History of The Marine Firemen's Union
The Official Web Site of the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association
Established 1883 in San Francisco, California.
Affiliated with the Seafarers International Union of North America, AFL-CIO
© 2005-2020 Marine Firemen's Union.
All Rights Reserved.
Although there is some indication that a Marine Firemen's Union existed for a short time as early as 1850, the membership books from early years proudly proclaim that the Union was founded October 1883, in San Francisco, California, and reorganized in 1907 by amalgamation with an independent firemen's union. The founding members were firemen on coal-burning steamers.
The 1886-1887 Strikes
In June 1886, the Marine Firemen's Union struck the Oceanic Steamship Company over a dispute on the number of firemen required on ocean voyages. A ship had returned from Australia with a shorthanded black gang. The union took the dispute to the Federated Trades, and a general strike against the company was ordered. The coast seamen obeyed the strike order, and those who quit forfeited their wages in accord with the provisions of maritime law.
The ship owners decided to fight and formed the Ship Owners' Association of the Pacific Coast. The association established an exclusive shipping office and adopted a shipping book system known as "grade books." Masters refused to sign men on unless they had a grade book and shipped through the office of the association. In order to get a grade book, a union member would have to turn in his union card to the shipping office and repudiate the union in writing.
In 1886, ship owners were paying $40 blood money to crimps. This problem led the union to call a strike against the ship owners in August of that year. 3,000 men were involved, and the strike continued until September. The union finally terminated the strike because the members were "starved into submission."
In 1887, the union had one strike in San Pedro, California. A number of seamen had been working ashore as longshoremen and the Ship Owners' Association discharged them in an attempt to force them to go to sea to meet the shortage of seamen. The rest of the seamen working ashore and the longshoremen struck. About 60 sailors walked off the ships and forfeited their wages. However, a few days later, the longshoremen voted to return back to work, leaving the seamen alone, and they lost the battle.
The 1901 Strike
The 1901 strike may well be the most significant labor strike in the history of California. The goal of the employers was to establish an "open shop" in the city of San Francisco and along the coast. In April 1901, 50 employers subscribed $1,000 each to the drive, and this amount was later increased to yield $250,000. In May 1901, some cooks and waiters struck for a six-day week, 10-hour day, and won their demands in a number of restaurants. As a countermove, wholesalers refused to supply restaurants displaying a union card, and this action was echoed by employers in other trades. By the middle of May, 2,000 workers were on strike in San Francisco.
In July 1901, the Draymen's Association ordered Teamsters to either quit the union or quit their jobs. On July 20, 6,000 members struck. Maritime unions had formed a City Front Federation and a resolution was passed for sailors, marine firemen, longshoremen, shipyard workers, ship clerks, pile drivers, and others to join the action. On July 30, 20,000 men were on strike and all shipping companies were struck except for the Pacific Coast Steamship Company, on which the firemen remained at work under an agreement entered into with the company prior to the strike.
In August, the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen's Union struck the Pacific Coast Steamship Company notwithstanding the contract and the company threatened to sue the union. Two days later, the Marine Cooks and Stewards walked out, and the strikers threatened to extend the strike along the coast if no settlement was reached. The strike was vicious; police were less than gentle in dealing with strikers. 175 vessels were tied up in San Francisco Bay. By August 23, 12,000 members of the City Front Federation were out and 800 scabs were working the waterfront. 200 vessels were tied up.
On Labor Day 1902, over 20,000 unionists marched in a four-mile parade, and the City Front Federation led the parade with 9,500 members. The employers pleaded with the governor to send in troops, but he refused to do so. The police ordered the arrest of every man known or suspected of being a union man on the waterfront after dark and, in two days, arrested 140 men and charged them with drunkenness. The strike lasted until October. Governor Gage was brought in to arbitrate the dispute and worked up a settlement agreement. Although the employers temporarily won the right to avoid "recognizing" a union, workers were not blacklisted for union membership. This was the birth of San Francisco's reputation as a "union town."
The 1906 Strike
In 1905, employers reorganized to combat longshoremen and to uphold the open shop. This led to the strike of 1906 on steam schooners. The agreement had expired in January, and the unions requested a wage increase and mess halls for crewmen as well as time for the crews to keep their quarters clean. This request was rejected, and in April the sailors, firemen and cooks voted to strike on May 1.
