Without a Paddle

Forbidden by law to go on strike, the captains, the mates, the engineers, and the deckhands of the Steamship Authority did just that forty-five years ago this spring. Though it wreaked havoc on Islanders (and their pocketbooks) and left a legacy of bitterness among the crewmen, the eleven-week strike of 1960 proved how ingenious Vineyarders could be about getting from here to there and back. It also transformed the boat line – as well as the Island it served.

Forbidden by law to go on strike, the captains, the mates, the engineers, and the deckhands of the Steamship Authority did just that forty-five years ago this spring. Though it wreaked havoc on Islanders (and their pocketbooks) and left a legacy of bitterness among the crewmen, the eleven-week strike of 1960 proved how ingenious Vineyarders could be about getting from here to there and back.

It also transformed the boat line – as well as the Island it served.

Chris Murphy of West Tisbury spent a whole June day digging steamers at South Beach without seeing a single other person. Joe Costa of Tisbury was out of work and worried. By the time he finally got his job back, he’d developed a severe stress-related illness and couldn’t work for another six months. Linda Marinelli of Oak Bluffs helped load a coffin – with a body in it – onto a fishing boat in Woods Hole. That done, she got a dog (not hers) out of a car (not hers) and walked it before driving the car (and dog) onto a boat for passage to the Vineyard.

All of these things happened in the late spring and early summer of 1960, the results of a strike by Steamship Authority officers and crew that lasted from April 16 to July 1 – at seventy-six days, by far the longest steamboat or ferry strike in Island history. At the very least, nearly eleven weeks without ferry service at the start of the summer season inconvenienced thousands of people. And for some, to borrow from Dickens, it was the worst of times; for others – unexpectedly – it may have been the best.

How it Happened

The Steamship Authority is a public entity, established in 1949 to provide services considered essential to the Islands – the transportation of people, automobiles, and freight to and from the mainland. Before the creation of the Authority, steamer and ferry service had been privately run, first by the New England Steamship Company (owned by the New Haven Railroad, which had terminals in Woods Hole and New Bedford) and more recently by the Massachusetts Steamship Lines.

Created right after the end of World War II, this new company was unable to earn enough to maintain the worn-out steamers it had inherited from the New England Steamship Company. The commonwealth saw no alternative but to step in to establish a public agency that would guarantee ferry service year-round, during the summer season (when there was money to be made), and during the fall, winter, and spring (when most assuredly there was not).
Because the Authority provides an essential public service, its workers are not supposed to strike.

“In essential industries like transportation,” says Paul Osterman, a labor economist, professor at the Sloan School of Management at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Chilmark seasonal resident, “the laws are different than with steel and other industries. The government can take over the unions’ assets and jail their officers. If it wants to break a strike, it can. When the mine workers struck, Truman brought in the National Guard.”

But the Steamship Authority was a curious entity; each community served by the boat line – New Bedford, Falmouth (Woods Hole), the Vineyard, and Nantucket – appointed a representative to run it, which called into question whether the Authority was a state agency or a regional one, and therefore not subject to a no-strike rule. During the strike, the National Labor Relations Board declared that the Authority was indeed a state agency, but as the strike held fast in the spring and early summer of1960, the unions were never threatened, and no qualified substitute captains or engineers could be found to run the boats. So the strike went on. And on.

The bargaining had dragged along for months, but when the old contract expired at midnight on April 15, there was no provision to keep it in effect until a new contract was signed. “Every three or four years when the contracts came up,” says Joe Costa, a crewman, “there was always a to-do. But this time was different, because we were asking for more.” The demands were for a ten percent pay increase, a six-hour day rather than an eight-hour day, an increase in manning of the boats, sharp rises in insurance and medical benefits, and a steep increase in travel allowances. Of particular concern to Costa was the addition of an unemployment benefit; each winter, he was laid off for four months without one.

But the Authority was still paying off debt it had inherited from the Massachusetts Steamship Lines. In previous negotiations, it had ponied up in numerous ways. This time, the company said it didn’t have the money to give the workers what they wanted. In the hours leading up to the deadline, the Authority took actions “to protect its property and business,” it said, including moving its largest steamer from Nantucket to Woods Hole, where management could keep a close eye on her. The unions claimed they were being locked out. At midnight on the 16th, the captains, the mates, the engineers, and the crewmen walked off the decks, and the boats went cold in their slips.
The Island had seen this coming. Captain John Coutinho was ready to go with his fishing boat Reliance, Captain Walter Manning with his fishing boat Bozo, and at least a dozen other Vineyard captains with their commercial boats. When the strike was called a minute after midnight on the th, a motley flotilla of Island boats was ready to set sail.

