Chapter IX: A Strike Aboard Ship

The MWIU leadership had developed a program of organizing. Its main emphasis was on the worst fleet of ships, where working conditions were well below the prevailing standards. In our industry there were several such companies, but the worst of the lot was the Munson Steamship Company. Munson had more than 35 ships, including freighters and passenger ships, that plied the trade between all the eastern United States ports and South America. Wages were the lowest; working and living conditions were utterly terrible. Most men took jobs on these ships because it was their desperate last effort to find work. Most stayed only long enough to get a few bucks, then tried something else.

The union believed that if 90 percent of its forces were to concentrate on these ships and bring the company to its knees, then like in the domino theory, the weakest link would bring down the others. The Munson Line shipping office was suddenly filled with MWIU members trying their best to get a job. I was familiar with the company since I had made a trip on one of its passenger ships, the Southern Cross. But I was not in good standing with the shipping master and stayed away from him.

A few days after the new policy was worked out I ran into Robbie. "Get whatever gear you can pull together and get down to Pier 82 right away. There's a job waiting for you as wiper on board the Mundixie. Here's the pass to get on board. Reddin originally got the job, but he can't make it. So you're elected. The shipping master's office will be closed up. Just go aboard and tell them that you're the new replacement. No one will ever be the wiser. Good luck, and remember--try to strike the sonofabitch the first port."

I gathered my small suitcase stuffed with literature. I also had two pairs of socks stuffed in my pocket, a toothbrush and the clothes on my back. The Mundixie was one of the oldest freighters in the Munson Line. Darkness had fallen as I worked my way down the pier and up the rusted gangway on board. A few flakes of snow were falling as the sailors pulled up the gangway and secured it to the side. "You made it just in time," said the engineer. "A few more minutes and we were determined to pull out short a man. It's 4:30, so go below and help out. You owe the company a half hour."

The sonofabitch, I said to myself. The bum wouldn't even let me put my gear away. I left it on deck, then went below to the engine room. I introduced myself to the engineer on watch, who seemed to be a decent guy, then stood around for the next half hour watching him work the throttle of the huge steam-reciprocating engine that moved the ship slowly away from the dock. Soon we were steaming down the Hudson River. When I went up on deck at five, the few puffs of snow had turned into a howling blizzard. I went aft to my quarters, stowed my suitcase and socks, and came back up midship to the mess room.

I had been in many a ship's mess room, but never one like this. There were no tables, no mess man to serve you. It was a small room with a one-foot ledge sticking out from the bulkhead. A small hole opened up from the galley next door. You went up to this opening and rapped your knuckles on the ledge to attract the cook's attention. He passed through a blue enamel plate with the food on it, with utensils. Four members of the engine room were sitting on high stools waiting when I went in. I rapped for the cook's attention. After a few moments, out came a plate with two hotdogs, a boiled potato in its jacket and two slices of bread. In a small side dish there were eight prunes. I was shocked. Never had I seen such a disgraceful display. Usually, if the food is bad on board a ship, then the rest of the conditions are likewise. I knew right then and there that this was the bottom of the barrel.

I ate my supper quickly, then put the plate back into the cubbyhole, waiting for seconds. I waited, then waited some more. I rapped for attention, then shouted loudly, "Hey, cook!" The cook, a middle-aged Chinese man, bent down to see me.

"What you want?" he asked.

"More food," I said loudly.

"You already had your supper," he said.

"That's not enough. I want seconds."

"No seconds," he replied. "The company only allow me 12 cent a meal to feed you guy. You already had your 12 cent."

"Oh yeah? I'll see about that."

The crew members looked at me as if I were some sort of nut. But I knew with all that talking I did I had better obtain some results. Otherwise, anything I said from now on would have no meaning. I picked up my plate, made my way out on deck and headed for the bridge, where I knew I would find the captain. The deck was covered with a foot of snow. Through the dark night the lighted torch of the Statue of Liberty was barely visible as we worked our way past her to the open sea. The winds were so strong that I had a hard time getting the wheelhouse door open. When I stepped in the mate, the captain and the sailor at the wheel turned in surprise. I stood there with my plate in my hand. "Yes," said the captain. "What is it?"

