August 19, 1946 – the birthday of the Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO.
On that date, in the city of Chicago, American Federation of Labor (AFL) President William Green and Secretary-Treasurer George Meany, along with the 13 AFL vice presidents, affixed their signatures to the charter creating the MTD.
Receiving the document were Joseph P. Ryan of the Longshoremen (ILA); Harry Lundeberg of the Seafarers (SIU); W. L. Allen of the Commercial Telegraphers Union (now part of the Communications Workers of America); Charles F. Mays of the Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P); and Joseph P. Clark of the Brotherhood of Firemen and Oilers (now part of the Service Employees International Union).
But the story starts twelve years earlier, in the final days of the International Seamen’s Union…
As the International Seamen’s Union was undergoing generational changes and seeing its ability to represent mariners disappear, the secretary for the Masters, Mates & Pilots in San Francisco – E.B. O’Grady – called upon each maritime union to send two delegates to a September 16, 1934, meeting to create a “maritime federation.”
In April 1935, mariners and dockers unions formed the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, which was designed to fight for and establish a unified maritime contract with a single expiration date in order that unions could present a common front. At a meeting in Seattle, Harry Lundeberg of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP) was selected as the federation’s first president. According to some histories, Lundeberg’s involvement was seen as an effort by Harry Bridges (a West Coast dockers leader) and his allies to gain Lundeberg’s trust and support. However, Lundeberg stepped down in November when he was elected SUP secretary-treasurer.
The Maritime Federation established District Councils in Ketchikan, AK (DC #6), Puget Sound, WA (DC #1), Grays Harbor/Willapa Bay, WA (DC #5), Columbia River/Portland, OR (DC #3), San Francisco (DC #2), and Long Beach, CA (DC #4).
While trying to bring maritime labor together, the Maritime Federation had to deal with the continuing struggles between anti-Communist and Communist forces attempting to control the waterfront. This fight ensnared an effort to expand the Maritime Federation to the Gulf Coast in early 1936.
At the end of October 1936, the Maritime Federation called a strike as contract talks stalled. Among the issues sought by labor was an end to fink membership books, the need for hiring halls for mariners and dockers, overtime in cash instead of days off, allowance of maritime officers to be union members, a six-day workweek for dockers, and much more. The strike failed but helped to lead to the creation of the CIO’s National Maritime Union in 1937 and the AFL’s Seafarers International Union of North America in 1938. (The two unions eventually merged under the banner of the SIU in 2001.)
By 1938, what was left of the Maritime Federation was under Communist influence as the SUP had withdrawn its membership. The federation collapsed by the start of World War II.
During the 1941 AFL Convention in Seattle, a delegate from San Francisco called for a maritime council…
At that gathering, the delegate from the San Francisco Labor Council offered a resolution “that the American Federation of Labor, in convention assembled, go on record in favor of establishing a maritime council within the American Federation of Labor similar to the units now functioning for the metal trades, building trades and railroad departments.” The resolution was sent to the AFL Committee on Organization for consideration and review. However, the United States entered World War II a few months later and no action was taken.
Following the war, representatives from various maritime-related unions met in New York City in May 1946. They requested the AFL reconsider the 1941 resolution. Attending that meeting were officials from the SIU, ILA, MM&P, Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, Radio Officers, Teamsters and American Merchant Marine Staff Officers.
The first national Maritime Trades Council of the American Federation of Labor met in Chicago days before the charter was issued. With officials from the SIU, ILA, MM&P, Commercial Telegraphers and Firemen and Oilers – as well as the Teamsters – attending, the council unanimously called for the creation of the Maritime Trades Department.
At the MTD’s first convention in October 1946, John Owens of the ILA served as executive secretary. The preamble adopted by the body read: “We, as workers in the transportation industry, realizing the necessity of strong, unified action in our endeavor to raise our social and economic standards to coordinate our efforts in our struggle for our rights, and in order to protect our Unions from raids by dual Unions and hostile organizations such as the CIO and the Communist Party, and for the purpose of organizing all unorganized workers in the industry into the structure of the American Federation of Labor to the end that all workers in the Maritime Transportation Industry – in the ships, the docks and shoreside workers – will be organized under the American Federation of Labor, hereby dedicate ourselves to mutual aid, support and to direct our action through the medium of the Maritime Trades Department of the AFL.”
The year 1946 also brought a major blow to the U.S.-flag merchant fleet with passage of the Ship Sales Act. This legislation allowed many of the American cargo ships built to win World War II to be sold for pennies on the dollar to replenish foreign-flag operators, instigating the flag-of-convenience system that continues to plague maritime to this day.
In addition, the MTD began its never-ending campaign of support for the Jones Act (the nation’s freight cabotage law) and for cargo preference measures to make sure American goods are carried aboard U.S.-flag ships, crewed by American mariners and built in domestic yards.
