Seafarers International Union President Emeritus Michael Sacco died Dec. 28 in St. Louis, surrounded by family members. He was 86 years old and passed away from natural causes.
Mike was the longest-serving president in SIU history, having led the organization from 1988 until his retirement in February 2023 (a period spanning nearly 35 years).
Reaction to his death consisted of a massive outpouring of respect, appreciation, and affection. Among those offering condolences: President Biden; Elaine Chao, a cabinet secretary in two different U.S. presidential administrations (she attended the funeral mass); top officials from the AFL-CIO and the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF); rank-and-file Seafarers and SIU pensioners; leaders of other U.S. unions; SIU Executive Board members; American maritime industry business executives; U.S. military and government officials; and many, many others.
Giving one of the eulogies at Mike’s funeral mass (he was a devout Catholic), which took place Jan. 6 in St. Louis, SIU President David Heindel stated, “Mike was an inspiration to so many people, and not just people from his union. He had that same effect on military officers, government officials, corporate executives and many others. He was one-in-a-million, and he had a way of making you believe you could accomplish anything if you set your mind to it. Make no mistake, he will be remembered as one of the most significant, influential and accomplished maritime labor leaders in our nation’s history. I truly do not know if the U.S. Merchant Marine would still exist if it weren’t for Mike.”
Mike served as president of the SIU’s Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters (AGLIW) beginning in June 1988. He also worked as president of both the Seafarers International Union of North America (a federation of autonomous unions that includes the SIU AGLIW) and the Maritime Trades Department (MTD) throughout the same period.
Moreover, in November 1991, at its 19th Biennial Constitutional Convention, Mike was elected a vice president of the AFL-CIO, the federation of 60 national and international unions representing more than 14 million workers in the United States. He eventually became the senior vice president of the AFL-CIO Executive Council as its longest-serving member.
A protege of the late SIU President Paul Hall, Sacco from 1980 to 1988 directed the SIU AGLIW’s Great Lakes and Inland Waters division as vice president. Based in St. Louis, he served as secretary-treasurer of the Greater St. Louis Area and Vicinity Port Council (an MTD-chartered organization) and as an executive board member of the Missouri State AFL-CIO.
Mike also was vice president of the Seafarers Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship from 1968 to 1979. The school, located on the grounds of the Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education in Piney Point, Maryland, prepares men and women for a career aboard U.S.-flag commercial vessels and provides upgrading opportunities to active members.
He became associated with the SIU in 1958 and shipped aboard U.S.-flag merchant vessels until he came ashore during the 1960s to serve the SIU in a succession of union posts, including those of patrolman, port agent and headquarters representative.
A native of Brooklyn, New York, Mike served in the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1958.
Although his accomplishments as an SIU official are too numerous to list, highlights included fostering the successful merger of the National Maritime Union into the SIU in 2001; helping secure the implementation of the U.S. Maritime Security Program (MSP), a staple of the industry; insisting that the Paul Hall Center constantly improved; unifying the industry during critical political battles; and individually encouraging every Seafarer, SIU official and staff member he ever met.
Fittingly, Fr. Sinclair Oubre, an SIU member and Catholic priest, helped officiate Mike’s memorial service. He also gave a brief eulogy, as did Mike’s son John, the latter on behalf of the whole family.
In addition to John, survivor’s include Mike’s wife, Sophie; daughters Valerie Moore, Angela Baker, and Anne Marie Fry; 16 grandchildren and six great-grandchildren; and sisters Ida DiCanio and Marie Sacco.
Following are some of the condolences and remembrances received by the union and by family members.
Mike was a force for fairness and decency. While he was a kind and compassionate man, Mike never backed down from a fight when it came to protecting the rights of his fellow merchant mariners and workers everywhere. Our country is stronger and our economy is fairer because of his leadership and devotion. I know his legacy will endure through all the lives he touched.
– President Joe Biden
His big personality and even bigger heart were relentless in ensuring that working people had a seat at the table in every boardroom and that their voices were heard in every hall of power. Nobody fought harder for our nation’s rank-and-file working people than our Mike. Mike Sacco was a trusted mentor and leader to his members, a dear friend of the AFL-CIO and an inspiration to the entire labor movement. While our hearts break today for this loss, the legacy of Mike’s service to the SIU and trade unionism will live on forever.
