In 1988 the New York Tugboat industry went on strike and at first it looked like any other strike. There were a lot of harsh words, idle threats, and posturing as expected preceding a hard won but anticipated negotiated settlement. That is, until the replacement workers arrived ala Ronald Reagan and the Air Traffic Controllers.
Union member Steve Oravets, veteran NY boatman and union reformer relates how one company saw fit to remove a union crew and replace them without warning; “My brother was aboard the Tug Spartan when the entire crew was informed by company radio to collect all personal belongings and get off the boat. They were immediately replaced by scabs accompanied by “Knuckles Security” Guards. They were tied up at Hess, Keasby that day. It was one week before the strike vote occurred.”
The company owners went with hiring replacement workers from the southeastern United States and the Gulf of Mexico (the oil patch), for half the wage scale of the union membership. These men were coming from an even more depressed labor market and gladly accepted the meager wages.
It was plain that the companies wanted to replace their union people and move ahead without playing ball at the negotiating table. The scenario played out for many other boats as more outfits installed the replacement workforce and abandoned their cooperation with the union’s leadership. Some outfits did attempt to stay the course and negotiate with the union in good faith, but the union was steadfast in resisting the companies insistence that, wages must be cut, the Captains removed from the bargaining unit since they were “supervisors”, and “the cooks must go”.
The wage packages were not necessarily the biggest sticking point since many of the proposed contracts were in line with the normal and expected issues that would have been discussed, but bundled together the lockouts, the captains, the wage cuts, and cook issues pushed the union to a strike vote.
Strikes by nature are meant to exert pressure by withholding critical union provided services. It’s Labor’s most disruptive and difficult device, but its effectiveness can’t be underestimated. New York City Tugboats enable a great deal of commerce within their scope and service every sector of society moving goods as well as removing the debris of day to day life.
It follows that the pressure would cause those directly and indirectly affected by the loss of services to lean on those in a position to restore the service with an acceptable contract, as when the then-mayor of New York, The Honorable William O’Dwyer found his office directly involved in settling the Tugboat Strike of 1946.
While referring to an article published in the New York Times editorial section on August 3, 1988, I found it was easy to agree that the union could never recreate the interruptions of service the 1946 tugboat strike brought to New York City’s doorstep. By 1988, pipelines for natural gas, electric power lines from powerhouses, and major highways had long since come into existence And legally, there was no immediate remedy available to deny the companie’s replacement workers from crewing the boats.
In 1946, the infrastructure of container ports, superhighways and pipelines to carry the goods feeding and warming the city were still decades away so the needs of the city were generally transported on the water. The marine industry and railroads sustained that lifeline. Malcom McLean wouldn’t conceive containerization until 1956 and that innovation wouldn’t attain any real large scale foothold until almost twenty years later so break bulk cargo was the norm.
The infrastructure of container ports, super highways and pipelines to carry the goods feeding and warming the city were still decades away. The idea that replacement workers might take the place of these mariners was unlikely in those days. The harbor was dramatically more “rough and tumble” then and strikebreakers were not likely to weather the storm very well.
In 1988, the replacement workers were the final nails in the coffin of any weight that might have been brought to bear and their arrival left a heavy cloud hanging over the working men of this industry that few would note, except for those of us on tugs. The harbor still appeared as busy as ever, but unless you were a boatman you’d have never known there was a strike. There wasn’t anything more the men of United Marine Division Local 333 could do, their leadership never seriously considered the offers since a stand was being taken to preserve the cooks and assert the power of the leadership.
Of the nearly 2,800 union tugboat workers only a few men had crossed the line forever to be marked as “scabs”, the men who “stayed out” suffered for their union loyalty in the most humbling ways. Mortgages defaulted, cars were repossessed, and marriages crumbled under the stress of voluntary unemployment.
Union brotherhood came under the real world strain of making a choice of principle over poverty, very few had their options well defined. I can’t imagine a more Herculean task than to defend union solidarity to a hungry child.
Retirement plans that loomed in the very near future evaporated as the means to earn a living and pay the bills trumped the instinct to save for the golden years, and instead savings were tapped to make ends meet. A very bitter pill indeed.
Proud careers in the industry were shelved as its once proud and independent workforce was left to find work wherever it could, for whatever it paid.
Among the reasons that were cited by the companies in refusing the union demands was that running a tug in New York Harbor cost twice that of elsewhere in the nation. The companies sought relief, and a higher profit margin.
The union for its part was firm in trying to prevent the loss of any positions on the boats in general, but the cross-hairs were firmly fixed on removing the captains from the bargaining unit, removing the cooks completely, and cutting the daily wage scale of every man on the boat. The companies were firm, the union unbending.
