Labor historians Marcus Rediker and Peter Linebaugh have vividly described how sailors and other maritime workers were in the vanguard of the creation of an international working class. Unlike most people in the early modern period who largely stayed rooted to the soil of their birth or tied closely to their particular artisanal enterprises, Jack Tars were highly mobile. They saw the world and robustly took in its pleasures and dangers. They brought stories of exotic places, along with parrots and monkeys, back home with them. The maritime work force was also highly multinational and multi-cultural. “Workers of the world unite” was not just some abstract feel-good Marxist slogan but fit the everyday class experience of these tough workers.
Moreover, well before the rise of the textile mills and other industrial factories on land that Marx and Engels thought would be where the new class consciousness would arise, they worked on what were essentially floating capitalist factories whose functioning involved a high degree of coordination. Sailors made use of the fact that they needed to work together for the ships to run to rebel against oppressive conditions. The word “strike,” which has such importance in the whole history of the labor movement, derives from the practice of sailors striking sails to stop the ship from moving until their demands for better wages and working conditions were met.
Despite the fluid and intermittent character of their employment, sailors on ocean-going merchant ships and on-shore workers organized some of the most militant and progressive unions in the modern labor movement. In some maritime unions, the IWW and later the Communist Party won considerable rank-and-file influence and some leadership positions by their steadfastness as tribunes of the people and by not hiding their aims — although there were constant battles with right-wing sellout union officials and, on the East Coast, gangster thugs.
One of the main ways that the 1% has been able to stay on top all these years is through the segmentation of the workforce and pitting parts of the 99% against each other along racial and ethnic lines. This was no less true on the water and waterfront. But there are positive examples of maritime workers overcoming such divisions for the common cause. Peter Cole in Wobblies on the Waterfront has recovered the remarkable lost history of interracial unionism built among black and white, native-born and immigrant longshoremen in the IWW Local 8 in Philadelphia during the early 20th century. The Communist-led Marine Cooks and Stewards Union also took a strong stand against racism when some other marine unions were excluding blacks and Asians.
The West Coast International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) was, in its heyday during the 1930s and 40s, one of the best ever of all U.S. labor unions (and it’s still a pretty decent one). As described by my old college teacher, Charles “Lash” Larrowe, in his fine, it-should-be-back-in-print biography subtitled “The Rise and Fall of Radical Labor in the U.S.,” it was led intelligently and resolutely by the tough Australian-born Communist Harry Bridges. The ILWU took from the Wobblies its official slogan: “An Injury to One Is an Injury to All.” Down through the years, it has undertaken numerous acts of international solidarity including boycotting ships from apartheid South Africa and ones going to repressive U.S.-supported regimes in Chile and El Salvador. In 1997, they shut down West Coast docks for a day in solidarity with their fellow dockworkers who were facing union-busting in Liverpool, England.
Harvey Schwartz has collected a wonderful set of oral history interviews with members of the ILWU, past and present, in a book appropriately entitled Solidarity Stories. For a project on “proletarian internationalism” — the historical knowledge of which I think badly needs to be resurrected now that we as a global social and economic justice movement are thinking once again about how a New World beyond capitalism might be possible — I have been reading stories like that and memoirs written by a variety of working-class radicals in the 20th Century. Let me tell you about one of those memoirs, the remarkable story of Bill Bailey the red sailor.
Bailey was born in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1911. A bright boy, he grew up hungry and shoeless in tough Irish immigrant working-class neighborhoods and was often in scrapes with the law. At age 14, he began working on ocean-going ships. His earliest exposure to revolutionary working-class ideas came on one of his voyages when he accidentally picked up and began reading a copy of the IWW’s Industrial Worker that somebody had left behind. During the Great Depression, when sailor jobs were extremely hard to find, he rode the rails from one end of the country to the other with other hobos looking for work. In 1934 he joined the Communist-led Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and became an organizer for the union in NYC and Baltimore. To protest the imprisonment in Germany of an anti-Nazi American sailor, Bailey with some other sailor buddies made an international news splash by ripping down the swastika off the bow of a German passenger ship docked in New York. After more waterfront organizing in San Francisco and Hawaii, he joined the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and shipped off to Spain to fight alongside workers from other countries against fascism. Upon returning from Spain, he resumed work as an on-shore labor organizer and then volunteered to go to sea as a sailor on dangerous merchant supply voyages in the Pacific during World War II. Throughout it all, Bailey was motivated by his strong sense of class solidarity.
Does “proletarian internationalism” as such belong to a dead and gone historical era, as Hardt and Negri have argued in favor of their “multitude” concept that takes its place? Perhaps. The nature of work has been transformed. In the case of maritime work, containerization has long since replaced many workers doing dockwork. Huge cargo ships or oil tankers can now carry crews of as few as a dozen. But there is still a hell of a lot of value to be learned in this history of workers (and their supporters) who saw themselves not only as fighting for their particular economic interests on the job but also as part of a great international emancipatory movement.
Thinking and acting globally gave past labor struggles a greater forcefulness, just as the Occupy Movement draws strength today from the Arab Spring and the Spanish indignados. Compared to the latter, the power of the labor movement is that it was both visible in the streets and public squares and was rooted in production and thus could throw a wrench or walk off the job to bring work — and possibly on a larger scale through a General Strike, the System — to a halt. If the labor movement is going to survive and make a difference in the age of extreme capital mobility, it is going to have to relearn how to operate much more again on an international level. There are some hopeful efforts in that direction, although the time is running late. And Occupy-type social movements, while building international connections and solidarity, are going to have to find the leverage points, wherever they are now, in the current capitalist political economy.
Jay Moore is a radical historian who lives and teaches (when he can find work) in rural Vermont.