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This Day in Labor History: March 4, 1915

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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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