Most of the towing companies in the harbor belonged to the New York Marine Towing Association, which bargained with the union as a single unit and many members of that Association did not wish to renew their relationship with the union en masse and as such decided to discontinue bargaining with the Union as part of that group once the binding contracts expired. The few companies that stayed the course with negotiations did so until it was clear there was no averting a strike.
In the past the Association members would comply as one with the details of any union agreement but now the owners splintered off and refused to agree to any details not in their own best interests. There was theoretically any number of contracts that could be negotiated with each one unique to the company involved, or no contract at all since the companies were no longer bound to negotiate with the union after the expiration date of the then current contracts. A tiny fraction of the union membership would have a contract to work under for the next decade or so.
The Docking Masters did not strike in sympathy. They continued to dock and sail their charges using the replacement workers as best they could.
The Longshoremen did not strike in sympathy, they continued to work and watched as their job market also showed a marked decline.
In the beginning, the strike had it’s violent moments and shots were indeed fired, but I did not hear of anyone actually being shot. It’s no secret that the Eklof tugs (now K-Sea) that were running in the creeks were affixed with cages around the wheelhouse windows to prevent any thrown or launched objects from breaking the windows, a very real concern in the early days of this strike. The striking union men saw the presence of the replacement workers as the ultimate insult. Their homes-away-from-home were now in the hands of interlopers who had no right to be there. Violence was a foregone conclusion.
A fire bomb was dropped on a tow plying Jamaica Bay from the Northern Blvd Bridge. Luckily the tankerman had the cargo tanks properly secured and was quick to extinguish the flames. No one was caught in that incident since the crew aboard was a little occupied with trying to not blow up, and seeing who did it wouldn’t have been possible anyway.
*Recency had yet to be codified as we now know it until six years after the strike began, and it isn’t any secret that the Federal government turned a blind eye on the mayhem that ensued. The U.S.C.G. ignored and flat-out refused to take a look at the guys running the boats when the strike was in full swing, no *Operation “Big Tow” then. If the U.S.C.G. ever commented on their actions or lack thereof, I was unable to uncover any documentation to illustrate their mind-set. I can only relate what I witnessed.
The first wave of these replacement workers wrought havoc on the piers and buoys of the harbor. They were running each other over in the Kills, Hell Gate, and stopping (involuntarily) at the Astoria Wall under the Hell Gate RR Bridge for a chat with the locals, even putting black oil barges aground on East Bank near Norton Point in the NY Lower Bay. Tugs were frequently seen towing in Ambrose Channel with their tow wires “banjo-stringing” all the way in.
[To "banjo string" the wire; When towing on a shortened tow cable (necessary for entering most harbors), the term refers to what happens when the towing vessel and barge are out of sync in the sea, the waves act differently on each vessel and force the wire to be brought up tight and pulled into a straight line above the water (tight as a banjo string). This is an extremely dangerous situation since shock-loading the wire very close to its breaking point could cause the tug to break its tow wire and lose the tow.]
With the workforce initially so completely clueless with their area of operation, how their insurers let them slide by is anyone’s guess. The money saved by lower crew costs were surely going to the insurance deductibles. The Coast Guard never answered for its lack of oversight.
Curiously enough there was no media uproar, it was all very scary.
In retrospect, it’s difficult to hold the replacement workers up for blame since they too were trying to feed their families and make a living. It’s not clear if they knew or cared how big of a hornet’s nest awaited them, the money they stood to make in New York far exceeded the wages they were seeing in the collapsing oil-patch industry. In the beginning these men were at risk from an angry union membership, but no notable harm to men or equipment was reported. Whether it was from fatigue or lack of means or both, the Union’s leaders and membership eventually turned toward the courts for relief.
In the years that followed, some of the towing companies made peace with the union and signed agreements, and a few did not. Lawsuits were filed for unfair labor practice and took many years to come to a conclusion. The courts were asked to consider how a few companies jumped-the-gun and locked out their union people a week or more before the end of the legal contract. An issue that took years to settle, at pennies on the dollar.
Union boats would never see the cooks reinstated. Weekend overtime disappeared and the captains would not rejoin the bargaining unit. On top of that, getting a relief was made even more difficult due to the lack of qualified people. It was bad enough your wages were cut, now you couldn’t get off the boat unless you were willing to quit.
Although many of the experienced men who were forced out of the industry since the strike have returned to work, a large number never returned. This has had an industry-wide, debilitating effect on the pool of experienced men left to hand down the knowledge and skill sets of a New York tugboat man.
