"Sailors Wanted," by Alpha Unit

You mustn’t call a member of the United States Merchant Marine a marine. You call him (or her) a sailor, seaman, seafarer, or mariner – preferably a mariner. The Merchant Marine is the fleet of civilian-owned ships that moves cargo and passengers not only between countries but within the United States.
The fleet is privately owned but can be nationalized during wartime, when it becomes an auxiliary of the US Navy. During some other type of national emergency, the President can commandeer or seize a merchant vessel.
The Merchant Marine was always an excellent source of opportunity for men in this country regardless of their backgrounds. The US Maritime Service started training officers and crew members for the Merchant Marine in 1938. What’s remarkable is that the Maritime Service had a non-discrimination policy at a time when the US armed forces were segregated. Black men served in all positions in the Merchant Marine, from the lowest levels all the way up to captain, on integrated ships.
A 16-year-old can go to sea. That’s the minimum age to get a US Merchant Marine Credential (MMC), issued by the US Coast Guard in accordance with international standards. You’ll need a parent’s permission as long as you’re under 18, but the MMC allows you to work on a merchant vessel, whether it’s a cargo ship, an oil tanker, a ferry, or a passenger ship. You’ll work in either the deck, engineering, or steward’s departments.
The deck department oversees proper watchstanding and maintains the hull and cargo gear. Here you’ll find apprentices, Ordinary Seamen (OS). An OS doesn’t have to stand watch but he gets tested on his watchstanding and helmsman skills. He spends much of his time working on metal structures – removing rust, refinishing, and painting. He also secures cargo, does rigging, splices wire and rope, and launches and recovers lifeboats.
It’s the OS who gets swabbing duty – keeping excess water and salt off deck to prevent slipping and rust accumulation. It’s one reason an OS looks forwards to to working his way up to Able Seaman (AB).
An AB stands watch and acts as helmsman. He also performs general maintenance and repair and operates deck machinery and cargo gear. Some of his duties involve chipping, scraping, cleaning, and painting metal structures.
The senior unlicensed man in the deck department is the Bo’s’n (Boatswain). This is typically a senior AB. He’s in charge of of the able seamen and ordinary seamen, in a position between them and the ship’s chief mate. The bo’s’n is responsible for everything concerning maintenance of deck equipment and cargo. He also secures the ship for sea and oversees the loading and unloading of cargo.
A new seaman might instead find himself in the engine department. Seamen there handle the propulsion systems and support systems for the crew, cargo, and passengers. They maintain the electric power plant, lighting, water distillation, air conditioning, refrigeration, and such. The entry level position here is wiper. A wiper performs manual labor – cleaning, painting, and assisting with repairs.
An oiler’s main job is equipment maintenance, including oiling the bearings of the main engine and auxiliaries. His general duties also include pumping bilges. A watertender tends fires and maintains proper water levels in boilers. A fireman operates oil-burning systems to generate steam in boilers.
In addition to these crew members, the engine department might employ machinists, electricians, refrigeration engineers, or pumpmen – pumpmen are always found on oil tankers, operating the liquid cargo transfer system.
The other assignment is the steward’s department. Here sailors operate and maintain the ship’s galley and the eating and living quarters for the officers and crew. An entry-level position here is that of messman, also called a steward’s assistant (SA). The messman sets tables, serves food, and waits tables. He also cleans the galley, eating areas, and officers’ saloon. He might also have general housekeeping duties like cleaning living quarters.
The chief cook (or, cook) directs the preparation and serving of meals. The department is headed by the chief steward.
The US fleet of merchant vessels has been diminishing since the 1950’s. The pool of qualified mariners has been shrinking along with it. There is intense competition for skilled mariners, if you ask the operators of offshore supply vessels. But some mariners say that part of the problem is that companies don’t want to take on inexperienced sailors, creating a Catch-22: companies need qualified people but the trainees can’t get the experience they need to become qualified.
Because of international treaties, higher standards, and more required training and security rules, it can be hard to qualify for even entry-level jobs on a merchant vessel. The Sailors’ Union of the Pacific, which has represented mariners since 1891, has had programs to make sure new union members have the proper training to find work.
I found, in fact, that the ongoing claims of a mariner shortage are controversial. Some mariners say that cost-cutting measures in the industry are leading to increases in workload and fatigue; others point to industry shifting to non-union labor. Some say the work schedule, where you spend more time at sea than at home, isn’t acceptable to men with families.
Other mariners say the workforce is aging, with veteran mariners retiring and fewer young people interested in going to sea. One vice-president of the Seafarers International Union thinks the industry and government should do a better job of recruiting high school kids.
“We’re a strong alternative to joining the armed services,” he told the press.

