Boston — American sailors are getting another wage boost and American taxpayers will indirectly pay for it. This past summer the major seamen's unions signed contracts raising wages 7.5 percent a year for the next three years, plus a cost-of-living clause that provides for two-thirds of the increase in the consumer price index. It could up wage costs as much as 40 percent in that time span, it is estimated.
But it won't hurt the shipowners much. A government subsidy covers the difference between foreign wage levels and that of American seamen.
In fact, the fortunes of US seamen have become increasingly anchored to government subsidies. And while merchant sailors have a bigger booty to boast about, their numbers continue to dwindle.
In 1955, the peak postwar employment year, 57,678 seafarers signed the articles of oceangoing vessels. At the end of this past September, there were just under 19,000 shipboard jobs, according to the US Maritime Administration.
Job loss is due to the general decline of the industry, which has faced formidable competition from foreign-flag fleets since World War II.
While industry observers agree that US seamen's relatively high wages cannot compete with the low pay of, for example, Spanish, Italian, and Filipino sailors , they disagree on how large a role the higher costs have played in the fleet's decline.
''Of course it's significant,'' states Philip J. Loree, chairman of the Federation of American-Controlled Shipping, the trade group for companies flying under flags of convenience (ships registered in countries with few regulations on hiring). He says the high cost of American labor has been a principal force behind the tide of US-based companies using foreign flag ships over the past several decades.
''Unions in the US just won't face up to the reality'' that in order for American cargo freighters to compete on the foreign market, they must make lower wage demands, Mr. Loree charges. Seamen's wages are the ''price you pay for having the privilege of them walking aboard the ship.''
Other industry leaders disagree.
Alfred Maskin, executive director of the American Maritime Association, which represents US-flag companies in labor relations, says the cost of labor ''was not that much of a factor'' in the decline of US shipping. ''Because of federal subsidies (provided since 1936), it cannot be labor costs,'' Mr. Maskin reasons.
''No doubt there is presently a spread between US and foreign labor costs,'' he says, ''but one should weigh the cost against the American shoreside worker'' before judging whether seamen's wages are that far off course from wage trends in other industries.
According to statistics provided by the Maritime Administration, the annual payroll cost of a US-crewed, 32-man bulk cargo ship totaled $810,000 in 1971. With an Italian crew, under a flag of convenience, the cost was $295,000. Today the figures are $2.75 million and $1.3 million, respectively. The gap is growing wider. Now US bulk shippers (hauling such things as oil, liquid natural gas, coal, and grain) also benefit from a strong American dollar on the exchange markets, which makes payment of foreign crews in weaker currencies even lower.
AFL-CIO unions represent about 80 percent of the US maritime labor force.
''If you want to know how the unions are doing,'' comments Prof. Clyde Summers, a specialist in maritime labor law at the University of Pennsylvania, ''just look at how the government subsidies are running.''
Virtually all US-flag ships in container, or ''liner,'' trade are heavily subsidized by the federal government. These allotments are designed to cover the difference between American labor costs and those of cheaper foreign labor.
The 1982 subsidies scheduled by the Maritime Administration amount to $380.5 million, or almost $2.5 million for each of the 154 ships receiving federal largess in the US fleet. With the typical liner ship carrying 40 crew members at one time, the subsidy comes to about $62,000 per shipboard job.
Seafarers, though, rarely work year-round. Wages of unlicensed sailors range from $15,000 to $20,000 for six months' work. Licensed seamen (mates, captains, and engineers) can make more than twice this amount. During recent contract negotiations, bargaining focused more on fringe benefits than wages.
The Masters, Mates, and Pilots, the second-largest officers union, with 9,000 members, ratified a contract Sept. 30 that calls for 28 days' vacation credit for every 30 days worked. With sailors' work whittled down to six months a year , some companies are experimenting with having two crews assigned to each ship, solving some of the problems of random changeover.
While the job market for seamen has dipped and crested like a vessel in heavy seas, more sailors have found themselves sitting in union halls than signing ships' articles in recent years. But headway is being made on filling the longstanding shortage of officers. One reason is that more seamen are deciding to stay put in the merchant marine. Many unions are trying to encourage crewmen to think about earning their stripes by going back to school.