Home / General / This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915

This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915


On March 4, 1915, President Woodrow Wilson signed the LaFollette Seamen’s Act, creating standards for working conditions on boats that the U.S. would enforce on all ships stopping at American ports, whether under American flags or not. It was not only a major early victory for American labor but is strong evidence behind the assertion that Woodrow Wilson is the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.

In the early 20th century, working conditions on ships were dire. Many ships were barely seaworthy. Sanitation on the ships was grotesque. A race to the bottom developed in sailing as manufacturers looked to reduce their transportation costs. In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent. Seamen called for “emancipation” from their shipowners. Penalties against desertion were still draconian. Although flogging had largely ended in the mid 19th century, punishing sailors in stocks and other forms of physical coercion were still common. They wanted the right to walk away from their contracts because of the near slavery of shipboard life. They were presently bound to their 1-3 year contracts with penalty of imprisonment and forfeiture of all wages if they deserted. Effectively, they lacked the ability to quit their jobs.

Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907 when they allied against the prosecution of Union Labor Party leader Abe Ruef for graft. LaFollette began to introduce the bill every Congress in 1910. It gained support after the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. When Wilson won the presidency that year, he named William B. Wilson, a cosponsor of the bill in the House, as Secretary of Labor.

From left to right, Andrew Furuseth, Robert LaFollette, and Lincoln Steffens

In pushing for the bill, the ISU explicitly connected it to the Titanic and the Triangle Fire of 1911, asking “No one will claim it is safe to crowd people into a theater or a shirtwaist factory and the lock the doors. Is it not even more dangerous to jam a steamer full of passengers and then to send it out to the harbor without having on board the means whereby they may be taken off quickly and safely in case of need?” As with much of labor reform at the time, Furuseth and his supporters did take on a racial and anti-immigrant tone. He bemoaned that sailing was “the domain of those who fought life’s battles and accepted defeat, of the sewage of the Caucasian race and of such of the races of Asia as felt that their condition could be improved by becoming seamen.”

Such statements forced the Industrial Workers of the World, which had quite a few members on the ships, to answer a tricky question of supporting a law that would make their lives better versus the racial internationalism of their ideology. The Wobblies opposed the law in the end, claiming not only was the ISU racist but that Furuseth “very likely has a child-like faith in the state, far exceeding his confidence in the workers whom he is supposed to represent.” Moreover, the IWW actually used the argument that the would hurt their employers by driving American flag-based shipping from the seas, a rather surprisingly pro-business position employed by these anti-capitalists.

Seamen on the S.S. Minnesota, 1919

Wilson’s foreign policy team encouraged him to pocket veto the bill because it might upset the British. But when Furuseth went to lobby Wilson personally, the president’s heart melted in the face of this craggy old seamen telling stories about the horrors of the ships. The new law established the 9-hour day and 56-hour week on ships. It guaranteed minimum standards of safety and cleanliness. It recognized the right of seamen to organize. It allowed them to get out of their contracts with relatively minimal penalty–half their salary earned to that point in the contract. Most importantly, it applied to all sailors–regardless of national origin or citizenship status–if they landed in an American port. The LaFollette Act is thus probably the closest law passed in American history to something that created a “race to the top” in working conditions around the globe. If you were a French sailor and you landed in New York, you could desert and the U.S. government would protect your rights.

The U.S. Supreme Court, perhaps surprisingly, declared the international enforcement provisions constitutional, at least at first. After a 1918 decision ruled against a seaman who used the act to desert in Mobile while demanding half his wages, Louis Brandeis moved the court to a unanimous decision in a similar 1920 case by explicitly arguing that the point of the law was to enforce nationalist conceptions of labor standards, stating “foreign vessels engaged in the American trade would be compelled to raise wages and working conditions to practically the standard prevailing in our coastwise trade.”

