Queering Labour:
The Marine Cooks and Stewards' Union

by Scarlett C. Davis
New Socialist Magazine, June - July 1998

AS luxury liners set sail daily for Hawaii and other exotic destinations, the West Coast ports of the early 19OOs bustled with stevedores, stewards and socialites. Passengers relaxed on deck while the merchant seamen below worked long days for little pay, ate food often spoiled by tropical heat, and lived in ''floating tenements" without showers or fresh air. These deplorable conditions gave rise to the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union, which developed, alongside the ILWU, into one of the most democratic and diverse unions of the 1930s and 4Os..

The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union-CIO (MCS) represented service workers, such as waiters, laundrymen, and messmen, on West Coast passenger liners during the first half of the century. Six workers founded MCS in 1901 to get living quarters free of rats and insects, safe working conditions, and a closed shop. At that time stewards had to pay or bribe the shipping master for the honor of working 18-hour days for $3O a month or less. Before they unionized, the seamen were forced to eat standing shoulder to shoulder, sleep in unventilated "glory holes," and work while the ship was in port.

"Merchant seamen had to deal with a long history of being treated like trash," said social historian Allan Berube, who is working on a book on the MCS. "No one would want their daughter to marry a merchant seaman, no matter who they were-in the stewards department, or sailors, or firemen, or deckhands-they were considered transient and they weren't paid enough to support anybody." As a result, dignity and respect were of utmost importance to the stewards. "They were very passionate about being treated with dignity, and the only way that was going to happen was not one by one, but by them working on that all together. You weren't going to mess with a member of the Marine Cooks and Stewards. They had figured out how to stand up for each other," Berube said.

And they figured out early on that bias of any kind got in the way of their common objectives. MCS was notable for its diversity, especially its acceptance of both African American and gay members.

The MCS and the ILWU

For the MCS member-as for all the other waterfront workers-the strikes of the 193Os were a school for solidarity, building cohesion within and among unions. Cooks and stewards went on strike, set up soup kitchens, and fought side by side with other workers in the longshore strike of 1934 and the Seamen's and Longshoremen's strike in '36. In addition to building solidarity within the rank and file of the MCS, these struggles created a special bond between the MCS and its sister union, the ILWU.

The two men killed in San Francisco during Bloody Thursday, Howard Sperry and Nicolas Bordoise, were a longshoreman and a cook, respectively. The day after the murders, Manuel Cabral, who later was elected janitor of the MCS hall on Commercial Street, tended the flowers as fellow workers paid their respects at the sidewalk memorial where the men were killed-a scene re-enacted at annual Bloody Thursday commemorations. Acts such as this built a solidarity between the longshoremen and stewards that was big enough to accept that Cabral, known as the "Honolulu Queen," decorated the union hall with flower arrangements and lace curtains.

The ILWU and MCS shared a similar vision of the labor movement, and were part of the left-most wing of the Congress of Industrial organizations (CIO). As president of the ILWU and regional director of the CIO, Harry Bridges regularly submitted articles to the MCS newspaper, the Voice of the Marine Cooks and Stewards. The MCS found in Bridges' leadership a model of solidarity big enough to support the diversity of workers in its rank and file. "Lines of division, wherever they are found, were invented by sinister interests for the purpose of defeating, not just one group of workers, but all workers," Bridges stated in the Voice (Aug. 1O, 1943).

Gay and Straight Together

The MCS stood out most from other unions of its time for its acceptance of gay members. Although it is impossible to know exactly how many gays were involved in the union, former MCS members told Berube gay men made up a majority of stewards on many passenger lines. Indeed, it was widely known that there were gay men at every level of the MCS, even though the union leadership didn't officially discuss it. "You found out right away that there were gays in the Stewards Department. The union never really said of anything about it, but it was all accepted," said most Don Watson, a former MCS member, retired ILWU ; member and now assistant legislative representative of the Northern California District Council.

Decades before the first gay rights organization was established, the Marine Cooks and Stewards won the first on-the-job protections for gays in the United States. "You couldn't be fired for anything except for not doing your job-you had to violate something in the contract. So being gay was not a reason for being fired," Berube explained.

The most flamboyant gay men were called "queens" within the rank and file. While "queer" was a term of derision, "queen" was a title of respect. Long before the success of the film "The Birdcage," these "queens" would entertain their fellow merchant seamen and other crewmembers by putting on drag for union benefits and variety shows. The queens, considered to be the most outrageous and campy of the gay men, were also remembered as some of the toughest members of the MCS. "They had a kind of attitude that you weren't going to mess with them or call them queer," Berube said.

So many gay men were in the union that heterosexual stewards were often subjected to anti-gay epithets. Through this experience they came to understand baiting as a tactic to divide union members against each other. As a result, the gay men were accepted on the basis that they were workers just like any other-doing the job like everyone else.

Black and White Together

Just as the MCS broke down barriers around homosexuality, it also united workers across race lines. The MCS was one of the first unions to demand equal rights for its Black members. Revels Cayton, an early African American leader in the MCS and secretary of the Maritime Federation of the Pacific, remembered the process of integrating Black seamen into the culture of the union in the mid 193Os, when the union took in approximately 18OO Black stewards from a company union. In a report to an MCS membership meeting, printed in the Voice (Sept. 15, 1950), he said: "There was the job of building unity at that time, of integrating the Negro seamen into the life and structure of our union. The union leadership was reactionary, but the rank and file of the union fought to make it a democratic union, one in which discrimination did not exist.

