Chapter XV: The SS California Strike

In the midst of all this activity I was surprised one day when Pele showed up at the door. A big meeting of Communist Youth leaders of the world was to be held in Moscow. She was to represent the American Communist youth movement, a high honor. But such a meeting had to remain secret at least until the meeting was in progress or concluded; no news of her being a candidate for this meeting was to be revealed. Even being seen with known Communists was to be taboo for her.

During a week of orientation meetings she attended in New York with the top Communist leadership before her departure, we managed to spend every free moment together. We made plans, and one of them was to get married. But, of course, that couldn't be done at the moment. "When I'm in Moscow, you can get the marriage license all set up, and the minute I return we'll get married," she assured me. We drove toward the pier of the Cunard liner that would take her to Europe. I left the cab a block earlier and kissed her goodbye. I felt elated; I walked on air. Everything was beginning to jell in the right direction.

One day we were told to appear in court before Judge Brodsky. It was several months since the Bremen demonstration, and after long delays we were reaching the high point. "Will the defendants rise?" asked the judge. We stood motionless as Judge Brodsky adjusted his glasses, then read from a prepared script. ". . . that in the eyes and minds of the defendants, this flag, this swastika, represented the black flag of piracy sailing high aloft a pirate vessel entering a peaceful port after it had just sunk a peaceful ship of state . . . " He concluded by stating that he had " . . . no other recourse than to dismiss the charges against defendants Blair, Bailey, McCormick, Blackwell and Howe." Drolette had been charged separately with felonious assault. The police claimed that when they picked him off the deck, he had clutched in his hand a pair of brass knuckles. Several months later, however, he too was released.

Now that the Bremen case was over, I had other things to worry about--like making a living. I planned to go down to the union hall the following day and try to ship out. Meanwhile, having received no letters from Pele in Moscow, and not knowing how long she was to remain there, I decided to call "Pop" Mindel in the Education Department of the Party headquarters to see if he knew anything about when she would be coming home. She had been gone for three weeks.

"You don't know?" he replied. "Why, she left here an hour ago to catch the Limited back to Chicago. She arrived early this morning."

I was shocked. I raced to Grand Central Station, looking for the train to Chicago. The station master said it had left 30 minutes earlier. No amount of rationalizing could account for what had happened. How could she return to New York without contacting me? I conjured up a dozen reasons why it wasn't possible for her to contact me. I wrote a quick letter and sent it off special delivery, then fidgeted for the next several days, waiting for an answer.

Her letter was cold. She started off by telling me of the "soul-searching" she had to do before writing the letter. Then she explained that at the Moscow meeting she had met a young German anti-fascist who worked in the underground. He had been arrested by the Gestapo and beaten and tortured, but eventually he had managed to escape death. She was in love with this comrade and that was that. There was nothing she could do about it, but our romance was over. While it may have been easy for her to call the romance ended, it was not so easy for me. For many years thereafter, I would be haunted by this aborted affair.

If the letter from Pele was a surprise, I was in for another, just as devastating. Since I was a member of the International Seamen's Union, whose East coast branches and leadership were dominated by right-wing officials, I had the occasion to attend a meeting. I should have been warned that something was amiss when I saw dozens of men at the meeting who were neither seamen nor members of the union. Every seat in the hall was filled. Some 150 were in attendance, compared to the 50 that usually showed up. The meeting started with the chairman announcing that important matters before the house required suspending the reading of the minutes of the previous meeting. "Yeah, let's get on with the important things," shouted one of the young guys whom I did not recognize.

Dave Grange, an official of the Cooks and Stewards division of the ISU, asked for the floor. Grange was a light-complexioned negro from the Bahamas who had worked his way into the hierarchy of the ISU. His record was that of a sellout artist to the employers. A high-living big spender who loved flashy cars and loose women, he didn't care where his money came from. He was a bombastic speaker who made good use of dramatics when he spoke. "Will you take a look at those creepy, slimy, snake-in-the-grass Communist bastards," he shouted to the crowd as he pointed a finger toward Smithy Hopkins and me. "Did you ever see such filth amidst a corps of clean, upstanding Americans?" he shouted.

"Never," shouted one youngster as others stood to get a better look at us.

"You know what I'd like to do this very moment?" shouted Grange.

"Tell us!" the crowd replied.

