Striking ferry engineers shut down the privately owned Black Ball Line for six days, starting on March 14, 1947.

  • By Alan J. Stein
  • Posted 2/25/2003
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 5294
On March 14, 1947, the 70 members of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association on ferries of the Puget Sound Navigation Company (Black Ball Line) go on strike. This shuts down ferry service on Puget Sound for six days and creates havoc for commuters and travelers. In the end, events are set into motion that lead to the eventual creation of Washington State Ferries.

Shut Down

During World War II, contract changes between the Black Ball Line and union employees mostly went uncontested, due in part to the solidarity involved in transporting homefront workers to and from shipyards, and from simply "getting the job done" for the war effort. After the war ended in 1945, ferry workers who had seen only minor wage increases since the 1930s sought to strengthen their status within the company.

In early 1947, members of the Inlandboatmen's Union and the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots had accepted an offer from the Black Ball Line that included a 10 percent wage increase and a reduction from a 48-hour work week to 40 hours. The Marine Engineers were offered a 20 percent wage increase, but the 48-hour week remained unchanged. They found this unacceptable.

Although the engineer's union had only 70 members, these were the men who ran the 22 ferries of the Black Ball Line. When the engineers walked out at 12:01 a.m. on March 14, 1947, there was no one to operate the vessels. That morning, 10,000 commuters found themselves stranded throughout Puget Sound.

Making Do

Citizens and government agencies scrambled to find alternate transportation for commuters. That morning, Greyhound buses began making three trips daily from all points along Puget Sound, from the Olympic Peninsula, through Olympia, to Seattle, and back again. Various small aircraft companies stepped up operations. The Navy, needing to get employees of the Bremerton Naval Shipyard to and from work, enlisted the help of LSTs (Landing Ship, Tanks), the same vessels that had stormed the beaches of France on D-Day.

Island residents needed marine transport the most, now that they were cut off from the mainland. Vashon Island residents chartered the Skylark, a 42-foot cabin boat, and engaged a 50-passenger launch to operate in Tacoma. Bainbridge Island chartered two vessels, as well as the veteran steamer Virginia V. San Juan Island residents made do with small craft and light aircraft.

Some commuters came out on top. When two of the Vashon Island vessels were found to be unlicensed, the Silver Swan, a dine-and-dance cruise ship, was put into service instead. The newspaper described the 62-foot floating nightclub's rescue of marooned Vashoners, :like Roy Rogers with the mortgage money." Commuters on this run got to knock back decent cups of Joe, dine on yummy hamburgers, pop a few dimes into the jukebox, and trip the light fantastic on the dance floor on the way home from work. As one rider stated, "We used to hate the ride, now we hate getting off."

Plenty of Blame to Spread Around

Most commuters didn't have it as good as riders on the Swan, though, and after a few days of being crammed like cattle into LSTs or taking a four-hour bus ride (one-way) around the Sound, the public voiced their outrage. Some organized their own "unions," forming both the Northwest Washington Community Council and the Ferry Riders Association, and brought their demands to light. Others groused to elected officials, the newspapers, or anyone else who would listen to their tales of commuter hell.

No one was free from condemnation. Some felt that Captain Alexander Peabody (1895-1980), president of the Black Ball Line, was not listening to reason. Others felt that the offer given to the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association was fair and just and should be taken immediately. Still others believed that Governor Mon C. Wallgren (1891-1961) wasn't doing enough to conciliate both sides of the bargaining table, and some felt that they were captive to the whims of a monopolistic ferry system, and that cross-sound transportation would be better run by the state, which was more accountable to the people.

The people spoke and now Governor Wallgren stepped into the deadlocked strike, offering to arrange arbitration for both sides. Peabody accepted with reservations, hoping to enjoin the state to allow him to raise passenger fares. Tying rate hikes to wage increases outraged the unions, as well as the public. Wallgren, facing reelection next year, suddenly found himself holding a political hot-potato.

Burning the Midnight Oil

On the morning of March 18, 1947, representatives from the Black Ball Line and the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association traveled to the State Capitol in Olympia. After a 30-minute meeting with the mediation board, Governor Wallgren met with Captain Peabody and the Black Ball Line representatives for a half hour, then with representatives of the Marine Engineers Beneficial Association for a half hour. At 11:00 a.m. all groups gathered together for a session that lasted well into the night.

By the next day, they had hammered out a contract. It included a 10 percent wage increase, retroactive to January, with an average overall increase of 23.8 percent in a new wage scale effective March 1, 1947. Union demands for reclassification of vessels according to horsepower were met, with pay scales based on the size of engine plants. The 48-hour work week stayed in place, though, without extra pay for holidays.

That evening, the engineers met and voted 43 to 21 in favor of the contract. Partial service resumed immediately to Bremerton, Vashon, and Bainbridge islands, and by next morning ferry service was almost back to normal. At the time, most people didn't realize it, but the strike had set into motion the eventual takeover of the Black Ball Line by the State of Washington

Repercussions

The strike left commuters looking at the privately owned ferry service in a different light. Many didn't like the fact that their sole source of transport could be shut down overnight. The state Toll Bridge Authority began looking into ways to alleviate the situation, in case it ever happened again.

And happen again it did. A year later, Captain Peabody, his request to raise passenger rates thwarted, shut down the ferry system for more than a week, this time all by himself. Citizens and state agencies scrambled again, and were once more outraged at the effects of having one person in control of a vital link in statewide transportation. Seeking recourse, the state stepped in, which eventually led to the birth of Washington State Ferries in 1951.


Sources: M. S. Cline, and G. A. Bayless Ferryboats: A Legend on Puget Sound (Seattle: Bayless Books, 1983) 293-294; "Last-Minute Talk Called in Ferry Row," The Seattle Times, March 13, 1947, p. 1; "22 Vessels Idled as Engineers Quit in Pact Dispute," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 14, 1947, p. 1; "10,000 Stranded by Ferry Strike," The Seattle Times, March 14, 1947, p. 4; "Planes, Buses, Boats Replace Stuck Ferries," The Seattle Times, March 14, 1947, p. 1; "Striking Ferry Workers Propose State Mediation," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 17, 1947, p.1; "Floating Night Club Becomes 'Good Fairy' in Ferry-Strike Tale," The Seattle Times, March 18, 1947, p. 1; "Wallgren Breaks Ferry Deadlock, Arranges Parley," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 14, 1947, p.1, 2; "Conference Goes Into Night Session on Ferry Strike," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 19, 1947, pp.1, 2; "Ferry Strike Ends; Sound Service to be Resumed Today," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 20, 1947, p. 1, 2.

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