Friday, March 4, 2011

They called it "mutiny"

75 years ago: Seamen’s strike on SS California leads to formation of the National Maritime Union

SS California passing through the Panama Canal

The SS California was a passenger ship run by the Panama Pacific Limited, whose crew, on March 1, 1936, led by ‘Big Joe’ Curran, launched a sit-down strike for better wages and conditions. When the ship was due to depart San Pedro, California, the crew refused to cast off. The striking workers refused to disembark to prevent scab labour being brought aboard. The sit-down strike would be successfully utilized on a grander scale later that same year by autoworkers at the General Motors plant at Flint, Michigan.

The SS California was forced to stay docked at San Pedro for three days before the intervention of US Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins. She persuaded the crew to sail on to New York City, where a grievance hearing would supposedly be arranged. She also promised to see to it that the strikers would not be prosecuted by the American government or the company.

However, upon its docking in New York, the SS California was met by FBI officers under the direction of Secretary of Commerce Daniel Roper, who declared the strikers ‘mutineers’ and had their leaders arrested. Panama Pacific lambasted Curran through advertisements in the national press and when the case came to court, he and the other strike leaders were fined two days pay, fired by Panama Pacific and blacklisted.

The fate of the SS California led to a ten-week strike led by Curran and the newly established Seaman’s Defence Committee along the American east coast. In 1937 Curran helped establish the National Maritime Union (NMU), which affiliated with the newly formed Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) the same year.

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