In the late 1800s, when a cargo vessel entered the Puget Sound, it would take on longshoremen at its first port of call, then those men would remain on the ship to work the vessel at all ports in the area.
In mid-June of 1886, the “Queen of the Pacific” put into Seattle where she took on six longshoremen. The longshoremen were charter members of the newly established Seattle Stevedores, Longshoremen and Riggers Union (SL&RU), predecessor of ILWU Local 19. During June and July, the= vessel discharged and loaded cargo at docks in the Puget Sound, working its way up to British Columbia.
On June 9, 1886, the Queen was docked in Nanaimo, British Columbia, where a powerful blast ripped through the ship’s hold, taking the lives of the six charter members of the SL&RU: Hans Hanson, August Johnson, William Kade, William McDonald, Patrick Priestly and William Robee. For 59 years, the tragedy was the worst waterfront accident in the history of the West Coast.
The explosion occurred at five minutes before noon on July 29, 1886, at the Nanaimo coal dock where Seattle coal passers were winging coal into the corners of the ship’s hold. Suddenly, a ton of coal hit the center of the lower deck; a clap shook the ship from aft to stern anda sheet of flame flashed upward from the hold to the upper deck.
The SL&RU coal gang was engulfed by flames. As they were carried out of the lower hold, eyewitnesses saw that hair had been burned from their heads and faces; flesh hung in shreds and their “cries were most heart-rending.”
The severely burned men also included eight seamen. Horse-drawn wagons carried the injured to the Nanaimo Hospital where three doctors worked around the clock for two weeks to save lives. One by one, all of the longshore workers and two sailors died from seared lungs and skin burns A court of inquiry later determined that coal dust had ignited from spontaneous combustion. They ruled that the explosion was an accident that could not have been prevented. Ten months later, an explosion killed 155 miners at the same mine that provided coal for the “Queen of the Pacific.” Another court of inquiry found the second explosion also an “unavoidable accident.”
During the century that followed, coal miners in North America fought to end coal dust and methane explosions that were claimed by employers and their experts to be “unavoidable.”
Union members in the United States finally succeeded in passing the Mine Safety and Health Act in 1977 that led to significant safety and health improvements.
Seattle longshore workers installed a plaque at the Nanaimo gravesite in 1886 to commemorate the deaths of their union brothers and to thank the people of Nanaimo for caring for them. But after 128 years, the plaque had disintegrated. Seattle Pensioners commissioned Local 19 member and artist Ron Gustin to replicate the original plaque.
The new monument is a bronze relief mounted on charcoal black granite that measures 20 x 6 x 28, and weighs 575 pounds. Father Piotr Lapinski, who was in charge of St. Peter’s Cemetery, graciously agreed to the re-installation.
At the 2015 rededication Lapinski’s successor Father Krzysztofy (Chris) Pastuszka delivered the benediction for the fallen six.
Seattle Pension President Carl Woeck read the original SL&RU message that was dedicated in 1886:
“We wish to express our heartfelt thanks and appreciation of the services rendered our six comrades by the citizens of Nanaimo and missionary Charles Seghers following the recent accident on the Queen of the Pacific. Our fallen union brothers Hans Hanson, August Johnson, William Kade, William McDonald, Patrick Priestley and William Robee rest in peace in your care. Should the opportunity ever present itself, the people of Nanaimo may rest assured that the longshoremen of Seattle will endeavor to repay the debt that they so justly owe them.”
Stevedores, Longshoremen and Riggers Union of Washington Territory
Frederick D. Sprague, President
Henry Storey, Secretary
August 7, 1886
After the graveyard ceremony, Americans and Canadians met at the Bastion Hotel in Nanaimo for lunch. Seattle Pensioner Vice President Ian Kennedy was the banquet emcee.
Speakers included ILWU Canada President Mark Gordienko, Local 19 President Jason Gross, Seattle Pensioner President Carl Woeck and ILWU International Secretary-Treasurer Willie Adams. Comradeship between Canadian and American longshoremen was the theme of the remarks. All stressed that remembrance of the terrible tragedy had strengthened the bonds of friendship, and that we are part of a worldwide family who will always be considered brothers and sisters.
At the luncheon, it was noted that another longshore tragedy happened in Vancouver, British Columbia, on March 6, 1945. The steamship Green Hill Park blew up and killed six longshoremen and two seamen. Somehow, whisky, flares and sodium chlorate had been stored together in ‘tween decks in Hold 3. The flammable cargo exploded and blew out a steel bulkhead that killed Donald G. Bell, Joseph A. Brooks, William T. Lewis, Morton McGrath, Montague E. Munn and Walter Peterson. Seamen Julius Kern and Donald Munn, who were in a room directly above the exploding cargo, also perished from asphyxiation.
Ronald Magden, historian; with Mark Gordienko, President ILWU and Charles Zuckerman, Local 500
Elections have serious consequences for ILWU members and their families – especially for ILWU longshore workers who recently found themselves being targeted by Republican members in Congress. Here’s how it happened.
In 2014, Republicans took over the United States Senate and increased their majority in the House of Representatives. The Democratic Party played it safe and failed to outline a progressive agenda for working families. In the absence of a Democratic agenda to vote for, voters found something to vote against, registering their anger against growing unfairness in the economy.