I reached out with the plate. "I was fed two measly hotdogs, a boiled potato and a bowl of prunes. When I asked for a second helping I was told that I'd had my supper and there was no more. I can't perform my work on two lousy hotdogs and two slices of bread. If this is all you're going to feed me, you might as well turn the ship around and put me off. I can't work on this diet."

The captain acted quickly. "Mate, take this man below and see that he gets more to eat."

I walked out of the wheelhouse first, but I could hear the mate say to the captain, "Looks like we've got a member of the IWW on board."

The cook was notified of the captain's wishes and I did not have to wait long before my plate came back from the galley with a double portion of everything. Now I was able to crow in front of the crew members still sitting around, waiting, no doubt, to see what would happen to me. I mumbled out loud, "The only goddam way you'll ever get anyplace is by fighting for it."

The next port would be Baltimore, usually a 36-hour trip from New York. Because of the raging blizzard, however, we forged along at greatly reduced speeds, facing buffeting winds and high seas. I quickly looked over the crew, feeling each one out on different issues. Word had gotten around the ship quickly that with a little action, changes were possible. I did not get the overwhelming enthusiasm I had expected. The usual response when I talked to a crew member was, "What's the use of fighting? No one wants to do anything." That statement fit many of the American seamen's thoughts about trying to improve their lot.

I unloaded some literature in various parts of the ship where I was sure it would be found by the crew. I knew that most people hated for someone to stick a leaflet or pamphlet in their face and say "Read it." It was better if I put some of my literature in places where the crew would find it on their own. I even set up two matchsticks with the material in such a way that I could tell if someone touched it. Around midnight I made the rounds to check on the literature. It had been moved--picked up and laid back down, but not read in any detail. It disturbed me that I could not entice seamen, aching to be organized, to read the literature that would help to solve their problems.

I sat down to organize my thoughts. What was it that prevented the men from reading the literature? Did they distrust the union? Were they afraid to be caught reading it? Was it that dull and uninteresting? What was it? And what could be done about it? I looked around the dingy-looking place we called the mess room. On the shelf-like table that extended along the wall were all sorts of books: romances, love stories, adventure stories, etc., all donated by the American Seamen's Institute Library Association. On every ship, the Institute would carry aboard a trunk full of books, then change the books every trip. The books were donations from the people to the "lonely seamen." The Institute made sure that no book favorable to the union cause or favoring class struggle would see the light of day aboard ship. Their censorship was perfect. The employers would never allow them to board their ships with literature that would undermine the employer's base. Yet the American seaman was an avid reader. Most of his off-duty time was spent reading. Three or four books were around each seaman's bunk.

Of course! That was the reason! He had so much other stuff to read. Something would have to be done about the library if I was to get the men to read the union literature. Knute Edmunsen, a sailor on the eight to twelve watch, came in to get out of the cold. He sat down and offered me a cigarette. He spoke first. "Are you a member of the Marine Workers?" he asked.

"Right," I replied.

"So am I," he said.

I was surprised and slightly mad. "If you're a MWIU member, how come you took so long to come forward?" I asked.

"I came aboard in Boston. I've only been on here a week. I don't even know anybody. In fact, I'm just getting to know the good guys from the bad. I didn't know about you. You could have been a company set-up, you know. Someone planted by the company. I had to wait and make sure."

"Well, are you sure now?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said. "And I'm glad, too. I had instructions in Boston to do everything to strike the ship, and believe me, I don't know the first way to go about it. What do you think?"

"I would say that we have a lot of work to do. I don't know if we're going to be successful in sitting this ship down in Baltimore or not, but one thing's for sure: we should work our asses off and give it a good try."

