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National Maritime Union
Founded May 1937
Merged Seafarers International Union of North America (June 3, 2001)
Country United States
Affiliation Congress of Industrial Organizations, later AFL-CIO
Office location New York City, New York

The National Maritime Union (NMU) was an American labor union founded in May 1937. It affiliated with the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) in July 1937. After a failed merger in 1988, the union merged with the Seafarers International Union of North America in 2001.


Early years

Seamen in hiring hall, NMU banner, New York City, December 1941. (Photograph: Arthur Rothstein)

The NMU was founded in 1936 by Joseph Curran, who was at the time an able seaman and boatswain aboard the ocean liner S.S. California. Although he was a member of the International Seamen's Union (ISU), he was not active in union activities.

From March 1 to March 4, 1936, Curran led a strike aboard the Panama Pacific Line's S.S. California, then docked in San Pedro, California. Curran and the crew of the California went on what was essentially a sitdown strike[1] at sailing time, refusing to cast off the lines unless wages were increased and overtime paid.[2][3][4]

United States Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins personally intervened to resolve the strike. Speaking to the crew by telephone, Perkins agreed to arrange a grievance hearing once the ship docked at its destination in New York City, and that there would be no reprisals by the company or government against Curran and the strikers.[2][3][4]

During the California's return trip, the Panama Pacific Line raised wages by $5 a month to $60 per month.[1] But United States Secretary of Commerce Daniel Roper and the Panama Pacific Line declared Curran and the strikers mutineers. Curran and other top strike leaders were fined two day's pay, fired and blacklisted, but Perkins was able to keep the strikers from being prosecuted for mutiny.[2][3][4]

Seaman all along the East Coast struck to protest the treatment of the California's crew. Curran became a leader of the 10-week strike, eventually forming a supportive association known as the Seamen's Defense Committee. In October 1936, Curran called a second strike, in part to improve working conditions and in part to embarrass the ISU. The four-month strike idled 50,000 seamen and 300 ships along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.[1][3][5]

Believing it was time to abandon the conservative International Seamen's Union, Curran began to sign up members for a new, rival union. The level of organizing was so intense that hundreds of ships delayed their sailing time as seamen listened to organizers and signed union cards.[6]

In May 1937, Curran and other leaders of his Seamen's Defense Committee reconstituted the group as the National Maritime Union. It held its first convention in July, and 30,000 seamen left the ISU to join the NMU. Curran was elected president of the new organization. The black, Jamaican-born Ferdinand Smith was elected as the union's secretary-treasurer.[1][2][3] Within a year, the NMU had more than 50,000 members, and most American shippers were under contract.[1][6]

Immediately after the NMU's founding convention in July 1937, Curran and other seamen's union leaders were invited by John L. Lewis to come to Washington, D.C., to form a major organizing drive among ship and port workers. The unions comprising the CIO had been ejected by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in November 1936, and now Lewis wanted to launch a maritime union. His goal was to create a union as large and influential as the Steel Workers Organizing Committee out of the nation's 300,000 maritime workers. Although Lewis favored Harry Bridges, president of the Pacific Coast District of the International Longshoremen's Association, to lead the new maritime industrial union, the other union leaders balked. Curran agreed to affiliate with the CIO, but refused to let Bridges or anyone else take over his union. His views were reflected among those of the other union leaders, and the CIO's maritime industrial union never got off the ground.[6]

By 1946, the NMU had 46 branches, a staff of 500, and 73,000 members.[5]


In 1988, the NMU agreed to merge with the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association (MEBA) to form District 1, MEBA-NMU. The merger did not last. MEBA members charged that the merger referendum was rigged by MEBA president C. E. "Gene" DeFries. The accusations were serious enough that the United States Department of Justice began an investigation. Union members were even more outraged when they learned DeFries and five other union officers paid themselves more than $2 million in severance payments. During the course of their findings, a group of MEBA members (Led by Alex Shandrowsky, Jesse Calhoon, and Don Keefe) peacefully occupied MEBA's Headquarters in Washington, DC after DeFries refused to disclose information to Union Members. DeFries and others were later indicted for crimes relating to their manipulation of union elections and misuse of union offices. U.S. v DeFries (et al.) became the first successful criminal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO) prosecution of the governing body of a labor organization, which resulted in the conviction of 18 officials of MEBA), for RICO, RICO conspiracy, embezzlement, extortion, and mail fraud. NMU disaffiliated from the Marine Engineers in 1993.

Louis Parise was elected the newly independent union's president.

In 1999, the NMU became an autonomous affiliate of the Seafarers International Union of North America, and in 2001 it fully merged with that union.


See also


  1. ^ a b c d e Schwartz, Brotherhood of the Sea: The Sailors' Union of the Pacific, 1885-1985, 1986.
  2. ^ a b c d Barbanel, "Joseph Curran, 75, Founder of National Maritime Union," New York Times, August 15, 1981.
  3. ^ a b c d e Kempton, Part of Our Time: Some Monuments and Ruins of the Thirties, 1998 (1955).
  4. ^ a b c "Retired Union Boss Joseph Curran Dies," Associated Press, August 14, 1981.
  5. ^ a b "Politics and Pork Chops," Time, June 17, 1946.
  6. ^ a b c "C.I.O. Goes to Sea," Time, July 19, 1937.


  • Barbanel, Josh. "Joseph Curran, 75, Founder of National Maritime Union." New York Times. August 15, 1981.
  • Butler, John A. Sailing on Friday: The Perilous Voyage of America's Merchant Marine. Washington, D.C.: Potomac Books, 1997. ISBN 1574881248
  • "C.I.O. Goes to Sea." Time. July 19, 1937.
  • Goldberg, Joseph P. The Maritime Story: A Study in Labor-Management Relations. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958.
  • Herbert, Brian. The Forgotten Heroes: The Heroic Story of the United States Merchant Marine. New York: Forge Books, 2004. ISBN 0765307065
  • Horne, Gerald. Red Seas: Ferdinand Smith and Radical Black Sailors in the United States and Jamaica. New York: New York University Press, 2005. ISBN 0814736688
  • Kempton, Murray. Part of Our Time: Some Monuments and Ruins of the Thirties. Hardcover reprint ed. New York: Random House, 1998. (Originally published in 1955.) ISBN 0679603107
  • "Maritime Union Officials Convicted on Racketeering Charges." Press release. U.S. Dept. of Justice. July 6, 1995. Accessed February 14, 2007.
  • "Politics and Pork Chops." Time. June 17, 1946.
  • "Retired Union Boss Joseph Curran Dies." Associated Press. August 14, 1981.
  • Schwartz, Stephen. Brotherhood of the Sea: The Sailors' Union of the Pacific, 1885-1985. New York: Transaction Publishers, 1986. ISBN 0887381219
  • Shorrock, Tim. "Labor Leaders Dissolve Merger of MEBA, NMU." Journal of Commerce. June 8, 1993.
  • Shorrock, Tim. "Two Former MEBA Leaders Indicted." Journal of Commerce. July 1, 1993.
  • "SIU-A&G and NMU Set Merger Vote." West Coast Sailors. April 20, 2001.

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