Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Union Label

It was 1803 and some sailors in New York were upset. They had been living off $10 a month for some time. Ship owners and captains refused any request for more money, and any protests were met with stern measures, sometimes even violence. The fed-up sailors got together, staged a strike and, with the strength of numbers, eventually got their raise -- to $17 a month.

It was an amazing thing, considering the times. This was the Age of Sail, the time of Bligh and Master and Commander and Horatio Hornblower. There was no organized labor movement of any kind -- the Industrial Revolution was just getting started -- let alone among mariners who most times just counted themselves lucky to be alive. Mariners could be forced to work in any conditions, and if they left the ship early could be dragged back in chains and flogged. If not caught, they forfeited all wages and personal property left on board. And these were not Navy seamen, but commercial seamen on privately-owned vessels.

It was more than half a century before any kind of labor movement among mariners was heard from again. In 1866, a group of mariners formed the short-lived Seaman's Friendly Union & Protective Society in San Francisco. It was another twenty years before a truly viable union was formed, again in San Francisco. In 1885 mariners on the US west coast organized to protest wages that continued to be rock bottom: only $25 a month more than 80 years after the New York strike. The union they formed would go on the be called the Sailor's Union of the Pacific (SUP), a union that continues to be active today.

Reforms were hard-won. The unions eventually won passage of the Seaman's Act of 1915, which regulated working hours, food, berthing, and safety requirements on US-flagged merchant vessels. As union leader Andrew Furuseth said when fighting for passage of the Act
You can put me in jail, but you cannot give me narrower quarters than as a seaman I have always had. You cannot make me lonelier than I have always been.
Like much of American organized labor, the maritime unions have seen a decline in membership in recent decades, but several are still active. Many of the maritime unions continue to hire out of hiring halls, where union members gather once or twice a day for job calls, and the person with the most seniority or who has been out of work longest gets first chance at each job.

The largest US maritime union is the Seafarer's International Union (SIU) which, like the SUP, represents unlicensed crew members on union-staffed vessels. Licensed officers are represented by the American Maritime Officers union or the International Brotherhood of Masters, Mates & Pilots. Some engineers are represented by the Marine Fireman's Union. Some smaller maritime unions are branches of large shoreside unions (like the International Longshore & Warehouse Union), while some government-employed mariners are represented by government employees' unions. About 16 percent of America's 84,000 mariners are members of unions.

For a vivid account of mariner life before the unions (and a sure cure for any romantic notions you might have about the Age of Sail), read Richard Henry Dana's classic Two Years Before The Mast. A free download is available here from Project Gutenberg.

An interesting history of the maritime labor movement can be found on the SIU's website here.


  1. A favorite term of the era was "Yankee hell ships". Condtions were deplorable. As much as I despise the current maritime unions for their corruption and greed, back in the day, they really helped the US mariners of the early 20th century move from deplorable on board conditions and poor wages to pleasant conditions and decent wages us mariners enjoy today.

  2. One way around the expense of those hard-won wages and living conditions has been for ship owners to re-flag their vessels and hire Third World crews at lower wages. Think about that next time you buy a cheaper foreign product or take a cruise on a foreign-flagged vessel