By not only mandating standards on goods entering the United States, but also giving workers an out from their contracts if they were dissatisfied, the Seamen’s Act had the potential to advance the rights of workers significantly. In the end though, the fears of the shipping industry over its effect proved unfounded, largely because the Commerce Department under Wilson and then subsequent Republican presidents consistently sided with employers in enforcement. Commerce ruled that the space provisions for workers only applied to ships built after 1915 for instance. The French redefined sailors under its flags as members of the merchant marine and therefore ineligible for the protections. Finally, in the 1950s, the Supreme Court declared the international enforcement provisions unconstitutional and by this time the law was not widely applied anyway by a federal government interested in promoting global trade. This saddened the law’s supporters. In 1953, the Friends of Andrew Furuseth Legislative Association wrote, “If only the Seamen’s Act had been enforced from 1917 on, it might not have been necessary to have spent 19 billion dollars under the Marshall Plan, because the standard of living of European countries would have advanced more nearly to a parity with our own.”

Nevertheless, it marks perhaps the first time labor successfully used regulatory reform to advance the interest of specific workers and it provides an interesting precedent for those seeking to use the power of government to improve the conditions of workers toiling for American companies (or subcontractors for those companies) in a global marketplace. Can the American government implement standards in a worldwide economy reliant upon transportation methods to get apparel from Bangladesh? Could organized labor target transportation networks as a way to improve international labor standards? I do not believe a secondary strike by the ILWU or Teamsters in support of a labor action in Bangladesh would violate Taft-Hartley since it would not be an American union supported. The LaFollette Act wasn’t necessarily all that successful, but it suggests an almost totally unexplored strategy for international labor solidarity.

It is also worth noting that even taking into account the Red Scare and IWW-crushing that would take place later in the Wilson presidency, Wilson is still the most union-friendly president in American history before FDR.

I am drawing primarily from Leon Fink’s Sweatshops at Sea: Merchant Seamen in the World’s First Globalized Industry, from 1812 to the Present for this post.

This is the 96th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • Embra

    “In 1840, 80 percent of the U.S. carrying trade was in U.S. vessels. By 1883, it was 15 percent.”

    I have read that the collapse had a lot to do with Confederate commerce raiding of US flagged ships, but I can’t produce a reference.

    • Bruce Vail

      True that Confederate commerce raiders led to a flight from the U.S. flag by American shipowners. According to my old college textbook, about 700 ships transferred to different flags (mostly British) because insurance rates on U.S.-flag vessels went sky high. (The Civil War and Reconstruction, Randall and Donald, 1969)

  • Joseph Slater

    Just want to repeat how great this series is. Fascinating story I didn’t know.

  • “Like prison with the additional chance of drowning”

    • Lee Rudolph

      But not at all like prison with the additional chance of falling out of the sky!

  • The account of working conditions on ships reminds me of the vivid description of that in B. Traven’s novel The Death Ship

    • JoyfulA

      Yes, indeed. That’s what I thought of immediately.

      But without the statelessness problem.

    • sparks

      The opening segment of the silent film Docks Of New York shows the stoke hole environment, as do a few other films, even one early sound comedy IIRC.

  • njc

    Although the act is named after Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette, the real author of it was International Seamen’s Union (ISU) president Andrew Furuseth. Working with sympathetic Democrats, Furuseth had crafted reform bills since 1894 and was perhaps the first union leader to see the potential for working in Washington to get labor legislation passed (this at a time when Gompers and the AFL explicitly rejected such ideas). LaFollette and Furuseth became friends in 1907

    You might want to edit section inasmuch as it gives the impression that LaFollette was a Democrat, rather than a Progressive Republican.

  • LeeEsq

    The IWW had their hearts in the right place on many issues but also show why the Far Left was politically impotent in American politics. They were simply too cynical about electoral politics and the possibility of reform through legislation. Its their right to believe that the American system of government was hopelessly corrupt but lots of Americans were proud of our system than and remain proud of it today.

    • wengler

      The Wobblies were absolutely correct. The Wilson administration was horribly racist and wouldn’t enforce the law. It would be interesting to examine the conditions of most merchant sailors today, since they are largely non-American on non-American flagged ships.

      A lot of the most terrible jobs(coaling) have been done away with due to advances in technology, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these workers are in limbo in most of the ports that they visit.

