Great Lakes sailors continue pickets on Liberty Line


Liberty Line vessels on the Great Lakes have names like American Courage, Fortitude, and Integrity. The names also define 80 members of United Steelworkers Great Lakes Seamen Local 5000 who continue their 10-month picket in a lockout/strike with the Liberty Division of the American Steamship Line. The sailors are unemployed because the Williamsville, N.Y., based carrier is not bargaining in good faith with them. Both companies are owned by GATX of Chicago, that also leases marine, rail, and industrial equipment.

After contract negotiations folded last fall, the professional and long standing sailors have been replaced by Florida-based scab replacement workers.

USW Local 5000 is based in Cleveland and its members live in port towns across the country, including here in the Twin Ports of Superior, Wis., and Duluth, Minn., at the head of the Great Lakes.

picketing at Duluth-Superior port
Community Services Director Beth Peterson offers cold drinks to members of USW Great Lakes Seamen Local 5000 who have been locked out by Liberty Lines for 10 months. Holding the flag is NEALC’s Chad McKenna. The four USW members all live here: Jim Engebretson, Bob Pedersen, George Ruetschi, and Alan Dougherty. The picket was Monday in Superior, Wis., at Midwest Energy’s coal terminal.

“What happens to us could also happen to other companies,” said Bob Pedersen, a strike coordinator. A wheelsman, the Superior resident has sailed for 19 years but hasn’t worked in a year. Five other area residents also sail Liberty, the old Ogleby-Norton line, but are picketing instead.

Pedersen said some of his fellow locked out sailors have found a little relief work on other boats. “You’re just working for a paycheck, no benefits, when you go relief,” he said.

Interlake, Central Marine, and Key Lakes all have signed the USW 5000 contract that American is refusing, making them the only non-union carrier on the Great Lakes.

“We take pride in our work, and we don’t understand why they don’t want us back,” said Pedersen. He said negotiations had bogged down over crew levels and health care, but American is operating with the same crew levels with scabs, who are paid twice as much to do the same union jobs.

Pedersen and his fellow sailors are also chapped because American Steamship got $1.2 million in taxpayer dollars from the federal American Recovery and Rein-vestment Act (stimulus) to put new generators on two of their boats. “That work had been put on hold until American Steamship got its gift from us taxpayers,” said Pedersen.

George Ruetschi, a Liberty boatswain who has sailed 31-years, said the company has 4 of its 6 vessels laid up and is collecting government subsidies for it. He thinks GATX is trying to get the coal moved via trains that they own.

Liberty pickets are occurring up and down the Great Lakes. The Twin Ports pickets have been put up as Liberty boats come to Superior’s Midwest Energy coal terminal.

The coal is brought in by train from western states and members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and United Transportation Union have refused to cross the picket line even though it isn’t on their BNSF tracks.

Rather than spot the trains inside the terminal, the union railroaders step down and BNSF management brings trains in. The rail workers have been told they will now be legally liable if they don’t bring the trains in.

“We feel terrible about that and we are working on it, but we have been advised by our leadership that the gate we enter is not a legally picketed gate,” said David McCarthy of BLE Division 290 Monday morning. But that afternoon, BLE engineers again refused to cross the Winter Street picket.

“Those railroad guys have been great and so have the ILA (Longshoremen) at different times,” said Pedersen. “BNSF management was filming us and telling us our rights, claiming they own the street and where we can picket, but they had to run the train in.”

No new negotiations have been set between USW 5000 and American Steamship. It would seem that the federal government under the federal Railway Labor Act would tell GATX that it must bargain in good faith with its employees.

“We’re trying to understand where we stand, but it’s in the international’s (union) hands now we guess,” said Pedersen.

Calls to USW Local 5000 were not returned at press time.

Larry Sillanpa edits The Labor World, the official publication of the Duluth Central Body, AFL-CIO. Learn more at