"Coal Miners and Company Scrip," by Alpha Unit

St. Peter, don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go;
I owe my soul to the company store.

Nobody’s sure who wrote “Sixteen Tons.” People usually attribute the song to Merle Travis, who recorded it in 1946. A singer-songwriter named George S. Davis claimed he wrote it during the Depression. I don’t know if there’s any way to settle that question. But the couplet above sums up what it felt like sometimes to be a coal miner in nineteenth-century and early twentieth-century America.
Before labor reforms were enacted and enforced, the life of a coal miner, like that of sharecroppers and other laborers, was often just one step above slavery.
Coal mining was vital for the widespread industrialization that got underway in the nineteenth century. Before then, there were two types of coal mines: drift mines and bell pits. They were small-scale operations that yielded coal for homes and local industry. But the growing demand for coal due to industrialization made coal mines deeper and mining more dangerous. And there was a lot of money in consideration.
Mining operations were in remote, rugged areas, naturally, so mine owners had to provide housing for their workers. In fact they provided just about everything for their workers, typically. This was because paying the miners posed a problem.
You have to remember that this was before there was a national currency in the United States. Neither was there a sufficient supply of coins. Mining operations were far from banks and stores. Mining companies saw great advantage in the closed economy that resulted from creating the company store and paying in scrip.
Whatever a miner needed he could buy – and often had to buy – at the company store. The tools of his trade he bought there, along with whatever other goods he and his family needed. If the company store didn’t have it in stock, he had to do without it. The company store could charge whatever the mine owner wanted. If wages were increased, the company store could increase prices to make up for it.
Some companies paid exclusively in scrip. Others used scrip as a form of credit that miners could use between paydays. In this case, the scrip amount would be charged against the miner’s payroll account and deducted from his next pay. Some companies let their workers trade scrip for cash, but not always at full value. Some paid as little as 50 cents on the dollar; others paid as much as 85 cents per dollar.
Not only were the supplies for the miner and his family deducted from his pay, but so were his rent for company housing, utilities, fuel coal, and doctor’s fees.
Mining companies were creative in withholding as much money as they could from workers. One practice they engaged in was cribbing. A coal miner was paid per ton of coal that he brought up. Each car brought from the mines was supposed to hold a specific amount of coal – 2,000 pounds, for instance. But companies would alter cars to hold more coal than the specified amount, so a miner could be paid for 2,000 pounds when he might have actually brought up 2,500. Workers were also docked pay for slate and rock mixed in with coal. How much to dock was left at the discretion of the checkweighman – a company man, of course.
On payday, a miner was given a pay envelope with all the check-off deductions listed and any balance due him inside. Often the envelope contained a few pennies, or nothing at all.
The United Mine Workers, a merger of two older labor groups, was founded in 1890. This organization – whose first convention barred discrimination based on race, religion, or national origin – set about to make mining safer, to gain miners’ independence from the company store, and to secure collective bargaining rights. Among its specific goals:

  • a salary commensurate with dangerous work conditions
  • an 8-hour workday
  • payment in legal tender, not company scrip
  • properly working scales: improper or outright dishonest weighing was a big concern for miners
  • enforcement of safety laws and better ventilation and drainage in mines
  • an end to child labor: “breaker boys” as young as 8 would remove impurities from coal by hand – hazardous work that led to accidental amputations and sometimes death
  • an unbiased police force: mine operators owned all the houses in a company town and controlled the police force, which would evict miners or arrest them without proper cause
  • the right to strike

The UMW was able to secure an 8-hour workday for coal miners in 1898. During its first ten years the UMW successfully organized coal miners in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. It finally achieved some recognition in West Virginia in 1902. It spent the next several decades organizing strikes – some of which ended up being deadly – and getting involved, controversially, in politics to further its goals.
Labor contracts and legislation eventually outlawed the use of company scrip. World War II marked a turning point for scrip, and by the end of the 1950’s almost all coal mining operations were paying their workers in legal tender.
What a long haul.


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