Maritime labor is mourning the loss of Gordon W. Spencer, who played an important role in many of the MTD’s early organizing drives and who later represented the industry on Capitol Hill for many years. He was 86.
Born in Australia, Spencer, who sailed as a marine engineer in the Norwegian and U.S. merchant fleets in World II, was recruited by former MTD President Paul Hall to give the AFL a presence among licensed marine engineers. Spencer played a crucial role in helping to establish the Brotherhood of Marine Engineers (BME), which received a charter from the Seafarers International Union of North America (SIU) in 1949. The union, which later evolved into District 2 of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association, now goes by the name of the American Maritime Officers (AMO).
Spencer specialized in organizing tug fleets. According to AMO, he negotiated “contracts that included the first-ever health insurance and retirement benefits for tug officers and crews. He also helped organize deep-sea fleets as a representative of both the BME and the SIU.”
Spencer established a close working relationship with Ray McKay, the late president of the BME, who later appointed him as the union’s legislative director in Washington. He worked diligently to establish bipartisan coalitions to implement and preserve vitally important maritime programs, including cargo preference and the Jones Act.
“Gordon Spencer was in Washington with Paul Hall and Ray McKay during the battles for the Cargo Preference Act of 1954 and the PL-480 ‘Food for Peace’ program that same year,” AMO National President Tom Bethel said. Bethel, who also heads the Greater South Florida Maritime Trades Council, added, “He made a compelling case for U.S. merchant ships carrying government cargoes in the interests of national security and diplomatic dividend, and American merchant mariners remain at work today because of the work Gordon Spencer did on these issues.”
Spencer’s ability to work with members of Congress from both sides of the aisle was instrumental in helping the U.S. maritime industry weather attacks by special interest groups intent on dismantling the Jones Act, America’s preeminent cabotage law.
Bethel also cited Spencer’s behind-the-scenes leadership as a principal factor in Congressional approval of the Maritime Security Act of 1996.
“Maritime labor owes a great debt to the selfless determination of Gordon Spender,” said MTD President Michael Sacco. “His life is testimony that one person can indeed make a difference.”