Cisco Houston Web Site

Ol' Pals

An Overview of the History of the National Maritime Union (NMU): 1935-1948

Robert Greenberg

Cisco's pal tells his tale

The National Maritime Union was organized in the mid to late 30's, during that period in History when Unemployment in the Country was over 40% and the depression was at its height. Conditions in the Merchant Marine at the time were nothing less than barbaric. Monthly wages ranged from about $20; working conditions were rough, and the food on the ships was pretty bad. Many seamen during 1935-38 had gone to Spain to fight in support of the Democratically elected Government. They fought in the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a Division of the International Brigades from around the World.

The Spanish Government was attacked by the Fascist forces of Francisco Franco, backed by Hitler & Mussolini, and who later became Dictator of Spain for over 30 years (and during World War II Spain, who was supposed to be Neutral, provided air bases for Hitler). One of the worst bombings that I encountered was in a convoy heading East from Gibraltar, headed for Oran & the invasion of Anzio, Italy, and us heading for Pakistan & India, and we saw German bombers come right out of Spain, and bombed numerous troop and other ships in our convoy, and after the War the US never demanded apologies or restitution from Spain who remained "NEUTRAL" during the War.

When the Spanish Civil War was lost to the Franco Forces in 1938, the Merchant Mariners who fought therecame back home, and were instrumental in Organizing the National Maritime Union. After a bitter Maritime strike, where the Ship Owners hired "goons" to break the strike, and many Mariners were injured and murdered,but the organization on the East Coast, The Gulf, and the West Coast was complete and the ships didn't sail until a contract was signed granting better working conditions, better pay, better food, and COMPLETE AGREEMENT AGAINST ANY FORM OF DISCRIMINATION. This was the first Union agreement in the Country that provided for non-discrimination in hiring and pay for Blacks. And in addition any Union members that discriminated would be kicked out of the Union and couldn't work on American ships; keeping in mind that a job on the Ships was different than just working together in a factory: This meant living and sleeping in very close quarters with any Seaman; remembering that this was only 1938-9, and seamen from the deep South, or in the North for that matter, had not been brought up that way. And it was amazing that the system worked, and seamen from all walks of life learned to live and work together.

The Union in its first election elected Joe Curran , who was nominated and supported by the Union's Left Wing. The other Officers were: Frederick "Blackie" Myers, Vice-Pres., Ferdinand Smith (a Black of Jamaican Ancestry), Secretary. These men remained in office until the election of 1947, when Joe Curran organized an Anti-Communist Slate, typical in that time after the War when men like Richard Nixon sponsored the Mundt-Nixon Bill, an anti-labor bill, and Senator Joe McCarthy of Wisconsin started his crusade to "rid the Country of Reds".

The Maritime Unions believed in no discrimination, this in an era of Jim Crow throughout the Country, when ships crews previously were divided, black and white, and blacks were only allowed to work in the Steward's Department .The Union fought and won full agreement to integrate, and if you'd think about it for a minute this was years before Martin Luther King, and imagine the good old Southern boys, and Northern boys, too, that now had to not only work on an equal plain with blacks, but had to live, sleep and eat with them as well. It worked out fine, and strong progressive unions were formed that fought to champion the rights of all the workers. The US Armed Forces remained Segregated till after WW II. The Maritime Unions memberships by the end of the War reached over 200,000.

But after the War the mood of the Country was changing; we had just finished a War that was "fought for freedom from the Fascists" and while our Allies bore the brunt of the War (The US lost over a quarter of a million men, and the Largest Percentage of Casualties of Any US Branch was in the Merchant Marine). (Our War Time Ally, The Soviet Union, lost over 20,000,000), and now the specter of Soviet Communism loomed as a new threat. Right after World War II ended, the CIO initiated a program called "Operation Dixie" to challenge racial discrimination and to organize workers in the largely unorganized South.The National Maritime Union, for years, a leaderin combating discrimination foundmany of its members joining in the struggle to organize, particularly in the Black neighborhoods. In 1947 Cisco Houston and many of our seamen friends joined in this campaign. This was ultimately met with steep resistance and a groundswell of the New Cold War anti-communism that began to cripple and ultimately killed the progressive direction that the CIO had been taking.

The National Maritime Union was split, as was the CIO. And a number of Unions were ultimately expelled from the CIO. In 1947 there was a strong movement, in the National Maritime Union to toss out the Progressive Leadership that had built the Union, and replace it with Right Wing Leadership which would ultimately destroy the Union, and within 25 years the entire U.S. Merchant Marine was dismembered and transferred to Foreign Flag, "off shore companies" that to this day pay substandard wages to Foreign Nationals, with substandard conditions, both for health and safety. The US has gone from the greatest Maritime Nation, that the World had ever known at the end of the War, to a ranking now of 18th in the World.So, at the NMU convention in 1947 the attempt to expel the long time leadership of, "Blackie" Frederick Myers, (Vice-Pres. ), Ferdinand Smith (The Nat'l Secretary) and Joe Stack succeeded by one vote. Joe Stack was the militant leader of the left who was supported by the Progressives in the Union.

Curran's group trotted out everything to characterize the Progressives as actually working for the Communists, and not working for the seamen in the Union. And this was a campaign against the men who had the history of building the Union in the late '30's. So the big question also for the Union was if you don't shape up we're not going to be in the CIO. So, Joe Curran'sright winggroup appealed to "unity", and these elements were now given a cause: "save the Union from the Communists."

Now, in the south the situation developed where the progressives were outnumbered because of the anti-Communist thing, and it became a banner for the right wing union officials - a tent under which all these racist elements could assemble and cover their flanks. They teamed up with the police and the Klan, to run blacks out of the Union hall. It was that kind of atmosphere that they were able to create that resulted eventually that many of our friends were ultimately expelled from the NMU, had their Seaman's Papers taken away by the Coast Guard, or they just quit sailing, like Cisco, our friends from the Gulf Coast, and I.

The Communist thing had taken its toll. They didn't have to prove you were a communist. And how could you prove you weren't? But the basic assumption was that if you were against the Joe Curran Group: you were either a Communist dupe, or you were a follower of the communists, and therefore had to be eradicated from the waterfront.

The National Maritime Union in the mid-80's ,by then practically non-existent, merged with the MEBA (Marine Engineers Beneficial Association), the Union to which I belonged after becoming an Officer in 1944.

Till today there are fewer than 300 ships flying the American Flag, and the number of American Merchant Seamen is probably less than 5,000, from a high of over 200,000 during World War II.


Merchant Marine 215,0008,6514.02%1 in 25
Marines669,10819,7332.94%1 in 34
Army11,268,000234,8742.08%1 in 48
Navy4,183,4666,9580.88% 1 in 114
Coast Guard242,0935740.24%1 in 421
Total16,576,667295,7901.78%1 in 56

See Here for Bob's memories of Cisco after WWII.

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