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A Union You Could Believe In

The proud anti-communist history of the Seafarers' International Union.

12:00 AM, Apr 14, 2009 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Amsterdam

In thwarting the Somali pirates, the brave and efficient crew of the Maersk Alabama, led by their modest and heroic captain Richard Phillips, have shown an excellent example of American citizenship and maritime pride, as has the management of Maersk Shipping Line. These sailors have a backstory with lessons for today.

Last week we learned that 12 crew members belonged to the Seafarers' International Union (SIU). The SIU is one of the last effective industrial unions in the country. But it also embodies a determination visible at its origins: The SIU was founded in 1938 specifically to block the widening control of the American maritime labor movement by Soviet agents.

This is no Cold War fantasy. During the 1930s, American dockworkers and sailors lined up behind two groups: the apparatus of the Communist party and an alliance of ordinary union members and anti-Stalinist labor radicals. One of the latter called the Communists "the sailors who sail the sailors." But the union seamen were reluctant to submit to Moscow.

Thus the National Maritime Union was formed under Communist domination in 1937, and the SIU created as its opponent. The rivalry was bloody: Communist goon squads ambushed SIU organizers and their allies, calling them "Trotskyites"--the favorite Soviet insult of the day. And the SIU did have some Trotskyist supporters. Some of the seagoing anti-Stalinists were allegedly killed by Communists, who utilized a simple shipboard method: pushing dissenters overboard.

The SIU and the union representing the Maersk Alabama's officers, the Masters,' Mates,' and Pilots' (MMP) produced a further significant cohort of anti-Communist but militant labor leaders. These included many future luminaries of the AFL-CIO, which served as a center of anti-Soviet labor activism in America through the rise of Polish Solidarity and fall of the Berlin wall, the vote against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, and a failed Stalinist Russian coup. But the end of anti-totalitarian politics in the AFL-CIO came when former MMP member and merchant marine officer Lane Kirkland was replaced as the labor federation's president by the unions' current placeholder, John Sweeney.

While Kirkland and Sweeney were both supporters of the Democratic party, Kirkland was a partisan of engagement with the democratizing stream of history, as represented by Solidarity--Kirkland was also a founder of the anti-Soviet Committee on the Present Danger (CPD). Sweeney, by contrast, has proven amenable to anti-American propaganda and anti-democratic intrigue. During the 1930s, the anti-Stalinist friends of the Seafarers remarked on how, in a depressing anticipation of today's "card-check" unionization scheme, comrades of the Communists inside the Roosevelt administration's Labor Department imposed union representation by fiat. Communist-controlled unions, including in the maritime field, were among the most corrupt and undemocratic in the history of American labor. The anti-Stalinists accused the Roosevelt administration of turning the unions into a "concentration camp for the workers." Stalinist tactics then, and "card-check" today, drain the labor movement of their historic function as a "school for democracy."

The SIU, however, featured a number of tough leaders who did not ask for special treatment from the federal authorities and who would brook no accommodation with the "liberal" blandishments of the Communists. They included Andrew Furuseth and Harry Lundeberg, Norwegian immigrants who fought hard for the rights of seamen and for respectable working conditions. The SIU later produced Morris Weisberger, who bled under the blows of Communist goons but stood up for Japanese-American mariners unjustly interned during the second world war.

The old spirit of the SIU is today as little known as the California shipping trade described in Richard Henry Dana's Two Years Before the Mast or the details of whaling recounted in Moby-Dick. Academic labor historians acclaim the Communist misleaders in the maritime labor movement as sublime, progressive martyrs, and consign the real history of American sailors and their unions to the Orwellian memory hole.

The dramatic events in the seas of Somalia have reminded all Americans that our country possesses a worthy history as a maritime power known for skill, courage, and patriotism. The NAVY Seals who rescued Capt. Phillips deserve recognition, along with the crew.