Masters, Mates, & Pilots union studies work of civil rights leader Hugh Mulzac
International Publishers Vice President Tony Pecinovsky, right, speaks at the convention of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union, as MM&P International President Don Marcus listens. | Photo courtesy of Donna McCormick

Following is the text of an address given by Tony Pecinovsky, vice president of International Publishers, at the 89th Biennial Convention of the Masters, Mates, and Pilots union on Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2022. Pecinovsky discussed the publication of a new edition of Hugh Mulzac’s autobiography, A Star to Steer By. In 1942, at the age of 56, Mulzac became the first African-American man of Caribbean descent to captain a U.S. Merchant Marine ship, the S.S. Booker T. Washington—six years prior to the formal end of segregation in the U.S. armed forces. A civil rights pioneer before the Civil Rights era, Mulzac fought racism on the seas, from the bosses, and within the union.

Good morning, brothers and sisters!

Thank you to the Masters, Mates, and Pilots for inviting International Publishers to be a part of your 89th Biennial Convention. It is an honor to be here.

I especially want to thank President Don Marcus, Vice President Jeremey Hope, and the entire leadership of Master, Mates, and Pilots.

This isn’t just a book talk. There won’t be a book report at the end. Nothing is quite like speaking with union brothers and sisters!

I was here last year, at the Merchant Marine Convention. I’m beginning to feel like an honorary member of Masters, Mates, and Pilots.

I come from a union family. My grandfather was a lifelong union member. After World War II, he was a truck driver, a Teamster. Then he became a UAW member. He spent 30-plus years working in the Chrysler plant in Fenton, Mo.

As a young boy, I’d sit with my grandfather while he read the UAW Solidarity magazine.

My grandfather was the most influential adult in my life. He told me, “Never cross a picket line.”

Capt. Hugh Mulzac, center, with members of the National Maritime Union at an anti-racism protest in the 1940s. | Daily Worker Photo Collection / Tamiment Library NYU / People’s World Archives

He told me he would disown me if I crossed a picket line. And I don’t think he was joking!

I never forgot those lessons.

Eventually, as a young man I got active in groups like Jobs with Justice. Then I became an organizer with the Service Employees International Union organizing janitors. Then, when I started writing professionally, I became a member of The Newspaper Guild / Communication Workers Union of America (TNG-CWA).

Eventually, I was elected secretary-treasurer of the CWA St. Louis City Council.

Of course, life takes us in all sorts of different directions. But I never forgot what my grandfather told me: “Never cross a picket line.”

The lessons my grandfather taught me have stuck with me throughout my life, ultimately bringing me here, to you, to the Masters, Mates, and Pilots.

So I am so excited to talk with you about the republication of Hugh Mulzac’s classic book, A Star to Steer By.

Mulzac was a giant of the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, he was a giant most people outside of MM&P and academia have rarely heard of. He struggled his entire life against Jim Crow and racism. Hugh Mulzac struggled against corporate racism and union racism.

And I have to say, I have to emphasize just how important, how courageous the leadership of your union is. It takes courage to honestly address your past. Warts and all. Trust me, not all unions are doing this.

I come from St. Louis. We’re a union town. The skilled trades are big. Like MM&P, some of the Trades are coming to terms with their past. The Painters and the Sheet Metal Workers are good examples. Some of the other trades, not so much.

I mention that to say President Marcus, Vice President Hope, and your entire leadership should be applauded for working to address MM&P’s past. They are taking steps now—today!—to correct past injustices.

The presentation from Captain Robert Cook of the Organization of Black Maritime Graduates and the Women’s Caucus yesterday are great examples.

As Captain Cook said, “You’re ahead of the curve.”

MM&P is leading the way. But we’ve got to do better as a movement. The republication of Mulzac’s book is a great step in the right direction.

Of course, we all know the work doesn’t stop here at the Maritime Institute. The work goes on. It’s what we do in the shop, on the boats, in the community that really matters.

Hugh Mulzac knew this.

Despite the racism he faced from shipping companies, from the unions, and from the U.S. government, Mulzac persevered. Remember, Mulzac didn’t become Captain of the Booker T. Washington until 1942 and that the U.S. Armed Forces were not fully integrated until 1948.

Despite that, Mulzac fought on. He struggled and looked for ways to build unity.

That’s what the labor movement is all about.

Right? I mean, tell me if I’m wrong.

Hugh Mulzac was a civil rights leader before the modern Civil Rights era. Everybody’s heard of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., as they should. Everybody’s heard of Rosa Parks, as they should. But few have heard of Hugh Mulzac.

Like Dr. King, he saw the connection between civil rights and economic rights. He knew intuitively that civil rights were largely meaningless without economic rights, without rights on the job.

Mulzac knew intuitively that if Black workers were exploited on the job, then white workers would also suffer. He knew it was a race to the bottom and that racism only benefits the boss.

He knew civil rights divorced from economic empowerment through union representation was a sinking ship!

