Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

Desegregating a Maritime Union
The Marine Cooks and Stewards

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Stewards on the H. F. Alexander, ca. 1925

by George Robertson

“We didn’t have a union, we didn’t have rights…we didn’t have a soul we could call our own.”


Since the mid 1880’s, the Sailor’s Union of the Pacific, (SUP) Marine Firemen, Oilers and Watertenders’ Union (MFOW), and – after 1901 – the Marine Cooks and Stewards Association of the Pacific fought to establish union recognition and preference of employment on West Coast ships. Both the SUP and MFOW established racial criteria – by letter and custom – that prevented blacks and other minorities from joining. Similarly, the constitution of the Marine Cooks and Stewards stated that the Union had been formed in part “to relieve ourselves of the degrading necessity of competing with an alien and inferior race,” and was clear about the white membership’s explicit intent “of replacing the Chinese and Japanese now on the Coast by American citizens.” While the specific reference was to Asian workers, “blacks were almost entirely excluded as well until the 1934 strike”. According to Revels Cayton, the “union at the time did have Negro seamen on the Alaska Steamship Company and a few cooks running on freighters, but aside from that there were no Negroes in the Union.” In forty years in the maritime industry, black steward Russell Ryvers “never saw a Negro in the deck or engine department of any vessel he ever sailed on.”

In 1921, when the unions struck in response to wage and overtime reductions, black community leaders in Seattle sensed “an opportunity to get a lot of colored men jobs.” A retired Army Lieutenant and Real Estate broker, James Roston held a meeting in the Second Baptist Church, successfully organizing “what was really a crusade of Negro people to smash and break the 1921 strike” by convincing the Pacific Steamship Company to replace striking white cooks and stewards with black workers. Eugene Colman describes how he was “waiting for some boys in a pool room that used to be on James Street between 2nd and 3rd Avenue, and a man came in there and said ‘I want a hundred niggers, I want a hundred niggers. We’re gonna take on the Admiral Line.’ And I became one of the hundred niggers.” In 1922, with the Admiral line willing to permanently grant preference of employment to the black strikebreakers, Roston established the Colored Marine Employees Beneficial Association of the Pacific (CMEBA), an all-black “employees association” designed to ameliorate tensions between the company and the new black workers by dispatching jobs in rotation and handling grievances “in an orderly manner”.

While these jobs –300-500 in Seattle, and at least 1,000 in San Francisco - became crucially important to the economic vitality of these West Coast black communities, they were neither well paid, pleasant nor easy. Robert Saunders, who first started sailing because “that’s mostly all you could get to do”, “didn’t get but forty-five dollars a month” in 1923. Furthermore, black cooks and stewards worked sixteen-hour days, lived in cramped, segregated “glory holes”, and were forced to pay kickbacks to chief stewards to secure passage on the next ship. Joseph Staton, a black steward from Seattle who started working the ships as a teenager in 1927, describes a typical workday:

The newspaper of the Marine Cooks and Stewards

We had to be up at 5:00 in the morning and clean up…go down and have breakfast, get our tables ready…and start serving around 7:30 and 8:00 in the morning…and after breakfast we served, why then we would clean up the dining saloon…and do other chores. We would serve again at noon…which the lunch would last maybe a couple of hours….We would have a couple of hours to rest in the afternoon, before time for dinner. Then we would go up an hour or so ahead of time and…get the dining room ready to serve….and sometimes we wouldn’t get away from the dining room until maybe 12:00 at night. And even though it was 12:00 at night, we still had to get up again at 5:00 in the morning.

According to Staton, although black workers “had to join a union [CMEBA]…it didn’t mean anything in those days” because “the union really had no authority at all”, and could do little to fundamentally change working conditions. This was because the Admiral Steamship “company would tell the association what to do.” Yet, for workers used to being the last hired and first fired, CMEBA – despite its perceived shortcomings – guaranteed at least a modicum of job security in an industry from which they had been entirely excluded. According to William Washington, it was certainly desirable to have all black workers united “behind one man”, who then had the power and voice to “intercede for you and…get [grievances] straightened out”.

“There’s one thing I’ve got to say - the communists were the ones who fought for it”

The struggle to desegregate the ships and the Union, 1934-1945.