– Joint statement from AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond
Mike, thank you for all the support. Thank you for your vision and your compassion. You have left a massive legacy and I’m proud to call you friend and advisor. Many unions spent hours working with Mike exploring the history of SIU, learning from his experience, determination, vision and courage to always be in a position of influence, whether it be lobbying the American government, in its very different shapes and sizes over his 35 years, or in ITF circles on how to use our collective leverage to benefit seafarers across the world.
– ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton
Mike Sacco’s legacy is one of unwavering dedication to seafarers’ rights. Mike was charismatic, tough, determined, and a great and inspirational leader with a sense of humor that always seemed to sum up the situation perfectly. He will be greatly missed.
– ITF President Paddy Crumlin
I first met Mike Sacco in the 1980s, just after he became our union president. I was young back then and prone to discouragement. Mike was very patient with me and used to repeat this mantra often – his pep talk. He’d say the SIU is a union of the unlicensed seafarers, most of whom came from the streets with little education or prospects of employment; the union teaches people job skills and gives them an opportunity to better their lives and make some decent money. In the end, I sailed on and had a wonderful career and retirement with no regrets. Rest easy, Mike. Mahalo Nui Loa (thank you so very much).
– Brandon Maeda, SIU Pensioner
It saddened my heart to hear this news in this holiday season. I will never forget his kindness, fair treatment and love that showed everyone we are a family. These qualities are the embodiment of a true mentor. His dedication toward work and his leadership will surely be missed.
– Recertified Bosun Ritche Acuman
Mr. Michael Sacco, thank you for being there. You will be truly missed. I will always remember you keeping a smile on your face, and I know you are saying right now, “Don’t cry for me; smile for me.” Much love to you and my condolences go out to the family.
– GUDE Thommie Hampton
I was sorry to hear about Mike. He was a good man, and I will always remember him and his brother Joe from when I went through Piney Point in 1972. Mike put his heart into the Seafarers International Union. We will all miss you.
– SA Thomas Curley
Mike was a colleague, friend and mentor to me for many, many years. Mike’s life and deeds will never be forgotten.
– Robert Scardelletti, President Emeritus, Transportation Communications Union
Our industry and our nation lost a tremendous leader with the passing of Mike Sacco. There is no part of the American maritime industry untouched by his wisdom, leadership and tenacity over the past decades. In 1995, he played an integral role in the formation of the American Maritime Partnership, our coordinated industry coalition that to this day continues to effectively educate Congress and the Administration about the benefits of the American domestic maritime industry. That’s just one part of his enormous legacy. Mike Sacco was a giant like few others, and he will be sorely missed.
– Jennifer Carpenter, President, American Maritime Partnership
President Sacco will be remembered for his devotion to seafarers’ rights and service to the labor movement. He brought stability during times of great change in his union, including a merger. His lengthy tenure of service will continue to be an inspiration to advocates of workers’ rights.
– Department of Professional Employees President Jennifer Dorning
We lost a true friend of all mariners, a mentor to many and a great leader in the maritime industry. Seafarers will continue to receive the results of his steadfast leadership that generated the fiscal soundness and generous benefits of these Plans well into the future. His impact will not be forgotten. He has been a positive force in my life for the past 33 years.
– Seafarers Plans Administrator Maggie Bowen
Mike Sacco learned from Paul Hall that the SIU is an important part of the labor movement. That’s why he walked – and expected Seafarers to walk – many picket lines across the country to show solidarity with Maritime Trades affiliates and others. He made sure Seafarers were known and respected within the AFL-CIO.
– Daniel Duncan, Executive Secretary-Treasurer Emeritus, MTD
I knew Mike for pretty much my whole life, starting with my first days as a trainee. We worked together for decades, so I observed him in lots of different circumstances – many of them challenging and stressful. He always maintained a laser-like focus on the goal at hand, and he came through time after time. My overriding feeling about Mike is one of gratitude. I am grateful to have spent so much time with him. I’m grateful to have learned so much from him, about leadership and foresight and dedication. His legacy and his example will continue to inspire us.