Brothers and sisters, that’s why Hugh Mulzac’s book is so important. Because it tells that story. It connects those dots. It makes clear the links between African American equality and workers’ rights. It reminds us of the old saying, “United we stand, divided we fall.”

And now, nearly 60 years after it was first published, Hugh Mulzac’s long out-of-print A Star to Steer By is finally back in print.

When I asked Jeremy what I should talk about in my presentation, he said I should talk about the production of the book, what that process looked like.

Well, book production is a pretty tedious, boring process. So, I’ll just give you the bullet points.

Thankfully, we started with an amazing manuscript, Mulzac’s original book. It’s a classic. So, we’re halfway done, right?

Also, we were very lucky to have access to people in the maritime industry, Captains Marcus and Hope. So this version of A Star to Steer by is significantly updated and revised. It not only tells Mulzac’s story but also gives readers a sense of the maritime industry today.

Not only does it include a Foreword from Vice President Hope, but it also includes a Q&A discussion between Henry Mulzac, Hugh Mulzac’s grand-nephew, and President Marcus and Vice President Hope, as well as an Epilogue by Margaret Stevens.

There were a few hiccups along the way, but once we had the Foreword, the Q&A, and the Epilogue, we were ready to do the initial editing. Once editing was done, we could send it to be typeset. Then we went back-and-forth with the typesetter until we had a print-ready PDF.

Then we’re done, right? Not really.

We redesigned the cover, which now has a photo of Captain Mulzac with Black and white maritime workers holding picket signs. One picket says, “Our boys fight racism overseas, let’s end it here.” This was during WWII. Remember, the Armed Forces were still segregated. This was radical!

Mulzac held up a mirror to the U.S. government, to the shipping companies, and to the unions. He dared all of us to live up to our professed values.

Once the cover and typeset were done, the printer had to approve everything—margins, color, etc. There is usually more back-and-forth. Like I said, it can be tedious.

But I know this book will stand the test of time. It will remain relevant for years and years. Not only because of the contributions of Captains Marcus and Hope, but because the issues Hugh Mulzac fought against are still relevant today—racism and corporate greed.

Yesterday, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler mentioned Jeff Bezos and Amazon. There is no reason why Bezos can’t afford to pay Amazon workers a living wage, recognize their union, and treat them with dignity and respect. The only reason is greed, plain and simple!

I met with an Amazon worker from the Staten Island facility shortly after their historic union victory a few months ago. The horror stories she told me are reminiscent of the mines, mills, and auto plants of the 1930s.

I think about Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle. Amazon is kind of like a fancy, futuristic version of Chicago’s meatpacking industry, except with AI that checks to make sure you’re meeting your packaging quotas.

President Shuler also mentioned the elections. The far-right is hell-bent on obstructing even moderate reforms that strengthen our democracy. They don’t want to take any steps to eradicate the poison of racism. Their base thrives off of racism and hate.

We, however, thrive off of hope, the promise of a better tomorrow.

That’s one of the great things about Mulzac’s storyhow hopeful it is. Like Mulzac, we are living in an era of tremendous fightback, a labor upsurge.

I’m heartened by the Amazon workers, by the Starbucks workers, by workers all over the country. I’m heartened by the Masters, Mates, and Pilots.

During Mulzac’s time, there were organizations like the National Negro Congress, the Civil Rights Congress, the Council on African Affairs, all fighting for African American equality and workers’ rights in their own way.

Today, we have groups like Jobs with Justice and Black Lives Matter. Like then, labor has to build alliances to win for working people. But we also have to take on issues not directly related to wages, working conditions, and benefits.

Hugh Mulzac knew this. He worked with the National Negro Congress, the Civil Rights Congress, and the Council on African Affairs even when their issues weren’t related to the shipping industry. And if he were alive today, he’d be urging the entire labor movement to build coalitions.

Hugh Mulzac was the first man of African-Caribbean descent to Captain a U.S. Merchant Marine ship. He did this in 1942, six years before the formal end of segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces.

But he did so much more.

A Star to Steer By is his story. But it’s also the story of the U.S. labor movement. It is the story of civil rights and the fight for equality. It is a story of struggle and sacrifice.

International Publishers is honored to be here with you today. I’m honored to be here.

I’m honored that the Masters, Mates, and Pilots have worked with us over these past few months to help bring Hugh Mulzac’s story to a new generation of readers.

If, in some small way, this book inspires just one person to fight for equality and workers’ rights then I will consider it a huge success.

Thank you!

Read more about Capt. Hugh Mulzac.

And order a copy of the new edition of A Star to Steer By, just released by International Publishers.


Tony Pecinovsky
Tony Pecinovsky

Tony Pecinovsky is the author of "Let Them Tremble: Biographical Interventions Marking 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA" and author/editor of "Faith In The Masses: Essays Celebrating 100 Years of the Communist Party, USA." His forthcoming book is titled "The Cancer of Colonialism: W. Alphaeus Hunton, Black Liberation, and the Daily Worker, 1944-1946." Pecinovsky has appeared on C-SPAN’s "Book TV" and speaks regularly on college and university campuses across the country.