"From 1936 to '38 there were struggles to win the white workers to a deeper understanding that if we were going to have a really united Union, we had to win the fight against prejudice and race hatred. With the Negroes, it was a job of winning them to trust the white brothers in the union." In this vein, a 1943 editorial in the Voice admonished: "Race prejudices, religious bigotry, all help Mr. Shipowner to keep you fighting among yourselves."

During World War II the rank and file of the MCS initiated a special education program to make sure the new white members treated African Americans with respect. "They told them it was the Filipinos and the African Americans Chinese and Japanese men who built that union, and they were going to share the benefits," Berube said. "No one was going to treat them as less than equal, and someone would have one chance or two chances before being kicked out of the union if they did anything that led to discrimination against a member on the basis of race."

By 1950, when the union's all-white leadership no longer reflected the racial make-up of the membership, a one-year plan was developed to racially integrate the leadership. White leaders provided mentoring and training and voluntarily stepped down to make room for a new, more diverse, leadership.

Such commitment to racial equality led the Sun Reporter, an African American newspaper in San Francisco, California, to report, "Minority people have fared better in the ILWU under Bridges, and in the MCS under [then-MCS President] Bryson than they have in any other labor union in the United States." The MCS contract provisions that protected gay men from discrimination also worked on behalf of workers of different ethnicities and races. When Matson refused to allow Luella Lawhorn, an African American stewardess, to turn to on the Lurline as dispatched in 195O, the entire Stewards Department held up tile ship until a settlement was reached. Mrs. Lawhorn became the first Black stewardess ever to work on a Pacific luxury liner.

Witchhunts Wreck the Union

After World War II, shrinking work opportunities and the long fingers of McCarthyism decimated the union. The Dispatcher (Feb. 3, 195O) reported that 65 percent of the MCS members were unemployed by 195O, largely due to a downturn in the shipping industry. U.S. vessels became "runaway ships," registering under foreign flags to avoid U.S. labor unions, safety laws and taxes. By the 196Os, no transoceanic passenger liners were sailing under the U.S. flag.

Under the federal Maritime Security Program, developed to keep "Communists and other subversives" off the ships and off the waterfront during the Korean War, the Coast Guard began screening seamen they believed represented a "threat to national security." MCS members were forced to line up before turning to on their vessels while Coast Guard officers checked their names against a list of workers blacklisted for alleged political beliefs or associations. Those who were listed were ordered to leave the ship immediately. If they tried to work the job they'd been dispatched for, they were promptly arrested.

The maritime unions established a Seamen's Defense Committee to support these screened seamen, educate the remaining rank and file, and protest the screenings at appeal hearings. Nevertheless, the screenings effectively dismantled the MCS by attacking the most vital part of the union: its members' solidarity. As Berube reports, "You were not allowed to know who informed on you, or on the basis of what information [you were screened]. The FBI called men in or went to visit their homes for questioning, trying to get them to name names and to see if they would act as informants."

Many of the workers tried to stand up for each other, but the screenings created an environment of distrust and betrayal within the union that left it vulnerable to takeover by the anti-communist American Federation of Labor. As the Cold War took its toll on the MCS, the union began to explore affiliation with the ILWU. A joint ILWU-MCS Stewards organizing Committee formed to bring the MCS rank and file into an ILWU Stewards Department. Before this could be' accomplished, the AFL pushed through a combined election with the MCS, Firemen and Sailors Union of the Pacific that put all three unions under its control.

The AFL affiliation vote split the members of the MCS. Some stewards joined the new MCS-AFL. others, like Don Watson, Bill Watkins, and President Emeritus Jimmy Herman, joined the longshore division of the ILWU. Many of the members found jobs in the restaurants and bars along the other strikes as well as waterfront; indeed, the former seamen were instrumental in opening up and running the gay bars spreading through San Francisco's South of Market and North Beach neighborhoods ill the 195Os and 60s. Ted Rolfs. one of the screened gay members, became well known as the Local 1O gardener and janitor who sometimes mopped the hall in roller skates.

Berube hopes that his; research into the MCS will help teach and inspire present-day unionists. "Telling stories about what happened can really encourage people who feel like the task is too big to accomplish in the present, knowing people have done amazing things in the past against odds that now seem to have been impossible." he said. "Especially what was going on in the '30s-talk about hopeless situation-things were already bad and then the Depression hit, but that was one of the most creative times of union organizing People did try to tackle these issues [race and homosexuality] and didn't fail, or succeeded for surprising lengths of time."

Allan Berube' is splitting his time between San Francisco and New York while researching the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. He is looking for people, heterosexual or gay, who remember the old days of the MCS and are willing to talk about their. memories. He is seeking a wide range of experiences with the union. If you, or anyone you know would like to be interviewed for posterity's. sake, please call the ILWU International at (415) 775-0533, ext. 118 and leave a message.

Thanks to the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University for some of the information used in this article.