Vineyard Ingenuity

A week or so after the strike began, Linda Marinelli got a phone call that would change her life. At the time, she and her husband Charley were struggling to make ends meet – he fished, and she ran a fish market at Farm Neck. The phone call came from a man representing a group of Vineyard businessmen who were organizing alternative ways to carry people and cars to and from Woods Hole and Martha’s Vineyard. They had leased a tugboat and a barge to carry the cars and a few trucks at a time.
People and automobiles were arriving willy-nilly in Woods Hole, and while the barge and the other boats were doing their best to ferry them all to the Vineyard, the scene was confusing. No one knew exactly where to leave his car – where was the back of the line? The disorder took on elements of farce: Malcolm Jones of West Tisbury, who describes himself now as a philanthropist and experimenter, worked that summer on the barge. “One day,” he says, “we took a bunch of cars that had keys in them onto the barge and over to the Island. Only later did we find out that some of those cars belonged to people who weren’t in line at all – they’d left their keys in their cars while they went into the coffee shop to get breakfast.”
So Marinelli agreed to coordinate the car- and passenger-loading operation in Woods Hole, provided that Charley’s fishing boat, a forty-footer called the Vera B., was first in line to take passengers. He could carry twenty-one people per trip, which took about an hour each way, and sometimes he worked around the clock. At $3 a head, he was making a steady income – far more in a day than he made fishing. In a 2002 memoir, Never Say Die, Marinelli refers to the strike as “our first break.”
“I had hundreds of sets of car keys to keep track of, and I never lost one,” says Marinelli, who loaded the body-bearing coffin onto a boat at low tide and then walked the dog of a driver who had gone over, leaving her car behind. Marinelli learned the art of loading autos not only onto the barge but also onto Captain Alfred Vanderhoop’s dragger Papoose, which could manage two or three cars athwart her decks. “We ran them up the planks and packed them on like sardines,” she says, “with one car on either side, and maybe a small Volkswagen on the end.”
Other boats did well too. Stuart Bangs of Vineyard Haven, then working in his family’s market, spent the first half of that summer on Parakeet, his father Paul’s 1927 freight vessel, converted from what Bangs calls a “rich man’s play-boat.” Parakeet brought over passengers day and night, and the first shipment of bread every morning. Bangs says that for the fishermen recruited into the transportation effort, the strike was a boon.
“They were getting steady cash every day,” he says. “A lot of the fishermen seemed to have new cars after the strike was over.”

A Crewman in Pain

For the striking workers, times were not so good. Joe Costa still looks back on the strike with a mixture of sorrow, bitterness, and disbelief. “That was a hard time for guys who worked on the boat,” he says of the strike. “It sticks with you.”

First, of course, there was the economic hardship. Crewmen who lived off-Island were able to find other work while the strike wore on, but on the Vineyard getting a replacement job was much harder; Costa felt “frozen out” by the resentment of those who might have hired him. When once he landed a brief stint doing gardening for an elderly homeowner, Costa says, “people would say to the guy, ‘Don’t let that bum work! Get rid of him!’” In spite of this, the homeowner kept him on, and out of gratitude, Costa dug his garden gratis every spring thereafter until the man died.
But a little gardening here and there doesn’t pay the rent. Costa developed an intestinal blockage due to stress that kept him out of work for six months after the strike ended. It took eight more years to “get out of the hole,” he says. Equally devastating and long lasting was the emotional toll the strike exacted. “The Island was dead set against the unions,” he says. “You lost your friends, even relatives. It was a terrible time.” Costa’s children were badgered in school, and people stopped his wife on the street and gave her a piece of their minds. Costa has refused to read the Vineyard Gazette for forty-five years because he felt the reporting on the strike was biased against the workers. He has a family member he didn’t talk to for months because he felt the man had refused to listen to the strikers’ side of the story.
When unions strike against a large industrial company, it’s a conflict between the haves and the have-nots; on Martha’s Vineyard in 1960, almost everyone was a have-not, and it was individual Islanders – not industrial giants and corporate bigwigs – who were affected. The number of summer visitors fell sharply – remember the image of Chris Murphy spending a whole June day digging steamers at South Beach without seeing a single other person. Vacation-home rentals declined,  as did hotel reservations. Restaurants, stores, bike-rental companies – everyone was losing money when they were supposed to be making most of what they would earn all year.
A New York Times story that spring noted that after the Steamship Authority published a list of the salaries of all its union employees, Island anger toward the strikers rose dramatically. Steamship captains, Islanders learned, earned as much as $11,000 a year, deckhands more than $5,000. The Times quoted an unnamed Island resident saying, “There isn’t a lawyer or a plumber or a teacher on the island who makes that much. The judge of the district court doesn’t get what a second cook does.” The article went on to quote an editorial from the Vineyard Gazette: “Men who have never had it so good are striking against those who do not and never will have it so good.”
Perhaps because the workers were relatively well-off, people who might have been considered strikebreakers did not experience much animosity from the union men. “I never heard the word ‘scab’ used to describe us,” says Linda Marinelli. “There was a need for us and our service, and we needed to make a living. The strikers did what they had to do, and we did what we had to.”
Stuart Bangs, who worked with his father aboard Parakeet, agrees. “It was really quite peaceful,” he says – although he does remember one occasion when someone threw handfuls of tacks on the ground where the cars disembarked from the barge. “Whoever did that was out of sorts in one way or another,” he muses, “but no one ever came to blows.” In fact, when the unions met on the mainland, Bangs’s father would take the Island members over to Woods Hole on Parakeet.
Ralph Packer, who imports oil and other raw materials to the Island, was thirty when the strike happened. He was one of the businessmen who organized the alternate transportation system. In his view, running these boats took no position on the strike or the strikers. “The community was simply trying to provide for its own needs,” he says. “I don’t think we really even knew the issues that were at stake.”