"I would like to build a platform over their slimy heads, then take a good dose of croton oil and crap all over their heads." The roar became louder, mingled with laughter. But there was no laughter from us. It finally dawned on us what this was all about. These kids, we would learn later, were recruited from some West Side social club. they were given two dollars and a blank union book and told to "follow the leader to oust some Communists from the union." To shore up the hand-picked mob, several of the small-time henchmen had been appointed "masters at arms," and five of them walked up and down the aisles encouraging men to applaud at the right time or boo when the occasion arose.

One of them, Tiger Murphy, I knew. He was one of those West Side small-time thugs, ex-boxer, ex-strong-arm man, ex-con and now paroled into the care of the union officials who employed him as a bodyguard. Everyone knew he packed a rod and didn't hesitate to use it if the occasion warranted. In spite of our social differences, we managed to be on speaking terms and said hello to each other on occasion. Now here he was parading up and down the aisle inciting this pack of two-bit jackals to commit mayhem on a few Communists at the meeting.

Grange continued to incite the mob. He was now telling them that we were professional, paid Moscow agents, trained and financed by "Moscow gold" to enter the union and sabotage it. As good Americans, they had called this meeting to nip this takeover in the bud. "They have brought this union into ill repute in the eyes of all loyal Americans who cherish the very earth we stand on, this same good earth that the forefathers of this nation are buried in. Are you loyal Americans going to stand by and watch this group of Moscow agents take over and wreck this beautiful nation? Are you?" he shouted.

"No, never!" came the reply from the hysterical mob.

"Now, don't get me wrong," Grange said. "We're going to give them something they don't have in Russia. We're going to give them a democratic trial; that's the democratic way, the American way, and if you loyal Americans think they are guilty, then these creeps have no place in this American union. Right?" Again, on command, the mob howled their approval. "All right, then. I'm going to appoint a trial committee made up of good, clean-cut Americans who will take the accused downstairs into the office and give them a fair trial. And when they have reached a decision, they will come back and report their findings to you, and you can agree or disagree. Now listen as I call the five men for the trial committee."

Grange called out five names, one of them being a German-born seaman, whom I knew to be a member of the German-American Bund. "These are the members who are on trial: Bailey, Hopkins, Alexander," Grange said as he handed the papers to one of the trial committee members.

When I heard my name mentioned I quickly got to my feet and asked for a point of order. The mob screamed out a series of invectives, but they quieted down when the chairman rapped for order. Tiger Murphy approached me. "Look, Bailey," he said. "See this rod?" He pulled back his coat to reveal a .45 automatic under his arm. "Don't make me use this. I will if I have to. So shut up and know when your time has come."

We followed the committee downstairs into a small office. "What're the charges?" I asked the man who headed the committee.

"I have them right here: dual unionism; being a secret member of the Marine Workers' Industrial Union; bringing the union into ill repute by having displayed in various newspapers that you are a member of the ISU; being associated with the Communist Party and known Communists; being a member of the League Against War and Fascism, a known Communist organization; and circulating petitions in behalf of Lawrence Simpson, a known Communist and now a prisoner in Germany."

While he read off these charges, we could hear the reverberation in the old wooden building of the speeches being made upstairs by some of the leaders. " . . . and when the committee brings in its report of guilty and recommends expulsion of these Commies, I think it must be the duty of you loyal Americans not only to vote for the committee recommendations, but to see that each of the accused Bolsheviks is personally escorted from this building by a committee of at least ten men. Make sure they don't return to dirty up this building ever again. I hope the ten men will be some of the strongest men we have in the hall." It would be a lie to say that we weren't a bit nervous after hearing this.

The Communists had a policy that if you were being tried in court, you should use the court as a forum for your views and reverse the procedure by placing the accusers on trial. Well, this was not a court of law, but there were similarities. I did not wait for the rest of the charges to be cited but quickly went on the offensive. "This is a pack of lies," I said. "First of all, the Marine Workers' Industrial Union has long been out of business, so that part of your statement is . . . " I didn't have time to finish before the German Bund member on the committee interjected, "Is it a lie that you went aboard one of our ships and pulled down our flag?"

"You're damn right. That's because your storm troopers went aboard one of our ships and yanked off an American seaman."

The chairman interrupted. "Look, no matter what you guys say, this committee is convinced that you're all guilty as charged, and you can sit there and deny the charges until you're all blue in the face; it won't make a bit of difference. You're not going to change the facts."

"Is this supposed to be a trial or a kangaroo court?" I asked.

"Call it what you may. The charges have been read to all you men, and you denied them. Therefore, you will all stand out in the hallway while we draw up our report to take upstairs."