In June, the employers locked out the longshoremen, sailors, firemen and cooks from the Pacific Coast, Oregon and Coos Bay Steamship Lines. On June 7, the Oceanic Steamship Company terminated its agreement with the unions. The ship owners then went on a nationwide search for scabs, and the strike dragged on until November 1906. The unions were victorious and the demanded scale of wages was accepted.
The 1921 Strike
In January 1921, Admiral Benson of the Shipping Board addressed a letter to all the maritime unions requesting that they agree to the following proposals: a wage reduction of 15 percent, the abolition of overtime pay, the substitution of two watches on deck instead of three, the abolition of the right of union delegates to board ships, and that all seamen be hired through the Sea Service Bureau, regardless of union affiliation.
Negotiations dragged on for four months, and finally the Shipping Board gave notice that the new reduced schedules would go into effect at midnight of April 30, 1921. The unions notified their crews not to sign on at the lower wages, and the strike, or lockout, was on. On the Atlantic Coast the strike was broken in short order. Ships moved freely and the strike was called off in 30 days. Not a ship moved on the Pacific Coast until the strike breakers were imported from the East and Gulf Coasts.
There were many clashes between the pickets and the scabs. Finally the overpowering combination of government and ship owners proved to be too much. The strike was called off on the Pacific Coast at the end of July 1921. In high spirits, some steamship companies went even further, and by 1924, a new movement was in full swing to replace unlicensed American crews with foreign labor at subsistence wages.
The 1934 Strike
After years of being pushed around by the ship owners, the longshoremen went out on strike on May 9, 1934. A week later, seamen began hitting the bricks. Ship after ship came in port, dozens without a union member in the entire crew, but, as they arrived, the crews walked off en masse and up to the union halls to sign up and take out books or pledge cards. The ship owners hired amateur longshoremen to scab on the experienced men, recruiting them mainly from farming communities and from college campuses.
The hiring of scabs touched off bitter riots. Strike breaking agencies imported thousands of dollars worth of tear gas which was used on the San Francisco Embarcadero. More than a dozen union men lost their lives.
On July 31, 1934, after 84 days, a tentative settlement was reached through the auspices of a board appointed by the government--the National Longshoremen's Board. This board was to arbitrate the longshoremen's case, and to supervise balloting among the seamen to determine the organization they desired to represent them in collective bargaining and arbitration. In this election, the Marine Firemen's Union won the right to represent unlicensed engine room personnel; the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, deck department; and the Marine Cooks and Stewards Association, the steward department.
The Modesto Boys
In the aftermath of the 1934 strike, the seaman's unions decided to tackle the oil transportation portion of the fleet. A strike against the Standard Oil Company commenced. A joint strike committee was formed and Standard Oil retaliated by assisting an independent tanker union. As the strike dragged on, the California Federation of labor issued a circular that "war has been declared on organized labor by Standard Oil Company", and called upon organized labor to boycott all Standard Oil products.
Late in the evening of April 20, 1935, 11 men were taken at gunpoint from two automobiles outside the town of Patterson, California. The 11 men were taking part in the coastwise tanker strike. The men with the guns were private detectives hired by Standard Oil. A short time later, the Sheriff of Stanislaus County arrived, and a search of the cars was ordered. The search was made by a Standard Oil guard and a private detective. They claimed to have found six sticks of dynamite. some fuse, detonating caps, and two blackjacks.
The union men were placed under arrest and taken to county jail. One of the men taken from the cars was determined to be secretly serving as a private detective for Standard Oil and another was making regular reports to the San Francisco Police Department. Eight of the men were indicted and the case was brought to trial in July 1935.
The first count was for conspiracy to dynamite oil and gas stations and the Del Puerto Hotel in Patterson. The second count was for conspiracy to assault with deadly weapons certain persons of the Standard Oil Company. The third and fourth counts charged that the defendants did recklessly and maliciously have in their possession a certain amount of dynamite. The fifth count charged that the defendants did unlawfully, knowingly, and maliciously have in their possession two blackjacks. The District Attorney dismissed the fourth count before the trial commenced in Modesto, the county seat. The jury, in spite of the general atmosphere in Stanislaus County against the defendants, brought in a verdict of not guilty on the first, second and fifth counts. The only count that was sustained was the charge of reckless and malicious possession of dynamite on a public highway.
