The National Maritime Union transformed the lives of merchant seamen—working 4 hours on, 4 hours off, 7 days a week—seamen slept jammed into fo’c’sles, overrun with vermin. Seamen ate meals unfit for human consumption. Jim Crow reigned on America’s ships. Anyone objecting found himself (or herself) “on the beach,” unemployed, with tens of thousands of other sailors haunting the docks for work in the teeth of the Great Depression.

Seventy five years ago this year, two grueling three-month strikes electrified the nation, laying the groundwork for the N.M.U.—a racially integrated, rank-and-file controlled seamen’s union. Illustrator Harold Price captures the shipboard misery of pre-N.M.U. seamen in powerful black-and-white drawings. Rockwell Kent and William Gropper contributed memorable drawings in very different styles. The N.M.U. Education Department commissioned these three socially-committed artists to educate the brand-new seamen pouring into American ships during World War II. Their goal was to graphically portray wages, hours, working conditions, living quarters—and institutionalized segregation—aboard American ships prior to the N.M.U.’s founding in 1937.

Labor Arts marks the 75th anniversary of the founding of the union with a series of exhibits: this first part is followed by a second, featuring audio recordings of Paul Robeson raising his extraordinary voice in support of the NMU. Part three tells the story of the long strike in 1936 that led to the founding of the NMU and the fourth in the series gives you audio from Woody Guthrie, a tall tale about Woody to be read aloud, and recollections from veteran seamen.

Resources

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