this union. This is a machine, always going forward, and what lies ahead is great success for you and your brothers and sisters.”
Mario Firme Jr.
Mario Firme Jr., who joined the union in 1990 and sails out of Wilmington, spoke next. Firme Jr. expressed his gratitude for the opportunity, and specifically thanked several key figures.
He said, “It’s an honor and a privilege that I have finally reached the goal I’ve been dreaming of becoming a recertified chief steward. The union has given me the opportunity to have a better quality of life, and hope for the future. I promise to be a good leader…. I specifically want to thank Chef Jesse Sunga, Wilmington Port Agent Jeff Turkus, and SIU Vice President Tom Orzechowski, for their help and encouragement.”
He also addressed the apprentices, saying, “Listen and learn from your shipmates, and never be afraid to ask questions.”
Francisco Madsen, who joined the SIU in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2004 and still ships from there, emphasized how much the union has impacted his life.
After quipping that his fellow stewards had already said what he planned to say in his speech, he relayed his experiences, stating, “I said when I started, ‘I can do this job for maybe one or two years.’ Well, here I am, all these years later. The SIU changed my life, and with the help of the school’s instructors, I have been able to have the necessary tools to get where I am today.”
He then offered a stark reminder to those in attendance: “Two very important words to remember: Jones Act. Without the Jones Act, we are nothing. Don’t forget, you are a union worker. That’s who we are.”
After praising the school’s numerous improvements, he concluded by recognizing the future of the union, saying, “I see a lot of young people in here, and some upgraders as well. I encourage you to take every opportunity the school gives you.”
Before Edwin Bonefont took the stage, Tellez introduced him as coming from a legacy SIU family. Historically, many mariners with the last name Bonefont have shipped out of East Coast ports ever since the inception of the union in 1938, making the name synonymous with Seafarers, according to Tellez. Edwin, who joined the SIU in Piney Point in 1992, ships out of San Juan today.
“I want to say thanks to everyone who helped me live my dream,” he began. “The SIU has been a part of my family since it started. In all the years I have been coming to the school, I have always had a great experience, from the time I was an apprentice until today. I can say that the instructors and the officials help elevate the SIU to the status that it holds today.”
He talked about all he learned throughout the program, saying, “I met with the officials, who explained to me how the SIU operates, and what the union does for the members. And from all angles, I have a better understanding of how the different departments work together. My experiences will help me explain how it all works to the other members aboard the ship.”
He concluded by saying, “I’m excited to see what the future holds, for the future mariners and for the SIU.”