In the hallway we could clearly hear the ruckus going on upstairs. It seemed like everyone was getting up and making speeches on how great it was to be an American, and how despotic the Communists were. Smithy spoke first, "Well, now what?"

There was no doubt that the committee had already decided we were guilty, and the result would be expulsion. However, the more dangerous aspect was the potential vigilantism we would have to contend with. What good could result from going back upstairs just to hear the report of the trial committee? From where we stood, the path was clear to the door at the bottom of the stairway. "Let's get out of here," I said, and we walked calmly down the steps, unbolted the door and stepped out into the fresh air of South Street.

In the streets we found ten or fifteen men standing around. They were the good, honest rank and file who tried to gain admission to the meeting but found the door bolted. They were shocked at what had taken place as they heard the loud, boisterous yelling of the mob that echoed down the street.

There was not a hell of a lot that could be done about gaining readmission to the ISU, at least not immediately. That was the opinion of the Party waterfront leadership. The union reactionaries were in control of the union completely, and only a rank-and-file movement of strong proportions could get us back into the union. It meant practically unseating the present leadership. Such a movement was still far off. However, there was one bright hope. The western division of the ISU was controlled by the progressive rank and file. They would be sympathetic to anyone ousted by the East Coast reactionaries.

West Coast ships that came to the East Coast made it a rule that when they needed replacements, they would call the union hall and ask for West Coast men. However, if a union man with a union book boarded the ship, he too would be considered for the job. And so, while in Brooklyn's Greenpoint one afternoon, I boarded the Alaskan, a ship of the American Hawaii SS Company. I was in luck. The engine room wiper had just quit, and the ship's delegate was a pretty good guy. He looked over my union book, listened to my story and said, "I don't recognize your expulsion. Get your gear and come aboard; the job is yours."

Earl King, a progressive union leader, had been elected secretary of the West Coast Marine Firemen's Union. He was a guy who had gone through the '34 strike and had a good record. When my ship reached San Francisco, I contacted him and explained what had occurred in New York. He knew all about the expulsions. He took my union book and had it transferred over to the West Coast division. "Your problems are solved," he said, "just so long as you sail on West Coast ships."

I remained on the Alaskan, making all the West Coast ports, then sailed back to the East Coast. It was nice to be among some of the best union men in the maritime industry, yet I felt that while the West Coast men had achieved their aim, the fulfillment of a progressive union on the East and Gulf Coasts was yet to be accomplished. Since I had been ousted for trying to achieve just that, I felt even more determined to succeed. When the Alaskan docked in New York, my mind had been made up. My bags were packed and I got off.

Since the Marine Workers' Voice, the newspaper published by the Marine Workers' Industrial Union, folded when the MWIU dissolved, there was need of a maritime paper for the East Coast and Gulf seamen. At this stage some waterfront Communists and some rank-and-file members of the ISU got together and decided to put out a mimeographed paper called the ISU Pilot. Since the union officials had lots of money to hire thugs and goons to stifle opposition, it became necessary to operate underground. The Pilot's editorial board, consisting of Tommy Ray, Harry Hines, Blair and Robbie, proved to be the best. The place of publication was kept secret. It started as a one-page sheet but soon picked up in popularity and additional pages were added. Volunteers were found who could move in areas frequented by seamen; they sold the paper for two cents a copy. The Pilot avoided generalities and dealt with such specific issues as cleaning out the gangsters and shipowner-oriented officials from the union. The latter responded as expected. Anyone found subscribing to, or helping in any was to distribute the Pilot was to be expelled. On several occasions, goons ripped the papers from the hands of seamen they caught reading it; in some cases they even beat them up. Despite this intimidation, the seamen were reading the Pilot, and its influence for honest unionism grew.

A new era in the life of the maritime industry was about to begin. It was to change the life of American seamen and cause reverberations even beyond the United States.

In January 1936, the SS Pennsylvania, a passenger ship that ran the intercoastal route between New York and California ports, arrived in San Francisco. The Pennsylvania belonged to the Panama Pacific Line which owned two other ships, the Virginia and the California. Each ship carried a crew of about 350. In that period, traveling between coasts was in great demand. These three ships were engaged in a lucrative trade carrying a full complement of passengers to and from the West Coast. The more money the company made, the worse the conditions became for the crew. "Job actions" appeared to be the only handle the seamen could use to get conditions improved. For example, an hour before the ship was due to sail, 50 or 60 crew members might hang back unless the fans were repaired in the crew quarters or more fresh milk was brought to the mess room tables.

