New NMU Hall–Facade to Hide Union Retreat

From the Socialist Workers Party’s Militant, 8 July 1944. Dick Fraser sailed out of the port of New York as a member of the National Maritime Union from 1943 to 1948.

Continued from left column

Shore-time allotments run from four to thirty days. This inequality in ship­ping cards makes rotary ship­ping impossible, forcing a man, say, with a ten-day card to compete with others with thirty-day cards. A seaman is doubly penalized for quitting even a ship on which the worst con­di­tions prevail. First, he has to take a short ship­ping card. Second, he incurs disciplinary measures by the un­ion for getting off without a replacement.

A most vicious practice has resulted from this. The ship’s officers and com­pa­ny officials have fostered a system of favoritism whereby a seaman who permits himself to become so involved can get little protection against the stringent RMO rulings. This divides the crew and always leaves the com­pa­ny with a few stooges on the ship. With a divided crew a seaman willing to fight for con­di­tions finds himself fined. Because of the short ship­ping card he will then get, along with other possible penalties, and the unwillingness of the Patrolmen to back him up, even a good un­ion man becomes reluctant to fight.

The end result is that bad con­di­tions get worse and there is no way to stop it. A seaman is cajoled or threatened into taking a job where he must sleep in a crummy bunk on a lousy ship, while the ship­owner gets praise for keeping it in operation.

When a seaman comes in from a trip, he is con­front­ed in the Union Hall with all the red tape of a first rate government agency. On the conveyer belt of this red tape he gets pushed from pillar to post and from office to office, and finally lands in the Trial and Rules Committee which, to save time, will read him the rules and give him a trial at the same time.

Enforcing the RMO rulings is the job of the RMO and not of a un­ion. However, the NMU officials even use the practice of reporting violations of RMO rulings to the RMO and Selective Service officials!

The Union Hall is no longer a place where a un­ion man can expect to find protection and just rep­re­sen­ta­tion against a ship­owner or a government bureaucrat. On the contrary, this system by which the Union has undertaken the functions of the WSA, the RMO and the Selective Service System makes going to sea just like being in jail, only more ef­fi­cient. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the ship­owners eagerly accept when they are invited into the Hall and are received with open arms.

At the April 27 membership meeting Curran boasted: “For the first time in history personnel representatives of 60 ship­owners were sitting in the Hall, talking cooperation. I told them that for seven years we’ve been fighting to keep them out of the Hall, and now we’re fighting to get them in.” Ship­owner Taylor of the Merchant Marine Institute ded­icat­ed the new Hall. An evil omen for the future!

Among the fruits of Curran’s “fight” is this, that, as everyone knows, recently there has been an epidemic of seamen ship­ping off the dock through com­pa­ny offices and on unorganized lines (Standard Oil, Isthmian, etc.). National Vice-President of NMU Meyers has complained to the War Shipping Ad­min­is­tra­tion that seamen do this in order to escape and evade the ship­ping rules of the NMU. The Pilot, official weekly of the Union, reported on May 5: “The un­ion has even gone so far as taking drastic action against men who violate our ship­ping rules...after the un­ion takes this action however its hands are tied because the free to go to any one of the few unorganized lines...”

The policies of NMU leaders in supporting the government and its bureaus become so oppressive that seamen are driven away from the Union Hall to the protection of—the ship­owners and their crimps. This is virtually what the Pilot itself says.

This is the price that the seamen pay for the support their officials give to Roosevelt and the war machine. This is the price of the new Hall.

The new hall of the National Maritime Union in New York City is now open and in full operation after a big National Maritime Day dedication cere­mo­ny. This is reputed to be the most elaborate un­ion hall that American seamen have ever owned. It has an il­lu­mi­nat­ed dispatchers’ board, rec­rea­tion­al fa­cili­ties including a bar with free beer on oc­ca­sions, up­hol­stered benches and, as President Curran prom­ised, sweet music while the seamen wait for their next ship out. A good un­ion hall is a good thing to have. All militants, of which the NMU has its share, are in favor of good and better things for the sea­men; that is why they built the un­ion in the first place.

After the government smashed the seamen’s un­ions after the last war (in 1921) and herded the “heroes in dungarees” into government fink halls, crimp joints, and ship­owner controlled employment offices, the seamen conducted an unremitting strug­gle to establish their own hiring halls.

It was not until the great maritime strike of 1934, which culminated in the San Francisco general strike, that the seamen took the first step toward regaining un­ion control of the hiring hall. In the strike of 1936-37, the 99-day strike on the Pacific Coast, the seamen were finally able to force the ship­owners to sign written agreements embodying recognition of the un­ion hiring hall.

For seamen, un­ion control over the hiring hall meant an end to the vicious system of blacklisting by which the government and the ship­owners victimized un­ion militants; it meant an end to dis­crim­ina­tion, favoritism, miserable working con­di­tions, low wages, and a con­di­tion of sea-slavery. It meant, above all, the independence of the un­ion, free from domination or control by the ship­owners or their political agents in the government! The un­ions formulated their OWN ship­ping rules based on the principle of rotary ship­ping. Union members who violated the ship­ping rules, the un­ion contract, un­ion working con­di­tions, were disciplined by the democratic action of the un­ion membership. The un­ion hiring hall for seamen became the symbol of free, independent un­ionism in the maritime in­dus­try.

It is against this background that seamen must assess the value of either old or new hiring halls. What are the con­di­tions that go with the new NMU hall? During the last two years the ship­ping rules have been “modified” until there is little left of the rights of members. For example, the “Wartime Ship­ping Rules” of the NMU for the port of New York contain the following provisions:

Wartime Regulations

1. “All men between the years of 18 and 38 who persist in turning down ships without any good reason that they can substantiate, will have their names turned over to the Draft Board by the Agent and the Dispatcher as not being bonafide seamen.”

2. “All men over 38 years of age who persist in turning down ships without any good reason that they can substantiate, will have their names turned over to the War Manpower Commission as not being bonafide seamen.”

These provisions in the ship­ping rules mean that the un­ion officials have become finger-men for government agencies upon whom they depend to enforce the un­ion ship­ping rules! The un­ion ship­ping card has been abolished and in its place there has been substituted the RMO (Recruitment and Manning Organization of the War Shipping Ad­min­is­tra­tion) time allotment card with the un­ion’s name on it. These measures, only a few of a number of other like measures that have been put into effect by the Curran-Stalinist leadership, serve to undermine un­ion control over the hiring hall. And flowing from these, there arise certain vicious practices, especially a system of favoritism.