In 1947, the department adopted a policy of chartering Port Maritime Councils (PMC), which over time became the grassroots backbone of the MTD. The first councils were established in Milwaukee; Cleveland; New Orleans; Duluth, MN; Ashland, WI; and Washington State (Columbia River). By 1948, new PMCs had started in New York City, Chicago, Detroit, Puerto Rico and Savannah, GA.
The MTD reported to the 1948 AFL convention “its affiliated unions have given magnificent service to many other unions when other unions needed help. These men have been fighting on the picket line with and for many other unions in the general fight to keep our labor movement free and strong.”
By 1952, the AFL and the MTD realized that the department needed officers and a constitution. Meeting in Chicago in March, representatives from the SIU, ILA, MM&P, Commercial Telegraphers and Operating Engineers (IUOE) worked with Harry O’Reilly of the AFL to craft a constitution. After its approval, the MTD elected Brother Ryan as its first president, Lloyd Gardner of the SIU as secretary-treasurer, and Brother May as vice president to serve until the MTD met in convention in September. Those delegates reelected Ryan and Gardner to their posts while Jack McDonald of the IUOE became vice president.
In 1955, Harry Lundeberg of the SIU was elected MTD president after the ILA had been expelled from the AFL. That same year, talks between the AFL and CIO led to the merger of the two labor organizations, creating the AFL-CIO. Lundeberg served until his passing in 1957, when Paul Hall took the helm of both the MTD and the SIU.
Richard Nixon’s 1968 presidential campaign included a plank to revitalize the U.S.-flag fleet. In February 1969, MTD Administrator O. William Moody declared, “It will continue to be one of the prime goals of the Maritime Trades Department to bring to the attention of the public the facts about our merchant marine, so that the public can join its voice to ours.”
As debate began on Capitol Hill for maritime legislation, President Nixon told a Seattle audience in 1969, “The time has come for new departures, new solutions and new vitality for American ships and American crews on the high seas of the world.” In addition, the MTD, through its Port Councils, launched its “Ship American” campaign.
The House of Representatives passed the bill in early 1970, but the Senate continued to debate the measure. It called for the construction of 300 new vessels over a 10-year period, construction and operating subsidies, cargo preference protections and assistance for the Great Lakes and fishing industries.
Hall specified in the August 1970 Maritime, “The need is for a first-class U.S.-flag fleet. Fast, efficient new ships must replace slow, tired rustbuckets.” Within two months, the Senate passed and Nixon signed the Merchant Marine Act of 1970.
The maritime industry had high hopes this would be the start of a new boom for the U.S.-flag. But, it was not to be as America again looked away from its merchant fleet with the end of Americans fighting in Vietnam in 1973. Three years later, President Ford vetoed petroleum cargo preference legislation pushed by the MTD and the industry.
Meanwhile, following the merger of the AFL and CIO, new affiliates signed on with the MTD increasing the total to 43, representing more than 10 million union members. A total of 29 Port Maritime Councils could be found from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico, and points in between – including as many as five in Canada.
The MTD report to the 1967 AFL-CIO Convention saluted the PMCs: “In many respects, the structure of the Maritime Trades Department could be likened to an iceberg. Our national headquarters is one-eighth of the iceberg that can be seen above the surface; the Port Council network is the remaining seven-eighths – it is hidden beneath the surface, but it is the main part of our effort.”
McGavin died in 1975 with Moody remaining as administrator until Jean Ingrao became the executive secretary-treasurer in 1979, the first woman elected as an officer of an AFL-CIO constitutional department.
When Hall passed away in 1980, the national political consensus was more conservative. Frank Drozak took over the MTD presidency just as Ronald Reagan came to the White House. The MTD and its Port Councils fought hard, but could not save major parts of the 1970 legislation. Looking to save money, defense ”experts” said the nation could use American-owned, foreign-crewed, foreign-flag vessels to move its needed cargo.
Drozak died in 1988, bringing Michael Sacco to the bridge of the MTD as the United States was about to rediscover how valuable American mariners and ships were to the nation’s armed forces and the economy.
Federal programs that had provided a minimum safety net for millions of American workers were axed. The National Labor Relations Board was packed with anti-union appointees. Business groups began holding seminars on how to break unions. The percentage of the American workforce holding membership in a union dropped below 20 percent for the first time in the post-war era. The situation was exacerbated by the rise of a new economic order: globalization. Even in the early stages of its development, it was clear that U.S. companies were exploring ways to transfer American jobs overseas to places where they could evade U.S. wages, safety and environmental standards.
