Naming a ship after someone is a high honor. The United States Navy recently announced plans to name the fleet oiler T-AO-206 after the gay rights activist, San Francisco politician, and Navy veteran Harvey Milk. Several ships in this class commemorate social justice heroes and heroines, including the T-AO 187 USNS Henry J. Kaiser.
During World War II, when production was maximized and the workforce was essential to victory, labor and management made great efforts to be as cooperative as possible. On January 12, 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reinstated former President Woodrow Wilson’s National War Labor Board to anticipate and resolve labor-management conflict.
Labor Day ship launchings often feted the local labor community, but trade unionism was further elevated during the war by naming Liberty ships after labor leaders.
Five Liberty ships named after labor leaders were launched on Labor Day — September 7, 1942, and 3 of them were built in Kaiser shipyards. A sixth ship (the SS Samuel Gompers) was launched on June 28, 1944. Seven additional ships named for Jewish American labor leaders were launched between January 21, 1944, and October 13, 1944.
Labor took the lead in this campaign. In July, 1942, the Sailors' Union of the Pacific petitioned the United States Maritime Commission and the War Shipping Administration for a Liberty ship to be named in honor of Andrew Furuseth, the longtime president of their union.
The plea was reported in the Oakland Tribune, July 14, 1942, in an article titled “Mariners ask ship to be named for union leader:”
Members of the West Coast Local No. 90 of the National Organization of Masters, Mates, and Pilots of America today petitioned the United States Maritime Commission to name one of the new Liberty ships after Andrew Furuseth, one of the founders of the Sailors Union of the Pacific.
In a resolution forwarded by Captain C.F. May, president, the Commission was asked to select one of the ships to be launched on Labor Day, September 7. Captain May told the commission that, if the committee selects a vessel to be named Furuseth, it “will not only be honoring an outstanding labor leader and citizen, but also recognizing the American marine seaman of today for his bravery and sacrifices which he is making to win the war.”
On September 7, 1942, the United States Maritime Commission arranged to have five ships launched that were named for labor leaders. The launch ceremonies, held at four different shipyards around the country, were to be linked by a coast-to-coast broadcast and feature speeches by John P. Frey, an executive of the American Federation of Labor, and John W. Green, president of the Congress of Industrial Organizations. The two organizations would merge in 1955, and the AFL-CIO remains the largest federation of unions in the United States.
An Associated Press account described the Labor Day launching event in Baltimore:
With thousands of workers looking on, three Liberty ships slid down the ways at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards Monday as the climax to a Labor Day celebration attended by political notables and ranking labor leaders. For the rest, it was just another working day for Bethlehem-Fairfield workers as they followed the lead of other defense industries and stayed at their jobs. Two of the new vessels were christened in honor of outstanding labor leaders and one of them was constructed in the record-breaking time of 39 days.
Yard General Manager J. M. Willis keynoted the ceremonies when he said "In all the history of America never has there been a Labor Day as significant as this one."
Labor men everywhere, Willis continued, "have turned their parades into the shipyards and other defense industries in order, that not one hour of their productive effort be lost." John Green, national president of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America, spoke of the steady growth of unionism. "By persistent work and unrelenting efforts the workers have achieved recognition. Our organizations are accepted as a necessary part of free American society. Our job now is to demonstrate that we are worthy to inherit the Promised Land made possible by the struggles of our pioneers," Green said.
Even as the war wound down, labor was honored. A November 9, 1945 article titled “Labor to be Honored at Friday’s Launchings” informed readers that “Labor of the entire area will be feted for the part it has played in the Portland-Vancouver Kaiser company shipyards during the war in a huge ‘All Labor’ launching of the Mount Rogers at Vancouver … the entire program will be arranged by the Portland-Vancouver Metal Trades Council.”
Here are details of those 5 labor leader ships:
Built at Kaiser Richmond shipyard #1; sold to Norwegian interests as Essi, 1947. Scrapped in Japan, 1967.
Norway-born Furuseth (1854-1938) was a merchant seaman and American labor leader. He helped build two influential maritime unions: the Sailors' Union of the Pacific and the International Seamen's Union. Furuseth served as the executive of both for decades.
Built at Kaiser Richmond shipyard #2; scrapped 1968.
McGuire (1852-1906) co-founded the United Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America in 1881 and was one of the early leading figures of the American Federation of Labor. He is credited with first proposing the idea of Labor Day as a national holiday in 1882.
Built at Kaiser Oregon Shipbuilding (St. Johns, Ore.); scrapped 1962.
Duncan was a Scottish-American union leader and president of the Granite Cutters' International Association from 1885 until his death in 1928. He was an influential member of the American labor movement and helped found the American Federation of Labor.
Built at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, Baltimore, Maryland.
John W. Brown (1867-1941) was a Canadian-born American labor union leader and executive of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. This Liberty ship is one of two still operational (the other being the SS Jeremiah O’Brien, berthed in San Francisco) and one of three preserved as museum ships. The John W. Brown is berthed in Baltimore.
Built at Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard; scrapped 1967.
Mitchell was a United States labor leader and president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1898 to 1908.
A 6th labor ship, launched June 28, 1944, was the SS Samuel Gompers, built at California Shipbuilding Corporation (Calship) in Sausalito. Gompers was the first and longest-serving president of the American Federation of Labor. She replaced a cargo steamship with the same name which had been torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine in the South Pacific on January 30th, 1943.
Seven other Liberty ships launched in 1944 were named for Jewish American labor leaders.
Also see: "Liberty and Victory Ships named for African Americans" and "Henry Kaiser and merchant sailors union: the curious case of the SS Pho Pho" about the SS Harry Lundeberg, 1958.
Photograph of the Essi courtesy Den Norske Libertyflaten, (The American Liberty Fleet and other U.S.-Built Merchant Ships) Vormedal Forlag, Norway, 2015.