They were sentenced from six months to five years in prison. Emotions ran high after the verdict was announced and the Joint Marine Modesto Committee was formed to appeal the decision, particularly on the ground that the conviction violated a section of the Penal Code which had been repealed earlier by the State Legislature. Four of the men charged were members of the Marine Firemen's Union.
The King, Conner, Ramsay Case
One of the most famous labor cases on the West Coast was the King, Conner, Ramsay case. King was the Secretary of the Marine Firemen's Union. Ramsay was an organizer and Conner was the engine room delegate aboard the SS Point Lobos, berthed in Alameda, California.
On March 22, 1936, George Alberts, Chief Engineer on the SS Point Lobos, was found stabbed to death in his cabin. On August 27, 1936, George Wallace, an MFOW member, was arrested in Brownsville, Texas. On the same day, Earl King and Ernest Ramsay were arrested in San Francisco. Frank Conner was arrested a few days later in Seattle.
The prosecution did not contend that either King or Ramsay had been on the ship at the time of the murder. The prosecution's case rested almost entirely on the testimony of Wallace. He testified that on the day before the murder ear King had asked him to "go on a job" and King gave Ramsay some money for expenses. Wallace also contended Ramsay, a fireman named Sakovitz, and an unidentified seaman went across the bay to "beat up" Alberts. They were unable to meet him, but on the following day Wallace, Sakovitz, and the unidentified seaman again went across the bay, and Conner, the ship delegate, was called ashore. They had a conference and went aboard the ship. A few moments later Sakovitz stood at the Chief Engineer's door, Conner raised his arm "as a signal", and Sakovitz entered the cabin and committed the murder. Sakovitz and the unidentified seaman were never apprehended.
The case attracted statewide interest. Evidence was obtained that an ex-convict, who had been convicted of a series of crimes, had earlier attended a meeting with a captain of the San Francisco Police Department, Harper Knowles of the American Legion, and two men representing the employer association. This meeting was taped. The discussion apparently centered on the convict's ability to obtain information about the murder and concurrent efforts to establish that Harry Bridges was a Communist. The convict, named Scott, wanted $350 to "cooperate." Scott had sent a letter to Colonel Sanborn; an individual who published an ultra right wing Anti-labor newspaper named the "American Citizen" and later directed resistance by employers in the famous Salinas lettuce strike of 1937.
During the course of this meeting, Sanborn referred to a letter that had been sent by Scott indicating that he had information of value and inquired whether the information would be available. Scott responded in this conversation, which took four months before King was arrested, in the following words: "That's the reason I got in touch with you. Well now, we have the question of Bridges and the frame-up on King. That is far more complex than appears on the surface." On January 5, 1937, King Conner, and Ramsay were found guilty of murder in the second degree. They were sentenced to San Quentin.
There were many later overtures to King and Ramsay during Harry Bridges' deportation trial with suggestions that, if they could supply evidence that Bridges was a Communist, a parole would be granted. This led to one of the most dramatic hearings in the history of labor. It occurred at San Quentin and James Landis, later Dean of Harvard Law School, was presiding to determine whether Bridges should be deported to Australia as a Communist.
King was brought to the hearing room and asked if he had any knowledge that Bridges was a Communist. King broke down with the statement, "Well, it's no fun being here. I would like to be out on the bricks again. Doyle (an investigator) gave me that chance but, you see, I couldn't do what I wanted. I'm about 45 years of age. I have been to a lot of places and done pretty near everything I have wanted to do. I had a good time. I have good friends. I have a record of 24 years in the labor movement. Nobody is going to spoil it. Nobody is going to make me perjure myself. I haven't much left, just my self-respect and nobody is going to take that away from me." King and Ramsay, and later Conner, were eventually pardoned by Governor Olson.
