Decades before the modern LGBTQ+ movement, a small but militant union of maritime workers on the West Coast with openly gay members and leaders coined a slogan linking discrimination against gay men, racial discrimination, and red-baiting. For the better part of two decades, the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union fought discrimination on the ships where its members worked and in society, until it was crushed by the same corporate and government forces that tried to destroy the United Electrical Workers (UE) during the Cold War.
The Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCS) was formed in 1901 by the workers who waited on passengers, carried bags, cleaned rooms, cooked meals, and served drinks on the passenger and cruise ships that provided both travel and leisure for the middle and upper classes. They fed crews and washed the dishes and pots and pans on ships of all types. They faced grueling conditions, often being forced to work 16 hours a day, seven days a week, with no overtime pay, and sleeping in substandard quarters they called âfloating tenements.â
Many of the cooks and stewards were Black and Asian, but MCS, like too many unions at the time, restricted membership to white workers. And although a high percentage of the cooks and stewards were âqueens,â as gay men preferred to call themselves at the time, the union rarely if ever stood up for them when they were tauntedâor âqueen-baitedââby straight workers.
This all changed during the great waterfront strikes of the 1930s, when both MCS and the longshore union, prodded by rank-and-file activists, realized the need to unite all workers in order to win against the powerful ship owners. Black and Asian workers joined the unions and the strikes, which were ultimately successful in establishing coast-wide contracts for MCS and the International Longshore and Warehouse Unionâboth of which joined the newly-formed Congress of Industrial Organizations.
Victory did not come without a cost. On July 5, 1934, known as âBloody Thursday,â police killed two workersâa longshoreman and a cookâas the ship owners tried to reopen the port of San Francisco by force. The flowers at their graves were tended by an MCS member known as the âHonolulu Queen.â
âITâS ANTI-UNION TO RED-BAIT, RACE-BAIT, OR QUEEN-BAITâ
As MCS established its presence on the shipsâand used its hiring hall to integrate formerly all-white crewsâits members continued to face taunts and harassment for their sexual orientation, their race, and their politics from bosses, passengers, and members of the conservative Sailors Union of the Pacific.
Revels Cayton, a Black, straight steward who became an MCS official, told historian Allan BĂ©rubĂ© how the union worked to address this situation. âIn 1936 we developed this slogan: Itâs anti-union to red-bait, race-bait, or queen-bait. We also put it another way: If you let them red-bait, theyâll race-bait, and if you let them race-bait, theyâll queen-bait. Thatâs why we all have to stick together.â
Sticking together worked. BĂ©rubĂ© relates, âThe insults keep coming, but the gay stewards are getting bolder because they know their union is watching their backs.â Stephen âMickeyâ Blair, a white, gay MCS member told BĂ©rubĂ©, âMarine Cooks and Stewards took the dignity that was in each of us and built it up, so you could get up in the morning and say to yourself âI can make it through this day.â Equality was in the air we breathed.â
A WALKOUT TO HIRE LUELLA LAWHORN
During World War II, the ships that MCS members worked on were converted to serve the war effort, carrying troops and munitions. MCS membership tripled. Many of the new members were gay men who want to serve their country in the fight against fascism but had been kicked out of the military for their sexual orientation. BĂ©rubĂ© writes, âMerchant seaman pay a high price during the warâŠ Although they are civilians, they are killed at a higher rate than are servicemen in any branch of the armed services other than the Marine Corps.â
After the war, MCS continued its traditions of aggressive struggle and uniting all workers. Messmenâs wages tripled between 1945 and 1949. When MCS dispatched a Black woman, Luella Lawhorn, to work on the fancy passenger liner Lurline and the company refused to accept her, the entire stewards department walked off the ship. The company backed down, and Lawhorn became the first Black stewardess on a U.S. passenger ship in the Pacific. In 1949, recognizing that its white leadership didnât reflect its multiracial membership (by 1949 more than half of the members were Black, and a significant number Asian), the union diversified its leadership within a year.
However, MCS soon fell prey to the same wave of Cold War repression that attempted to destroy UE, the ILWU, and other âThem and Usâ unions. Along with UE, ILWU, and eight other unions, MCS was brought up on charges of âcommunist dominationâ and expelled from the CIO. The Coast Guard declared MCS activists as âsecurity risksâ and prevented them from taking jobs on ships. Other unions used homophobia and racism, as well as red-baiting, to try to destroy the MCS. Ultimately the union was absorbed into the conservative Seafarers International Union.
âOUR HISTORY HAS BEEN ERASEDâ
BĂ©rubĂ©, who was working on a book about the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union at the time of his death in 2007, wrote that âTheir history is unknown today because, through fear and intimidation, it was first rewritten as an un-American activity, then dismissed as an insignificant failure, and, finally, erased from our nationâs memory, as if what they had achieved had never even happened.â
âWe were 50 years ahead of our time. We were so democratic this country couldnât stand it,â Peter Brownlee, a white, straight MCS member told BĂ©rubĂ©. âThe most important thing was not that we had gays. It was that an injury to one was an injury to allâand we practiced it. We took care of each other.â
Stephen Blair told BĂ©rubĂ©, âWhat many of you younger people are trying to do today as queersâwhat you call inclusion and diversityâwe already did it 50 years ago in the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union. We did it in the labor movement as working-class queens with left-wing politics, and thatâs why the government crushed us, and thatâs why you donât know anything about us todayâour history has been totally erased.â
This blog originally appeared at Labor Notes on June 23, 2021. Reprinted with permission.
About the Author: Jonathan Kissam is the communications director for the United Electrical Workers (UE).