Over 140 Years of History
The great stern and side-wheeler steamboats of the 1800s played a central role in the expansion and development of the American heartland. Their service, carrying freight and passengers on the great rivers and Great Lakes was invaluable to the development of commerce for a still expanding nation. As romantic as they seem from the late 20th century, they were fraught with danger. Many of the early steamboats caught fire, suffered boiler explosions, ran aground or sank. The drive for profits and markets meant that many of them were poorly designed and constructed and operated by crew with minimal training. Faced with intolerable working conditions, fires and higher and higher boiler pressures creating deadly explosions; steamboat engineers banded together. Important to the future of M.E.B.A. was the formation in 1854 of the Buffalo Association of Engineers. This and other Lake Associations played a leading role in the formation of the Union and provided its major strength for the first 35 years. However, it was soon evident that one-city associations were not enough to secure better working conditions and properly licensed engineers.
In 1874, the Buffalo association began corresponding with other marine engineer associations around the country. Ten delegates from Buffalo, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Baltimore met in Cleveland, Ohio and held the first Convention of the National Marine Engineers Association (the word Beneficial was added in 1883). Thus, on February 23, 1875, the M.E.B.A. was established. Mr. Garret Douw of Buffalo, a key figure in establishing the M.E.B.A., was elected its first president.
The earliest efforts of the new association revolved around proper enforcement of the Steamboat Act of 1871. The M.E.B.A. also worked towards proper examination and licensing of engineers, and the abolition of controversial license fees. It fought against the use of foreign engineers on internal waters and summary revocations of licenses for union activities and protests over safety.
In 1884, the US congress finally passed a shipping bill requiring all officers of American vessels be US citizens. In 1896, a bill passed granting engineers the legal standing of officer and prohibiting aliens from obtaining officer’s licenses.
From the beginning, M.E.B.A. has worked hard in Washington, DC for any and all legislation that would enhance the maritime industry, maintain professionalism at sea and protect its members from arbitrary and detrimental policies. From the start, officers from M.E.B.A. have served with distinction aboard vessels in all armed conflicts fought by the US. At the end of WWI, M.E.B.A. had more than 22,000 members.
Under attack from the US Shipping Board, led by Admiral William S. Benson, former Chief of Naval Operations, the seagoing unions were forced into drastic cuts in wages. Manning scales were cut and overtime without compensation was reimposed. By 1934, M.E.B.A. counted only 4,848 members. The Great Depression was upon the nation and times were extremely hard for US seafarers. The US fleet had fallen well behind other nations in amount, age and speed of tonnage.
To rescue what was left of the merchant fleet, Congress passed the Merchant Marine Act in 1936, which set up a program of subsidies for ship construction and operation. The program called for building up to 500 ships and committed the US government to a conscious policy of government support for a merchant fleet.
In 1935, the National Labor Relations Board was revitalized and collective bargaining became a cornerstone of public policy in labor-management affairs. American labor began to gain strength again.
The advent of WWII changed the labor landscape dramatically. Throughout the country, unions became well organized and supplied labor efficiently by its end. As before, at the end of a war, the governments on-again/off-again interest in a merchant marine waned. After 1945, the US fleet went from 43,000 vessels to just 1,150 at the beginning of the Korean conflict. The fleet has continued to decline to the point that today less than 2 1/2% of all cargo moving in and out of this country moves in American bottoms.
After the war, and under the leadership of Presidents Herbert Daggett, E.N. Altman, and Jesse Calhoon, as well as General Counsel, Lee Pressman, the M.E.B.A. made impressive gains for its membership despite the decline in the US shipping industry. Wages rose to be commensurate with the responsibilities and skills of the work. Collective bargaining agreements re-established the 40-hour shipboard work week, and produced the industries highest rated pension and welfare plans. The union built and acquired continuing funding for Diagnostic Centers. The Union founded the Calhoon M.E.B.A. Engineering School, the first joint union-industry-training center. Through an organizing drive, M.E.B.A. restored itself as a force on the Great Lakes. Also, M.E.B.A. became a legislative force in Washington, successfully organizing support for the Merchant Marine Act of 1970. Today M.E.B.A. is rebuilding and strengthening its influence on Capitol Hill.
Regulatory change and international agreements are rapidly changing the worldwide maritime picture. The M.E.B.A. recognizes the opportunities brought by these changes and is committed to taking advantage of any aspect of the industry that benefits our members.
This quote, from a commemorative epic of M.E.B.A.’s first 120 years, may best characterize M.E.B.A.’s distinction “M.E.B.A. has survived 120 years of battles-large and small, within the maritime industry and throughout the world in the pursuit of justice. Through it all, the members have remained true to the spirit of unity that brought them from a fledgling profession to America’s first maritime union. Today M.E.B.A. represents a large and diverse mix of engineers and deck officers, experienced and skilled in all types of commercial shipping. M.E.B.A.’s expertise and proven track record of readiness, safety and loyalty in answering America’s call to action are unrivaled in the world. While the future is in question, one thing is certain. The members of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association will unceasingly fight to preserve America’s fourth arm of defense -The US Merchant Marine.
M.E.B.A. is 142 years old, a proud achievement, symbolic of our forebears and our own support and commitment to the ideals quoted above.