      • I don’t think one can say “the Wobblies were absolutely correct.” That sounds more like your ideology speaking than a real analysis of what was going on.

      • shah8

        My eyes narrowed quite a bit reading about how Wilson was pro union. In my mind, that’s like saying the Nixon was pro-environment. With both, you can argue substantially that the context pushed the pieces around, rather than either characters believing in such issues. Really, one only has to have a deep reading of Wilson’s postwar initiatives (not to mention his behavior in the 1914 elections about WWI) and what specifics he actually cared about in order to have a very deep suspicion that the later Republicans, as bad as they were, were probably more truly friendly to labor. Woodrow Wilson is a farce replay of the early Virginan Democrat Presidents. Lots of high minded shit, and extraordinary hypocrisy.

        • Bruce Vail

          I’ll look forward to Erik doing a deep dive on this, but Wilson’s record on labor unions is full of interesting stuff, some of it good

          He was eager, for example, to recruit unions to the war effort and accorded unions a real role in some of the vital industries, like shipbuilding. This was largely lost in the post-war era, true enough, but you can hardly hold Wilson responsible for that.

          Wilson also sponsored an industrial commission that laid a lot of the groundwork for later reforms. This was considered to be very pro-union at the time.

          I’m sure there are many other examples….

          • Bruce Vail

            Commission on Industrial Relations, or Walsh Commission:


          • LeeEsq

            Wilson was a horrible racist like a lot other white Americans at the time, particularly from the South. He was also a reform-minded liberal. During his lifetime, these weren’t mutally exclusive positions even though we can’t really comprehend it. There were lots of racist/reformers in South up until the post-WWII era.

        • Wilson was genuinely a union supporter. He was not a supporter of radicalism. But he was a supporter of pure and simple craft unionism. Samuel Gompers was very close to the Wilson Administration during the war. It’s important that we make the distinction between different types of unionism of the time.

          • shah8

            Woodrow Wilson was a paternal ass in classic Virginian style. He always was more “liberal” than he tended to be, especially if his bottom got kissed quite well enough. Making a show of being a man of the (ruralist) people by being friendlier to conservative labor groups was quite indeed his style. As well as Jefferson, Monroe, et al.

            Labor got better under his tenure more or less because war and its echo deprived businesses of cheap and compliant labor. Without WWI, if Gompers wanted all that much more than a pat on the head, he’d get the crack of Wilson’s cane no less than a Wobbly would.

            • The first paragraph may be true, but I think you are letting your hatred of Wilson get in the way of his actual pro-labor policies. The Seamen’s Act, the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations, the integration of Gompers into high policy decisions–these are not only real things but they are FAR FAR more than any president had done in the past. You need to analyze Wilson’s labor policy, not just rage against what a jerk he was.

              • shah8

                The problem I have with that sentiment is that the reach of the benefits from such a change in stance Wilson allowed was minimal. Along the broad working public, meaningful change didn’t really happen on the basis of Wilson’s personal initiative. Moreover, Wilson essentially only wanted WASPs to benefit at all from any relaxation of industry’s exclusion of labor from any governing role. If you’re a kike, polack, wog, you’re suspect in his eyes whether or not you’re actually an anarchist. Even krauts were barely tolerated, and only if quite assimilated!

                As for far, far more…I submit Abraham Lincoln did more for labor than Wilson ever did. More than that, Lincoln was always for more genuinely interested in the rights of laborers, given what his letters are like, compared to the non-entities before and after him.

                • All of that is true and Wilson is still the most pro-union president in American history before FDR.

                • shah8

                  Tallest midget then, and still can’t make the basketball team.

                • This is unnecessarily insulting of very real gains made by at least some sections of the labor force because Wilson was willing to do things.

                • LeeEsq

                  If I’m remembering correctly Wilson opposed literacy tests for immigration and vetoed legislation that would require such tests. He also pointed, with considerable controversy, the first Jew to the Supreme Court and in time of anti-Catholic animus, had no hatred towards Catholics.

                  There was no doubt that Wilson was a racist against non-whites but he wasn’t public monster number one. We had worse much worse presidents on both the policy level and the personal morality level.