The 1936 Strike
In 1936, members of the Marine Firemen's Union again hit the bricks to improve their working conditions. This time, with the rest of the West Coast unions banded together in the Maritime Federation of the Pacific. The picket lines were out for 98 days. Even though the strike lasted longer than the 1934 strike, it was a lullaby in comparison. The ship owners had learned a terrible lesson and this time did not try to import scabs. They merely sat tight and tried to have time, starvation, and public opinion work for them. These tactics failed and the unions emerged victorious in February 1937, with higher wages, improved working conditions, and a union controlled hiring hall.
World War II
Long before Pearl Harbor, the MFOW anticipated the coming showdown and WWII. Union leaders and members knew that merchant seamen would be subject to war action at sea, without the benefits accorded by the government to the military. Much time was spent laying the groundwork for war bonuses.
The first clash arose from a decision of bulk carriers to load high test gasoline and lubricating oil for Italian Somaliland. This was a staging area for Mussolini's war against Ethiopia. The MFOW had no sympathy for the Fascists and refused to sign on unless a bonus of $250 was paid plus life insurance plus return wages and transportation to the United States in the event the was lost. Bulk carriers balked at the request, moved the ship to an outer harbor in Los Angeles and recruited a scab crew.
A war was raging in China between Japan and the forces of Chiang Kai-Shek. Japan had captured Peiping, Tientsien, Nanking, Shanghai and the port of Amoy. The war in Spain between the Loyalists and the Franco forces was in full swing in 1938. Bulk carriers had contracted to help the Loyalists, and the West Coast union crews sailed under a war bonus agreement which was unprecedented in its provisions for the time and place.
In an experience with enemy attacks, the SS Wisconsin was in Barcelona when the port was bombed, and many ships were sailing to Tsingtao and Darien on the China Coast. On each of these voyages, West Coast unions were receiving war bonuses. In Europe, the SS McCormick was in port in Bergen when the Nazis invaded Norway. In anticipation of events, the ship was operating under a special bonus negotiated with West Coast unions. In 1939, President Roosevelt signed the Neutrality Act, barring American vessels from European waters and from carrying war supplies to belligerent powers. West Coast unions obtained ship bonuses as early as 1939 for ships going to Australia and the Orient. The bonus provisions had an escalator cause providing for their immediate negotiation if the United States entered the war.
The first vessel to go was the Lahaina, hit five days after Pearl Harbor near Honolulu. Ten days later, another Matson ship, the Manini, was hit. Japan captured the President Harrison near the China Coast and the Admiral Y.S. Williams, owned by the Pacific Lighterage Company in Hong Kong. In December 1941, the Hog Islander Capillo, an American Mail Line ship, was captured by the Japanese, and the crew was interned when the Japanese captured the Philippines.
On New Year's Day 1942, the Japanese captured Matson's Malama, and on the following day, bombed and sank APL's SS Ruth Alexander in the Macassar Straits. In January 1942, the SS Florence Luuckenbach was torpedoed in the Indian Ocean. By February, German submarines were scattered throughout the Caribbean, and the SS West Ivis was sank with a full crew of old timers of the MFOW. Later, in February, Matson's Mauna Loa was bombed at Port Darwin and completely gutted. Further Caribbean losses continued. Matson's SS Lihue was lost in the Caribbean but fought back and sank the submarine that attacked her. One of the shells from the ship, silver plated and inscribed with the names of the gun crew and the engine room crew, was given as a trophy to the union.
May and June 1942 were the worst months for MFOW ships. The SS John Adams was lost in the South Pacific Ocean, the Ohioan was lost near New York and the SS Ogontz in the Caribbean. Also lost in the Caribbean in June were the SS West Notus, the SS Illinois of States Line, American Hawaiian's American and Arkansan, American Mail Line's George Clymers, Matson's Kahuku, Shepard Line's Sea Thrush, McCormick's West Ira and Weyerhaeuser's Potlatch. APL's motor ship Chant, en route to Malta was lost and the Coast Trader was sunk by a Japanese submarine very close to the Oregon Coast.