– SIU President David Heindel
I knew him since 1975, and he influenced my life right up to the present. He was a force of nature. People who are larger than life cast a big shadow that touches many people, and that is Mike’s legacy. Think of the thousands of Seafarers and their families who have a better life because of him. Mike always tried to emphasize the positive, and he cared about everybody’s family. I learned a lifetime’s worth of lessons from him.
– SIU Executive Vice President Augie Tellez
Countless hours with Mike over the years were filled with “windshield time.” That is simply the time you spend in a car with someone and talk. Those moments as well as a morning coffee or a drink at dinner were always filled with a lively conversation or story. What I grew to realize over the years is, those interactions were how Mike taught and mentored. His sense of history, knowledge of the industry and life lessons have become invaluable to me as I grow older and face the challenges he spoke of so often. I will certainly miss his insight and keen instincts. His thoughts on family life and strong conviction for the church will always remain at the forefront of any conversation I may have when someone asks, “What was he like?” He dedicated every day to improvement and had great attention to detail. I will always appreciate the room he gave me to grow as a person and as a union representative. I could go on for pages about the love and admiration that I and so many others have for him, but I think that goes without saying. So many words could be used to describe his career and life, but for me there is only one, and that word is ICONIC.
– SIU Secretary-Treasurer Tom Orzechowski
I was privileged to be in the room on many occasions when Mike held court. Whether the session was about funding for a maritime program or the best political strategy to achieve those goals, Mike was often the conductor, if not the architect, for the entire maritime industry. He would command any room with his presence alone and was at ease equally with the President of the United States or the most recent class of apprentices in Piney Point. The SIU has never been in better shape; Mike made sure of that. Today, the membership truly has security, the kind that lets you sleep well at night. Knowing that you will always have a job, great medical benefits, and a pension are all products of Mike’s leadership. Mr. Sacco taught us well and we look forward to being the custodians of his legacy.
– SIU Vice President Contracts George Tricker
Mike is a brother, friend and lifelong companion to me in my SIU career. I met Mike back in 1975, when I was an 18-year-old trainee in Piney Point. I was amazed at the way his presence captivated the audience. He had an enormous, enthusiastic and passionate energy about him, a devotion to our union that I wanted to be part of. This was his passion, the betterment of the Brotherhood of the Sea. Over all these years, he has never wavered from that passion. Mike’s sincerity and integrity was his calling card. You felt comfortable when you met him, and when you talked with him, he made you feel connected. He is a lot of everything that is goodness all rolled up into one wonderful person. He will be missed and I will always remember the good times and memories that we shared together. I bid my brother farewell, on his final voyage. May the warmth of our Lord’s eternal love be your guiding light.
– SIU Vice President West Coast Nick Marrone
Mike Sacco has been in my life for 47 years. He was my union ed teacher in piney point 1977, and I worked with him and his brother Joey (late SIU executive vice president) in the Gulf region. He was an inspiration and a driving force in my career, and a teacher in how to promote and protect the SIU and the entire United States Merchant Marine, along with the American labor movement. I will miss him a lot.
– SIU Vice President Government Services Nicholas Celona
I’ve been in the union since 1989 but have known Mike my entire life. I’ll remember how he commanded respect from everybody and yet how he could be at ease with anyone, whether it was the President of the United States or an ordinary seaman. Mike was a giant of a man in the labor movement. No one has ever been more dedicated to the SIU.
– SIU Vice President Atlantic Coast Joseph Soresi
Mike Sacco is deeply loved and respected, and for many of us Mike was a leader, a mentor, a confidant, and trusted advisor. He treated us like family in many ways. Some of us really understand how completely he dedicated himself (and nearly every fiber of his being) to the betterment of the maritime industry, the membership, his leadership team and staff, and the labor movement writ large. Mike’s many contributions to the maritime industry and labor movement cannot be overstated. He had a big personality (to say it mildly); with a steady hand, good instincts, keen intuition, and prudent judgement which he wielded as a positive force for our industry, and in many people’s lives – personally and professionally. Mike, you will be sorely missed but your legacy will live on with us forever.
– SIU Vice President of the Southern Region, Great Lakes and Inland Waters Bryan Powell
Editor’s note: On behalf of the union as well as Mike’s family, we are deeply and sincerely appreciative of the many heartfelt condolences that have been received. We attempted to publish and post a reasonably representative sample; no slight is intended to any organization or individual whose comments don’t appear here.