August, 2000, Vol. 123, No. 8
Book reviews from past issues
Maritime Solidarity, Pacific Coast Unionism: 1929–1938. By Ottilie Markholt. Tacoma, WA, Pacific Coast Maritime History Committee, 1999, 461 pp. $19.95.
From a lifetime of work in the labor movement as both a chronicler and an activist, Ottilie Markholt has assembled a massive and detailed historical log of Pacific Coast maritime unionism in its most explosive years. Almost all of the men and women who lived and struggled in that era have since passed away, so swiftly does history move along. Thus, Markholt’s book is a valuable recapture of maritime history drawn from oral histories, union journals, daily newspapers, employers’ internal documents, and government records.
From 1939 to 1942, Markholt worked on compiling a history of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific. Realizing how incomplete the history of one union alone would be, for the next half century, she pursued the history of all West Coast maritime unions, their cycles of victory and defeat, their interunion conflicts, their battles with employers, as well as the role played by government, from the President of the United States to the local sheriff.
The author was in a unique position to observe and record this chronicle: first, she had worked as a Communist Party organizer; and second, later in life, she served as an office secretary to both a labor council and an office workers’ union. The early years of the 20th century saw numerous struggles between labor and management, and Markholt came to share with the maritime workers their disillusionment with the ideals espoused by communists and their frustration with the failure of unions. Hope for "One Big Union" died early.
But the book is not a moralizing discourse of the author’s beliefs or ultimate disenchantment with the movement. It is a straightforward and mostly-objective account of the unions’ leadership and the interaction among rank-and-file ships’ crews, longshoremen, and waterfront teamsters.
In seaports extending northward from San Diego to Seattle, workers had struggled to build unions since well before 1929. The book documents the efforts of seamen and longshoremen, who were working throughout the last decades of the 19th century to gain control over their general working conditions, such as the means by which workers were hired, the size of the work crew, their hours of work, and their compensation. The poorly-paid seamen suffered greatly: they were ill-fed, they lived in crowded, vermin-infested spaces, they were ruled by tyrannical officers, and they were ignored by the law and the government. Those who protested were blacklisted.
They first organized in March of 1885, and by 1919, longshoremen had successfully unionized all West Coast seaports. But by the end of the so-called Roaring 20s—after a series of broken strikes—only Tacoma remained a union port. For longshoremen and seamen it was back to fink halls, blacklists, corruption, and selling of jobs. The Great Depression only made conditions worse. During this time period, Markholt reports, neither cooperation with the employers, which was the route of the seamen’s union, nor the tactics of either the IWW Wobblies or the communists could prevent erosion of wages and working conditions. The communists sought, primarily, to advance the party; the Wobblies refused to sign contracts, choosing instead the guerrilla warfare of job actions.
Markholt weaves well the growing sense of outrage and anguish that brought about the historic 1934 strike, which ended the corrupt practices of the fink hall and its accompanying blacklisting fink book. Despite employer threats of retribution, seamen left their ships, longshoremen respected their lines, and teamsters refused to haul cargo. The employers responded with strikebreakers, resulting in the murder of unarmed pickets. Thousands of strikers fought pitched battles against a police force armed with tear gas and riot guns. When the government finally called out the National Guard, the unions issued a general strike call. Workers in other industries, sympathetic to labor’s cause, closed down lumber and flour mills, logging camps, and scores of other types of workplaces. More than 100,000 workers struck, and eventually maritime operations on the West Coast were shut down.
Success brought creation of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific. The unions declared that unified action would be taken against employers whenever any member union was attacked. But there would be no political action, no labor party. Federation solidarity was demonstrated in the 3-month long 1936–37 strike in which all of the maritime unions gained many of their demands. But where the employers failed, a series of expulsions and interunion conflicts shredded the federation and ended its effectiveness.
Emergence of the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) transformed the West Coast unions, as each one chose sides with either the American Federation of Labor (AFL) or the CIO, a situation Markholt reports in painstaking detail. The end result was the dissolution of the Maritime Federation.
Maritime Solidarity in many ways parallels another labor history project, Working Detroit, by Steve Babson. That inland city’s waterfront handled the lumber, the coal, and the iron ore that created the industrial era of the motor car. The Great Lakes’ maritime industry soon became captive to the interests of the steel and auto companies, while ashore, the craft unions gradually dissolved into the rote assembly lines of auto production. There, too, the struggle for unionism was waged amid strikes and bloodshed. Both books take particular pains to include the extraordinary problems of African-American unionists. Working Detroit also includes the struggles of the woman industrial worker.
The end of World War II brought grave, new challenges to West Coast maritime unions: the massive downsizing of the U.S. merchant fleet and cargo containerization, to name two. Hopefully, the post-1939 era will have as capable and dedicated a chronicler as Ottilie Markholt.
Formerly with the AFL-CIO
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