In 1934, the Seattle Urban League conducted a study of the African American community and found that one in every eight black men in Seattle worked for the Admiral or Alaska Steamship Lines. This survey captured a generation of black workers on the brink a major rupture in Pacific Coast waterfront history – the 1934 strike, which tied up the waterfront, triggered a general strike in San Francisco, and led to the formal recognition of all waterfront unions. Because the CMEBA had “generally remained aloof of labor organizations”, many NUMCS veterans of the 1921 strike were concerned that ship owners would exploit their friendly relationship with CMEBA and once again use black workers to break the strike. While the vast majority of white Union members remained adamantly opposed to the integration of the Union, a progressive committee from NUMCS – led by the Union’s President Eugene Burke – approached CMEBA in 1934 asking for “the cooperation of the Benevolent Association, with the understanding that if and when the strike was won, Negro stewards would be given special consideration.” Roston and his followers had successfully prevented CMEBA from taking any part in the 1932 strike, but by 1934, the tide in the organization had turned, and a new generation of young, radical, pro-Union black leadership emerged. These men – particularly Revels Cayton and Charlie Nichols - were instrumental in “mobilizing the Seattle negro community to support …the fight within the organization to change its company-union character.” Under their leadership, at least five hundred CMEBA members joined the Union on the picket lines in San Francisco, and in Seattle, “the majority of Negro Stewards participated in the strike.”

It was Nichols and Cayton who led black workers out of CMEBA and into NUMCS after the strike, but not without significant resistance and negotiation. Black workers were understandably reluctant to accept assurances from white workers – “they wanted to know what the hell, we’re giving up our security, what’s gonna happen?” Indeed, sailors and firemen, who had successfully established control over waterfront hiring, were refusing to allow non-union labor on the ships, and were threatening to throw CMEBA members “into the bay”. In San Francisco, black workers responded by “march[ing] up to the Marine Cooks and Stewards headquarters at 65 Commercial and…apply[ing] for membership.” Yet even after they were accepted as members, having come “right out of company union, blacks were barred off of practically all of the ships, all the passenger line ships, and freighters as well.” When the Admiral Line retired their three largest ships in winter 1935, putting two thousand black workers “on the beach”, the tension in the hiring hall was high – “the black guys [were] mad and scared…the white guys scared…and the ship owners against” employing black workers on “white only” ships.”

Revels Cayton

It was in this tenuous situation that a “small group of communists in the union”, led by Revels Cayton, were able to pass a resolution that established a system of union-controlled rotary hiring that protected both industry seniority and equal shipping rights regardless of race. This resolution accommodated both the white workers’ anxieties about steamship companies bypassing the Union and “shipping off the dock”, and the black workers’ desires to have equal access to job opportunities, and have their seniority in the industry protected. The “coming together of the Negroes looking for jobs and uniting with the most progressive elements among the white workers was the force that enabled us to really do a job in the Union.” With the membership of the Union formally agreeing “that it accepts as a cardinal principle…equal shipping rights for all members”, black workers and their progressive white allies thus had the mandate to both attack the “racial preferences” of shipping companies, and educate the white rank and file about the importance of “Negro-white unity”.

To ensure adequate “racial representation” and “beat the company union thinking among the blacks”, progressives and the “Admiral Line blacks” also negotiated a guarantee that “Negroes would always have a patrolman in San Francisco…and Seattle.” Revels Cayton explains that “this was giving them, as a minority, a guarantee of one representative, and at the same time not Jim Crow them insofar as they could run for any other job in the union.” This guarantee, combined with the election of a broad progressive slate in the general Union elections in 1938, provided black workers with the tools to translate the principles of equality into practice.

After the 1936/1937 strike, black workers began to press for immediate integration, demanding that Cayton (as Patrolman in San Francisco) enforce equal shipping rights on all passenger lines. In particular, “a couple of black waiters from the Admiral Line…were raising hell in the hall” refusing to accept jobs in a lower job category. In an undated letter to Cayton these waiters threatened that “if the Union does not see fit to make the necessary intercession for their colored brothers, it would only be justifiable that a committee of three picked experience colored men be organized to approach the Heads of the American President Lines” directly. Cayton responded by meeting with the executives, who refused to “send out an integrated crew”, but offered to trial an all-black crew on one of the President line ships. Arguing that while the Union established “equal shipping rights as a principle…that don’t mean we’re stupid, and can’t maneuver the situation,” he implored the 18 workers to accept the compromise for the precedent it would set. Although they were clearly unhappy about “a goddam Jim Crow proposition like that”, the workers ultimately took the jobs, thereby starting the process that resulted in “equal shipping rights for all waiters on the Matson Line, and all the lines.”

