Chapter X: "Baltimore Soviet"
and West Coast Strike
I felt defeated, humiliated, outmatched and outclassed. I tried, as I watched the ship disappear down the river, to go over all the plans and figure out what had gone wrong. I blamed myself for the two lookout men falling asleep. I should have known something like that would happen. What would my comrades in New York think about this? How could I ever face them again and convince them that they should continue to have confidence in me? I worried about such things. I had been given an assignment by comrades who had faith in me; I had failed them and the crew of the Mundixie. Well, the Mundixie was gone. I would have to pick up the pieces now. The men were destitute and broke and, if they felt like me, demoralized and defeated. They would have to be housed and fed. that was part of my responsibility, too. I realized there was more to leadership than merely leading men into a strike.
We piled into cabs with our baggage and headed to the union hall. The secretary, Anton Becker, received us warmly. I explained the plight of the men. Becker said it would create no problem. The men would be housed and fed and given shipping cards to ship out. "Don't feel bad about the ship getting away," Becker said. "After all, if we average one win in five that's good batting. Next time we'll be better organized. Let's learn and move ahead. Don't feel bad about it. The men must understand that it's always a gamble. And after all, what did they miss? They'll be better fed and taken care of here, and they'll end up going out on better ships. So cheer up, roll up your sleeves and prepare to get down to a lot of hard work around here. There's plenty to be done. As a Communist, you have your work cut out for you."
My new assignment was to work on publicity and help with a daily news bulletin issued by the union that was distributed to the seamen. I was thankful to be able to work alongside a comrade experienced in propaganda, and I learned much from him. We would sit up half the night, pounding away on dilapidated typewriters, writing and rewriting leaflets, putting them on stencils and running them off on a mimeograph.
As in New York, the MWIU was well-organized and prepared to meet every incoming ship, bombard it with literature, get petitions signed, take up collections for various causes and work hard to recruit new members into the union. The relief committee of seamen worked closely with members of the welfare department of the government. Their job was to oversee the relief distribution handed down from the government to the seamen. Some of our best Communist members were on the seamen's committee. One thing must be said for the relief committee: from the day of its inception to its demise, not one cent was ever pocketed in the form of graft or under-the-counter activities or spent for the personal use of any committee member. The fact that the committee was so efficient, that it ran so perfectly, made it a feather in the hat of the MWIU and a tribute to the waterfront leadership of the Communist Party.
While this was a near-perfect relief system, the government side did not always like the setup. They knew that they were under scrutiny. If they could have had it their way, the system would have been open to graft, favoritism and every form of discrimination against the seamen. Some of the restaurant and boarding house operators would have favored the committee being under full government control, because they might have benefited from kick-backs. But most operators were satisfied with things the way they were. They did not have to compete or pay under the counter to receive their share of business.
One drawback to the "Baltimore Soviet," as it was called by the seamen, was its size. Only so many could be accommodated, and no more. Seamen around the country started to hear about the beautiful setup in Baltimore: three meals a day, a place to stay, even a set of work clothes and razor blades. Baltimore would never be able to handle the hundreds of seamen that were looking for a haven. To avoid this, a limitation was agreed upon. When space was available in the allotted 250 rooms, unemployed seamen would be given room and board for one month. After that, if they had not shipped out, they would be compelled to move out and make room for another unfortunate seaman. However, most were hired within a month. Countless men came in on ships and made Baltimore their home port. These men, of course, had a pay day; they were on their own and not in need of immediate relief. The MWIU set the limitation policy with the objective that seamen, when they saw and experienced what was being done in Baltimore, would be induced to do the same in their own home ports.
Because of the influx of seamen into Baltimore, not a week passed without two to five new recruits joining the Party. We were able to select the best of the seamen, and the Party's influence was constantly growing.
