'Honorably Arrested': The Irish Behind the National Maritime Union

By Joe Doyle / Special to The Wild Geese

(Left: Seamen in hiring hall, National Maritime Union. New York City, New York - December 1941, from Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library, New York University)

The National Maritime Union has twin claims to fame. First and foremost, it broke the color line in American shipping.  Until the NMU, founded in 1937, demanded employment opportunities regardless of race -- African Americans could only work in the stewards department of American ships – cooking and cleaning for the crew. Second, NMU crews provided a lifeline of supplies to our wartime allies during World War II, despite Nazi U-boats which sent 1000s of NMU seamen to a watery grave in the first six months of World War II (before convoys were organized to provide some protection for merchant ships).

Three Irish-born merchant seamen, and a half-dozen Irish-Americans played leading roles in forming the NMU. 

Mayo-born, I.R.A.-veteran Jimmy Gavin helped build the NMU after a three-year stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, where his efforts to unionize the Coast Guard got him assigned to “ice-patrol” duties in the North Atlantic – the Coast Guard equivalent to being sent to Siberia.  Gavin (right, in a 1986 photo from Archives of Irish America, Tamiment Library, New York University) wrote a memorable poem describing the experience, “Up Where the Ice Begins.”  Gavin claimed that it was the sight of the starved corpse of one of his Coast Guard Ice Patrol buddies that stirred him to action in 1931 to join the NMU’s forerunner, the Marine Workers Industrial Union.  Gavin organized aboard ships, soapboxed at street corners, and was a stalwart on the picket lines and a gifted fund-raiser during the two three-month strikes in 1936 that built the NMU.

Belfast-born John Quigley Robinson, played a key role in the strikes leading up to the founding of the National Maritime Union -- feeding and housing homeless strikers, and coordinating an army of seamen “shaking the can” at subway stops around New York City soliciting donations to keep the strikes alive.  Robinson had a humorous recollection of addressing a meeting of New York City transit workers in the years before they coalesced into the Transport Workers Union.  Mike Quill (who a short time later was elected president of the TWU) was sharing speaker’s duties that night – and introduced Robinson as “a man who shared the faith of [Wolfe] Tone.”  Robinson was asked to recruit 200 guys to fight in Spain in the famed International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War.  He commanded a machine gun company almost comprised entirely of merchant seamen, before being asked to fill in as battalion commissar.

Dublin-born Jack Lawrenson was phenomenally bright, a gifted orator, and a brilliant organizer.  He coaxed money out of Park Avenue gatherings for strike relief; rallied seamen at public gatherings; strategized to keep the notoriously independent-minded ranks of merchant seamen strong and united; and once the union was established, as vice president, and publicity director of the NMU, commissioned/seamen artists to portray the hardships merchant seamen endured before the NMU transformed life aboard the ships.  A sampling of illustrations from some of these Lawrenson-inspired pamphlets (see example, left) produced for World War II-era seamen can be glimpsed at HERE.

Undeterred by assaults, and bullets

Irish American Bob McElroy grew up on the pristine white sand beaches of Wildwood, New Jersey.  But a characteristically intemperate remark by McElroy -- to the nun teaching his 4th grade religion class -- earned him a haymaker from the good nun.  McElory picked himself off the floor, walked out of his parochial school forever, and at age 9 found work on a Norwegian-American fishing trawler, based in Wildwood, New Jersey.  By the age of 15, McElroy was not only an accomplished seaman, but a committed trade unionist.  He missed many meals, spent time in jail “honorably arrested” for strike duty during the 1934 West Coast strike that paved the way for the NMU’s East-Coast organizing, hopped freight trains to spread the “gospel” of the need for a rank-and-file controlled seamen’s union, and ultimately was ushered into an anteroom of FDR’s oval office to appeal – successfully -- for redress of a federal law that might have scuttled seamen’s efforts build an honest union for themselves. 

McElroy’s vision of rank-and-file democracy was nearly eclipsed in 1938-1939, when racketeers briefly seized control of the NMU.  However, with a combination of good luck and willpower, McElroy turned the tables on the racketeers.  McElroy was assaulted by racketeers, as he exited an NMU membership meeting (at which he had tried, unsuccessfully, to warn his fellow union members of the racketeer takeover).  Mauled but still on his feet, McElroy “got in a few lucky punches,” evaded his attackers, walked back into the union meeting, demanded the microphone, and with his scalp bleeding profusely (Eyewitness Joe Stack claimed McElroy “looked like a chicken with his head cut off.”), denounced the racketeers so effectively -- that the racketeers got up out of their seats to caucus.  “It looked like the rats leaving a ship,” claimed McElroy.  Lawrenson and honest NMU leaders seized the window of opportunity McElroy’s heroics afforded them to rid the union of the racketeering faction.  The racketeers misdeeds were chronicled in a book, "The Labor Spy Racket", by Columbia University Professor Leo Huberman, who later became NMU education director.

An NMU official, beloved among rank-and-file seamen, Frederick Nelson “Blackie” Myers, Vice President in charge of organization, earned the nickname “Swiss cheese” Myers in the founding years of the NMU -- boarding a ship rife with scabs – and catching several bullets in the process.  Fortunately none caused lasting harm.  Myers claimed Irish American ancestry -- and famously danced a jig on the stage of an NMU meeting to celebrate the announcement of NMU president Joseph Curran’s first-born son.

Irishman Patrick “Paddy” Whalen was NMU port agent in Baltimore.  He died in a torpedo attack in 1942 and a Liberty Ship was named in his honor.  Hoboken-born, Hells Kitchen-raised Bill Bailey helped lay the groundwork for the NMU in New York – and famously tore the swastika from the German trans-Atlantic liner the Bremen in 1935. 

In short, Irishmen and Irish Americans played a leading role in creating one of the most progressive labor unions in the Congress of Industrial Organizations - the National Maritime Union. WG

LINKS:

Mary Harris Jones: One Tough 'Mother' - Part 1 of 3: The Genesis of...

Why Unions: Art from the National Maritime Union

Listen to Jimmy Gavin tell the story of Booty the Cat: A Sea Story from in interview done in 1989.

Fighting Jim Crow on the High Seas

National Maritime Union - Wikipedia

Views: 1210

Tags: Bob McElroy, Jack Lawrenson, Jimmy Gavin, John Quigley Robinson, Mike Quill, NMU, National Maritime Union, Patrick Whalen , Patrick “Paddy” Whalen, labor unions

Comment by Jim Curley on September 2, 2013 at 1:36pm
Great stuff, Joe. Thanks for educating me.
Comment by Jim Goulding on September 2, 2013 at 2:03pm

Another fascinating chapter of Irish involvement in the American labor movement! Thanks for your installment.

Comment by Gerry Regan on September 3, 2013 at 10:48am

Fellows, glad you spent time with this article. Joe Doyle is a superb resource on the subject of the National Maritime Union.

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