Union dispatchers – vested with the power to determine which workers were placed in the available jobs – set the pace of desegregation. In San Francisco, Paul Boyles – an openly gay, white member of the Communist Party – deliberately dispatched black workers to “white” jobs at a pace that alarmed Revels Cayton and won favor with militant black workers. Cayton recalls,

I was in the dispatch booth at the time, and Paul, when the cards came in handed it back to one of the black guys and said “you go down to that damn ship.” And he says, “you go on.” And there was a white patrolman who was really with all the old reactionary group…He said, “McCabe, you go with him and you get him on the goddamn ship!” And I said, “Paul, take it easy…your moving pretty quick.” He said, “Fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em, fuck ‘em! Put him on the goddamn ship!

Members of the MCS at work. Photo: Jerry Tyler Collection

In Seattle, after 1940, Charlie Nichols was similarly aggressive, dispatching “checkerboard” [black and white] stewards crews to the Alaska Steamship Line, where black members had worked only in the galley. Fred Woodson, who lived next door to Nichols and worked closely with him as a Union delegate, became the first black steward on the Alaska Line, after Nichols dispatched him ahead of a racist white worker who had less seniority. When Woodson got on board the ship and a white Chief Mate complained that he wouldn’t “sleep on the same floor as a nigger”, Nichols retorted that “if that son-of-a-bitch don’t want to sleep …on the same deck as you, why let him get the hell off of there.” Refusing to accept that white workers had the power to usurp the Union’s hiring prerogatives, Woodson and Nichols stood fast, forcing the captain to sail the ship with Woodson on it. Like the waiters on the American President Line in San Francisco, once Woodson had “broke the barrier down…everybody could come in.”

On the eve of World War II, militant job action had secured jobs for black workers on all the major Pacific Coast shipping lines. When President Roosevelt issued the historic Executive Order 8802, prohibiting job discrimination in the defense industries, the progressives in the NUMCS reminded the rank and file that “the policy of the MC&S on this question is identical.” Nevertheless, in 1943 the Union reaffirmed their now “traditional policy against racial discrimination”, passing a resolution:

That each and every delegate present at this conference…declare themselves in favor of the enforcement of the President’s order in the Maritime Industry, pledge themselves against the policy of Jim Crow Ships or any other form of discrimination on the ships and finally each here pledge to take all action within their individual power…to ensure compliance with Executive Order 8802.

The Union’s constitution was revised and the references to Asian labor replaced with a preamble “recognizing that organization is the only means by which seamen may hope for amelioration of the many evils attending our calling. With NUMCS committed, as almost all other unions, to a pledge not to strike and “Keep ‘em sailing” for the duration of the War, progressives couched their efforts for full racial equality in productionist rhetoric, arguing that “the war has proven that we were right, Torpedoes and bombs don’t discriminate. They fall with equal fury on white and black brothers. And both white and black brothers have shown equal courage and heroism in the face of danger. That’s why we fought Jim Crow to a successful finish on the Matson and American President Lines.” With the influx of new members, many of whom were from the South, the Union established – for the first time – a series of “minimum penalties” for “discrimination against other members because of race, color or creed.”

Marine Cooks and Stewards Christmas Party, date unknown.
Photo: Jerry Tyler Collection

Indeed, the war triggered a significant shift in the racial demography of the Union. With the onset of hostilities in 1941, privately owned steamships came under the control of the Federal Government, and the size of the Merchant Marine fleet increased drastically in order to meet war manpower needs. The membership of the Union increased rapidly from 4,500 in 1941 to 15,000 by 1945, and many of these new members were black migrants who found themselves excluded from non-war private employment. “After the whistle blew on VJ Day in ’45”, “many white brothers…left the union but…the Negro brothers stayed, since employment opportunities were pretty much closed to them.” “At the same time the shipyards shut down, and the first fired, being those who had been last hired – the Negro workers – flocked to our Hall, since they couldn’t then, nor can they now work as Firemen, Sailors, Engineers, Mates and Radio Officers.” By 1953, “80% or more [had] joined our Union” after the war. Although it is difficult to provide an exact estimate, by the 1950’s the Union was around 50% black.

The NUMCS emerged from WWII with a new generation of migrant black workers as the Union’s core membership, and a new radical leadership cadre who had defeated conservatives in Seattle in the 1944 elections. These changes, contingent on the struggles of the earlier generation of activist stewards, had a profound effect on the political articulation of the Union, increasing the Union’s attentiveness to and involvement in, the West Coast’s burgeoning black communities. By the mid-1950’s, many black workers testified that the Union had “taught [them] not to bend to any man”, and “qualified more men to walk the earth in dignity, not only in labor but in our social life.”