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Labor History: Wild Cat Strikes Upset AFL Organizing Effort at South Portland Shipyard

Andy O’Brien
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PHOTO: Groups of men and women shipbuilders milling about the gates at the South Portland Shipbuilding
Corporation, December 1, 1942. Portland Evening Express.

In the fall and winter of 1942, thousands of shipbuilders workers at the South Portland Shipbuilding Corporation (SPSC) walked off the job in a series of unauthorized wildcat strikes. The strikes not only crippled wartime production at the shipyard, but they also tarnished the image of the conservative Metal Trades Council of the American of Labor, which had just defeated the more radical Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America (IUMSWA) months earlier. The AFL often boasted that its craft members would never disrupt wartime production and frequently circulated images of violent strikes involving CIO workers at other facilities in the nation.

With the merger of the adjacent Todd-Bath shipyard, an IUMSWA shop, and SPSC’s AFL-represented West Yard the previous summer, the National Labor Relations Board had ordered a new union election of the entire consolidated company to determine which union the workers wanted to represent them. The Metal Trades Council had ratified a first contract with SPSC in July, 1942, but several months later the company had still yet to implement the new wage differential for the various job classifications, even after it was approved by the War Labor Board, the body in charge of mediating labor disputes in defense industries. The workers were getting fed up with waiting for their raises.

One morning in October, 1942, 400 welders and tackers walked off the job in the opening salvo of what would become a season of unrest at the yard. Men and women mingling outside the gate told reporters that the contract guaranteed them at least a $1.20 per hour minimum wage, but they still hadn’t gotten the pay raise.

At the same time, SPSC was coming under fire from the Maritime Commission and US lawmakers for absenteeism and some of the slowest production of any shipyard producing Liberty Ships in the US. The House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee recommended that Liberty Ship contracts be canceled with the South Portland yard, but the Special Senate Committee for Investigating the National Defense Program defended the yard and instead called for contracts to be renegotiated. Both committees heavily criticized the company for its poor labor relations.

AFL’s Metals Trades Council blamed the slow production on poor management, a “stagger system” of working hours, a lack of equipment and faulty layout of the yard. Nevertheless, voices in the media like The Lewiston Daily Sun questioned the workers’ patriotism for walking out.

“While American men were fighting in the malarial swamps of New Guinea, in the heat of Africa, and in the fog-shrouded banks of the Aleutians, Maine laborers stopped producing the Liberty ships which provide for the transport for support,” the Sun wrote. “Why?”

The AFL attempted to deflect the negative attention by pointing the finger at the CIO for circulating thousands of leaflets urging SPSC workers to insist that the company immediately meet their demands for the wage increases in an “unpatriotic move” to “discredit the AFL.”

Meanwhile, the number of strikers at the West Yard grew to about 1000 in what became a two-day walk-out. Former Democratic Governor Louis J. Brann was called in to be the labor coordinator for the yard and after meeting for local and federal officials, the shipbuilders returned to work.

Then in early December, 4,500 shipbuilders abruptly walked off the job in another wild cat action over continued delays in putting schedules into effect and dissatisfaction “with the manner in which classifications were being put on the men's cards." Edward Miller, president of the Machinists’ Local of the AFL, told the Portland Evening Express that “Union officials have tried everything to avoid the situation but it has been impossible to hold the men in.”

A company spokesman said that many workers had received increases based on the new wage scale, but the union and the company disagreed on which employees should receive raises. The next day, tensions were heightened on the picket line as workers called out scabs who crossed the picket lines at shift changes and the South Portland and shipyard police were put on alert.

But even the anti-labor newspapers acknowledged that the strikers were peaceful and orderly. As union and company officials met with mediators at the Lafayette Hotel, W. A. Calvin — president of the AFL union the Boilermakers, Iron Shipbuilders and Helpers — accused the CIO of attempting the sabotage the July agreement between the AFL and SPSC.

