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Mutiny on the docks; Seafarers' Union Buffeted By Corruption Charges

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Meanwhile, the union increased membership dues at last year's convention. Delegates voted to charge members 5 percent of their vacation pay in addition to the $240 already levied.

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On the face of it, the figure sounded low, but when one dissident group did its homework, the 5 percent meant that dues more than doubled for many members.

A recent edition of Rank and File Maritime Notes, the newsletter of this dissident group, reports:

''There has been widespread opposition to this dues increase. On all the ships we've been on even since it was first rumored a year ago, the 5 percent was voted down. . . . The Pilot, which is bound by the NMU constitution to open its pages to 'constructive criticisms of policies and programs' . . . has distorted or ignored opposition to the increase in its reporting of ships' meetings. Even at the convention, the delegates actively opposed to the dues increase were denied the right to speak against it and could not even get their votes against it counted.''

In the official proceedings of the 1980 convention, only one delegate spoke against the dues increase proposal. None of the discussion spelled out the overall percentage of increase.

''I have the job of negotiating with the shipowners and all the other employers around the country,'' Wall told the 300 delegates. ''I can assure you that you are going to get more than 10 percent increase in your vacation check to take care of it (the dues increase).''

Unions have a close relationship with shipping companies, industry observers say. There hasn't been a major maritime strike for over 10 years. Since 1936, shipping companies have received federal subsidies for operational costs. The allotment is designed to cover the difference between American labor costs and cheaper foreign labor. Observers say the companies have little at stake in signing lucrative contracts for seaman, since the government picks up the tab in the end anyway. In turn, the union has little pressure to hold down its general expenses.

Another issue of Rank and File Maritime Notes says: ''The collusion between the union's leadership, shipping companies, and government has eroded and partly destroyed the strength and interest of . . . all maritime workers.''

In the six editions published since its inception in 1978, the newsletter argues that the union leadership has agreed to let shipping companies develop technology that has decreased jobs in exchange for temporary economic concessions.

Alfred Maskin, executive director of the American -Maritime Association, which represents US-flag companies in labor relations with unions, agrees. ''Unions have displayed a great willingness to reduce crew sizes and recognize technological advancements,'' he says.

The dissidents also argue that union leaders have not attempted to organize foreign-flag ships owned by American companies.

Discussing the general trend of labor negotiations over the years, historian Bunker observes that some union leaders realized that ''you can't keep hitting companies over the head and expect to succeed.'' The leaders' ''statesmanlike attitude'' was a ''matter of survival'' in view of the pressures felt by both labor and management.

At the same time, Bunker notes, leaders have tended to ''become fat cats for one reason or another. . . .

''Morrissey had a legitimate gripe,'' Bunker continues. ''He put his life on the line.''

Morrissey was brutally attacked before the 1966 election just outside the union hall, received a death threat three years later, and had to go to court to get back his union credentials when officials had tried to revoke them.

Most dissidents now are not as vocal as Morrissey or Jackson. They hide their identities - only one person signs a full name to the Rank and File Notes -- Roy Rydell, an older seaman associated with some of the original union organizers. He could not be reached for comment. Younger dissidents, who don't want to jeopardize their jobs, talk hesitantly and sign written statements with initials.

''I'm pretty pessimistic about the future,'' says Morrissey. ''The only way that things can change is if there is a public outcry.''

Jackson feels differently.

''Morrissey opened the door just wide enough,'' he says, ''so that someone can step up and kick it.''