The Steamship Authority Strike of 1960

On April 15, 1960, a barge arrived in Nantucket harbor, carrying automobiles to the island. Surprisingly, this was passenger transportation — the best alternative to the Steamship Authority, whose crews and boats had been on strike since April 1st. Their strike lasted for 76 days, until July 1st, with constant negotiations between the unions and the Authority management. At issue were wages, job numbers, benefits, and safety concerns — but it wasn’t a case of simple negotiations. The 1960 Steamship Authority strike highlighted the many weaknesses in both the Authority’s foundation, the unions’ legitimacy, and the (in)ability of federal and state powers to intervene on behalf of suffering citizens.

The 1960 strike began wildcat on April 1, when the steamer Nobska left for annual repairs on dry-dock and the steamer Nantucket refused to leave Woods Hole. The captains, mates, and other licensed personnel were protesting the proposed plan by the Authority to reduce their numbers in the slow off-season, both in crewing the ships, and in servicing the less trafficked ports, namely New Bedford, whose operating costs had been outweighing service revenues. These changes were ostensibly to reduce redundant work, but, as the strikers saw it, they would decrease oversight, leading to potential calamities — not to mention the jobs lost in the reduction.

The wildcat strike was a strong statement to make. The three-year union contracts would have been up for negotiation in mid-April, a historical point at which the unions had either struck (as in 1951) or threatened strike (in 1955) to better their wages and conditions. But starting this strike unannounced brought the message forcefully to management, especially as the seasons were shifting and passenger traffic increasing: they were vital infrastructure and should be treated as such. In the previous year, Nantucket had seen a remarkable increase in traffic, due to the 1959 third centennial celebrations held on the island. Perhaps with such prosperity in recent view, the unions saw an opportunity to agitate for due improvements. But on the face of it, their work-stoppage jeopardized livelihood on the islands of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard.

So as not to break the terms of their established contract (and immediately weaken their bargaining position), the crews agreed to run one daily steamer, beginning on April 5, until their contract expired on April 15. By then, however, the islanders felt the damages and knew they would only increase. Caught in the cross-fire of this labor dispute, Nantucketers under isolation began to side with the Authority, bitterly calling the strikers’ demands “exorbitant” and “greedy” in the face of a massive potential tax hike to raise necessary funds. The Inquirer and Mirror reported on a meeting of the selectmen in late April, at which townsfolk spoke up about the disruption to daily life: food prices increased as sourcing and transportation became more difficult; the rental and tourist markets could falter; and backlogs of freight, cars, and passengers would pile up off (and on) island.

But in the face of this, island life continued. Hundreds of small boats began ferrying cargo and passengers from the Cape; volunteers pulled together funds to operate the freight ship Sprigg Caroll; and the air travel industry boomed in a soft early summer. Small barges became a thriving industry as well, as car travelers and construction crews chartered passage to the island for their wieldy machinery. Citizens stepped up to serve their community, with the civilian boat Sea Mist making daily trips to pick up the mail in Hyannis. And with all this effort, a report in the Boston Globe estimated that more than 2,000 people packed Main Street over Memorial Day weekend, due largely to these small-scale preparations. The annual report for the Nantucket Historical Association also evidenced little change in seasonal traffic: their attendance figures for June fell no more than 2% when compared to previous ‘normal’ years (the 300 year celebration had spiked the numbers in the previous year), and their most ‘damaging’ event for the year seems to have been the arrival of Hurricane Donna in late August.

Despite the continued spring prosperity, islanders still resented the strike. Their contention was all about money and their perceived powerlessness in this regional issue. Due to the terms of the Act of 1948, which had established the Steamship Authority with a monopoly on freight trafficking in the region, the Authority was funded by ticket and cargo prices, with a deficit addressed by taxing the serviced communities. With the strikers’ demands of wage increases, job retention, and benefit improvements, Nantucketers estimated that their annual deficit responsibility would increase as much as 30 dollars per household — an outrageous amount in light of the lack of present service. Anti-labor sentiments abounded. Town meeting and newspaper reports during the strike repeatedly mentioned the salary of captains, engineers, and porters in the Authority, as if their positions were born in privilege and growing from greed. Similar attitudes appeared in I&M editorials, which dismissively cited the reasons for striking as “mental strain” and “too many stairs.”  Bitter as they were, the fact was that Nantucketers felt as if they had been taken hostage in the negotiations. While many were also displeased with management’s stubbornness to capitulate, most scorned the “bully unionism” that started this ordeal.

Week by week, the situation remained stagnant. Drawn out for 10 weeks of negotiations between representatives of the Authority, the striking unions (the two most prominent being the Teamsters Local 69, who represented the licensed personnel of captains, mates, and pilots; and Federal Labor Union No. 24053, who represented the unlicensed personnel of deckhands, porters, engineers, and other maintenance crew), representatives of Massachusetts Governor Furcolo, the Federal and State Labor Relations Boards, and judges from the State Board of Arbitration and Conciliation — nobody could make heads or tails of the situation. On the one hand, the Act of 1948 had an explicit “no strike” clause that would invalidate the whole event, if not for the precedent of strike negotiations in 1951 and the fact that the towns (including Nantucket) had never actually signed the Act into local law. On the other hand, the Authority was arranging to write New Bedford out of their operations entirely — a company action that would have political and economic ramifications in devastating the town’s economy and connection to the region. Was this a company problem, or a state problem?

To make matters worse, all these negotiating entities were headed by clashing personalities with conflicting loyalties. The representative of the Authority had previously chaired as secretary-treasurer of the Teamsters Union; the representative of the Teamsters had no connection to the steamship industry; and the Governor himself refused to intervene or even comment on the situation lest any perceived anti-labor action harm his future electability. Perhaps the only group with a level head in all of this, state legislators from Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard wrote out a new bill (H. 1213) that would address the difficulties with the Port of New Bedford, and allow the Steamship Authority to reorganize so that the serviced communities could better address its management.

In the end, an agreement was reached shortly before the fourth of July. Like many negotiations, neither party seems to have reached satisfying terms. For their part, the strikers received a slight pay raise over the next three years and no reduction in licensed personnel onboard; however, the Authority would cut non-licensed crews by up to eight people in the off-season and still curtail their service to New Bedford. To address the “steamboat question” once and for all, the state legislature passed H. 1213, and the Enabling Act of 1960, changing the name of the Authority from “The New Bedford, Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority” to the no-less cumbersome “Woods Hole, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket Steamship Authority.” The company now had state authorization to reduce service to New Bedford, and the elimination of its winter ferry reduced expenses by almost four hundred thousand dollars.

Because of this reorientation, taxpayers paid very little to fill the company’s deficit expenses, and by 1963, the company was finally running in the green. With these transport squabbles addressed, life on the island could return to normal — but in the meantime a new normal had emerged. Air travel was realized as a fast and effective mode of transport, and bicycles boomed when cars were scarcely found. People became more interested in island agriculture and farms like Bartlett’s, who still supply the community with plentiful produce.

In times of disruption, island life has always shown the ability to adapt. While the 2020 moment of epidemiological crisis might permit less flexibility than market and labor quarrels, there are many ways that the island is reinventing itself in the face of challenge. Stories and testimonials of the 1960 strike are hard to come by — only a few letters from the people sorted among the newspapers’ coverage remain for us. But in the case of COVID-19, you can journal your experiences, your challenges, and the ways your life changes from this event, leaving a record for future historians to understand this time of great change.

The Nantucket Historical Association preserves and interprets the history of Nantucket through its programs, collections, and properties, in order to promote the island’s significance and foster an appreciation of it among all audiences.

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