Digital History>Voices>Social History>The Autobiography of a Labor Leader

The Autobiography of a Labor Leader: James Williams
Independent LIV (Nov. 6, 1902), 2634 38.


I drifted into the labor movement as naturally as a ship goes with the tide or before a leading wind I was originally endowed with a fair share of common sense, strong democratic tendencies and a sympathetic nature. I knew the tricks of the trade and sympathized with my associates in misfortune, whose sufferings I shared I first became identified with the labor movement at Calcutta, India. All I knew of trade union tactics at that time was what I had gleaned from time to time from newspaper reports of strikes, lockouts, boycotts, labor riots, etc., and I must confess right here that I was not prejudiced in their favor.

I had not yet had an opportunity to investigate the causes which lead to such unpleasant effects. I was only a sailor, and like most others of my class had a sublime and abiding reverence for law and order, and always bowed supinely to the rules promulgated by my masters.

But there is always a point at which "patience ceases to be a virtue," and where oppression becomes the parent of rebellion. So it was in my case. I had already endured the onerous exactions and cruel conditions of the unjust American shipping system more than half my life and always noticed that the more I yielded the more I had to yield and the less thanks I got I wanted to make a stand for what I considered my rights somehow, but did not know exactly how to proceed

I could hand, reef and steer, box the compass or send down a royal yard, but I knew nothing of trade union principles. The conditions existing at Calcutta at that time were certainly not calculated to redound to the sailors best interests.

As individuals we were powerless against the crimps who infested the port and who, owing to the indifference of the officials, continued to deprive us of our rights and our earnings from voyage to voyage with monotonous regularity.

I had often observed in hoisting a topsail we all pulled, not only in the same direction, but in unison and with the same purpose to raise the yard This idea set me thinking. If by concentrated effort we could raise a topsail yard, why could we not raise our wages by the same method?

I consulted with some of my shipmates and we decided to write to England for permission to establish a branch of the Amalgamated Sailors' and Firemen's Union in Calcutta.

We also asked the president of the Board of Trade in London to have the rules of the board enforced in Calcutta Both requests were granted.

After a short but rather exciting period of agitation we succeeded in i inducing a majority of the seamen in port to enroll in the union. The sailors chaplain at Calcutta then was the Reverend Father Hopkins, a Church of England minister, and since none of our members could or would accept the position we elected him secretary.

Father Hopkins had manifested much interest in our cause and entered heartily into all our plans. He always counseled us to confine our arguments among the "black legs" to moral suasion, and we always did, tho sometimes with the assistance of a hardwood club. Father Hopkins had two assistant missionaries to assist him in his work among the seamen and he permitted them to act as walking delegates for the union.

Sailors, as a rule, are prejudiced against "sky pilots" and "devil dodgers." So it was that shortly after the leading spirits of the movement had left the port the organization began to decline, and when I returned to Calcutta two years afterward it had degenerated into a guild.

A sky pilot is all right in a pulpit, but it takes a laborer to run a trade union Altho, indirectly, I have devoted some of my attention to all seamen's unions, my direct labors among seafaring men have been confined to the men sailing on this coast. "The Atlantic Coast Seamen's Union" was organized in 1889. At that time I was homeward bound from a deep water voyage, and first heard of the movement at Demerara, B.G. [British Guiana] On reaching the coast I made inquiries concerning the condition, purposes and policy of the union, and after consideration I decided to become a member.

I first came into prominence in 1893. In the early part of that year the sailors had succeeded, through the power of organization, in raising their wages from $16 to $30 per month, but they had made the mistake of utilizing the crimps as their principal organizers.

In December I reached Boston and found that there was a strike on. The shipowners and crimps had decided that $18 per month was enough for a man before the mast and that $2 for the chance was about the right figure. Later on the wages were further reduced to $16 per month, and the shipping fee accordingly raised to $3.

I shall never forget that terrible winter siege. At the beginning our finances were low, but as the shipowners were obliging enough to lay up about 50 per cent of their tonnage so that union men would not have to work, and managed to sail the remainder with scabs, we were soon in sore straits. Then it was we perceived the folly of temporizing with our enemies.

