At age 19, the 1946 Deep Sea Strike climaxed my radicalization into unionism. The drama of the event stamped solidarity into my soul forever. Crews pouring off their ships, marching to the union hall on Fleet Street, the multitude of seamen milling about.
I shipped out as ordinary seaman on the SS Occidental Victory from the port of Philadelphia. The date was Sept. 5, 1946. The ship was loaded with 6,000 tons of sugar destined for the port of Leningrad, Soviet Union. It was said that we would be the first American ship to enter the port since the end of the war.
From the port of Philadelphia we would sail to Baltimore, where stalls would be erected on the deck of the ship that would house 200 horses. Fourteen wartime conscientious objectors and a veterinarian would sail with the ship to care for the horses. The horses would be unloaded in Gdynia, Poland. (It is interesting to note that countries in Western Europe received tractors and Poland received horses).
During World War II, sailing the North Atlantic was in the 100-percent-bonus war zone. Along with my ordinary seaman wages of $82.50 per month I would receive this extra bonus. With the merchant seamen suffering the highest casualty rate of all the forces serving in the war, this bonus was offered to induce seamen to sail the merchant ships.
When World War II came to an end the bonuses were dropped from the payroll. I figured it out. Eight hours a day, seven days a week came to 35 cents an hour. Comparing these wages with the shore-side workers whose pay rose during the war but did not drop when the war ended, we had a lot of catching up to do.
The National Maritime Union, in solidarity with the war to defeat fascism, made a “no strike pledge” for the duration of the war. Now that the war was over it was only fair to bring our wages up to par with working America. The ship owners refused. There were no dissenting votes in the call for a strike.
The strike committee in the port of Baltimore was under the leadership of Jake Green. Everything was well organized. No chaos, no confusion. Committees were formed and assignments were made, creating a solid front in the port area. I volunteered to serve in the union hall with the strike committee. The strike lasted eight days. With no sign of breaking the will of the seamen, the ship owners caved in and signed an agreement. I returned to my ship. The 200 horses were loaded on board and we left the port of Baltimore for the open sea.
Well, the horses were delivered safely. [But that is another story.] In Leningrad it seemed like the whole town came to see the “American ship.” Students were eager to take us on tours. However, the captain would not let us off the ship during the day. Still, the students insisted on taking us even though it was after hours and everything was closed up. So we rode through the dark streets in a bus with the students doing their best to explain the sights.