"What have you worked out, if anything? Where do we start? Come to think of it, there's one more guy on here, Mark Ackerman. He's a fireman on the four to eight watch. He came aboard with me in Boston. He's a good guy, not a member of the MWIU, but he hangs around the union hall in Boston and is sympathetic. Whatever we agree on, he'll go along, I'm sure."

"I think the first thing we have to do is get the crew to read the union literature I carried aboard. And this goddamn love story and super-duper detective junk the guys are reading from that phony library, well . . . that library has to go. Now, if all the books on board disappear, then they'll have to read something, right?"

"How the hell are you going to get rid of all the reading material on board?" he asked.

"First we start with this collection of junk," I said as I scooped up the books in the mess room, some 30 of them. "These are going over the side right now. Where is the library located?"

"There's a small room next to the radio shack. That's where the library box is," he replied.

Out on deck, I dumped the armful of books over the side. We climbed the snow-covered steps to the upper deck, and in the cold darkness of the night, we carried out the large trunk of books and heaved them over the side, trunk and all. Now the question remained: how to get my hands on the rest of the books aboard? There was only one way, unethical as it may have seemed. It was the only practical way. I would have to go from room to room, bunk to bunk, while the crew members were out, and as quickly as possible remove any books I found. Part of me said it was a lousy thing to do; the other part kept telling me that every effort must be used, no matter how low or unethical it may seem at the moment, to stir the men into action. After all, in the long run it was for their own good. There was no time to play the role of nice guy. Organizing at its best was a tough job. One had to take advantage of every opportunity, every maneuver, every flaw, every chance to get the men on the right track toward improving their lot.

Knute and I worked quickly, going from room to room and removing anything readable, without being detected by the crew. By four in the morning, we had been so successful that not a magazine or an old newspaper could be found on board. The startling thing was that nobody ever had the slightest notion of what was going on. Most crew members suspected that another crew member had taken their reading material.

Mark Ackerman, the fireman, was a sociable guy. When Knute introduced me to him I felt a warm assurance that he was the type who, once convinced, would go along with any plan to strike the ship. The three of us found a safe, secure part of the afterdeck to lay out some planes. We would have to work fast. We didn't have much time before we would be moving closer to shore and up the river to Baltimore. Luck remained with us. The blizzard grew fiercer and the vessel was slowed down some more.

With nothing to read, it was only a matter of a few hours before the crew started reading the literature I had brought aboard. There is not much to do aboard a freighter when your watch is over, especially at sea in the midst of a storm, other than curl up in your bunk and read. With the crew reading some decent literature for a change, the next step was to get them all together at a meeting. When I approached one guy to ask if he would attend a meeting to talk about improving conditions, he would say, "It's impossible to get this crew together. But if the other guys attend, I'll join in." The best way to go about it was to tell each guy that Joe would attend if he would.

Baltimore was the port where the Marine Workers' Industrial Union was by far the strongest. As a result, they were able to establish a system of relief for the seamen that was unheard of in any other port. Unemployed seamen got three meals a day, and they could choose to eat at some 20 waterfront restaurants. They could choose to reside in any of 25 or 30 rooming houses along the waterfront. But most importantly, the administration was in the hands of the seamen. Usually the Seamen's Church Institute officials controlled the administration of relief, and much racketeering, milking of funds and discrimination took place. The MWIU had wrested control of the administration of relief to seamen. Their main point was that there would be no discrimination. It was seamen administering to seamen. The MWIU participated in a special committee of seamen and government officials who checked weekly on the operation of the rooming houses and the satisfaction of the seamen. The same was done with restaurants; they made sure the food was good and wholesome and the seamen well-fed. Within six months after the takeover of control by seamen, surplus money was returned to the government--an unheard of phenomenon.

Baltimore was unique because of this far-reaching organizational step forward. None of the other ports in the entire country could duplicate it, no matter how hard the unions tried. The seamen's relief was still in the hands of the same old gang of petty grafters who manipulated government relief funds to the detriment of the seamen.

