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Brass Tacks


Ever since Harry Lundeberg led the A. F. of L. Seamen down the plank to the most concerted strike effort since the railway debacle, the public has been aware that this was no ordinary strike. No one seemed to be talking about company profits or dictatorial union practices. It seemed that the seamen wanted more money and the companies were willing enough to give it to them, but that Washington, the wettest blanket at a sweet party, had said a lond and determined No.

Behind this loud negative was a long history of the decline of the American Merchant Marine as a paying proposition, and a growing need for government subsidy to keep American ships afloat, carrying the American flag, and transporting American cargoes. It has long been common knowledge that American goods could reach Europe and the Far East most cheaply aboard freighters carrying the British, Dutch, or Norwegian flags. Further, it has taken no great investigation to link the high standards of life aboard American ships to the high cost of shipping on these same vessels. Forced by union agreement and the realization that sailors are, after all, human beings, American shipping, companies went into peacetime decline, caught inextricably between high costs and fierce-foreign competition.

With the Kaiser-Liberty ship bonanza, the government went into the shipping business full time. It was a temptation at the outset to attach the Merchant Marine training program, already under government control, to an expanded Merchant fleet, constructed under government expense, in a nationalized Merchant Navy along the lines of the British scheme. The fearsome prospect of financing a gigantic post-war merchant marine with pre-war deficit-subsidy black magic was like nursing an infant until it was in long pants. The problem of training personnel, of maintaining close supervision over shipping movements and dispositions, would have been simplified. Or at least seemed so.

It was at this point that the strange romance began. Casting aside the hard-boiled lessons of the violent '36 strike, turning volte face from the most hard-bitten mistrust of capital that thoroughly left-wing unionism can breed, the maritime unions looked to the shipping companies for aid and solace in the face of the most imposing rival their organizations had ever faced--the government. The fine hands of the potent labor lobby and the equally powerful shipping bloc can be seen in the two-way squeeze applied to the Merchant Navy idea (abandoned in the first year of the war), government control over personnel training (abandoned for a joint government-union program) and public ownership of the ships, themselves. This last phase of the "planned" wartime program gave way to a tangled arrangement whereby Liberties and later Victory ships were chartered to private shipping firms as a prelude to eventual purchase.

During the War, the CIO's National Maritime Union and the A. F. of L.'s Seamen's International Union and Sailor's Union of the Pacific managed to keep whatever strife occurred with the companies entirely within the family. When the sailors "hit the bricks" in June of this year the companies looked to Washington to find out how much the government would subsidize them, so that they could, in turn, give their sailors a wage boost.

In June, Washington was amenable. Now it is not so pliable. It knows that the Wage Stabilization Board is not acting as referee to two outside parties, but realistically determining how much of the taxpayer's money is to be spent in underwriting seamen's pay (still low according to American standards) and company profits. And every time jolting Joe Curran and Harry Lundeberg feel itchy and sailors on the nation's waterfronts tumble off the ships, they cast a longing thought back over the hectic thirties. For then the villian was rich, boated and all capitalist, and not wearing red, white and blue suspenders.

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