We had a large meeting room at 152 Commercial Street. Besides the meeting room and office we had two large upper floors. From the middle of December, 1893, until the 10th of March, 1894, there were from 200 to 300 sailors sleeping on the hard bare floors and benches every night So many hungry men were hard to control, and somehow, altho our secretary was a good man, I gradually and unconsciously assumed actual charge of the situation.

The winter was an unusually severe one even for New England, and many others beside sailors were suffering from want Soup kitchens and bean foundries were opened at various points in the poorer quarters of the city, and I often walked for miles through banks of snow in the piercing wind to find the place where I could get the largest plate of beans or the largest bowl of soup for a nickel.

I took a leading part in all the many meetings we held that winter, and, as a rule, my advice was adopted Mass meetings were held almost daily to keep up the enthusiasm of the men The crowd was divided into squads of four. Every morning each squad would separate, each man going in a different direction to see what he could bum. In the evening when the squads assembled each man was to share with the other members of his squad whatever he had found, borrowed or stolen. Persuasion committees were organized to watch and report, and intimidate scabs. A "hall" committee was appointed to preserve order in the hall at night and no one could gain admission after 10 p. m. Each member was required to assist in keeping the hall clean.

Thus we struggled along, until long before spring we had succeeded in practically tying up the shipping of the port The crimps tried in every way to continue their business and we tried in every way to circumvent them.

There was one crimp who was particularly obnoxious to us. He was the most persistent and unprincipled scoundrel of them all. He kept a boarding house and was also a shipping agent- a double headed jackal. He owned a horse and wagon and was in the habit of putting crews on board vessels at night I decided to put a stop to his night work and I did.

I induced a chum of mine to go to this man's house and board a few days, get the bearings of the house and report to me from time to time what was going on. One bitter cold evening my chum reported that a crew of scabs was to be sent away after midnight to join a vessel lying at South Boston I told him to get the key to the barn. While he was gone I went to the office and took a sling shot from the desk and putting it in my pocket returned to my chum, who had in the meantime got the key. Then I went after a hammer and cold chisel. We unlocked the stable door and went in. After some difficulty we got the horse's shoes oft: These we took, with the harness and threw over the dock. Next I took a wrench and slacked up the nuts on the wagon wheels, leaving them just on a thread Then we locked the door. My chum returned the key to its place and went to bed The cold was intense, but I waited patiently outside the stable until about half past one before Mr. B. came out to harness his horse. When he missed his harness his rage was really pathetic and his profanity was so extreme that I almost fancied I could smell brimstone. While he was invoking all the blessings of perdition on the sailors' union I was nearly exploding with merriment.

He did not notice his horse's hoofs nor his wagon wheels until he left the stable, when his wagon got shipwrecked and he found himself and six scabs and two big policemen sitting on an ice patch at the spot where I had accidentally thrown several buckets of water the night before.

This was only one of the many tricks we played on the crimps that winter, but it is illustrative of our methods.

Mr. C. A. Walker was secretary of our union at that time, and he often urged me to accept an official position in the organization, but I declined. On March 1 st, 1894, the sailors of Boston made a demand for an increase of $10 per month in wages and the abolition of shipping fees. The struggle was short but bitter, and there were many broken heads before we were through. In ten days, however, we won.

In April, 1894, 1 went to Providence, R I., where we had a branch in charge of Mr. Horace Atkinson. On the day of my arrival Mr. Atkinson showed me a telegram from our New York agent advising him that a crew had been sent to his port from New York, at $7 per month below the regular wages. Next morning a committee was sent to the depot to intercept them, but failed The men and their baggage were taken on board and the vessel, being light, hauled out into the stream. About midnight that night Mr. Atkinson and I went out in a small boat to" pull" the scabs. It was an ideal night for such a venture. There was not a breath of wind, the water was smooth and drizzling rain was falling There was no moon.

We pulled quietly alongside the schooner, and after much difficulty I climbed over her rail at the port fore rigging and dropped on deck right abreast the forecastle door. Mr. Atkinson remained in the boat.

It was a very hazardous undertaking, as I knew the captain and mate were keeping watch on the poop and would not hesitate to shoot me if I was discovered. Besides I knew that when I gained the forecastle I would have six men to deal with single handed.

