World War II and the New Deal had transformed maritime labor. Once on the fringe of society, civilian mariners had made great strides in improving their wages, benefits and working conditions.
Still, the founders of the MTD were acutely aware that American seamen were not that far removed from a time when they were little better than chattel. Rather than regarding the MTD as an entirely new entity, they viewed it as part of the seaman’s longstanding battle for equality.
Up until the early 20th century, the maritime industry was synonymous with floggings, brutality, unsafe working conditions and a casual indifference to human life. In order to secure employment, merchant mariners often were forced to participate in the notorious “crimp” system, where they were grossly overcharged for room and board in exchange for employment.
Once a seaman signed the ship’s articles, he was tied to a vessel for the duration of the voyage. No matter how justified (inhumane treatment, potential loss of life), leaving a ship before the end of a journey was a crime. Under an early sea code, desertion was punishable by death. In most jurisdictions, it usually led to imprisonment.
Andrew Furuseth, a Norwegian immigrant, who, in the first part of the 20th century, became the face of the modern seaman’s movement, summed up conditions for most U.S. mariners when he said: “You can put me in jail, but you cannot give me narrower quarters than as a seaman I have always had. You cannot give me coarser food than I have always eaten. You cannot make me lonelier than I have always been.”
The New Deal and World War II changed that. The first brought better conditions; the latter gained hard-won respectability.
Indeed, U.S. mariners had played an indispensable role during World War II. These were the people who had suffered one of the highest casualty rates of the war.
They were the ones who, at great personal risk, had kept our British and Russian allies supplied during the extremely dangerous North Atlantic and Murmansk runs.
During one four-month period in 1944 (June-October, or D-Day and its aftermath), they helped land 2.5 million troops, 17 million tons of ammunition and a half-million trucks. As Winston Churchill noted, they were “heroes in dungarees.”