by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
The sinking of the Titanic on April 15, 1912, became an international news story even before actual details of the event emerged. The speed and force with which the story took hold of the public’s sympathy and imagination translated into a new level of focus on the issue of safety at sea. Merchant and passenger vessels in 1912 were still a highly unregulated, often unsafe place to work. Just 14 years earlier in 1898, the White Act passed in the United States Congress, banning—for the first time—corporal punishment at sea. Before 1898, seafarers’ superiors could punish them for any perceived disobedience with the whip and the cat o’ nine tails. If a seafarer abandoned his vessel, he could face arrest and the subsequent forced return to his employer—much like the Fugitive Slave law.
Abolishing such practices remained a relatively new concept in 1912. The period of reform that marked the first decade of the 20th century coincided with the emergence of seamen’s unions, many of which had their East Coast headquarters in lower Manhattan. These conditions made the Titanic disaster a touchstone event in the history of the movement for maritime workers’ rights.
News that the Titanic’s crew would attend a church service at the American Seamen’s Friend Society spread fast among the city’s news reporters. Anxious to get firsthand accounts of the event and insights into what had caused the accident, a swarm of reporters descended on the Society on West Street, conducting interviews and printing a slew of articles in the days following featuring quotations from the crew. In general, most expressed displeasure with the circumstances surrounding the accident. Some complaints began while the survivors were still in the icy water, calling attention to the “millionaire’s boat” that supposedly carried Mrs. John Jacob Astor. The crew who were lucky enough to man that boat were rewarded in gold upon reaching safety, whereas other boats holding third-class passengers received no such compensation.
For the surviving crew, their pay schedules stopped the day the Titanic went down, leaving them short on cash for the support of their families. As AB Ralph White put it, “It would have been better had we all gone down with the ship as in that case our families would have been provided for by the workingmen’s compensation law, and we would not have faced actual starvation as now seems to be our lot.”
The unrest made its way back to England, where the White Star Line sent survivors on board the Lapland on April 20. Four days later, when the Titanic’s sister ship RMS Olympic was set to sail from Southampton, dozens of firemen walked off and refused to return to work. The striking crew questioned the reliability of the collapsible lifeboats on board, citing the Titanic disaster in their support, and rallied noisily on the quay, leaving the Olympic’s passengers stranded on board. After brief negotiations with the White Star Line, 54 of the striking firemen were arrested and charged with mutiny. In the end, the judge ruled that no jail time would be served due to the circumstances preceding the strike.
Two months later, across the Atlantic in New York, tens of thousands of seafarers walked off their jobs on June 29, 1912. The White Act had been a significant win for seamen in 1898, and the unions looked to take the next step in 1912, demanding improvements to the quality of food and sleeping quarters in addition to a revised wage contract. When the city’s longshoremen failed to join the striking seamen in significant numbers, the movement lost speed and dissolved into violence. Several police officers and strikers were shot to death along the waterfront, with riots breaking out just outside the doors of SCI's new headquarters.
Despite the apparent failure of the strikes, the goal of reform for maritime worker’s rights did not die out. On the contrary, public enthusiasm picked up the issue, along with advocates like SCI’s J. Augustus Johnson, head of the Seamen’s Branch of the Legal Aid Society and the leader of SCI’s advocacy efforts. Building on inquiries into the cause of the accident conducted in the U.S. and in London, a string of bills passed improving conditions within the maritime industry. The Radio Act of 1912 established standards requiring qualified operators and communication between the radio room and the bridge. The United States Coast Guard established the International Ice Patrol in 1914 to identify and observe the movement of potentially dangerous ice floes close to shipping lanes. And in 1915, the Seamen's Act, known as the Magna Carta of seafarers' rights, passed, establishing standards for accommodations and provision of food as well as setting a nine hour work day while in port and strengthening a clause prohibiting the imprisonment of seafarers who desert their vessel.
The successful movement towards reform and a safer maritime workplace, perhaps more than any other facet of the story, remains the most lasting legacy of the Titanic’s sinking.