The maritime industry was hit hard as well. Funding for the Construction Differential Subsidy program was halted, which resulted in the virtual demise of the nation’s commercial shipbuilding industry. Attacks were made on the Title XI Loan Guarantee Program and the Capital Construction Fund. The USPHS hospital system, which had provided civilian mariners with quality medical care for nearly 200 years, was shut down. The federal government procrastinated on a new vessel liner subsidy program, even though the program, which was central to the continued survival of the U.S. maritime industry, had begun to expire.
Anti-maritime groups began targeting core industry programs, particularly the Jones Act and cargo preference. While support for the Jones Act remained steady during the decade, agricultural groups were able to mount a serious challenge to the Cargo Preference Act of 1954. The MTD and its affiliated unions played a leading role in bringing about a compromise between maritime and agricultural groups on the issue.
Despite these tense conditions, maritime workers were able to survive the decade in decent enough style. MTD-affiliated unions representing shipyard and shipboard workers were able to take advantage of the tremendous increase in Naval construction and a restructuring of the federal procurement process to save tens of thousands of vitally important maritime jobs. Shipboard unions continued to invest heavily in their training facilities and began establishing an important foundation for a productive new working relationship with the Department of Defense.
When Michael Sacco became president of the MTD in June 1988, he already was very well acquainted with the department’s work in the nation’s capital and at the grassroots level.
Under the direction of Paul Hall in the 1960s in New York, Sacco walked picket lines and passed out so many cups of coffee from that Port Council’s van that he lost count. When the Seafarers assigned him to Maryland in the 1970s, Sacco participated in the department’s luncheons and seminars for congressional, administration and government officials in the shadow of the White House. Working in St. Louis during the 1980s, he was one of four area Labor officials instrumental in revitalizing that city’s Port Maritime Council (PMC).
Shortly after he took over, U.S. military activity in the Middle East reminded Americans how important U.S.-flag shipping is to the national defense and the economy.
As American forces were sent to free Kuwait from Saddam Hussain’s Iraq in 1991, military planners thought they could rely on vessels owned by Americans but registered overseas and crewed by foreign mariners. The nation soon discovered the difference between those ships and the ones sailing under Old Glory crewed by American-civilian mariners. As the head of the U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force General Hansford Johnson, told the MTD Executive Board in February 1991, “We literally had a steel bridge across the ocean. I cannot find a more patriotic group in America than the men and women you represent.” Meanwhile, reports began surfacing about the foreign crews on several foreign-flag vessels refusing to deliver goods needed by the fighting forces.
This was the opening salvo in the effort to revitalize the U.S.-flag fleet.
“An active fleet contributes to the economy,” stated Sacco. “It creates jobs and raises revenue through corporate and personal income taxes. It doesn’t drain the Treasury into a sinkhole.”
In 1992, the George H.W. Bush administration offered legislation to address the needs of the U.S.-flag fleet. For the next five years, operating with two different White Houses and three different Congresses, the MTD and its affiliates worked with Democrats and Republicans to pass the Maritime Security Act of 1996. Though reluctant to take public credit, Sacco was widely recognized behind the scenes as an especially forceful, effective proponent of the measure.
The MTD launched a nationwide grassroots campaign in 1993 to “Keep America’s Flag Flying” to bring local attention to the industry. During the 1993 MTD Convention, Sacco declared, “The futures of the U.S.-flag merchant marine and domestic shipbuilding are at stake.”
That same year, longtime MTD Secretary-Treasurer Jean Ingrao retired. Prior to her leaving, the department reached its all-time high of 44 affiliates before mergers among the unions reduced the number. MTD Administrator Frank Pecquex moved up and continued the Washington lobbying effort for mariners and the industry. Pecquex had served as a lobbyist for the Seafarers before coming to the MTD in 1991.
Strong bipartisan support carried the legislation across the finish line. In signing the measure, President Bill Clinton said, “It will ensure that the United States will continue to have American-flag ships crewed by loyal American citizen merchant mariners to meet our nation’s economic and sealift defense requirements.”
The Maritime Security Act of 1996 established the Maritime Security Program (MSP) to allow the Defense Department access to militarily useful U.S.-flag commercial vessels as well as their infrastructure support system in times of conflict or national emergency. Since its passage, the MSP proved its value during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Its original 10-year calendar has been extended into the 2030s and it has been expanded to include more U.S.-flag ships.
Sacco told the MTD Executive Board during its 1997 meeting, “Last year, despite terrible odds, we won a Maritime Security Program to take us into the 21st century… Our grassroots lobbying efforts turned the tide. And just as we mobilized for the Maritime Security Act, we will be there for the Jones Act.”
