Labor dispute

Striking sailors manned a floating picket line

A nighttime photo showing a Canadian ship loading grain at the COFCO International grain elevator in Milwaukee
The Canadian-owned Federal Danube loads grain at Milwaukee’s Kinnickinnic River elevator in November 2020. Sixty years ago, the arrival of a Canadian grain ship stirred labor troubles. Carl Swanson photo

The border between the United States and Canada runs through five of the Great Lakes. For lake freighters, it is the most invisible of international frontiers thanks to the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909, in which the two nations declared their shared lakes “forever … free and open” to commerce and navigation.

Canadian vessels, some unloading road salt at Jones Island, others loading grain at the 100-year-old Kinnikinnic River elevator are common sights at the Port of Milwaukee. But in May 1962, the Canadian-owned R. Bruce Angus was greeted by a small rowboat bearing four men waving picket signs and getting thoroughly wet and chilled in the process. The floating picket line, one of the strikers told the Milwaukee Journal, was a first for Milwaukee although it had been done in other places.

“In warmer weather,” he added.

The dispute involved Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd., the owner of the R. Bruce Angus, and the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU). From the early 1950s until April 1962, the SIU had provided crews to Upper Lakes. After the company and the SIU failed to come to terms on a new collective bargaining agreement, Upper Lakes signed with the SIU’s rival, the Canadian Maritime Union (CMU). 

The 12-foot aluminum picket boat was an unimpressive sight as it motored in circles around the massive freighter but it was effective. When the captain of the Angus called for assistance in docking his vessel, the Great Lakes Towing Company tug Connecticut responded – only to immediately turn around and return to its mooring after sighting the little boat and its sign-waving occupants. The tugboat’s crew was represented by the SIU and refused to cross their union’s “picket line.” 

Masters of Great Lakes vessels have a reputation for skillful ship handling and the captain of the Angus proved no exception. Shrugging off the loss of the tug, he turned his 620-foot-long steamship in the 800-foot-wide mooring basin and neatly docked alongside the Continental Grain Elevator.

The SIU members then tied up their own little boat and went in search of coffee and sandwiches. Round one of the dispute was over.

Relations between unions have their own arcane formalities. The SIU set up a token picket line on the grain elevator’s access road. The elevator’s workers were represented by Local 8 of the Brewery Workers. Since SIU’s dispute was only with the Angus and its owners and not with Continental Grain, the Brewery Workers had no problem with crossing the SIU’s picket line. However, members of Local 817 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, normally employed to work in the holds distributing the grain as it poured into a vessel (a process called “grain trimming”), refused to cross the SIU picket line because they would have to work aboard the Angus.

This touched on a particularly sore point. SIU work agreements prohibited ship crews it represented from working as grain trimmers because it took work away from Longshoremen. The crew of the Angus, with the shipping company’s new agreement with the Canadian Maritime Union, had no such prohibition. When the Brewery Workers lowered the grain spouts, the 20 crew members of the Canadian vessel were in the holds trimming the cargo. A few hours later, laden with 550,000 bushels of corn, the R. Bruce Angus steamed off to Three Rivers, Quebec.

The drama escalated a few weeks later when the Victorious, owned by the same Canadian firm, arrived in town to load corn at Continental Grain. When the picket line boat failed to appear, the tug Connecticut assisted the Victorious into port. This time, elevator employees decided they would honor the picket line. A standoff ensued. After a few days, the Victorious had to move away from the elevator to allow a vessel owned by the Swedish American Line to load.

Upper Lakes Shipping took the matter to court, where it argued that the SIU was illegally interfering with the company’s activities and with the lawful labor representative of its sailors, the CMU. Circuit Judge Robert M. Curley agreed and issued a temporary restraining order barring the SIU from picketing. Taking a lesson from similar troubles in other Great Lakes cities, the judge worded the injunction in such a way that it applied to the SIU or any other union acting on the SIU’s behalf.

Matters took an ugly turn in August 1962, when the Canadian ship James Norris arrived to load corn. Forty Longshoremen promptly walked off the job. A short time later, alerted that a group of men was approaching the elevator, Continental Grain’s superintendent went to see what they wanted and was severely beaten. Four men, all Longshoremen, were arrested and three were subsequently convicted of assault.

The dispute surfaced again in 1963, when Longshoremen staged a motorized parade up and down the dock, disrupting the loading of the Upper Lakes vessel Red Wing. Judge Curley promptly had John Brzek, secretary-treasurer of Longshoremen’s local 815 hauled in for violation of the restraining order. 

His attorney told the Milwaukee Journal Brzek led the “peaceful caravan” in an effort to head off violence. The newspaper noted that tensions were running high because CMU-represented sailors were continuing to do grain trimming.

The judge fined Brzek a modest amount to cover court costs in exchange for his promise he would do all he could to prevent his members from interfering with Upper Lakes ships.

On and off labor trouble lingered throughout the Great Lakes. Violent incidents in Canada led to that nation’s government assuming trusteeship of all its maritime unions.

In November 1963, the loading of two Canadian vessels in Milwaukee, the Prindoc and the Saskadoc, was halted by picketing. A spokesman for the law firm representing the vessels’ owner, N.M. Paterson & Sons Ltd. of Fort William, Ontario, expressed dismay over the picketing, noting that Paterson sailors were represented by the Canadian SIU. An SIU spokesman explained the union would now picket any ship with a Canadian flag to protest that nation’s oversight of maritime unions. 

Thus a dispute that started with a floating picket line reached a point where a maritime union picketed ships represented by itself.

Recent photo of Algoma Innovator using a self-unloading boom to unload salt.
The Canadian Algoma Innovator uses its self-unloading boom to unload its cargo of road salt at Jones Island in December 2020. In 2011, Upper Lakes Shipping Ltd., which had been target of a 1960s labor dispute in Milwaukee and other lake ports, sold its fleet of ships to Algoma Central Marine. Carl Swanson photo

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The Bay View tragedy

In May 1886, state militia soldiers fired on protestors during a labor dispute at the North Chicago Rolling Mill in Milwaukee's Bay View neighborhood. Carl Swanson illustration

In May 1886, state militia soldiers fired on protesters during a labor dispute at the North Chicago Rolling Mill in Milwaukee’s Bay View neighborhood. Carl Swanson illustration

Milwaukee’s first large-scale labor action started on May 1, 1886, and culminated in violence and death four days later.

The demand for an eight-hour working day was the key issue. At the time a typical work day was 10 or 12 hours and, often, six days a week. By May 3rd, 10,000 Milwaukeeans were idle, either on strike or locked out by employers who shut down in the face of escalating violence.