Democracy & Union Conglomerates

Democracy & Union Conglomerates

At the corner of 15th Street and Union Square West, on June 1, James Morrissey and Ralph Ibrahim, two seamen, watched outside the Amalgamated Bank while bags of ballots were loaded from the vault onto a truck for delivery to the National Maritime Union headquarters where they were to be counted by the Honest Ballot Association. NMU members had voted for national officers by mail during April and May. Morrissey had been bucking the Curran administration since 1966 when he ran for national secretary-treasurer, the union’s second highest post. Ibrahim had been at it since 1960, when he ran for New York port agent against the official slate and then complained to the Labor Department that the election had been illegal (that, belonging more to history than to current events, was when James P. Mitchell served as secretary of labor under Eisenhower).

Joseph Curran, NMU president since its founding in 1937, retired in 1973. The administration ticket was headed by Shannon Wall, former national secretary-treasurer. The opposition ticket, the Committee for NMU Democracy, ran Morrissey for president and Ibrahim for secretary-treasurer. The Call, a tabloid published by the Morrissey reformers, said they were “trying to do for seamen what Arnold Miller and the Miners for Democracy did for miners.” By June 5, when the ballots were tallied, it was clear they had not succeeded. A total of 22,613 votes were cast, Wall receiving 14,396 votes and Morrissey 5,338. Morrissey and Ibrahim failed as candidates, but they have had spectacular success as reformers. When Ibrahim ran in 1960, the NMU officialdom had already begun to seal itself off from the possibility of challenge. By the time Morrissey made his first run in 1966, fewer than 500 of the NMU’s 50,000 members were even remotely eligible to run for top office. (A year later, the number had dropped to 400.) Only those could become candidates who had already served as full-time staff members, which meant they could emerge only from within the officialdom itself. And that is about perfect as a definition of a self-perpetuating oligarchy.


Duggan | University of California Press Gardels