It was a series of "beefs" that the company showed no inclination of resolving that forced the crew of the Pennsylvania to take a job action while the ship was in San Francisco. It was not well-planned. This was a strong union port, but the shipowners, having been warned ahead of time, managed to get the ship out of the port. With the help of unscrupulous East Coast ISU officials, 301 members of her crew were left stranded ashore. Now the stage was really set for revolt. Word spread back to the East Coast and the hatred and bitterness against the union officials grew in intensity.

The Pennsylvania continued south to the Panama Canal with its crew of strikebreakers. It passed her sister ship, the SS California, en route to San Pedro and San Francisco, in the middle of the night. When the California secured her lines to the dock in San Pedro, the crew was met by a delegation of the Pennsylvania's crew who rushed to encourage the California's crew to come to their support. The company had already made preparations to choke off any such support by canceling the voyage to San Francisco. But the crew of the California, beset with their own grievances against the company, decided to take on the grievances of their brothers on the Pennsylvania anyway. The California crew presented one demand: the company was to allow the crew of the Pennsylvania to return to New York aboard the California. If this were not allowed, the crew would not take the ship out of the port.

Among the crew members of the California were several Communist Party leaders, some old-time ex-IWW members, and some members of the ISU. Joe Curran, who later would rise to world prominence as a maritime labor leader, was also a member of the deck department crew. Curran was chosen spokesman.

The company realized that another of their ships was going to be tied up. They therefore consented to negotiate. Curran sat in on negotiations between the company, the crew of the Pennsylvania and the crew of the California. The negotiations ended in victory; the crew of the Pennsylvania was returned to New York on board her sister ship. The crew was jubilant as the ship steamed toward New York; the feeling of warm comradeship among the men was strong as they celebrated their newly-won strength based on unity.

The employers planned to fire the crew of the California upon arrival in New York. However, they had to proceed cautiously. President Roosevelt had signed into law the Wagner Bill, better known as the National Labor Relations Act. It guaranteed workers the right to organize into unions of their own choice. The company did not want to unleash an avalanche of anti-company sentiment. With this in mind, the crew was allowed to remain on board the ship, but their activities were closely watched. When the California sailed for the West Coast, no grievances had been settled.

It was March 1, 1936. The California arrived in San Pedro on its homeward voyage. A meeting of the ship's crew the night before had decided that the time was ripe to press their demands for parity in wages between the East and West Coast seamen. This would amount to an increase of $5 for the firemen and A.B.s, bringing their wages up to $62.50 per month; and a $10 raise for the steward's department, bringing up their wages to $50 per month. Curran was again called upon to present these demands to the captain. But word had already reached the captain through one of his spies. He in turn notified the company agents ashore who decided to recruit a replacement crew hours before the demands were even presented. Again the company miscalculated. They expected the crew to do what the Pennsylvania crew did, namely, to walk off. But the California had several Communists and old-time IWW members trained in organization aboard. After the demands were presented, the crew remained aboard ship, continuing with their everyday work. This baffled the captain and company officials. When the hour came to sail, the captain ordered the men to stand by to let go the mooring lines. It was here that the new strategy would undergo its first test.

The men refused to let go the lines. Through Curran, they told the captain that they were ready to perform all duties of maintenance and upkeep of the ship, but under no condition would they let go the lines--or let anyone else do it. Unless the ship was allowed to depart, replied the captain, the crew would face charges of mutiny. Again the orders were given and again they were refused.

For the next three days the ship remained tied to the pier. Newspapers throughout the country picked up the story. Playing down the crew's demands for improvements in conditions, they carried headlines characterizing the action as an act of mutiny, "defiance against lawful authority." Radio stations hourly carried news of the California, each time conjuring up another charge against the crew. "Impeding the U.S. mails," "insurrection," and "conspiracy" were added to "mutiny." Officials from the East Coast division of the ISU came aboard, first ordering the men, then begging them, to let go the lines and allow the ship to sail. When that failed, orders came from the Secretary of Commerce demanding the ship to be set free. No success. The Department of Justice got into the picture and "some 50 government agents were ordered to the scene of the mutiny." The crew held their own in the midst of this pressure that had its trying moments. The ship remained tied up. On the third day of the tie-up, a pier security officer came to the top of the gangway. He had a message for Curran. The Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins, "wishes Mr. Curran to call her Washington office immediately."

