SS California strike

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The SS California strike was a strike aboard the ocean liner SS California from 1 to 4 March 1936 as the ship lay docked in San Pedro, California. The strike led to the demise of the International Seamen's Union and the creation of the National Maritime Union (now part of the Seafarers International Union of North America).

Strike action Work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work

Strike action, also called labor strike, labour strike, or simply strike, is a work stoppage, caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became common during the Industrial Revolution, when mass labor became important in factories and mines. In most countries, strike actions were quickly made illegal, as factory owners had far more power than workers. Most Western countries partially legalized striking in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.

Ocean liner Ship designed to transport people from one seaport to another

An ocean liner is a passenger ship primarily used as a form of transportation across seas or oceans. Liners may also carry cargo or mail, and may sometimes be used for other purposes.

SS <i>California</i> (1928)

SS California was the World's first major ocean liner built with turbo-electric transmission. When launched in 1927 she was also the largest merchant ship yet built in the US, although she was a modest size compared with the biggest European liners of her era.



Joseph Curran was a seaman aboard the Panama Pacific ocean liner SS California. He had been an able seaman and boatswain since 1922. Although he had joined the International Seamen's Union (ISU), he was not active in union activities.

Joseph Curran

Joseph Curran was a merchant seaman and an American labor leader. He was founding president of the National Maritime Union from 1937 to 1973, and a vice president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

Panama Pacific Line

Panama Pacific Line was a subsidiary of International Mercantile Marine (IMM) established to carry passengers and freight between the US East and West Coasts via the Panama Canal.

Boatswain supervisor of a ships deck department

A boatswain, bo's'n, bos'n, or bosun, also known as a Petty Officer, deck boss, or a qualified member of the deck department, is the seniormost rate of the deck department and is responsible for the components of a ship's hull. The boatswain supervises the other members of the ship's deck department, and typically is not a watchstander, except on vessels with small crews. Additional duties vary depending upon ship, crew, and circumstances.

In 1936, Curran led a strike aboard the ocean liner SS California, then docked in San Pedro, California. Curran and the crew of the Panama Pacific Line's SS California went on strike at sailing time and refused to cast off the lines unless wages were increased and overtime paid. [1] [2]

The strike was essentially a sitdown strike. Curran and the crew refused to leave the ship, for the owners would have simply replaced them with strikebreakers. The crew remained aboard and continued to do all their duties except cast off the lines. The California remained tied up for three days. [2]

A sit-down strike is a labour strike and a form of civil disobedience in which an organized group of workers, usually employed at factories or other centralized locations, take unauthorized or illegal possession of the workplace by "sitting down" at their stations. The attraction for workers of a sit-down strike is that the practice prevents employers from replacing them with strikebreakers or removing equipment to transfer production to other locations. Neal Ascherson has commented that an additional attraction of the practice is that it emphasizes the role of workers in providing for the people, and allows workers to in effect hold valuable machinery hostage as a bargaining chip.

Finally, United States Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins personally intervened in the SS California strike. Speaking to the crew by telephone, Perkins agreed to arrange a grievance hearing once the ship docked at its destination in New York City, and that there would be no reprisals by the company or government against the Curran and the strikers. [1] [2]

United States Secretary of Labor position

The United States Secretary of Labor is a member of the Cabinet of the United States, and as the head of the United States Department of Labor, controls the department, and enforces and suggests laws involving unions, the workplace, and all other issues involving any form of business-person controversies.

Frances Perkins American politician

Frances Perkins was an American sociologist and workers-rights advocate who served as the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, the longest serving in that position, and the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet. As a loyal supporter of her friend, Franklin D. Roosevelt, she helped pull the labor movement into the New Deal coalition. She and Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes were the only original members of the Roosevelt cabinet to remain in office for his entire presidency.

New York City Largest city in the United States

The City of New York, usually called either New York City (NYC) or simply New York (NY), is the most populous city in the United States. With an estimated 2018 population of 8,398,748 distributed over a land area of about 302.6 square miles (784 km2), New York is also the most densely populated major city in the United States. Located at the southern tip of the state of New York, the city is the center of the New York metropolitan area, the largest metropolitan area in the world by urban landmass and one of the world's most populous megacities, with an estimated 19,979,477 people in its 2018 Metropolitan Statistical Area and 22,679,948 residents in its Combined Statistical Area. A global power city, New York City has been described as the cultural, financial, and media capital of the world, and exerts a significant impact upon commerce, entertainment, research, technology, education, politics, tourism, art, fashion, and sports. The city's fast pace has inspired the term New York minute. Home to the headquarters of the United Nations, New York is an important center for international diplomacy.

During the SS California's return trip, the Panama Pacific Line raised wages by $5 a month to $60 per month. [2]

But Perkins was unable to follow through on her other promises. United States Secretary of Commerce Daniel Roper and the Panama Pacific Line declared Curran and the strikers mutineers. The line took out national advertising attacking Curran. When the ship docked, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents met the ship and began an investigation into the "mutiny". Curran and other top strike leaders were fined two days' pay, fired and blacklisted. Perkins was able to keep the strikers from being prosecuted for mutiny, however. [1] [2]

Seaman all along the East Coast struck to protest the treatment of the SS California's crew. Curran became a leader of the 10-week strike, eventually forming a supportive association known as the Seamen's Defense Committee. [1] [2]

Formation of NMU

The SS California strike was only part of a worldwide wave of unrest among US seamen. A series of port and shipboard strikes broke out in 1936 and 1937 in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. In October 1936, Curran called another strike, the 1936 Gulf Coast maritime workers' strike, in part to improve working conditions and in part to embarrass the ISU. The four-month strike idled 50,000 seamen and 300 ships. [1] [2]

Curran, believing it was time to abandon the conservative International Seamen's Union, began to sign up members for a new, rival union. The level of organizing was so intense that hundreds of ships delayed their sailing time as seamen listened to organizers and signed union cards. [3]

In May 1937, Curran and other leaders of his nascent movement formed the National Maritime Union. The Seamen's Defense Committee reconstituted itself as a union. It held its first convention in July, and 30,000 seamen switched their membership from the ISU to the NMU. Curran was elected president of the new organization. Elected secretary-treasurer of the union was Jamaican-born Ferdinand Smith. Thus, from its inception NMU was racially integrated. Within six years, nearly all racial discrimination was eliminated in maritime hiring, wages, living accommodations and work assignments. [1] [4]

Within a year, the NMU had more than 50,000 members, and most US shippers were under contract. Stripped of most of its membership, the ISU became almost moribund. [2]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Barbanel, "Joseph Curran, 75, Founder of National Maritime Union," New York Times, 15 August 1981; Kempton, Part of Our Time, 1998 (1955); "Retired Union Boss Joseph Curran Dies," Associated Press, 14 August 1981.
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 Schwartz, Brotherhood of the Sea: The Sailors' Union of the Pacific, 1885–1985, 1986.
  3. "C.I.O. Goes to Sea," Time, 19 July 1937.
  4. Horne, Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica, 2005.

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