One of the darkest and least explored corners of American maritime affairs is that in which rests the Merchant Marine personnel problem. It is in an attempt to throw some small light into this corner and to bring before the public in general and the Navy in particular the seriousness of the present situation that this article has been written.
Last spring Congress after much debate passed the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 with the avowed purpose of encouraging the growth of American shipping. The act apparently was intended to cover every aspect of the shipping problem, and provided for liberal subsidies to overcome the operating and construction differential between foreign and American vessels. The act also set up a Maritime Authority of five members to administer the act and to serve generally in the same capacity that the Interstate Commerce Commission does for the railways. But, unfortunately, the personnel problem was left practically untouched, largely because last spring the personnel problem appeared on the surface to be quiescent if not nonexistent. And yet looking back at the record of the past few months, it might not be too much to say that this personnel problem transcends all others in its importance for the future of the Merchant Marine.
Lacking adequately trained and sound personnel, it will never be possible for American ships, no matter how heavily subsidized, to offer serious competition to expanding foreign fleets. Moreover, ever recurring labor troubles and maritime walkouts will seriously discourage the entry of new capital into the marine field. Equally serious is the probability that the Navy will find its carefully cherished auxiliary fleet manned by men whose value in time of military emergency will be, to say the least, doubtful, if not a positive source of danger.
With the exception of a small minority of high-grade men who follow the sea in spite of every sort of adverse condition, the bulk of American seamen are men who are at sea because they are unable to earn a living ashore, and of these a surprisingly large number are foreigners who have taken out papers only in order to meet the legal requirement of American citizenship. Another disquieting feature is the abnormally large turnover in American crews, a condition accentuated by the practice of remaining “on the beach” until all the pay from the preceding voyage has been spent.
Of increasing significance is the ease with which agitators are able to secure a foothold amongst our crews. Frequently a few well-placed leaders have been able through cajolery and intimidation to induce whole crews to walk off, or have succeeded in undermining the efficiency and discipline of the ship. Perhaps the swelling tide of literature found on American vessels, calling for a soviet United States and depicting the luxurious life of a sailor under a communist-ordered merchant marine, may have some small bearing on the present difficulties.
On the west coast the situation has developed in a far more acute form than on the Atlantic, largely because of the more able leadership of the radical wing of the marine workers. Recent reports have indicated that men unacceptable to the left wing leaders have frequently been discriminated against in the union hiring halls, with the result that many fine men have been prevented from following the sea.
During the past two years discipline in west coast vessels has been so seriously undermined that officers are no longer in a position effectively to control their men. This condition has developed from the practice of crews striking for the removal of officers they dislike. If the steamship company proves obdurate and stands by its officer, the radical leaders are in a position to call a strike of the longshoremen which almost invariably brings the company to its knees and results in the discharge of the offending officer. Naturally, under these circumstances ships’ officers are extremely wary about issuing orders which might offend the crew and cause the officers to lose their jobs. Perhaps the most recent example of this type of strike was that of the SS. President Hoover whose crew struck in September for the removal of the ship’s captain. It is difficult to exaggerate the seriousness of this deterioration in discipline, for without discipline all other aspects of a marine personnel system are meaningless.
It was on this setting that the recent marine strike was launched the last week of October. On the west coast the expiration of the agreements between the unions and the operators provided the opportunity of testing the newly formed Maritime Federation, while on the east coast a comparatively new leader led the bulk of the Atlantic seamen into a so-called “sympathy strike.”
Perhaps it would be wise here to recount briefly the history of the complicated east coast marine situation. It was only last spring that a hitherto unknown seaman led a strike in San Pedro of the crew of the Panama Pacific liner California. Called away from the dinner table in Washington, the Secretary of Labor, Miss Perkins, talked with him by telephone and persuaded him and his followers to return to their ship and to bring her around to New York where their grievances would receive all due consideration. No sooner had the ship been warped into her berth in New York, than strike activities began which not only prevented the California from sailing again for the west coast, but spread throughout the port of New York until the situation attained the proportions of a general seamen’s strike. But the important fact to be noted is that the regular leaders of the International Seamen’s Union, to which the California strikers belonged and with which the ship operators had an agreement extending to October 1, 1936, not only failed to support the strike, but did everything in their power to break it.
During the succeeding months dissatisfaction with the regular leaders of the I.S.U. grew apace. Seeking to enlist the support of the general public, the Seamen’s Defense Committee, the title adopted by the new organization, began an attack on general conditions aboard American vessels, both in regard to safety requirements and seamen’s living conditions. The spring strike, however, failed, after causing much inconvenience but no serious walkouts except on vessels of the International Mercantile Marine-Panama Pacific group, owners of the California.
After a few months of comparative quiet, the situation took a turn for the worse when in the latter part of the summer an election for officers was held by the Marine Oilers, Firemen, and Water- tenders’ Union, an affiliate of the I.S.U. The left wing group with which the Seamen’s Defense Committee was identified put up men to oppose the old line leaders, and apparently succeeded in polling a majority for their candidates. The old line officials, however, charged fraud, threw out a large number of their opponents’ votes, and declared themselves reelected. After much vituperation and threats of considerably worse, the case was taken to the courts, with the result that a decision was handed down requiring new elections for the end of 1936.