For half an hour they talked, with Perkins finally asking, "Joe, just what is it you men want?" Curran laid it all out: elimination of the differential in pay between the East and West Coast seamen; overtime pay; all hiring through the union hall; improvement of the living and working conditions of the seamen; and, finally, a crackdown on the oppressive ISU officials. Perkins listened carefully. When Curran had finished, Perkins gave him her word of honor that there would be no coercion, intimidation or persecution of either him or the other crew members if they sailed the ship back to New York. She would use her good offices to set up a negotiating committee between the crew and the company officials upon the ship's arrival in New York.

Needless to say, there was dissension when Curran reported back to the crew. They had every right to be suspicious. Too many times they had been sold down the river. Some urged caution; others pleaded to stick it out and fight to the end. After lengthy discussion, the crew voted to sail the ship back to New York

True to form, the shipowners secretly met with some ISU officials on the East Coast. The idea was to play it smart. They agreed to raise the East Coast and Gulf seamen's pay by five dollars. This was supposed to take the zip out of the sails of seamen shouting or planning for a strike. They knew that when the California arrived in New York, the bottom would fall out for Curran and the crew since the ISU officials would expel them from the union. They assumed that most seamen would grab the five dollar bait dangled before them and not say a word in defense of the California crew's expulsion from the union, nor would they partake in any strike action.

While the shipowners were working to avoid a major strike on the East Coast with their five-dollar bribe, Secretary of Commerce Roper commenced a scathing attack in the newspapers against Perkins because of her commitment to the striking seamen. How dare she lend her office and a helping hand to mutinous seamen? The arguments grew heated as the California steamed toward New York. With Roper's anti-union and anti-Perkins attack, the shipowners felt confident in chastising the California crew and making an example of them. When the California docked on the West Side, some 65 crew members, the so-called ring leaders, along with Curran, were singled out for immediate discharge and were logged two days' pay for every day they had been on strike. In addition to this harsh treatment, they were to be blacklisted from sailing with the Panama Pacific Line. If this were not enough, Roper insisted that mutiny charges be placed against Curran and the crew. Perkins quickly persuaded Roosevelt to make Roper pull in his horns.

In the company's desperation to make an example of the California crew, they were bound to commit many errors. Singling out part of the crew for severe disciplinary action had the opposite effect the company had intended. It brought the rest of the crew to strike the ship in support of the men who were fired. The company retaliated by telling the public through newspaper ads that they would be canceling the next voyage of the California, for they feared for the public's safety. They expected the public to be infuriated with the union and crew and support the company's position. the shipowners even announced that from the goodness of their hearts they had advanced the wages upward another five dollars. The public ignored the shipowner's crocodile tears; the seamen bought it even less. The five-dollar increase was a matter of small concern to the seamen. What concerned them most was the question of having all hiring of seamen go through the union hall. Forced overtime without compensation had to come to a halt, too. If these two demands could be won, the rest of the conditions the seamen sought would fall into place.

I had attended a Party meeting the night after the California crew declared themselves on strike. I heard the report of the two Communist crew members. It was a favorable report on the unity of all departments on board. Even the officers were in full sympathy with the strikers and had at times lied in their reports to save some crew members from disciplinary action. The two Party members spoke in glowing terms about Curran. By all means, the strike had to be supported, and Curran should continue as the spokesman.

It was one of those weeks on the waterfront that found few ships in port. There were perhaps a dozen foreign ships, but American ships could be counted on the fingers of one hand. We quickly assessed our position. We found out that the American Trader was to arrive the next day from Europe and dock in the next pier. She belonged to the American Merchant Line; we had one Communist on board who worked in the steward's department.

Every waterfront Party member was expected to prove himself while this strike was in progress. The crew of the Trader was to be contacted upon arrival to learn if any support from them would be forthcoming. When I went down to the waterfront the next morning, the Trader had already been docked for several hours. I ran into an old buddy, Martie Garnier, a West Coast fireman. He told me that the Trader crew had already voted to strike in support of the California. Waterfront Party headquarters was just a few blocks from the West Coast piers. I dashed off to inform our people and arrived just in time to lend a hand on a leaflet congratulating the crew of the Trader on their stand. An hour later I was back on the waterfront distributing the leaflet.

With two ships now tied up, the momentum to win the strike had intensified. In the next few days no fewer than two leaflets came off the press daily, appealing to incoming ships for solidarity or urging the crews to strike. Another ship, another, and still another joined in. A report came in from Philadelphia that a ship's crew there had walked off. Seamen were making history.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two