In July 1942, 11 MFOW-crewed ships were lost, six of which were in the "suicide" convoys" to Murmansk. All told, in July 1942, 11 out of 43 ships manned by MFOW crews were lost, including the Edward Luckenbach in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arcata in Alaskan waters, the Coast Farmer and the William Dawes in the South Pacific. The Honoluluan was lost near the Straits of Gibraltar. In August 1942, the SS Star of Oregon, operated by the Pacific Atlantic Steamship Company, and States Line's California, were both torpedoed in the Caribbean, and Matson lost the Kaimoku in the Northwest Atlantic. In September 1942, the Mary Luckenbach, loaded with 1000s of tons of TNT, was bombed en route to Murmansk. In the same convoy, the Oregonian was lost. A few days later, the States Line freighter Kentucky went down.
Members of the Marine Firemen's Union sailed to almost all of the invasion sites in WWII--North Africa, Sicily, Anzio, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, New Guinea, Guadalcanal, the Philippines, Palau, Okinawa, China, India, the Normandy Beachhead, and finally, sailing to Japan, after its surrender, with needed supplies. All told, 138 ships manned by MFOW crews were lost or badly damaged during WWII. In addition to the men who went down with their ships, there were many others who died in POW camps and who died in lifeboats.
The 1948 Strike
In 1948, a West Coast strike took place. The MFOW, MC&S, and ILWU again hit the bricks. The MFOW reached an agreement on economic issues but stumbled on hiring and contract language. Ship owners had little incentive to resolve differences with offshore unions until they resolved their differences with the ILWU. They agreed to meet and resolve the hiring issue if the MFOW would work under a negotiated contract, even if the MC&S and ILWU had not settled. The MFOW flatly responded that it would not pledge to go through any picket line manned by longshoremen. The strike dragged on for four months but was finally resolved at the end of the year.
Establishing the SIU-Pacific District
In October 1954, the MFOW, SUP, and a number of Marine Cooks and Stewards joined to form a three-union combine under the banner of the "SIU Pacific District" and petitioned the NLRB for a single bargaining unit election for all unlicensed seamen on ships represented by the Pacific Maritime Association. In April 1955 the one unit vote was held with the SIU Pacific District, comprising the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, the Marine Firemen's Union, and the AFL Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, competing with the ILWU and the National Union of Marine Cooks and Stewards on the ballot. The final vote was SIU Pacific District 3931; ILWU 1064; neither 327. The Pacific District was established as a bargaining agent for all three departments, but retained the three-union structure.
The 1962 Strike
In 1961, the MFOW Convention decided to submit proposed changes of many collective bargaining agreement provisions and crew manning issues. The union struck on March 16, 1962. In April 1962, the Labor Department intervened and called for Federal Mediation Service meetings. These were held but were unproductive.
The Labor Department considered the strike a "national emergency." Under the Taft-Hartley Act, a national emergency strike can be enjoined by the government for a period of 80 days, and on April 11, 1962, such an injunction was issued. The injunction required the "status quo", the conditions existing before the strike, to be maintained during the course of the injunction.
This led to an immediate court fight that made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. The union contended that, under the status quo, the conditions prevailing before the strike, members could leave a ship in any U.S. port even before the cargo had been removed. The employers disagreed, but the U.S. Court of Appeals agreed with the union on this issue, but disagreed with a second union position that members could not be required to sign on a voyage that would terminate after the 80-day injunction expired.
Both the union and the ship owners appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Court allowed the Appeals decision to stand, but cargo shippers, worried that there cargo might not be unloaded, were reluctant to ship any cargo on vessels until the dispute was resolved. Finally, on July 5, 1962, an agreement was reached and the union won major issues involving overtime in port, pension benefits, and wages, vacation, and welfare benefits.
The SS Baton Rouge Victory
The SS Baton Rogue Victory was one of several World War II era Victory ships brought out of the moth ball fleet at Suisun Bay, California, to transport supplies to Vietnam. The ship was operated by the States Steamship Company for the U.S. Navy from its home port of San Francisco.
On the morning of August 23, 1966, 26 days out of San Francisco, the ship began making its way up the Saigon River toward the city of Saigon with a cargo of heavy military equipment. By 0920 hours, the vessel was slowly steaming up the Lung Tau Channel, just 22 miles from Saigon, when a mine that had been attached to the ship's hull by a Viet Cong diver was remotely detonated from shore.
The explosion ripped a 40 x 16 foot hole in the hull and the torrent of water rushing in immediately flooded out the engine room, drowning seven of the nine crew members working there. Only the Chief Engineer and an Oiler made it out ahead of the surging water.