A Service and an Island Transformed

From the start, the Authority bore an unusual burden: it was a transportation agency created by the government but actually expected to earn a profit. Then, as now, any operating deficit had to be made up by the communities it served, with the Vineyard’s share then being thirty percent. The problem, in a word, was New Bedford: twenty-seven miles distant, it was three times farther from the Vineyard than Woods Hole, and twice as far from Nantucket. Given the longer trip over water in the new era of the interstate highway, the steamers out of New Bedford were shipping only a fraction of the passengers and freight now going by ferry out of Woods Hole.
The costs to subsidize this service year-round – a point on which the city, with its great legislative influence in Boston, insisted – was phenomenally high. In 1957 the deficit was $615,000, of which the Vineyard owed thirty percent. One hundred and eighty-five thousand dollars was $20,000 more than the 1957 budget for the town of Edgartown. Per capita, the city of New Bedford could easily bear its fifteen percent assessment. The Island of Martha’s Vineyard, with just 5,000 residents, could not. The costs to keep New Bedford in operation year-round, plus the new financial demands of the officers and crew, threatened to break the very Islands the Authority was created to serve.
An eleven-week strike during the vital revenue-earning months of spring and early summer forced everyone – legislators, city officials, Authority management, the unions – to get realistic. The final settlement saw a four-percent increase in wages across the board, a sharp reduction in manning of the boats, and for Joe Costa, a limited unemployment benefit. Most important, legislation was signed in the fall removing New Bedford from all Authority operations. (The city has since reclaimed a seat on the governing board, and high-speed catamarans, run by a private company called New England Fast Ferry, serve the Vineyard year-round again.)     
After the excising of New Bedford, the Authority began making money right away, and it has never incurred a significant deficit since. Adjusted for inflation, ticket prices for passengers, cars, and freight are lower now than they were in . The population of Martha’s Vineyard – both year-round and seasonal – has more than tripled in the years since then. And the nature of the population has changed: in that era, the standard of living on the Vineyard was lower than most communities in the commonwealth; now it is higher. This “remarkable turnaround,” declared a  study of the Steamship Authority by the Urban Harbors Institute, could not have occurred without a stable, reliable, and convenient ferry system.

Legacies, Hidden and Obvious

One lesson from 1960 is that Islanders are nothing if not resourceful; essential goods such as lumber, groceries, and the mail still made it over the water, along with seasonal residents willing to brave a trip across Vineyard Sound in a fishing boat. Malcolm Jones worked through the night to weld brackets onto the barge to secure the wooden planks that would enable cars to be driven on and off. He also painted the sign that heralded the barge’s temporary name: The Spirit of Martha’s Vineyard. “In the true Vineyard style,” says Bob Carroll, a retired businessman and former selectman from Edgartown, “we began to make do.”
The steamship strike caused bitterness – in officers and crewmen who walked away from their jobs on matters of economics and principle, as they saw them – as well as an under-reported desperation and resentment in many Islanders who relied on the ferries to bring them supplies, seasonal residents, and tourists when they expected to make most of their yearly income.
But memory is merciful. Aside from the fact that the costly, unwanted New Bedford service was cut from the Steamship Authority system, many Islanders fondly recall that time forty-five years ago. The crisis had brought Vineyarders together. Ralph Packer says he remembers only three occasions in his lifetime when Islanders were so truly united. “The first time was World War II,” he says. “The most recent time was around the building of the new Agricultural Hall in West Tisbury. In between, there was the steamship strike, when everyone came together and worked as a unit. We on the Island are divided so often, but not that time.”