“I believe that the CIO is exercising tremendous influence in Washington and Portland, to delay final action with regard to the July agreement, to discourage membership in and balloting for the American Federation of Labor,” Calvin grumbled. “That is logical because CIO has an agreement in an adjacent yard inferior to that of the AFL at South Portland. CIO will place every possible instance in the path of putting the War Labor Board directive into effect until after the National Labor Relations Board election, because they are afraid they will lose their yard to the AFL.”

Calvin said the AFL was doing everything it could to get its members back to work on the assumption that the War Labor Board would put its directive order into effect. He acknowledged that the “chaos might have been anticipated,” but insisted that the AFL had nothing to do with the walk out.

“It was spontaneous rebellion against further dilly-dallying by the management,” he told reporters. “Our men are lambasted on one side by the CIO saying the men never will get any relief through the agreement made by the AFL last July with management and that the only thing to do is join the CIO; on the other hand government agencies have failed to ratify the July agreement, which was negotiated through collective bargaining procedures last July.”

The workers stayed out for three days until the War Labor Board announced that it wouldn’t take any action on the dispute until they returned to work. It reminded the workers that their labor was critical to the "battle against Nazism, Fascism, and Nipponism.” Finally a renegotiated contract between the Metal Trades Council and the company was approved on December 29, 1942, but it never became effective because neither the War Labor Board nor the Maritime Commission approved it. Instead, an interim scale established by the War Labor Board became permanent and the company ended up paying out $2 million in back pay and wage increases to its 15,000 employees. Workers at the CIO-represented East Yard who held comparable jobs to those in the West Yard, also got a raise to equalize minimum scales with workers in the other yard.

With the union election fast approaching, the AFL started to panic as the momentum was clearly with the CIO, which was having a string of elections victories in the textile industry. The Shipyard News reported that “5,000 men" at SPSC and "2,500 AFL members in the Todd-Bath yard” would refuse to join the CIO if by “some miracle” workers voted in IUMSWA as bargaining agent for the yard. But as one AFL lamented, "It is next to impossible for us to continue to reach the unorganized through our present system, bearing in mind that the CIO has permanent organizers at work here, and we are getting ours done on a voluntary basis.”

The AFL attempted to delay the election, but the NLRB ruled against the move. When the ballots were finally counted following the elections on January 12 and 13, 1943, the CIO received 10,631 votes, the AFL, 8,499 and 206 voted for no union out of 24,757 employees eligible to vote. Now with 80,000 members strong, the Maine CIO was a force to be reckoned with. As one jubilant worker poet wrote in Local 50’s newspaper The Yard Bird following the election:

C.I.O. has won the day—

A.F. of L. had to go our way.

Men who work at S.P.S.C.

Have now joined hands with you (and me).

Welcome to our Union, fellow workers!

In the C.I.O. you'll find no shirkers!

"United we stand. Divided we fall"—

What's good for one is good for all.

When a Union promise to you is made,

It is backed up by plans well laid.

The benefits are great, the fee is small.

Pay once a month, that is all.

No extra dues will they take—

No extra assessment will they make.

In May, Nineteen Hundred and Forty-one

Our first keel was laid, work was begun.

Thirty ships the British wanted quick.

A united Union helped turn the trick!

Fifteen months was all it took

To send those ships across the brook.

Another contract then did appear.

And seven more hulls have made the pier!

Thirty-seven ships is now the score.

And in the basins are seven more!

For a twenty-month period, that's not bad.

A better record NO yard has had!

Now that we're ONE—East and West,

Two yards united to do their best-

United in effort to build ships fast;

To make new records that will last!

Every ship we build here in the Yard

Will help the boys who are fighting hard.

Oiu" C.I.O. victory will prove to us all

It's another big step towards Axis downfall!

Let's build ships, and build them well!

For each ship helps send Hitler to Hell!

CIO supporters at Bath Iron Works in Bath were inspired by the latest election win by their brothers and sisters down the coast and were determined to make another challenge to the more conservative Independent Brotherhood of Shipyard Workers. In the next few installments we will tell the story of how the International Union of Marine & Shipbuilding Workers,  CIO finally defeated both the Independent Brotherhood and the AFL.

Read the first eight installments of our series covering the Origin of Shipbuilders’ Unions in Maine