Viet Cong snipers opened fire from the shore as the crew struggled in vain to keep the stricken vessel afloat. The Captain managed to maneuver the ship out of the channel into shallow water along the river bank. Navy landing craft removed the surviving crewmembers from the ship under heavy fire, most of who went back to making the San Francisco to Vietnam run only a few weeks later.
The bodies of the seven crewmen who died were later recovered. Two of the engine room crew killed in the attack were members of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association District 1, which represents licensed engine room personnel. The five unlicensed crewmen who were killed were members of the Marine Firemen's Union.
The Agonizing Years 1974-1983
During the height of the Vietnam War in 1966 and 1967, the active membership of the Union was 3,400. By 1975, the Union membership dropped to approximately 1,400 members and held contracts with eight companies--American President Lines, Matson Navigation Company, Pacific Far East Lines, States Steamship Company, Prudential Lines, and a few single-vessel agreements.
Negotiations with the Pacific Maritime Association were ongoing in 1975 and many issues faced the Union. Principal MFOW demands were a cost of living provision and improved funding of the basic pension plan. With a steady decline of ships and additional costs to provide benefits required by the newly-enacted pension reform law, the MFOW was concerned that, in future years, the pension plan might terminate with inadequate funds to provide benefits for older members unless a sound pension funding schedule was negotiated.
During the course of these negotiations, the Pacific Far East Lines secretly arranged for sale of a large number of its ships to Farrell Lines together with a sale of its subsidized route to Australia. Farrell's fleet was under contract with the NMU, and transfer of the ships would result is substantial job loss and contributions to fringe benefit plans including various separate pension plans for the Pacific District unions.
Control of PFEL rested in the family of San Francisco Mayor Joseph Alioto. The Sailors' Union of the Pacific and the MFOW refused to sign on PFEL vessels then in port until an agreement could be reached with PFEL. The major demands asked PFEL to pay a share of unfunded accrued liability of the SIU-Pacific District PMA pension fund and proposals to cushion the impact of job loss. The picketing was enjoined; but, an unusual move occurred prior to the injunction. The Marine Cooks and Stewards, enlisting the assistance of the NMU, quietly manned the Thomas E. Cuffe, and the vessel sailed on a scheduled voyage.
PFEL and the NLRB marched to a federal court and obtained an injunction against any Union demand for representation rights aboard any vessel transferred to Farrell Lines but the Court did not block picketing for other purposes. There were many moves and countermoves following the injunction. PFEL had been employing a number of shoregang members of the MFOW and SUP.
Alioto approached the ILWU to take over the Pacific District shoregang jobs. The ILWU was split on the issue but, led by the local ILWU president and the majority of the members, refused to do so.
In negotiations with PMA, the unions demanded a five-year 100 percent quid-pro-quo for all jobs lost on the sale of any trade route with the selling company given credit for any additional jobs created that did not presently exist in the PMA fleet. They also demanded payment of a share of accrued pension liability attributable to service on any sold trade route, pension plan payments and quid-pro-quo payments on the sale of any ship during its economic life. Negotiations finally concluded in 1976, providing for a 12.5 percent increase in base wages, supplemental wages and hourly overtime rates in the first year of the contract, and five percent increases in the second and third years with retroactivity.
In November 1977, the Union received word that PFEL had not submitted its contributions to the fringe benefit funds. A port committee meeting on the matter, attended by representatives of Pacific District unions, PMA and PFEL was held. A PFEL spokesman apologized for the delinquencies and explained cash flow problems were the cause and that it would make payment s to the funds as soon as possible. A few days later PFEL notified the Unions that it was filing voluntary bankruptcy proceedings under Chapter XI of the Bankruptcy Act and planned to sell several ships to pay its obligations to benefit plans.
The same year, the last U.S. passenger ships, the SS Mariposa and SS Monterey were put up for sale. Also in 1977, Prudential Lines announced that it was entering into an agreement to sell all of its ships to Delta Lines. In 1978, States Line suddenly decided to shut down its operations and filed for bankruptcy. By 1979, the MFOW and SIU-Pacific District had only two contracted companies: Matson Navigation and American President Lines.