The first week in October saw the expiration of the old and the conclusion of new agreements between the steamship companies and the old line union leaders. These agreements included significant concessions on the part of the operators, the most noteworthy of which was a provision for overtime. Hardly, however, had the new agreements gone into force when the outbreak of the Pacific marine strike provided the Seamen’s Defense Committee with the opportunity to once again challenge the old line leadership. The I.S.U. held a meeting in New York at which the old line leaders urged adherence to the recently negotiated agreements and confinement of support for the west coast to messages of sympathy. The new group, however, rapidly gained control of the session; the regular I.S.U. leaders beat a hurried retreat; and the radical faction proceeded to vote a sympathy strike.
With a fine eye for the tactics of the situation the Seamen’s Defense Committee soon converted this sympathy strike into a general marine strike with the avowed purpose of compelling the repudiation of the recently concluded agreements, and their replacement by new agreements. In support of this demand the argument was advanced that the old line union leaders did not actually represent the bulk of the I.S.U. members and that hence any agreement negotiated with them was illegal. A further demand was subsequently added calling for a single national agreement covering both the east and west coast marine workers. Obviously, the success of such a program would automatically insure the overthrow of the old line leaders.
Of material assistance to the strikers was the growing dissatisfaction of the rank and file of the seamen with the old line leaders. With or without reason the new leaders were able to raise the question of the personal integrity of the old line officials, charging that large sums of union funds had been misappropriated and that other sums had been received by union officials from the steamship companies. In partial substantiation of these charges, a court order was secured requiring an accounting by old line leaders for some $140,000 of union dues, while further evidence seems to indicate that at least one I.S.U. official received compensation from a steamship company.
On the other hand a factor which seriously militated against the success of the east coast strike was the attitude of the Atlantic branch of the International Longshoremen’s Association. Not only did this association keep its men on their jobs of loading and unloading American vessels, but it consistently aligned itself against the strikers, and in one case went so far as to threaten to refuse to handle ships of companies concluding agreements with the strikers. Later, when the French left wing dock workers refused to unload American vessels manned by so-called strike-breaking crews, the longshoremen retaliated by refusing to work the French liner Champlain. The result was the return of the French dock workers to work on American ships. This attitude of the east coast longshoremen is to be contrasted with that of their brothers on the Pacific coast, where the longshoremen constituted the most formidable portion of the marine strike.
The whole situation placed the east coast ship operators in a most unenviable position. If there had been any concrete demands to be met, or if the lines had been as clear cut as on the west coast, it might have been easier to steer a clear course; but unfortunately the struggle was over a question of leadership in which the operators had but an indirect interest. If they negotiated with the insurgent group they would have been accused not only of breaking their agreements with the duly elected I.S.U. officials, but would have had no assurance of the ability of the radicals to keep any agreement into which these insurgent labor leaders might enter, while on the other hand by adhering to their agreements with the I.S.U., the operators found their crews walking off and picket lines installed in front of their piers.
During the first few weeks of the east coast strike the situation became continually more serious, while prospects for the insurgents’ ultimate success rose steadily. Ship after ship arrived in port only to lose her crew, while replacements grew increasingly scarce. For a while it was a mystery how the crews received word of the strike while still at sea, but more recent evidence points to the cooperation of the radio operators, a large number of whom are affiliated with a union whose control has passed to a left wing group. In other cases carefully planted agitators stirred up the crews to walk off as soon as their ship came alongside the pier. Men who had no desire to strike were frequently forced out by fear of the consequences if the insurgent group eventually secured control of the union, a development which would have seriously jeopardized their standing in the I.S.U., and rendered the securing of jobs difficult, if not impossible. It was undoubtedly this fear of the success of the strike that was responsible for such success as the strike attained.
Other important tactics employed by the strikers included the threat of physical violence; in most cases this threat was grossly exaggerated by the agitators in an effort to force out recalcitrant men, but there were a steady series of incidents in which non-strikers were assailed and severely beaten after they went ashore.
But in spite of the strikers’ efforts the east coast operators with more or less difficulty continued to find new crews and to sail their ships. In certain isolated cases sailings were canceled or postponed, notably in the case of the International Mercantile Marine’s North Atlantic services, where the crack liner Manhattan was compelled to cancel a sailing and other vessels were seriously delayed. Several smaller cargo lines lacking adequate facilities for securing crews similarly found their schedules disrupted, but all the major east coast lines succeeded in maintaining their services unimpaired.
A few weeks after the beginning of the strike, the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, The Masters’, Mates’ and Pilots’ Association, and the American Radio Telegraphists’ Association called strikes for higher wages, augmenting the picket lines with a number of ships’ officers. But since a major portion of the east coast ships’ officers are members of the non-striking United Licensed Officers’ Association, the only result of the new development was the bolstering of the morale of the insurgent seamen.