Baltimore became known throughout the United States as a port where unemployed seamen could get a decent break. As a result, organizational aspirations became stronger, and the MWIU flourished to the point of exercising control over 75 percent of employment of seamen in a Centralized Shipping Bureau, run no longer by some shipping crimp, but by a committee of seamen. Furthermore, they excelled at placing seamen aboard ship on the basis of their seniority. The man who had been registered the longest was given first preference for a job. Even shipowners, denied the right to pick and choose their men, had to admit that the new system was fair and just, and the quality of the men was excellent. Shipping companies which made Baltimore Their home base were encouraged by a strong show of unity to sign local contracts with the MWIU.

It was this strong example I showed to the crew of the Mundixie, encouraging them to think of their present plight of starvation wages, horrid food, and poor living and working conditions, and to cast their lot for unionizing the ship. It was by no means an easy task. Faced constantly with the belief that "you can't trust the other guy," our small group had to take each individual and convince him that he was the only holdout to calling a meeting and airing our views. Finally, after several hours of begging, cajoling and almost threatening some of the weaker elements, a meeting hour was agreed upon.

Secrecy was imperative. Although it was impossible to keep the information from reaching the bridge, we at least took steps to minimize what the officers might find out. A lookout was stationed at the door to the sailor's quarters. I opened the meeting. I explained as best as I could that the Munson Line was by far the worst offender in the entire shipping line when it came to poor wages and conditions; if we could topple Munson and win concessions, the rest of the steamship companies on the Coast would be sure to follow.

"Suppose we do go out on strike and we lose, then what?" asked one sailor.

The answer to that was simple. In the port we were heading for, Baltimore, the seamen had control of both the relief and most of the shipping. The striker would most likely fare better on strike than working. Everyone on board agreed that conditions were horrible. The promise of a three-month trip to South America with a possibly halfway-decent pay off at the end was a strong incentive to the men who had been on the beach for a long time. They listened to our arguments and weighed them carefully, and after two hours of debate they voted to strike when a strike vote was called. Two men opposed the strike because they thought we could not win it, but they promised that they would abide by the majority decision.

A three-man committee was elected to draw up the demands. Within ten minutes we had drawn up a partial list, which I submitted to the crew. They approved the following:

1. Wages to be elevated to the wages paid by the United States Shipping Board (up at least $30 for all ratings)

2. Recognition of a ship's delegate in all departments

3. Recognition of the MWIU as a bargaining agent

4. Elimination of all enamel eating utensils. Improvements in the quality and quantity of food. Coffee urn to be placed in crew's mess

5. Elimination of "donkey's breakfast" (straw) mattress

6. Overtime pay for more than eight hours of work a day

7. Cash draws in all ports

8. Installation of "slop chest" aboard ship

9. An immediate end to any and all discrimination because of a man's union outlook or affiliation

10. An end to all abuse by officers. No "hard timing" or forcing the crew to do officer's laundry on their time off

They were not world-shaking demands, but they were the most pressing items of the day to the crew. A strike committee was elected to present these demands upon arrival in port. I was chosen as chairman. Nine hours more and we would be pulling into Baltimore. As could be expected, there was excitement among the crew members. As careful as we tried to be, word nonetheless did get out to the officers that a strike was imminent. As we drew closer to the dock, the officers became more excited than the crew.

The most important thing at this moment was to get word to the union hall of our arrival and our intentions. The last line was played out to the dock to tie up the ship and the gangway was lowered. I went ashore and telephoned the hall; they promised quick support. At eight that morning, the three members of the strike committee converged on the captain's room with the list of demands. "I wish to have a talk with you, captain," I said.

"Yes, I've been expecting you," he said roughly. "In fact, I knew the minute you came barging into the wheelhouse complaining about the food that you spelled trouble. Let me state now, and I want all three of you to hear this well, I don't intend to negotiate with you on anything. Now you can all pack your bags and get off my ship."

