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Solidarity, Strikes & Socialism - Yorkship and IUMSWA
  Last Update: 09 Jun 2009

A pivotal episode in American labor history took place inside and outside the fences of New York Shipbuilding in the 1930s, as workers who felt abandoned by craft unions and betrayed by company spies collaborated in the painful birth of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America.

According to a trade union history, the AFL craft unions "pulled out of the shipyards" in 1920, leaving the workers at the mercy of a network of company spies whose uncorroborated reports could lead to summary dismissal. Companies set up ersatz unions called "employee representation plans" in which employees had no voice and from which they could expect no meaningful protection. "In 1932 New York Ship proposed a 15 percent pay cut. Delegates to the Employees' Association voted in favor of the cut."

Local 1

Against that background, New York Ship tinsmith John Green, lawyer Moshe Goldstein, and union activist Phil Van Gelder began organizing the yard. Green presented the company with signed application cards from 1500 workers, but the company dismissed them. A yard election followed. In October, 1933, the new union tossed aside the existing company-controlled union by a vote of 1,819 to 142.

The 1934 Strike

NYSB's management still refused to recognize the new union, triggering a seven week strike that began March 27. Wage increases of 6% and then 10% were rejected soundly. A threat by the Navy Department to remove the cruiser Tuscaloosa from NYSB to the Philadelphia Navy Yard hastened the end of the strike. In an "almost unanimous" vote on May 12, the 3,300 strikers ratified an agreement which provided  a 14.6% wage hike, a grievance process, and a return to work the following Monday, May 14.

The 1935 Strike

The next year, the union had to fight for recognition all over again. New York Ship's owners refused to bargain with IUMSWA on a 1935 contract, and a second and even longer strike ensued on May 13. As before, the strikers enjoyed broad support within the local community, but the company was intractable. Congressional hearings were held on the causes of the strike, during which NYSB president John Metten blamed "Communist influences" for the strike. Management attempted to reopen the yard July 23 without a settlement, but only a few hundred workers crossed the half-mile-long picket line, and the yard was closed again July 25.

Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and Assistant Secretary of the Navy Henry Roosevelt attempted unsuccessfully to mediate. When Perkins appealed to President Franklin Roosevelt, he came down on the side of the union, issuing an executive order directing shipyard management that they had to recognize IUMSWA and accept arbitration of the dispute, or face losing existing Navy contracts. The creation of a special arbitration board ended the 15-week strike, with workers returning August 29. The final settlement guaranteed recognition for the union, a 36-hour work week, and a 5% wage increase for NYSB workers.

The Socialist Connection and Union Expansion

John Green was a member of the Socialist Party, and through that association met Goldstein and Van Gelder. Union opponents tried--with some initial success--to turn the union leadership's political leanings into a weapon against it. IUMSWA was never able to organize Newport News, lost repeated elections at Bath until 1955, and failed at Fore River in 1941 before ultimately succeeding in 1945. Both the Fore River victory and a 1944 victory at Sun Shipbuilding were organized by Lou Kaplan.  Peak membership for the IUMSWA was 208,000 in 1943, with almost one-quarter of that total at New York Ship. 

Labor Strife Continues Through 1960s

The strength of IUMSWA was tested many times through the rest of NYSB's lifetime, and some came to view the union's activism as a liability in the eyes of Navy and Shipping Board decision-makers.. Major job actions included:

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