The International Seamen's Union was the other union in the field. It was nearly dormant, doing little or nothing for the seamen. Instead they constantly shouted anti-Communist insults about everything the MWIU did. Its prestige was rock-bottom. While they had a handful of members in the port, most of them could be found in the MWIU hall playing checkers or cards with MWIU members.
A major asset of the "Baltimore Soviet" was the Centralized Shipping Bureau (CSB). Because of the MWIU's strength, a large percentage of the replacement of ships' crews went through it. Seamen registered according to rating and worked their way up the list, with the man registered the longest being given preference. Again, there was no discrimination, no graft, no favoritism. The seamen knew this and understood that it was the MWIU's leadership and their own vigilance that made the Bureau incorruptible. The chairman was a guy named Harry Alexander, a roly-poly Polish seaman who loved his role as shipping master and guarded the Bureau's high principles.
One of the biggest fleets of ships that made Baltimore its home port was the Ore SS Company, a subsidiary of Bethlehem Steel. Ore SS ran carriers to Chile in South America and docked at Sparrow's Point, a few miles outside of Baltimore. The MWIU had concentrated most of its forces on this one outfit. Soon it made the company recognize the CSB as the source of its manpower replacements. As a result, conditions on the 15 Ore ships improved tremendously. They became some of the best ships to sail on. They had a special wage scale that made their jobs sought after. Since the Baltimore seamen knew they were secure, they did not "homestead" the ships, but instead made a trip or two and then got off to make room for another seaman.
All this seemed like a never-ending walk in the Garden of Eden. But the Communists and the MWIU leaders constantly warned the rank and file that they were in danger of losing these hard-won conditions unless the movement to create similar conditions in all ports took shape.
Most shipowners, relief agencies, government officials and Seamen's Church Institute officials were united to break apart the "Baltimore Soviet." Shipowners all over were constantly putting pressure on the Ore Steamship Company to stop hiring union men from the Centralized Shipping Bureau. But the heads of the Ore Line were not about to take on the MWIU and the Baltimore seamen alone, and the promise of aid was too remote in coming. Several times "plants" were sent to infiltrate the ranks and cast doubt on the policies of the MWIU. Amateurs that they were, they were quickly exposed and chased out of town.
Most of the propaganda that I helped to write in our daily bulletins was directed toward encouraging seamen to stay united and protect their gains. While the Party did not raise banners proclaiming that it was the guiding light and leading force on the seamen's relief committee in Baltimore, neither did it deny its role or remain silent. The Party was very vocal in Baltimore, on the waterfront and in all industries in the area--especially in the steel mills which formed the major industry in Baltimore. Every week, a social event of some kind occurred either in the city or in an outer community like Highlandtown, a Finnish community. A spirit of strong comradeship existed among all the Baltimore Left.
In the world of revolution there are no holidays or days off. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, the revolution goes on. Our object was to move the mass of people into the mainstream of revolutionary action. If you were out of work, you joined the Unemployed Councils organized in every neighborhood and became an active worker struggling within the system for the right to a job. Some organizations concentrated on getting relief for the destitute, others helped mothers with children. There were organizations to help the foreign-born, organizations to fight against war, organizations to fight against fascism. I cannot think of any one of these left-leaning organizations that was not started by members of the Communist Party. A Communist was at his or her best when working among people, and wherever people were, the Communists were sure to be there. We even had a special unit that concentrated on and worked among the National Guard to make sure they were neutralized in the event of a strike.
Every day representatives of the neighborhood relief councils escorted dozens of people to the relief agencies to demand immediate relief. Sometimes a small parade of 100 or more marched up to City Hall or the building which housed the relief agencies. The marchers would encircle a speaker who mounted a chair. The speaker would denounce the whole system of relief to the needy, denounce those in charge of administering relief as bureaucrats and lackeys of the capitalists and imperialists. Someone from the neighborhood ranks would be introduced. He or she would climb onto the chair and describe how they had to fight rats for the last scraps of bread in their tenements. The rhetoric, of course, was never for the benefit of the marchers, but for those on the sidelines who paused long enough to listen and observe.