One historical account of the altercation reported, “In Desert Shield/Desert Storm, more than 350 ships in more than 500 voyages supported the multilateral coalition … delivering an average of 42,000 tons of cargo each day …
“At the height of the shipping activity, there was a ship every 50 miles—a steel bridge—along an 8,000-mile sea lane between the United States and the Persian Gulf. U.S.-flag ships—both privately owned and government vessels operated by U.S. companies—manned by U.S. citizen-seafarers carried 79 percent of all seaborne cargoes. Sealift accounted for 85 percent of all dry cargo transported to the war zone.”
U.S. civilian mariners were highly praised by military figures during and after the war for their professionalism, patriotism and skill. As Colin Powell, who then was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted, “Since I became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, I have come to appreciate first-hand why our merchant marine has long been called the nation’s fourth arm of defense …
“The American seafarer provides an essential service to the well-being of the nation, as was demonstrated so clearly during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.”
As throughout the MTD’s 75 years, pressure continues to amend or do away with the nation’s freight cabotage law. Passed as part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act simply states that cargo carried from one domestic port to another domestic port must be aboard a U.S.-owned, U.S.-built, U.S.-flag, U.S.-crewed vessel. Cabotage has been part of the nation’s heritage since its founding. At the 2018 MTD Executive Board meeting, the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation released a study that more than 90 countries have some sort of cabotage laws to protect their workers and support their economies.
Yet, there remain those who believe foreign-flag vessels should be used because they would save money. During 1995, the MTD joined a national coalition of unions, shipowners, suppliers and shipbuilders to create the Maritime Cabotage Task Force. With more than 400 members, this group still keeps its focus on any-and-all attempts to attack the law, including amendments buried within international trade agreements.
This fight is not limited to the United States. Canadian affiliates and Port Councils created the Canadian Maritime and Supply Chain Coalition in 2014 to preserve that nation’s cabotage laws. MTD Executive Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Duncan (who succeeded Pecquex in 2011) joined brothers and sisters outside the Parliament building in Ottawa in a march of support.
Following Pecquex’s retirement as Executive Secretary-Treasurer in 2011, Sacco picked Duncan because of his grassroots Labor experience in Florida and Virginia. On his first day in the position, Duncan marched in southwestern Pennsylvania through rain, sleet and snow with MTD-affiliated Mine Workers and Steelworkers fighting for worker safety and pension reform.
In January 2021, the MTD witnessed how its years of grassroots support for elected officials who back the Jones Act came to fruition. In his first week in office, President Joe Biden issued his “Buy American” executive order, which included language that he “will continue to be a strong advocate for the Jones Act and its mandate that only U.S.-flag vessels carry cargo between U.S. ports, which supports American production and America’s workers.” As a U.S. Senator and Vice President, Biden (who spoke at the 1987 MTD Executive Board meeting) maintained solid support for American mariners.
Following the example set during the fight for the Maritime Security Program, Sacco and the MTD won Congressional approval for a U.S.-flag Tanker Security Program. This would provide the Defense Department access to petroleum-hauling vessels that it has publicly declared are needed to maintain forces around the world. A similar program for a Cable Security Fleet also was created around the same time to maintain and repair the country’s submarine cable infrastructure.
As an additional legislative victory, long-exploited loopholes in the Jones Act were closed for good in the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act thanks to the hard work of the MTD and its allies.
Following this wave of achievements, Sacco retired from leadership of the MTD in February 2023 as the longest-serving president in the department’s history. He was succeeded by a fellow Seafarer, David Heindel. Duncan also stepped down later that year, with MTD Administrator Mark Clements taking his place as Executive Secretary-Treasurer.
From walking with striking Eastern Air Lines Machinists and flight crews at airports around the country in 1989-90 to operating drive-through food banks for laid-off union members during the COVID crisis, Port Councils continue to answer the bell. Many of the formal PMC dinners of the late 20th century have given way to outdoor activities (including golf and sport shooting) to raise funds for charities and scholarships. Following the hurricanes and earthquakes that devastated Puerto Rico last decade, Port Councils worked with affiliates and their communities to gather and rush vital goods to the island.
The value of the PMCs’ community efforts comes alive when the U.S.-flag maritime industry is under attack. The network springs into action by writing, calling and visiting their local elected officials to remind them maritime is not just a federal issue. It affects the local daily economy. Such has been the effect of Port Council activities within their jurisdictions that legislation proposed to attack the Jones Act or cargo preference has been thwarted before even being introduced.
Heindel, Clements, and the Department have made sure maritime and its issues remain at the forefront. As the slogan for the department’s 75th anniversary proclaims – “Anchored in the past, full ahead toward the future!” – the MTD, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils continue the work of promoting the U.S.-flag and Canadian-flag merchant marine, their workers, their families and the whole maritime industry. The names may change, the issues may vary, but the cause endures and the values remain.