Labor Struggles on New York City’s Waterfront: A Visual History

Aug 27, 2012

by Alexandra Dolan-Mescal, Queens College Graduate School of Library and Information Studies

The Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) has always strived to promote the welfare of maritime workers. The market crash of 1929 hurt the maritime industry much as it did other industries across the United States. Even with the help of charitable organizations like SCI, seafarers faced unemployment and homelessness and struggled to find a way to survive.

Working conditions for seafarers had deteriorated throughout the 1920s and only got worse as the Great Depression set in. Skilled mariners were in high demand during World War I, and they secured steady wages, good living conditions and job security from shipowners. When wartime contracts ended in 1921, shipowners gave immediate notices of wage cuts. The International Seamen’s Union, strong and active at the beginning of the century, stumbled administratively in the early 1920s and was unable to strike successfully against the cuts.

By 1929, very few seafarers maintained an active association with a labor union. Shipowners lowered wages and cut meals, driving men to work longer shifts with smaller living quarters. As life on board ship became unbearable, many men went in search of better jobs. Fewer vessels went out to sea, leaving maritime workers homeless and without money, as most received only enough wages to get by until the next ship came in. Moreover, shipping companies set up blacklists with the names of deserters, making it increasingly difficult for men to get decent work. Organizations like SCI, the Jane Street Mission, and the Seamen’s Christian Friend Society found themselves overwhelmed with the number of seafarers seeking relief.

The period of the early 1930s saw seafarers—along with workers in all industries—organize into unions to fight for better working conditions. On the New York waterfront, the Marine Transport Workers of the International Workers of the World, the Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) of the Communist Party, and various local Unemployed Councils sprang into action, calling on maritime workers to rally together.

SCI gathered flyers and other print material from groups active on the NYC waterfront, seeking to understand the needs of seafarers and create a record of their struggles.  As part of my graduate studies at Queens College, I delved into SCI’s archives to create the exhibit Labor Struggles on New York’s Waterfront: A Visual History, selecting documents that show how maritime workers used print media to spread their message.

Explore the visual exhibit here.