"That's not the way it's going to be, captain," I said. "We don't intend to leave this ship until our demands are met."

"In that case I'll have to call the police and have you all removed."

"You may call the police, captain, but keep in mind one thing: if any violence takes place and any crew member is hurt, it's because of you and not us. We're before you asking to negotiate in peace."

"Please leave my room now," the captain said.

Quickly, we notified the crew of the captain's reaction. Then I ran out to the dock and made another phone call to the union hall. "Don't worry. We'll send a few cabloads of pickets out to the dock to picket the ship. Stay calm," was the reply.

Since we had pulled out the fireman from the boiler room, the engineers took over maintenance, keeping the boilers going with a load of steam. But no cargo- loading operations were attempted. In the late afternoon, three police officers came aboard. The captain called for the committee. "These officers wish to have a word with you," the captain said. The cops faced us calmly.

"I'm here to keep the peace," one cop said. "The captain tells me that all you men were fired and you refuse to leave the ship. We're here to make sure you do. I'm asking that you leave the vessel now, peacefully. Can I have your word that this will be done?"

"First off, this is a strike for better conditions. Second, we were fired after we presented our demands. Third, we don't recognize the Baltimore police as looking out for our best interests. Besides, you don't have any jurisdiction; maritime is a federal matter. We are committing no acts of violence. If you take us off this ship it will be by force, and we'll hold responsible each and every one of you, including the captain, for any injury to any member of the crew. It would be wiser for you to inform the captain that he should negotiate a settlement so we can all go about our work in peace."

The officer looked at the captain quizzically. "Get out of my room," the captain told us. "I'll find some way to settle this thing."

The captain ordered the galley closed down. There was no food. Some hot sandwiches and coffee were passed to us through the picket line. By early evening the captain had not returned from shore leave. We had the feeling that something was in the wind, but we had no idea what. We decided that all hands should pack their bags and have them ready in the event we had to get off the ship. At midnight, with all hands still holding firm by staying on board, we double-checked to see if the captain had returned. He was still ashore. The evening had grown cold; a sprinkle of light rain hit the deck. From all appearances it seemed that nothing was going to happen until morning. A two-man committee was delegated to stand lookout near the gangway and report anything that could remotely indicate trouble to us in the crew's quarters. Since the night was chilly and wet, the two men decided to stand watch in the mess room which adjoined the entrance to the gangway. From this vantage point they could detect anyone going up or down the gangway. The rest of us crawled up into our bunks fully-clothed and caught what sleep we could.

By three in the morning you could have heard a pin drop aboard the Mundixie. The two lookout men found the warm heat of the mess room too comforting and soon fell asleep. No one saw them coming, but some twenty-five of Baltimore's biggest cops sneaked aboard slowly and quietly, and within five minutes it was all over. They charged into the crew's quarters, handcuffed men while they were still asleep, then pushed and pulled them out on deck and down the gangway. Other cops acted as porters, carrying suitcases and dufflebags and depositing them on the dock.

In the distance I could hear the chug-chug of a motor launch inching its way toward the ship. It was loaded with scab seamen, recruited in Philadelphia and sped to Baltimore. The captain stood on the officer's deck and watched as the police hustled us off the ship. As the last man was escorted down the gangway, the captain shouted, "I told you I'd find a way to get my ship out! If you want what wages you have coming you can go to the company office uptown and get them. May you all rot on the beach! Good riddance!"

"Okay," shouted the cop, "you're in Baltimore now, on Baltimore territory. That's the way to the main gate. Get going." Outside the gate five pickets were walking back and forth, proclaiming that the Mundixie was on strike. None of them had the slightest notion of what had taken place. The police had used the same approach as the scabs, coming from the harbor in a launch.

From outside the gate we could see the black smoke rising from the smokestack as the Mundixie gathered up a full head of steam. The police let go the mooring lines. The ship moved away from the dock.


Copyright © 1993 by Bill Bailey. All Rights Reserved.

The Kid from Hoboken: Book Two