When the speeches ended, a delegation would converge on the office to seek the person responsible for the distribution of relief. Sometimes arguments between the police and the delegation arose. The leaders would insist that the entire delegation be allowed into an office. Confrontations occurred. Sometimes we won, sometimes we lost, and sometimes we couldn't get a foot in the door. A report of the outcome would be made to the demonstrators milling around the building. If victory was the result, it was a time to announce to the whole world that victory was a result of class-conscious workers fulfilling their revolutionary role in a bourgeois society.
Generally, I had enough work to confine me to the waterfront during the days. In the evenings I attended meetings. Only on a Saturday or Sunday was there a chance to relax, either by attending some politicized social or dance gathering or by dropping into one of the hundreds of local beer joints that the Baltimore waterfront was noted for. The joints were usually small storefront saloons with a few table and chairs and about three girls to solicit drinks and serve whatever needs you had in mind. A jukebox blared polkas and the hits of the day. There was just enough room to twirl a gal around on the dance floor. Beer was the only drink permitted, but for the elite customers there was always a bottle or two of the hard stuff to be found behind the counter.
Since I was now a member of a revolutionary, disciplined Party, I was always cognizant of what, when, where and why I did something. The Party did not take excessive drinking nor whoring around lightly. After all, a woman forced into whoring by the "male-dominated capitalist society" debased all of womankind. Communists were supposed to uplift the common people, not demean them, and frequenting whorehouses was considered taboo.
But the seaman was a different product of society. He spent most of his time away from home. He had little time in his career to create steady relationships. In most of the foreign ports he rarely ever got away from the perimeter of the waterfront, unless he was class-conscious or so intellectually-motivated that he found more solace and peace by visiting castles and museums. But the mass of seamen were not class-conscious and they did spend their time in the waterfront dives of the world. Since now I was considered one of the "class-conscious" workers, I had to make sure no one ever saw me go in or out of those joints.
With each passing day I learned something new. At least three times a week an open-air meeting was held on the waterfront. Around noon the MWIU rigged up its soapbox and spent the next hour haranguing the seamen on some issue or another. This we called our "educating process." It was here that I learned to partake in public speaking. Every radical sooner or later had to mount the "soapbox," and I was no exception. With a little guidance before I spoke, I soon became adjusted to the notion that I could mount the box and immediately launch into a tirade for or against the subject of the moment. Once the feeling of "butterflies" in the stomach passed the rest was easy. Days quickly moved into weeks and weeks into months. Big events were looming on the horizon, especially on the West Coast. We awoke one morning to hear the news that the longshoremen on the West Coast had "hit the bricks" and the MWIU was calling on its members as well as all seamen to follow suit, not just in support of the longshoremen's demands, but for demands of their own. Could we get the East Coast seamen and longshoremen to join the strike and make it nationwide? There were big debates on this question among us. The consensus was that the East and Gulf longshoremen who functioned under the gangster-led International Longshoremen's Association would not dare risk a strike in support of their West Coast brothers. After all, the head of the longshoremen's union, Joe Ryan was busy as a swarm of bees in a hive out on the West Coast trying to sell the strike down the river and force the men back to work on the conditions tantamount to servitude. No, it was not possible to get the longshoremen in the East to join any national strike movement. Instead, we worked among the rank and file and kept them informed of the truth of the strike while having them support their West Coast brothers any way they could. But what about the East Coast seamen? Was there any chance of having them join the strike? While we had some members among the seamen, we did not have enough employed aboard ships to make a tangible contribution. There was still much work to be done in educating the seamen about unionism. Many were too dependent on the favoritism of the company shipping master. They therefore shied away from militant unionism and were not about to make the supreme sacrifice of giving up their jobs on the pretext that they could win the strike or make radical changes for the better. No. Workers give a lot of serious thought to such a subject, especially if they stand to lose their livelihood. However, we would have to pitch in there and work extra hard to offer a maximum amount of support to the West Coast strikers. We increased the amount of our literature to the seamen and longshoremen tenfold. With every bit of news we received from the West Coast we issued special bulletins to the workers, always with the main theme that we could not allow the West Coast strikers to lose their strike. From those semen who were working, we asked for donations to be forwarded to the West Coast strikers while we also attempted to prepare them to join the union.
