Seamen March on DC: 1937
The Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade January 17, 1937 was a seminal event in the development of rank-and-file power on the waterfront.

The key figure that turned things around was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen. At perhaps 5’5” and 120 lbs., his physical appearance didn’t strike fear into the shipping companies, but his fiery leadership on the waterfront did.

Whalen was a former member of the radical Industrial Workers of the World who became a leader on the New York waterfront of the Marine Workers Industrial Union—a radical union that organized all waterfront workers.

Moving to Baltimore in the mid 1930s, Whalen and other radicals entered the mainstream International Seamen’s Union with the hopes of gaining more influence.

They organized a rank and file caucus to oppose the ISU’s conservative leadership and led East Coast seamen out on strike in support of their West Coast brothers in late 1936,

For a time, nearly all waterfront workers in the port of Baltimore joined in. However the shipping companies, the conservative American Federation of Labor and ISU leadership, and others eventually undermined support for the strike.

On their heels and near defeat, Whalen rallied the Baltimore seamen to march on Washington, D.C. to oppose anti-union legislation and demonstrate that seamen were a legitimate bargaining unit to the new National Labor Relations Board.

The march succeeded in rallying seamen to the rank and file caucus up and down the East Coast. The legislation that would have permitted blacklisting sailors was amended and the NLRB ruled in favor of maritime workers.

The strike ended a few days after the march with some wage increases, but the caucus went on to become the National Maritime Union (NMU) that ousted the conservative ISU in the vast majority of union elections held under the NLRB.

Whalen became the port agent of the new union and established fair procedures for the order sailors shipped out to sea. He ended the discrimination against sailors of color that had relegated many to the backbenches and consigned nearly all to be cooks.

Whalen was a passionate member of the Communist Party that fought vigorously to improve the lives of waterfront workers. He also led the fight to integrate the waterfront itself and fought for equal housing for black workers. Whalen organized a demonstration in front of the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. against the Nazi regime.

After the U.S. was attacked by Japan and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S., Whalen went back to sea to help transport war supplies. He did so despite his draft exemption for his job of port agent that would have kept him out of the war.

He was killed June 2, 1942 when a Nazi U-boat fired two torpedoes into the engine room of the S.S Illinois off Bermuda.

We can thank Paddy Whalen for helping to blaze the trail for integration in the defense industry and for a 20-year period when union democracy prevailed in maritime industry. And we can thank him for being an uncompromising “tribune of the people” who fought to the death for workers.
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