By Daniel Hardin
On January 17, 1937, hundreds of striking seamen hiked down U.S. Route 1 from Baltimore, Maryland to Washington, D.C. on what became known as the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade.
The insurgents within the International Seamen’s Union (ISU) were on the ropes and desperate action was needed to save their rank-and-file caucus.
The strike began in early November in sympathy with West Coast waterfront workers. It was led by a rank-and-file committee within the ISU that challenged the legitimacy of the ISU itself.
However, by Christmas 1936 ships were leaving Baltimore harbor with full crews, and on January 14 other waterfront unions called off their strikes and ordered their members to return to work.
Only one person could have rallied the Baltimore strikers after two months of privation and the desertion of other waterfront unions. That was Patrick B. “Paddy” Whalen.
Whalen was born in 1884 and followed his father into the locomotive engineers’ union. Whalen apparently had conflicts with the railroad companies and began a wandering period that ended with him finding work in the engine rooms of merchant ships.
Whalen sailed out of New York on one of the merchant ships in the early 1930s, and Charles Rubin, a communist seaman, shipped out with him. According to The Log of Rubin the Sailor, Rubin was fascinated by Whalen’s knowledge of radical labor groups like the Knights of Labor, the Molly McGuires and the Wobblies.
Rubin recruited Whalen into the militant, communist-aligned Marine Workers Industrial Union (MWIU) and later into the Communist Party (CP) itself. Whalen rose quickly as a leader among the seafarers. When the CP broke up the MWIU and sent its activists to work within the International Seamen’s Union, Whalen became a leader in the rank-and-file caucus.
The anti-communist Bella Dodd described Whalen in her book School of Darkness:
Paddy Whalen best represented the picturesque elements among the Communists of that era. He was a little Irishman, the mayor of Hooversville as they named this town of shanties over on the Jersey flats. He had piercing black eyes. He drank too much and ate too little. In his way, he was dedicated to the labor movement, having once been an IWW…
Paddy Whalen came from the Middle West. Once a Catholic, he argued doctrine with priests yet begged help for strikers from men of all faiths. As mayor of a pathetic heap of boxes and tins, he wore with great dignity a hand-me-down black derby and an overcoat which reached his heels.
In late 1934 or early 1935 he moved to Baltimore and quickly became the head of the rank and file caucus within the ISU. Duke Avnet, a left-wing Baltimore labor lawyer, remembered Whalen:
He ran sentences together. He mispronounced words; he committed malapropism. He cussed profusely. His grammar was a classic of mistakes. But his thinking was clear; and he knew the seamen and their problems.
The strike on the East Coast began in early November and was briefly supported by nearly the entire waterfront.
When the impeccably dressed Joseph McCurdy, president of the Baltimore Federation of Labor, sided with the ship owners in seeking an injunction, Whalen spoke to a rally and “denounced labor leaders who had ‘ritzy’ lifestyles and insisted on wearing ‘clean shirts,’” according to Vernon Pederson’s The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57,
Whalen told the crowd, “I have been involved in strikes for years and I have slept in flophouses, under viaducts and in jails—with my comrades. We have no money, and to win this strike every man must expect to suffer the hardships of his fellows.”
At a crucial point in the strike, the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) local unions briefly joined in. Thousands of striking workers chased ILA President Joe Ryan back to his car when he tried to speak against the strike.
But, in the days that followed, ILA locals met separately and Ryan’s supporters were able to sway the workers to vote against officially joining the strike.
As the strike crumbled in early 1937, Whalen sought to save the insurgency from an outright defeat and preserve the Baltimore section of the organization that he led.
The opportunity came as Congress was considering ship owners’ legislation that would establish a single discharge book to be filled out by each ship captain after each voyage.
Up to this point, individual discharge papers from each tour had been issued by the ship captains. Union seamen viewed the proposed single discharge book as an attempt by ship owners to blacklist them since one captain who didn’t like a maritime worker could smear them on a single discharge book. The legislation was called the Copeland Safety at Sea Act.
Also pending was a National Labor Relations Board decision on whether the rank and file caucus could challenge the ISU during federally supervised elections to represent the seamen.
It’s not clear who came up with the idea for a march on Washington but it may have been Al Lannon, a national leader of the rank-and-file committee. Lannon had previously led the Baltimore MWIU in the early 1930s and had organized a small march on Washington in 1934 demanding continued disbursement of federal relief funds through the union instead of outside organizations that were feathering their own nests.
As a result of agitation by the MWIU the disbursement of funds through the so-called “Baltimore Soviet,” continued for another year. The “Soviet” provided beds, food, barbers and other services for waterfront workers during the toughest early years of the Great Depression.
The Midnight March
Whether it was Whalen’s or Lannon’s thoughts that led to the march, Whalen took it up with enthusiasm and the idea captured the imagination of seamen up and down the ports on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
Elizabeth Fee wrote in The Baltimore Book:
Calling it the Midnight March of the Baltimore Brigade, Whalen led hundreds of seamen and supporters from other unions along U.S. Route 1 through a day and night of rain and slush to the nation’s capital.
