Communists on the Waterfront: Pat Whelan

Part 2 of a three-part series on neglected histories of Maryland Radicalism.

In May 1937, Pat Whelan, a merchant seaman, unionist and Communist, led a dramatic midnight march of National Maritime Union (NMU) members from Baltimore to the Capitol building in DC where they met a delegation of seamen who had traveled from New York to demand that Congress overturn legislation requiring workers to carry continuous discharge papers. Workers termed these documents “fink books” because they carried officer comments on insubordination or union activism and thus could easily lead to blacklisting.

In the background was the bloody 1936-37 strike that established the National Maritime Union. Shipping companies – at the time a powerful lobbying force with strength akin to that of today’s oil industry – rushed through Congress the discharge measure prior to the strike. The newly formed union was not yet strong enough to eliminate the requirement to carry the book through its first contract agreement. So they used their newly recognized union to take direct political action – the combination of shipboard and electoral action their source of power – and Congress rescinded the measure. The union’s victory was testament to the determination of seamen who just a decade earlier had been amongst the worst-paid, most ill-treated, of any section of the working class. That Baltimore was at the center of that change was natural, for during the 1930s, the city was the third-largest port on the East Coast. Of the 300 ships idled on the East and Gulf coasts during that strike, 44 were tied up at its harbor.

And although it is little remembered today, it is no surprise that the Communist Party was prominent, for, although small in absolute numbers, Communists played an outsized role in the local labor movement. Al Lannon, whose working life had been spent on the sea, lived and shipped out of Baltimore and became the national leader of the Communist Party’s maritime workers section – a role he played openly as a union member and a strike leader. Waterfront militancy grew out of the tradition of the IWW and AFL’s prior organizations – before defeat and demoralization left the shell of an AFL union in the hands of organized crime on the ship owners’ payroll. But it was also based on their experiences in foreign ports – in Lannon’s case, his interaction with Soviet seamen when his ship docked at ports in the USSR. Lannon helped form the nucleus of people with little experience with organized labor but a lot of experience with sticking up for themselves and finding mutual support with other workers at a time when there was nowhere else to turn. Pat Whelan, a seaman in the worst of times, was among those who found their way to unionism and socialism in that manner.

Whelan earned his reputation in 1934, in the midst of the Depression which cut trade and left the waterfront filled with hunger, when he organized unemployed seamen to physically take over relief offices and hiring halls to make sure there were no kickbacks for getting assistance or being dispatched to a job – a successful action copied in other ports around the country and a key step on the road to building the NMU. His role in that action led to him being elected head of the Baltimore strike committee in 1936. In that position, Whelan led an aggressive campaign against the racism which was ever-present in harbors and on shipboard – attacking Baltimore’s segregation laws through a form of direct action similar to that he used at those relief offices and hiring halls. Groups of black and white seamen were organized to go together into port bars and order rounds of drinks for each other. When they were refused, as required by city ordinances at the time, Whelan, or one of the others, would smash a glass against the wall or mirror behind the bar; other seamen would join in. After other waterfront bars received the same treatment, blacks were served – and there was no more talk of local laws about denying service to anyone anymore at the harbor (though still in force everywhere else).

After 1938, shipping lines made use of an old law that allowed them to discriminate in hiring (assigning workers jobs based on race or nationality), in violation of anti-discrimination clauses the NMU negotiated in its union contracts. Whelan used the tactic employed against the discharge books by leading another march of seamen from Baltimore to DC as part of a concerted effort to eliminate that practice – backed up by strong union hiring halls and union shipboard enforcement of equal treatment contract clauses, shipping companies were effectively prevented from denying black (or East Asian) workers jobs, or segregating jobs or bunk mates.

This focus on making opposition to racist practices an intrinsic part of union negotiations and political action was at the center of the Communist Party’s labor activity. Members and leaders recognized that the only way to build mass unions was by refusing to compromise on equality. This was especially critical in a city like Baltimore where the racial divide and prior AFL union tolerance or active promotion of job discrimination had left bitter memories. Their principled policy on this is why the NMU was successful (nationally as well as locally despite the extreme prejudice of more than a few seamen). For seamen like Whelan or Lannon, it deepened their world view so that a commitment to unionism and a commitment to socialism merged. Because of this approach the Communist Party was able to build a base of support amongst black steel workers at Sparrows Point (the world’s largest steel mill – now closed) and from that played a key role in organizing the union at the mill and able to play a more open and public role in the local labor movement as compared to other cities.

George Meyers, the son and grandson of coal miners (with family members having been part of the Molly Maguires), grew up in western Maryland. With mines closing, he began work at an artificial silk factory in Cumberland where conditions were awful. Having grown up in a mining community, he knew that the answer was organization, and so he began a drive that led to the organization of the 13,000 workers employed there – a campaign that led him to join the Communist Party. Meyers later led an organizing drive at the old Glenn Martin Aircraft Factory in Middle River (in Baltimore County) with over 35,000 workers. In each instance he made opposition to discrimination in hiring and job placement central to the organizing. Meyers and Whelan, friends as well as political allies, had an impact that was widely recognized at the time – Meyers was elected as President of the CIO’s Maryland/DC State Labor Council in 1939, when Whelan was serving as president of Baltimore’s city-wide CIO council.

Central to the experiences of many seamen who were radicalized was awareness of the conditions facing workers in other parts of the world. Waterfront workers were early vocal opponents of Nazi Germany and of Fascist Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia, as well as strong supporters of Republican Spain; Harry Hynes, the seaman who had been Lannon’s predecessor as head of the Communist Party’s waterfront work, was a Lincoln Brigade volunteer killed fighting fascism in Spain. Whelan’s next step was similarly motivated by anti-fascism. In 1941 he was serving as NMU’s port agent (roughly equivalent to a local union president). However, after Pearl Harbor, he stepped down from his union position and went back to sea to support the war effort. Merchant seamen carrying supplies and materials to Europe died in greater numbers than any branch of the military in the first year of the war – and Whalen was amongst the fatalities. Unlike today, he was a well-known figure in his time. All ships have names, so waterfront unionists demanded that one at least should bear the name of an actual seaman . A campaign was launched and in 1943 a ship was christened the “Pat Whalen,” the only ship named after a seaman, named after a unionist, named after a Communist.

So too, public pressure led to the appointment of Hugh Mulzac, also an NMU member, once part of the Garvey movement, by the 1930s a close collaborator with Communists, to become the first black to captain a U.S. registered merchant ship. But with Cold War repression, everything changed – and quickly. Mulzac had his papers taken and was blacklisted – the same fate that befell Al Lannon and more than 2,000 other merchant seamen (and no doubt would have been Whelan’s fate as well). Communists were removed from all CIO offices and were not legally allowed to serve in any union office. Later in the 1950s, Meyers and Lannon were arrested, tried, convicted and jailed for refusing to recant their Communist convictions. With the end of the New Deal came a right-wing shift in U.S. national politics that included Democratic acquiescence and the acquiescence of labor leaders who now turned inward in program and action.

Much was lost as a consequence – in particular making the fight against racism central as part of union organizing, union negotiations, union workplace and political action. Lost too was the broader vision that would challenge U.S. foreign policy and challenge the right of corporations to run their businesses as they please. Baltimore’s port is no longer as central as it was, because Baltimore steel and other industries have long departed, leaving little in their wake but poverty and hopelessness on one side, a fragile gentrification on the other. Yet those struggles that Whelan and others conducted to build strong, progressive industrial unions were not in vain – they made a difference to workers’ lives in their own time and they created a basis upon which future efforts have and will continue to build.

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