The union suffered through an ordeal that caused its membership to shrink, it’s influence to wane, and it’s principles to slip. Attorneys with the National Labor Relations Board had offered (then-president Al Cornette) to press an appeal against Bouchard Oil Transport after its initial “unfair practices” case was settled. Even though these attorneys believed they had a good chance to reverse the settlement and get the captains and cooks re-instated at no cost to the membership, this offer was not accepted. The leadership of the local was seen as guilty of hubris and were brought to task for their decisions and self serving behaviors. The union’s old guard of the “all powerful” leaders had failed to consider and/or utilize the power of the modern communication age and so isolated themselves from their members. That failure among many others, would pave the way for their ousters.
For years after the strike, as the membership suffered and scraped by, the leadership appeared to turn a blind eye to by-laws and due process. Their actions showed how they felt free to ignore , or in some cases, create rules to serve their own needs over that of the membership. The leadership prospered, collecting dual salaries well in excess of what any member could possibly earn. Many of the subsequent contracts that were offered up for ratification had the stench of a back-room deal with the companies. It was demoralizing how the negotiating committees would hash out an agreement only to have the union representatives already shaking hands with management on a prearranged understanding. This as recently as 3 years ago.
Many members like Mr. Steve Oravets saw this as an affront to the union’s charter and membership and sought remedies that would cause many, including himself, to suffer blackballing by the leadership and employers. After many years he now finds himself reinstated and serving the membership on Bay Street, Staten Island, N.Y. as he had hoped he could.
Thanks to the advent of the industry seeing more access to the Internet and a younger tech-savvy generation of mariners, the leadership’s perceived corruption and collusion over the years was exposed, discussed, and dissected. And recently, it was enough to bring an end to their reign.
In a gut wrenching, drawn out electoral slug fest that threatened to destroy the union. U.M.D. Local#333 came through intact and saw a new and hopefully improved mandate in the final election results. The Internet had a huge role in contributing to the informing and uniting of a dissolute and depressed union membership thus spurring it to clean house and install a fresh, (hopefully) more honest, educated, and youthful leadership. It remains to be seen if the momentum can be sustained.
The results from labor negotiations of the last few years here in New York are testament to the dearth of qualified personnel. The companies began courting talent and some even tried headhunting/raiding (H.O.S for one), we can thank them for bringing the wage scale back up to where it should have been all these years. Some expansions we’re witnessing are being slowed by the lack of licensed and unlicensed personnel.
The want ads that were once devoid of any real marine employment opportunities now teem with banners seeking “New York Harbor and Northeast” experience. The value of the New York tugboat men has become the standard sought and courted by the large oil transporters operating here in the Northeast.
The regulatory trend has swung in the direction that favors the mariner for now. With credentials so difficult to acquire, we can actually thank the USCG for making us a bankable commodity. Replacement workers these days would cost a small fortune in pilot fees under the new regulations. There would be little benefit in starting from scratch since the customers want their cargoes moved safely and legally, since their liability is so very costly under the “strict liability” clauses of the Clean Water Act and O.P.A. 90.
Companies are now treating their workforce more as a valuable asset rather than a necessary evil since the idea of replacing them is ludicrous, if not impossible. There aren’t enough qualified people in the industry for a similar scenario to take place on the same scale.
The lessons learned from the last twenty years have many applications today, but the real progress has been made with the way we communicate with ourselves within the industry. We aren’t hindered by geography anymore. I’m a mouse click away from my peers anywhere in the country. We have common interests and concerns and we are learning to network and target our goals.
The future remains for the new and old in the industry. It will be difficult to hide the process that governs the organizations that represent mariner interests since we can all talk to one another in real time. The idea is to keep listening, discussing, and deciding.
In years past you had to know someone in another outfit to know the details of their labor agreement, now the information for every union negotiated contract is at your fingertips.
The old will teach the new and the new will not forget the lessons of the old. To paraphrase what I’ve said before, a lesson learned is seldom better than a mistake never forgotten.
Captain Bill Brucato
*[Recency is a bit of a misnomer and in a nutshell refers to a tugboat operator’s familiarity with his geographic area. There must be a minimum number of trips (12) over a route for an operator handling an oil barge to be considered “recent”, something the replacement workers did not have at all. See 46 CFR § 15.812(b)(3)(iv),]
*[“Operation Big Tow” is the latest initiative instituted by the USCG in response to the T/V Mel Oliver-M/V Tintamaru incident in NOLA. They are boarding and checking towing vessels throughout the country making certain the operators are properly licensed.]
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