There they were joined by several thousand more demonstrators, and pickets were thrown around the Department of Commerce as well as the Capitol. The seamen visited all the principal department heads in government. One delegation even went to President Franklin Roosevelt in the White House.
With the momentum of the march, Baltimore’s striking seamen voted to end the 87-day strike, obtaining wage increases for the sailors, according to Jo Ann Argersinger in the Maryland Historical Magazine.
Shortly afterward the NLRB ruled in favor of the caucus meeting the definition of a union under federal law. The rank-and-file committee in turn established itself as the National Maritime Union (NMU) and quickly challenged the ISU, winning representation in 56 of 67 companies where elections were held.
As a result of the new power on the waterfront, the Copeland Safety at Sea Act was amended to permit either single discharge papers or new books to be utilized—effectively preventing ship owners from blacklisting union supporters.
A sweeping victory had been snatched from the jaws of defeat.
The camaraderie of the sailors at sea proved a great recipe for union members in port.
During the strike, the rank-and-file committee adopted a resolution to “treat all seamen as brothers and on an equality” basis regardless of race or color according to Argersinger. A cook of Chinese descent, who was barred by West Coast waterfront unions from membership, was taken in by Whalen and his union.
Argersinger wrote that Whalen set up a “court of justice” with fines and punishments for crimes ranging from drunkenness to scabbing—the most serious offense. The “Baltimore Soviet” services were replicated with rooms, food service and organized exercise. Differing ethnic groups were encouraged to play instruments and sing their songs for all.
Elisabeth Gilman, a social democrat from Baltimore, said the strike was “the most orderly and best conducted I have ever seen.”
Fight for Integrated Crews
When the NMU was officially formed in 1938, its constitution prohibited discrimination. Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? quotes the lawyer Avnet relating an incident where Whalen put teeth into this provision:
The Captain of the vessel phoned and complained that some of the crew members were not satisfactory. There were three Negro members who had been assigned to the deck and engine departments. Previously Negroes had been segregated on the ships to the steward’s department only.
Pat [Whalen] held his ground and refused to withdraw these three crew members. Shortly afterward, the crew itself arrived at the union hall and [the white crew members] announced that they would not sail with Negroes.
Whalen called a general membership meeting for that night to try the white crewmembers for undemocratic conduct. During this meeting several seamen of color spoke against the white crew’s actions, and a number of whites spoke in favor of it. Whalen took the floor and harangued the membership on how racism created a reservoir of strikebreakers and how the enemy ISU had always stood for Jim Crow.
He spoke of trade union democracy where all were equal regardless of race, color or creed, and shook his head and vowed sadly that the new union would be better dead aborning than to follow in the old ways…The men understood him and the membership voted the crew either sail with Negro members or that they should turn in their union books.
Some books were thrown on the table. But the ship sailed with a mixed crew and this policy has since largely prevailed in the port of Baltimore.
The Broader Fight
Elizabeth Fee cited a George Meyers account of how Whalen also fought for integration on the Baltimore waterfront:
The National Maritime Union always worked integrated crews, and we’d go into a waterfront bar and order up a bottle. The bartenders would serve the white seamen and refuse to serve the others because, they said, it was against the law.
So Paddy’s guys would pick the bottle up and throw it into the mirror…and that was the way the waterfront was integrated. After that, anyone could be served with no problem.
Whalen didn’t confine the fight against segregation to the waterfront. In one of the largest community based campaigns in the pre-World-War-II period, the CIO sent representatives into community meetings to raise its own demands such as housing for black workers at Bethlehem Steel and other mills, factories and shipyards.
Andor Skotnes in New Deal for All? writes:
On one occasion in 1939, Patrick Whalen, head of the Baltimore Industrial Union Council, silenced a hostile white crowd at a public meeting with a passionate defense of public housing for all. The nature of the coalition emerging in the new housing movement is evident in the committee formed in northwestern Baltimore, which included representatives from the NAACP, the NNC, BUL, the CIO and social liberal groupings. Both Lillie Jackson of the NAACP and Albert Blumberg of the Communist Party were among its leaders.
Whalen as Port Agent
Whalen was the port agent (principal union representative) for NMU in Baltimore from 1937-42 and was known for his brash and confrontational style.
In a 1987 interview for the Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, African American seaman Neville Sutherland recalled Whalen having a telephone conversation with Governor Harry Nice:
He wanted the governor to give something, and the governor said it can’t be done…You get him on the goddamn phone, this is Patrick Beeway Dubiss [Whalen]. So, when he got out,he told him what he wanted, and the governor said to the guy it can’t be done. He [Whalen] says, Oh, it’s gonna be done, don’t tell me what can’t be done. He [Whalen] said you full of shit, he says…that’s the way he talked [and] he [Whalen] got it.
Whalen would lead his seamen to return to Washington, D.C. at least two more times in 1938 and 1939 to demand strict procedures for issuing sailors’ certificates. As the NMU conducted strikes against particular shipping lines, the ISU or ship owners would try to bring strikebreakers aboard. The protests at the Commerce Department demanded the department halt what the NMU said was a practice of issuing certificates to unqualified scabs while denying qualified union supporters the certificates.
