At the corner of Broadway and Eastern Avenue, stands a modest three-story brick building with corbeling below a flat roof supported by heavy brackets and full cornice line. Over the course of the twentieth century, this building was home to three of the most important unions for Baltimore’s maritime industry: the International Seamen’s Union, the Seamen’s Defense Committee, and the National Maritime Union.
During the early 1900s, workers on board shipping vessels faced harsh living conditions. Ship owners could maximize space for cargo by crowding seamen into tiny living spaces. Quarters were more like cowsheds than housing, although, according to one physician’s report, cattle had it better. When on land, seamen were often forced to stay close to the water in overcrowded boarding houses that were segregated by race. The boarding house owners often supplied food, liquor, and prostitutes at such high rates the seamen often became indebted to them.
The boarding house owners also served as agents, hiring seamen on behalf of the ship owners, so they became “both the seamen’s debtor and his employer.” Their control over the labor force made them powerful players in regulating wages and working conditions; however, this it was hardly absolute. Ship owners had the ultimate control over their workers. Seamen constituted an ethnically and racially diverse workforce, and ship owners often used ethnic and racial antagonisms to divide workers in the effort to thwart unionization. For example, they would give jobs that were traditionally the purview of a specific ethnicity to members of other groups in order to create social schisms. But the nature of their work introduced seamen to people around the world, and many became more open to different cultures and political ideas as a result.
Seamen established their first labor organization, the International Seamen’s Union (ISU), in 1895 under the American Federation of Labor; but, this organization was only open to skilled workers, and their exclusivity limited the union’s strength and weakened strikes. In the 1930s, longshoremen and ship and dock workers formed the Maritime Workers Industrial Union (MWIU), a left-leaning organization that opposed racial discrimination and worked for higher wages, better working conditions, and fair hiring practices.
The ISU, however, viewed the MWIU as a threat and often worked to thwart their efforts during the early years of the Depression. In the mid-1930s, seamen worked to push the ISU to become inclusive and adopt a more militant position. Consequently, the Seamen’s Defense Committee (SDC) was formed in October 1936 and it adopted the MWIU’s policy of organizing all workers, regardless of position, race, or nationality. That same year, four hundred ISU members from Baltimore joined an SDC strike in support of workers belonging to the Maritime Federation of the Pacific. Meeting at this hall, they voted to use the strike to advance their own demands for ship owners to hire workers—regardless of race or nationality—at the union halls, an eight hour workday, pay for overtime work, and for an end to port work on Saturday afternoons and Sundays. Eight hundred workers showed up for picket duty on the first day.
The strike endured despite outbreaks of violence on both sides, but support began to waver as the weeks dragged on. The SDC decided to put pressure on Washington, for the National Labor Relations Board was in the midst of determining the legitimacy of the ISU’s contract with ship owners. On January 18, 1937, a massive group of seamen from ports spanning the Atlantic and Gulf coasts marched all day and night in the cold and rain from Baltimore to Washington in what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade. When they reached Washington, they were joined by thousands more demonstrators. Delegates met with every major head of the government, even President Roosevelt. This gave them the “moral victory” that the strikers sought and led to the strike’s conclusion. The strikers voted to return to work on January 25, ending the 87-day strike. The NLRB gave the seamen a favorable ruling, and during the spring of 1937 the National Maritime Union officially formed, with a constitution stipulating the organization of all seamen, “without regard to race, creed, and color.”