                • There was a good reason most immigrants registered as Democrats.

                • Ronan

                  Have new immigrant groups always disproportionatly supported the Dems in recent history (last 100 odd years) even when they used to be the party of the South ?
                  Was that because they were the party of the working class, or because they were institutionally less xenophobic, or because theyd built up systems from past immigrant waves to assimilate new migrants into the party, or..

                • shah8

                  Well, I’ll grant Brandeis, because…awesome sauce.


                  1) Wilson was pro cheap labor, just like the republicans and democratic presidents before him. They all veto’d the law, only to have it overridden that veto in Wilson’s second term.

                  2) Immigrants voted Democratic party because that was the urban party, with urban machines. That urban party was in alliance with the anti-Republican South, with altogether different priorities.

                  3) I do not think he was lacking in animus against Catholics. He just couldn’t denigrate part of his base.

                  4) Nah, Wilson has a lot to answer for, both policy and morals, and is traditionally one of the most overrated presidents among the general public. I don’t think, ultimately, he was any better than Harding or Coolidge, just more ambitious in a self-promoting, self-regarding way. I’d certainly prefer Taft or Teddy.

                • You are just painting a cartoonishly evil version of Wilson. You say he hated Catholics why? Do you have evidence on this point. And he’s far, far better than Harding or Coolidge and has the record for it. You also are not giving immigrants agency to make their own choice. Immigrants voted Democratic in part because of political machines but in part because the Republican Party was a lot more racist toward them.

                • LeeEsq

                  Ronan, most immigrants ended up voting Democratic since the 1840s when mass immigration started in earnest with the Irish and the Germans. The Democratic Party tended to be the party of choice for people outside the mainstream of American life for the most part with the exception of African-Americans for several decades for obvious reasons.

                • LeeEsq

                  shah8, Harding was a frat boy and on the corrupt side by most standards. Possibly one of the Presidents most into open, lucre style corruption. Coolidge was lucky to be President at a relatively prosperous time in American history before the contradictions of Prohibition became too troublesome.

                  Taft is an underrated President. Theodore Roosevelt is generally above average but he was the one that really started America as Empire in earnest.

                • Hogan

                  Ronan: If you can, check out The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. It’s a roman a clef about James Curley, the longtime mayor of Boston, and includes an argument that the New Deal killed the urban ethnic political machines by federalizing welfare and public works projects, thus denying the machines the monopoly on distributing jobs and low-level transfers (e.g., a turkey at Christmas) to immigrants and their children. It’s also a seriously fun read.

                  I believe it’s still true that Democrats do a lot more outreach to recent immigrants than Republicans do.

                • One thing that has never really changed in the Republican Party is fundamental opposition to immigration. The business elites usually support immigration for cheap labor purposes but they don’t make up enough numbers to move the party on this and never really have. The Republican Party formed in part by integrating the Know-Nothings into their anti-slavery party and the Know-Nothings were by definition an anti-immigrant party.

                • Ronan

                  Thanks all. Hogan, thanks, I just ordered it (was only £1.30!!) so will report back in due course.

                  This :

                  “The business elites usually support immigration for cheap labor purposes but they don’t make up enough numbers to move the party on this and never really have.”

                  Is also part of what I was wondering – the caricature is that business interests generally drive immigration policy (which is probably largely true I guess) and the caricature is that immigration undermines the welfare state etc (which I dont think is true) so I think the dynamics of how all this played out in the US over time is interesting.
                  (Thats too big a story to tell in a comments section I know, so Im not really expecting any responses to it, more just thinking out loud.)

                • shah8

                  I do not think I’m painting a cartoonishly evil Wilson. Man, look, Brandeis? That dude’s cool. Like a lawyer Batman knocking up the Lex Luthors of his day. He had his retrograde aspects, particularly against “big government”, but on the whole he was a hell of a lot more honest in being retrograde than someone like Goldwater.

                  Woodrow Wilson wanted to make a name for himself. So did everyone else that wanted to be president. However, pretty much *everything* was provisional to the elevation of himself and his nature. And this tended to magnify the bad things, like getting the US into WWI, the outsized repression against anyone who voiced moral and sensible arguments against participation, the resegregation of DC, etc. Lastly, a lot of what he *did* do that was good, had a lot more people and events pushing him towards that, than any of the things he did bad.