With each passing day we heard news of more West Coast ships' crews walking off and joining the picket lines. The strike had now enveloped all West Coast ports. As the strike intensified, so did the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Ryan. Since he had been opposed to the strike from its inception, and since he had always worked hand-in-glove with the employers, he now doubled his efforts to sell out the strike as quickly as possible. The harder he tried to do this, the more united the strikers became. A new leader of the West Coast longshoremen was emerging; his name was Harry Bridges.
Bridges was a rank-and-file Australian longshoreman who had the guts, integrity and know-how to win the confidence of the men he worked with. They named him their strike chairman--to the dismay of the employers, who wanted nothing to do with him. While the men were manning the picket lines, Joe Ryan was busy working out a phony contract with the employers to break the strike and send the men back to work. At a mass meeting he presented the contract to the rank and file and told them they should "get back to work." The reply of the men was curt: "Shove it." Ryan and his contract were rejected and the strike continued. Having lost the battle, Ryan left town and let the cops, strikebreakers, and eventually the National Guard, to try to do the job.
Strikebreaking became a lucrative but somewhat dangerous occupation. Despite the danger, a sizable group of strikebreakers was recruited to man the ships and work the cargo. The group included students from the University of California. From a psychological point of view, it was necessary that the shipowners move as many ships as possible away from the docks and out to sea. They figured that if the strikers could see the ships moving out, it would demoralize them into giving up and returning to work. One such ship, manned by strikebreakers, pulled out of San Pedro and headed for the East Coast. Her name was the Felix Taussig, a freighter belonging to the McCormick SS Company. Word had gotten to us from San Pedro strike headquarters that she was heading our way. We were prepared for the arrival. We drew up several plans, all with the purpose of keeping the ship tied snugly against the dock.
The first plan was to convince the present crew to get off the vessel. Second, we sent some of our best people to the office of the McCormick shipping master. They would hang around "hoping" for work. We sent enough men to man the ship three days before the expected arrival. Luck was with us; there were only half a dozen of McCormick's faithful standing by.
When the Felix Taussig arrived, we had a hundred pickets to greet her. Also present was a large contingent of Baltimore cops. The crew could see us from the deck of the ship. We set up a soapbox, and for the next hour speaker after speaker mounted it and called for unity with the West Coast strikers. They asked the crew to lay down their tools and leave the ship. But all that day not a single crew member dared leave the vessel. Later in the afternoon, when most of the pickets were gone, a friendly longshoreman was approached and asked to get a message to one or more of the crew members. The message was that we would like a parley and would guarantee their safety.
Two of the crew stepped ashore. Five of us met them. Big Jack Kennedy, one of our organizers, opened the discussion. He was polite and diplomatic. "Look, fellows," he said calmly, "we know you didn't mean to take the ship out of San Pedro through picket lines. We know the shipowners lied to you about the strike. We're willing to forget all that, providing you guys clear off the ship."
"What guarantee do you give us that we won't be rolled or worked over if we get off?" asked the more articulate of the two.
"I will personally guarantee that not one man here in Baltimore will lay a hand on you or your money. You can join us here as brothers or you can return to where you came from. It makes no difference to us, just as long as you leave the ship."
"Okay, I'll leave the ship, and I'll talk to the rest of the men and see what they want to do. I can't say that all of them will leave, but I'll give them the message." The crew members standing on deck watched their representatives climb the gangway.
An hour went by and nothing happened. After three hours we detected activity on deck; then a mass of men and baggage came streaming down the gangway. We had won this beef!
