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Susan Green

Bosses, Mayor Combine Against Tug Strikers

(18 February 1946)

From Labor Action, Vol. X No. 7, 18 February 1946, p. 4.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

Nobody in New York City could see it with his own eyes, but every New Yorker was solemnly assured that ruin, worse than that inflicted upon Hiroshima by the atom bomb, had been visited upon the city by the 3,500 striking independent tugboat workers of the harbor. Yet on February 11, the eighth day of the strike, on which day they succumbed to the terrific pressure exerted on them and are reported to have consented to arbitration, there is still ample coal in the city, still a supply of fuel oil, no curtailment of food except by the black market and if the subways have been cold, this is certainly not the first time.

The 3,500 members of the United Marine Division of the AFL International Longshoremen’s Association (King Joe Ryan’s union) refused to accept the niggardly five and ten cent hourly increases offered by the tugboat owners and walked off the tugs on Monday, February 4. The men were asking for hourly increases for unlicensed deckhands to bring their wage to $1.35 from 67–72 cents, and for licensed mates, engineers and skippers to bring their wage to $1.57–$1.83 from $1.10–$1.42. These demands need to be understood in light of the fact that during the war these men did not receive a single raise. The other major demand was for a forty-hour week with time and a halt for overtime. This demand also can be understood only in light of the fact that the men worked as many as 72 and 80 hours on straight time.

On Wednesday, February 6, the federal government “took over” the tugs and demanded that the men return to work. Recognizing this as the usual strike-breaking move by the government, the men voted two to one to “Let Truman steer the tugs.” Truman couldn’t do it. The four hundred struck tugs remained docked. But the Army and Navy operated about forty-five of their own tugs, and the city added about five to that number.

On Friday, February 8, Ryan and other top union officials, over the heads of the strike committee, submitted terms to the strikers that had been agreed upon with the tug owners in a day-long conference. The sell-out didn’t work. Again two to one, the men voted down the proposition for a fifteen-cent hourly increase with no mention of the forty-hour week, but with the tidbit of a two-week paid vacation after three years of service.

Not only did the men vote this insult down, but they were plenty sore. Captain Bassett, head of the strike committee, is reported to have resigned. The indignation around the voting hall ran high. Unlicensed deckhands told reporters of having to work from 72 to 80 hours a week to get $50 take-home pay. Veteran skippers declared they were fed up. “They impose on us at every turn,” the men said. “Sometimes we are relieved on our boats as far away as New Haven and Providence, and we have to come home on our own time and at our own expense.”

A Good Strike

Just what went on behind the closed doors at Manhattan Center on February 11, when the men are reported to have accepted arbitration, is not known. It is known that King Joe Ryan went into the meeting “certain as anything can be” that the men would go along. On February 10, union officials, employers, federal agents and the calamity-howling mayor of the city convened and brought forth the hoary arbitration idea, the terms of which are: return to work, wage agreement to be retroactive to January 1, government to lift its seizure of the tugs. At last report, the tugboat OWNERS are holding out against arbitration but the heat is still on the strikers with the mayor’s scabby scare announcements.

This has been a good strike. The men recognized the strike-breaking tactics of government seizure and didn’t fall for them. They recognized the sell-out offered them by Ryan and voted it down. And their militancy bucked a vicious, lying, over-dramatized anti-strike campaign participated in by even the so-called “friends of labor.” Mayor O’Dwyer beat his chest and pulled his hair in public, ordered a brown-out, closed the schools and reopened them, and carried on ceaselessly. Radio newscasters spoke as if hospital patients were freezing in their beds. The New York Post, supposed to be liberal and pro-labor, with supreme hypocrisy editorialized that to continue the strike “is to give every citizen of New York, however sympathetic to labor, a vested interest in anti-unionism.”

The strikers realized that the picture was being over-painted to bring pressure upon them and to create anti-strike sentiment. The hardship story was fabricated. The strikers said that the city could get fuel oil with its tugs and barges. As for coal, the railroad tugs, not on strike, normally carry the city’s supply. The strikers were substantiated by impartial shipping men who affirmed that most of the city’s coal was hauled on railroad barges throughout the war.

But suppose the strike of these aggrieved essential workers were to have brought real inconvenience to that “New York citizen.” It is high time for him to place the blame for such inconvenience where it belongs. Definitely not on the workers who did not get a raise throughout the high-profit-high-price war period, who worked up to 72 and 80 hours a week on straight time, who today have to work that long to get $50 weekly take-home pay, who endure other impositions at the hands of the tugboat owners.

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