During this period, Whalen had his share of enemies. While en route to a meeting of the national union in New York City, Hudson County police stopped the vehicle he was riding in and arrested him and four others for carrying “concealed and dangerous weapons.”
Questions immediately arose about how the police came to know that Whalen was riding in this particular vehicle that held weapons. Speculation turned to Joseph Curran, the NMU president, who was allegedly jealous of other leaders in the union. Neville Sutherland ventured:
Actually, Colonel [Curran] was afraid of Patrick Whalen, see. And Colonel [Curran] was a big rat too, [Inaudible word(s)] Patrick leave here. Patrick Whalen was a very small man, a very, very, very, small man, see; must’ve weighed about 105 pounds, 110 pounds.
And he’d leave from here, and he knew that Patrick Whalen had a gun in the car, see. That Patrick Whalen didn’t take shit from nobody and he called the Jersey police up, and notified them that he was coming and he had it and when he hit the Jersey line, they pulled him up and they got him in the car there.
Charges were later dropped and the incident, if anything, boosted Whalen’s standing among the workers.
Whalen as a Communist
Whalen made no secret of his communist beliefs. The Russian revolutionary Vladimir Lenin wrote in What is to be Done? that the communist’s “…ideal should not be the trade union secretary, but the tribune of the people, who is able to react to every manifestation of tyranny and oppression, no matter where it appears…”
Paddy Whalen seemed to somehow embody both. The artist Alice Neel, who painted Whalen in 1935 with a copy of the Communist Party’s Daily Worker and two clenched fists, said of Whalen, “Patty Whalen was the organizer on the waterfront…He was just an ordinary Irishman except for one thing: He was absolutely convinced of communism, and he could convince other longshoremen…”
Whalen hated fascism and during the 1936-7 strike, Whalen organized 50 seamen to travel to Washington, D.C. to picket the German embassy in support of seaman Lawrence Simpson who was charged by the Nazis with subversion.
While drumming up support for the 1936-37 strike, Whalen also went on a recruiting sortie for the Maryland Communist Party to Cumberland, Md. where he met and recruited labor leader George Meyers. Meyers led the unionization of the Celanese Mills, where 10,000 workers were employed. Meyers later became head of the Maryland Industrial Union Council, the state arm of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).
Meyers also went on to head the Md.-D.C. Communist Party, was jailed for three years during the McCarthy era, and later headed the CP’s National Labor Commission, demonstrating Whalen’s effectiveness in winning others to his ideas.
Killed by Nazi Submarine
When the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and the Nazi regime in Germany declared war on the U.S. a few days later, the Communist Party asked its members to enlist in the war effort. Despite his exemption from the draft as union port agent, Whalen went back to sea in the merchant marine, working in the engine room of the S.S. Illinois.
On June 2, 1942, as the Illinois sailed on a return voyage along the Southern Atlantic route and was about 450 miles southeast of Bermuda, Nazi submarine U-159 sent two torpedoes into its engine room. Whalen died instantly and 31 others also perished. The ship went down with 8,000 tons of manganese ore aboard. Whalen’s body, like those of most seamen on sunken ships, was never recovered. Six survivors were picked up out of the water six days later.
The workers of Baltimore saw their revenge. On July 28, 1943 a PBM Mariner dropped bombs onto U-159 and sent the Nazi submarine to the bottom of the sea.
A liberty ship was launched from Brunswick, Ga. bearing the name Patrick B. Whalen in March 1945 in his memory and a small service held in Baltimore the same day. However during the Cold War the name of the S.S. Patrick B. Whalen was changed and it was eventually scrapped in Taiwan in 1967.
Joseph Curran took complete control of the union at a 1947 convention where the left wing of the union lost by a single vote—a casualty of the anti-communist fever orchestrated by Democratic President Harry S. Truman and a Republican Congress. Soon after, 10 years of union democracy was gone and Curran came to symbolize the worst aspects of trade unionism, building a palatial union headquarters in New York. The NMU merged with the rival ISU in 1988.
The cities of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. are only 30 miles apart, but they might as well be 3,000. Only rarely is there cultural spillover between the two. However Whalen’s position in the Maryland Industrial Council of the CIO and his unflinching fight against discrimination inspired the same fight in Washington, D.C. as activists sought to integrate defense industries and the Capital Transit Company.
Whalen is long forgotten, except among a few scholars. Perhaps when someone views the bar scenes in Season 2 of The Wire, they’ll think of Paddy Whalen and the method he used to integrate the waterfront bars of Baltimore.
Sources for this post include the Washington Star, The Washington Post, The Baltimore Afro-American, The Baltimore Sun, The Communist Party in Maryland 1919-57, The Baltimore Book, The Maryland Historical Magazine, Pictures of People: Alice Neel’s Portrait Gallery, School of Darkness, A New Deal for All?, The Baltimore Neighborhood Heritage Project, among others.
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