What a great feeling to be able to convince men to take right action! We met the two men we had talked to earlier. They were leading the crew ashore. "We're afraid to stay in Baltimore, despite your assurances, so we're all getting out of here. Can we get that much help from you?"
Our small group assured them of our support. A few ran toward Lower Broadway to gather as many taxis as possible. Within 15 minutes the men were off to the railroad station, bound for destinations unknown.
Two men--one a sailor, the other an oiler refused to get off, as did the officers. We knew that the ship was crewless; she wasn't going anywhere, not in that condition. We now had the task of keeping the ship here. How we did that was of no importance, just so long as it stayed. With no crew aboard, the officers themselves managed to keep up the steam pressure. The ship just sat there, quiet.
The shipping master had gotten the word. He would have to supply a full crew, less two men. He could not be choosey. He dare not spend useless time checking each man's record. The captain needed men now, and it was up to the shipping master to immediately supply the crew. We were lucky. Most of the jobs were assigned to our troops. Five of the jobs went to out-and-out company men, men who stayed clear of unions. Word had gotten to us that the men were on their way to the pier. It was logical that we remove the few pickets we had at the pier to allow the men to pass. As we did so, we watched from a distance as the cops checked over the cabs, then waved them on. What we did not count on was that the skipper would order the gangway pulled up once the last man was aboard, preventing the rest of the cargo from being discharged and putting the ship to sea. The last thing any of our men wanted was to be aboard a struck ship at sea. When they heard the word to man their stations and prepare to get under way, there was a mass exodus to the gangway. This came as a surprise to the captain--and to us. The five company men stayed aboard, raising the total number of crew members to seven. Seven was too many.
Now what the hell were we to do? A quick meeting was called. In the discussion we focused on the seven men aboard. Would the captain dare to take the ship out with it so undermanned? We thought not. We felt he would try to secure the rest of the crew somehow. We were wrong. While we were still trying to come up with a practical perspective, one of the pickets came charging into the meeting to tell us that the Felix Taussig had eased away from the pier and was now heading down the river toward the open sea. The bastard got away, just like the Mundixie. She would pick up the additional men needed somewhere down the river. We phoned the MWIU branches in New York and New Orleans and warned them.
It was a blow to our port's prestige to have this ship slip from our fingers. We sent a letter of regret to the San Pedro strikers and told them what had happened. Meanwhile, the West Coast strike was taking on new dimensions. Cops were beating the pickets, raiding their union halls, destroying offices and arresting strikers and sympathizers by the dozens. Scabs working on the piers were being tracked down by the strikers and clobbered. Soon it became dangerous for a scab to be out of the confines of the police-guarded piers. Scabs were fed and housed aboard special ships set up for just that purpose. Every day efforts were being made up and down the coast to open the ports, but in most cases scabs trying to enter the piers under police protection were repelled and driven away. It took brave men to man those lines under such a brutal onslaught. I felt happy in the realization that my class, the working class, was getting itself organized and was now engaging the state structure in its daily battles.
I was called before our waterfront Party group. Kennedy laid it out for me: "We have nothing working for us in Norfolk. We have a Party office there but no one working in maritime. Now that the West Coast is out on strike it's important for us to have someone working among seamen down there. We want you to go to Norfolk as secretary of the MWIU, to set up a branch there. It won't be easy for you at first; there's a lot of territory to cover, including Newport News. There's an ILA local of coal trimmers there. The guys are fairly good and you can work with them around the coal colliers. We have a Party section organizer there, but he doesn't know much about seamen or longshoremen or even ships, so don't expect much from him. Once you get your feet on the ground, start getting out some bulletins and propaganda."
I hesitated, wondering if this honor was something far over my head and capabilities. I was assured by the others that we all had to learn sometime, and the experience in Norfolk would be the best schooling I could hope for. I agreed to do my best and suggested that they not expect too much from me.
Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.
The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two