Darkness favored me and I gained the forecastle unobserved When I got inside the six seamen were all asleep in their bunks. I awoke them and at once began to stow their clothing in their canvas bags. They wanted to know what I was doing. I told them that there was a fleet of boats alongside loaded with union men and that I had been sent on board as a committee to notify them that unless they went quietly with me a committee of twenty would be sent on board to drag them out.

They took the bluff and proceeded to pack up with my assistance. As fast as their bags were ready I lowered them over the side one by one into the boat, where Mr. Atkinson received them. The men followed, and as we had a gun in the rowboat they made no disturbance while we rowed toward the shore. The next day the vessel shipped a crew of union men.

On July 2d, 1894, I was elected delegate to Philadelphia, Pa., while Mr. Atkinson was elected business agent at the same port. We had a strike while I was there and won it in a week.

During the strike I organized a persuasion committee, consisting of six of the best fighting men I could find the worst cards in the pack. Whenever we learned that a non union crew was to be signed we would go round the other way and waylay them. They were seldom eager to ship when our committee was through arguing with them.

Shortly after the strike was over I was sent to New York with instructions to close up the branch. New York had been a drain on our resources for a long time and had never paid running expenses.

On my way to New York I determined not to close the branch, as directed by headquarters, but to organize the sailors instead I could not bear to haul down the union's colors and become the leader of an unconditional surrender.

I have always been proud of that decision, for the years that have passed by now witness the splendid condition of our union at this port.

The shipping of the port is now practically in the hands of the union and at least 95 per cent of the coasting sailors are members of it Besides this we have formed a Marine Firemen's Union and have already enrolled more than 2,000 marine firemen. It now requires a large staff of officers to conduct the business of the union and no one is allowed to ship except through our offices, of which there are now four. And still the good work goes on. In 1894 there were but four branches on the Atlantic Coast Now there are eleven, while our International Union embraces some 35 locals controlled from three headquarters. And still the good work goes on and will continue to go on until we have a union as wide as the world is round, so that the sailor can be assured of good treatment, good wages and equitable conditions at any place where fortune sends him.

In January, 1899, I went to Baltimore, and arriving there with 19 cents in my pocket, succeeded, after a hard struggle, in organizing the sailors of that port, and we have a good, substantial branch there now.

I have been instrumental in breaking up the gangs of organized crimps at New York, Baltimore and Norfolk, and have done a large share of the work which preceded the enactment of the new shipping law by Congress in 1898. I was greatly assisted in this work by the Social Reform Club of New York, and my connection with the club was a liberal education to me, and I shall always remember my association with it as the pleasantest and most useful period of my life.

In May, 1895, I was sent to Albany and appeared before a Senate Committee having charge of a bill to protect seamen in New York Harbor, and in April, 1902, I was sent to Washington with a delegation to protest against the re enactment by Congress of the Seamen's Imprisonment Bill, introduced by Mr. Allen, of Maine, last January.

At present I am an ex officer of the union, but expect eventually to return to harness. It seems to be my life's work.

Dear reader, before you proceed to criticise these confessions, pause to investigate and do not condemn until you know.

If the shipowners and crimps would be as frank with you as I have been you might be disposed to alter your opinions in our favor. A conflict between labor and capital is an industrial war and I have never resorted to any unfair methods unless I thought the ends justified the means.

If it were not for oppression there would be no unions, and if it were not for Satan there would be no churches.

On Christmas Day when you sit before your cheerful fire at your loaded board, surrounded by your smiling wife and smiling children, with a prospect of a comfortable bed and sweet repose, please give a thought to the brave and generous men who must forego their own comfort that you may enjoy these blessings.

Think of the noble, hardy men who at that moment are rushing down through the Roaring Forties, facing the rigors and desolation of Cape Horn, running their "Easting" down or pounding their bleeding hands on frozen canvas off stormy Labrador.

The sailor is the half brother of the world and that nation is wisest which best protects him. He has no wife to plead nor children to cry for him, therefore little is known about him.

Our merchant marine is our first line of defense. Protect your sailors and you need have no fear of a foreign invader reaching your shores. You may rest secure in the thought that all your possessions are safe and that all your wants will be supplied, for the sailor is the errand boy of the world.

The rule of the sea is the survival of the fittest, and no man will long continue to follow the sea unless he is able to fight

New York City

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