Up to the end of the first three or four weeks the strike assumed increasingly serious proportions, largely because the operators were less adept at securing new men, and because such men as were available were becoming steadily more scarce. Rapidly the situation developed into a race between the endurance of the strikers and the depletion of the supply of qualified men, a race which the strikers would have won if the inevitable time had not arrived when vessels which had sailed with new crews began returning to port, replenishing the supply of men and rendering the strikers’ position well-nigh hopeless. The International Mercantile Marine delivered several hard blows when they succeeded in putting the Manhattan back into service and continued the operation of the Washington, despite extreme efforts on the part of the strikers. Rendered desperate, the Seamen’s Defense Committee cast about for new tactics, and finally hit upon the scheme of secretly providing crews which would sign on a vessel only to walk off before the last whistle blew. This maneuver attained partial success in such cases as the I.M.M.’s President Roosevelt, delaying the vessel nearly 24 hours, but in other cases, where more than enough men were available, failed completely.
Gradually it became apparent that the efforts of the seamen alone were not going to win the east coast strike, and that in order effectively to tie up shipping it would be necessary to obtain the co-operation of the longshoremen. A mass meeting attended by some 12,000 people was held at Madison Square Garden at which a west coast leader appealed to the longshoremen for unity and promised that if they joined the striking seamen the Pacific Maritime Federation would remain on strike until the east coast strike had been won.
In contrast to the Atlantic, the strike on the Pacific coast assumed the proportions of a complete and effective tie-up of all American shipping, involving a daily loss of several millions of dollars. Repercussions were felt throughout the entire industrial life of the western states, while Alaska and Hawaii found themselves in the unenviable position of having their only lines of communication with the United States severed.
The general effect of the maritime strike on both coasts has been to administer a severe check to the entire shipping industry at a time when it is in need of every encouragement in getting away to a good start against a swelling foreign competition. The millions spent by the taxpayer to build up a Merchant Marine are of little value, if strikes are continually tying up its ships. What is perhaps even more serious from the business point of view is the diversion of trade to foreign bottoms, for once trade has formed the habit of moving by one channel it is difficult to shift it back again into another. In summing up the consequences of the maritime strike we may say that, regardless of the merits of the contestants, it defeated the very purpose for which Congress and the government have consistently striven since the close of the war and which all parties should have at heart —the building of an American merchant marine.
There is obviously something radically wrong with a personnel system which provides inefficient crews, permits such a complete undermining of discipline as has occurred on the west coast, and continually keeps the industry in a turmoil of strikes and counter-strikes. A peace—or rather a truce—was patched up between the contestants in the recent strike situation, but the basic conditions underlying the marine personnel problem still remain to be solved, and until they are solved there is little hope of developing a large or efficient American merchant marine. These basic conditions involve the type of men attracted to the sea, the character of the training given them, and the conditions under which they serve.
In many respects the steamship companies have themselves to blame for the recent situation. With little or no effort at training men, with, until recently, ridiculously inadequate pay scales, and with unattractive living conditions, there is little wonder that the best type of man has not been drawn into the industry. On the other hand, rigorous competition and the narrow margin upon which many companies have been compelled to operate have precluded any long-range or costly programs for the improvement of the crews, and such efforts as have been made have invariably met with discouraging results. The crews have frequently failed to take advantage of, and in some cases have actually mutilated, such new equipment as has been installed in their quarters, while they have consistently refused to grasp such meager opportunities to improve their training as may have been offered.
Some years ago, the government in an effort to train Merchant Marine officers, required all subsidized American vessels to carry cadets, who after three years at sea would be eligible for a third mate’s license. Unfortunately, in most companies these cadetships have gradually degenerated into positions for young friends or sons of officers of the company who want an opportunity to see the world, with the result that each voyage sees the advent of an entirely new set of cadets. In other companies the cadets have been converted into glorified ordinary seamen or “wipers,” while in practically no company has any pretense been made at actually training its cadets. Naturally, under these conditions the number of licensed officers trained through cadetships is small.
But the government has on the whole been just as negligent as the shipping companies. Until recently the system of issuing seamen’s tickets, certificates, and even licenses was practically a farce. It is a known fact that able seamen’s tickets and lifeboat certificates could be purchased for a few dollars, while there was a thriving business in discharge papers. It is only within the last few years that authorities have been able to eliminate the former evil by tightening up on the identification requirements; the laxity in regard to discharge papers was remedied by the introduction of the seaman’s continuous discharge book on January 1, 1937.
Another condition for which the government is responsible is the situation in regard to shipping articles. The law requires that every member of the ship’s crew must sign the shipping articles, thus constituting a contract between the company and its men. The failure of the Department of Justice, after consultation with the Department of Labor, to prosecute members of the crew who have walked off after signing the articles has rendered void one half of the contract, but the portion binding the steamship company is still in effect. The result is that crews after signing on have been walking off when they felt like it, while the company has been unable to discharge undesirable men without giving them pay for the full voyage. More important than the immediate difficulty resulting for the companies has been the general undermining of discipline and the increased liquidity of the crews.
All this evidence points to but one conclusion: that if the American people want a merchant marine they will have to take definite and prompt measures to provide the men to man its ships. What these measures should be has yet to be determined, but perhaps some hint may be drawn from the success of the present naval recruiting and training system.