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:
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.