Maritime workers used the favorable economic conditions prevailing in the 1950s to become firmly enmeshed in the middle class. MTD-affiliated unions won impressive wage increases for their members and began establishing pensions, welfare and vacation plans, clinics and scholarship programs. Shipboard conditions continued to improve.
Meanwhile, the MTD began beefing up its Washington operations. An important turning point came with the enactment of the Cargo Preference Act of 1954, which set aside a certain percent of all government-impelled cargoes for U.S.-flag vessels. By generating a steady source of cargo for U.S.-flag companies, it helped to preserve a viable U.S.-flag fleet.
Important changes were occurring in the maritime industry. For example, the rise of cross-Atlantic air travel had devastating consequences for the lucrative passenger vessel industry.
Other changes were just as far-reaching. In 1957 a new era in shipping was ushered in when the Gateway City became the first fully containerized vessel in the world. It placed a premium on space, which rendered port areas like the West Side of Manhattan obsolete. By wedding trucking and shipping, it ushered in a new era of intermodalism. And it drastically cut down the amount of time a vessel needed to spend in a port.
Automation cut down the number of people needed to crew a vessel as well as load and offload it. It also put a premium on workers who could handle sophisticated equipment. MTD-affiliated unions responded to these technological advances by beefing up their training programs and making their members more competitive and productive.
America’s deep-sea fleet continued to decline because of the tremendous growth of FOC registries. The MTD and its affiliated maritime unions fought the problem in a number of ways. They gave strong support to the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) campaign against FOC registries. They highlighted the issue on Capitol Hill, appearing at numerous hearings. They sent representatives to meetings of the International Labor Organization and the International Maritime Organization to enhance standards in the international community. At home, MTD unions tried to organize FOC vessels on a case-by-case basis.
The very nature of the FOC registries posed a unique legal question. Could unions organize vessels owned by American companies if those vessels were technically registered under foreign flags? The NLRB grappled with this question. By the end of the decade a definite trend had emerged. The courts applied a “contacts-test” to the vessel. The fewer contacts that an FOC vessel had with its nation of registry, then the more likely that the NLRB would say that it fell under the jurisdiction of American labor laws. However, this whole promising trend was stopped dead in its tracks in 1963 when the Supreme Court handed down a decision, Beltzer v. United States, which said that the NLRB had no jurisdiction over FOC vessels regardless of what kind of contacts they had with the nation of registry.
The 1950s were also a period of change for the labor movement. Under the leadership of George Meany, the American Federation of Labor and the Congress of Industrial Organizations buried the hatchet and entered into an historic merger. A figure of immense importance, Meany remains, for many, the personification of the American labor movement. MTD officials and trade union activists served as foot soldiers and advisers in one of his most stirring campaigns—the fight to ensure a clean and democratic trade union movement by taking on elements associated with organized crime.