Attitudes measured by exit polls were negative in the extreme, with 8 in 10 saying they were dissatisfied by the performance of Congress, and 54 percent giving the thumbs down to Obama. A majority of voters were unhappy with the U.S. economic system itself, with nearly two thirds saying it’s unfair and favors the wealthy – and only 32 percent saying it’s fair to most people.
Instead of changing the economy to work for the majority of Americans, the newly elected Republican Congress decided to throw their weight behind the rich and powerful, trampling the working class.
One unifying belief held by the Republican leadership is that they do not like strong unions, so they have focused their efforts against a strong union – the ILWU – that fights without apology for good wages, health and pension benefits, and safe workplaces.
In the last month, U.S. Senators, Senator Cory Gardner (Republican from Colorado) and Senator John Thune (Republican from South Dakota) made speeches on the floor of the U.S. Senate, asking other Senators to support their efforts to punish the ILWU for standing up to employers. Senator Gardner proposed legislation to extend powers to Governors to meddle in the collective bargaining process between the ILWU and the Pacific Maritime Association.
Senator Thune introduced legislation (The Port Performance Act) which mandates that the federal government monitor productivity and gather statistics on longshore workers.
Unfortunately, a part of the Port Performance Act (S. 1298) was included in a comprehensive transportation bill that passed the Senate.
Senator Mazie Hirono (Democrat- Hawaii) prepared an amendment to the bill that would have struck the port metrics section from the bill, but Senate Republicans refused to allow her to offer the amendment on the floor. The Senate Republican leadership also slipped in a provision that would allow automation costs to be funded through federal government grants to ports.
The ILWU Washington office and the ILWU grassroots legislation action committee are working long hours to stop the Port Performance Act and government-funded automation from being considered in the House of Representatives. We are engaged in meetings with House members who serve on the Transportation Committee including moderate Republicans.
We are broadening our coalition to include port managers and some terminal operators who may want to work with the ILWU rather than work against us.
If the Port Performance Act passes both Houses and is signed by President Obama, it would cause many negative – and some unexpected consequences.
It would impose a top-down system of federal productivity measurements on port workers. The bill calls on the federal government to collect metrics from ports, including a count of the number of crane moves made by operators at each of our nation’s largest ports. If the legislation becomes law, some unscrupulous terminal operators will try to speed up operations on the docks in order to appear more appealing to shippers, endangering worker health and safety. The Bureau of Labor Statistics lists the number of accident reports in the longshore industry at 6.6 accidents per 100 workers. This is twice the rate of accidents in the coal mining industry. If the proposed legislation becomes law, accidents are likely to increase, with more worker deaths and permanently disabilities.
A provision added to the Senate Transportation bill lists electronic roads and driverless trucks within ports as a project that could be funded through federal freight transportation grants. If this federal subsidy is implemented at maritime facilities, funding for automation projects will expand because of federal tax dollars, not market demands, and the number of workers employed at our nation’s ports could be significantly reduced. Driverless trucks and electronic roads will not increase overall port productivity – but they will destroy thousands of jobs and harm local communities, while the federal subsidies create a windfall for terminal operators – most of whom are foreign-owned.
ILWU members can play an important role in stopping ant-union legislation from becoming law. Your member of Congress can be reached at 202-225-3121. Tell your Representative the following:
- You are concerned the Senate Transportation bill has been combined with the Port Performance Act and a government subsidy for automation on the docks.
- The Senate Transportation bill would kill jobs by funding driverless trucks.
- The Port Performance Act will lead to increased accidents, fatalities and injuries.
- The Act will harm communities who depend on good jobs at our nation’s ports.
- Ask that your member of Congress vote against any bill that includes these measures.
This report was prepared by the ILWU’s Legislative Director, Lindsay McLaughlin.
Members of the Maritime Union Australia, Queensland Branch in Brisbane recently recorded a solidarity message to the ILWU while on the picket line.
Press Release - Houston IWW, August 11, 2015
The fight against Felipe Serna has concluded. Serna wrote a check to Hector, Pancho, and Mauricio which was promptly cashed this morning.
After our letter delivery, folks will recall that we organized a phone blast of The Growing Tree daycare and Felipe’s cell. It was very effective; his phone didn’t stop ringing and he was in tears begging for mercy. But when the calls ceased, his verbal commitment to settling turned into indignation as he failed to follow through and after a few days texted us an image of his “lawyer’s” business card, the second attorney he had threatened us with.
So we got indignant too and last night covered the surrounding neighborhood of The Growing Tree with “Wanted for Wage Theft” posters with his image prominently on the front. We made sure to leave one on the front door of the daycare. The next morning he wrote a check.
This is an important first victory for the Houston IWW and we couldn’t have done it without your support. Thanks to the folks who showed up at the ass crack of dawn for the demand delivery and thanks to the many people who participated in the phone blast.
While we can’t know if Serna will steal wages again, he will certainly consider the costs. And that is what we want every employer in Houston to do; consider that there are forces that they will have to contend with when they steal from labor-power.
We also know that to seriously challenge wage theft and to build workers power, we need an active and fighting working class, something we cannot create by sheer will. Instead, we do what we can with the resources we have until that becomes a general condition. In addition to fighting on the job, we need to fight against Adrian Garcia, the police, and ICE, we need to organize with detainees against incarceration, we need to defend our homes and neighborhoods from landlords and banks, we need to fight the grassroots Right and the fascists among them, we need to fight against racist school boards and curriculum, etc.
The IWW is committed to fighting against all of these forces. An injury to one is an injury all!!