                  I didn’t say he *hated* Catholics, but I really do not think he liked or supported non WASPs.

                  I think I should also say that the amorphousness of political parties in those days precludes us from saying one party is more or less racist than another party. Better to say that one party is more or less anti-immigrant (non WASP) than the other, but that is specifically an impact of regionalism, and what party represented what regions. The South never had the need for importing labor what with the retarded capital infrastructure and markets there. If black people could vote in those days, the political map would be very, very different.

                • LeeEsq

                  Hogan, there is actually a new history of Tammany Hall out. There is some level of truth to the thesis in the Last Hurrah. The machines distributed patronage and material goods to the urban poor in exchange for votes. The problem with the system was that it was inefficient and did not help enough people. I also think that suburbanization did more to hurt the machines than the New Deal. They weren’t operating at full strength but most of the urban machines were functioning into the late 1950s and early 1960s.

                  I’m growing more sympathetic to the argument that there needs to be a certain amount of corruption in democracies for proper functioning. Politics is the art of the horse trade but you have to give politicians horses to trade.

  • Bruce Vail

    Furuseth also responsible for passage of the White Act of 1898, forbidding the use of corporal punishment against merchant sailors on US-flag vessels.

    Seafarers International Union (successor to Furuseth’s International Seamens Union) used to distribute a pamphlet to its members called “Andrew Furuseth: The Abraham Lincoln of the Sea.” Maybe they still do…I hope so.

  • Johnnie

    As a Wisconsinite and the great grandson of a Norwegian-American seaman, I appreciate this post.

  • DrDick

    More evidence of the beneficence of capital and how Free Markets automatically correct all problems in mutually attractive ways.

  • This post should be labeled NSFW — it’s got seamen all over it.

    [yes, that was awful, I’ll get my coat]

  • Anna in PDX

    My partner’s dad was a boatswain in the merchant marine in the 1950s or so. He would be very interested in this article. Thank you for this series. The article you did yesterday about Davis Bacon was just great and was a hit in my office. This one is equally interesting! I also note that the role of racism in all the political rhetoric at the time is a consistent theme. Sad comment on the times.

    • It’s pretty much impossible to separate race from labor during those, but then it’s equally impossible to separate race from anything else either.

  • Pat

    Is it just me, or does Furuseth and LaFollett both look stark raving mad? In so many old, old picture, people have the wildest eyes. I can’t make up my mind if it’s the technology or the horrible crap people would witness.

    • Frank Somatra

      LaFollett looks shockingly like Jed Bartlett in this picture

      • He had quality hair, that’s for sure.

      • Ronan

        he does, i was wondering who he reminds me off.Hes a dead ringer for a estevez/sheen

    • Ronan

      i guess its partly the novelty of getting your picture taken back then, and in this case perhaps some drinking involved

      • Not so much novelty by the 1910s though.

        • Ronan

          Na ? (yeah just googled it. Seems Im *a little* off)

  • MikeN

    Interesting article.

    As a Canadian, I associate the Seafarer’s International Union with Hal Banks, the mob-connected thug the Eisenhower and Pearson administrations conspired to send in to Canada to destroy the communist-dominated Canadian Seamen’s Union to ensure the security of the St. Lawrence Seaway. (for example, since Banks had a criminal record the Canadian government printed up a single copy of the immigration form that omitted that question).

    The SIU led a series of raids on CSU meetings, supported by the government and police- CSU officials were arrested for the crime of being beaten while SIU goons were allowed to walk. The SIU signed a series of sweetheart deals with the shipping companies, with the approval of both governments, destroyed the CSU, and launched a reign of corruption and intimidation on the Canadian docks (think “On the Waterfront”).

    Good to see they had more noble antecedents.

    • Warren Terra

      for example, since Banks had a criminal record the Canadian government printed up a single copy of the immigration form that omitted that question

      This is awesome. I mean, not in any approving way, but still …

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