Published June 06. 2012 4:00AM
As employees of Mystic Seaport consider whether to form a union, management at the museum must worry what labor-related setbacks could lie ahead for its centerpiece project, to make the whaling ship Charles W. Morgan seaworthy again.
Some of the employees most active in the unionization effort work in the museum's shipyard, on the Morgan restoration project.
One wonders if there might be some labor movement ghosts astir there.
Indeed, the original shipwrights who built the Morgan in New Bedford, in 1841, stopped work on the project for almost a month, demanding , among other things, a 10-hour work day.
This strike by workers at the shipyard of Jethro and Zachariah Hillman ended when management agreed to a 10½-hour work day, according to the 1967 nomination of the wooden whaling ship, the last of its kind, to the National Register of Historic Places.
The strike that stopped work on the Morgan was also cited in a 1981 publication by the Seaport, one recalling the diaries of Charles W. Morgan, the rich New Bedford merchant for whom the ship, which he commissioned, was named.
The labor unrest in New Bedford at the time was part of a general movement during the period in which New England mill owners and big shipyards were targeted.
Workers, who were made to work from dawn to dusk on long spring and summer days, rallied around the call for an official 10-hour work day.
But Morgan, who was a managing owner of more than a dozen whaling ships, was having none of it, according to the 1981 story in Log of Mystic Seaport, written by Virginia T. Coope, who cited Morgan's diaries.
On April 2, 1841, Morgan noted in his diary that work on the ship that eventually came to be named for him had stopped.
"Carpenters all dismissed from new ship as I will not consent to the 10-hour system they have seen fit to adopt," he wrote. Four days later, Coope wrote, Morgan was chairman of a meeting of other merchants opposed to the 10-hour day.
"Resolved unanimously that we would suspend all labour, till we could do it on the old system so that my new ship is at a stand to my great annoyance," Morgan wrote in his diary, according to Coope's story.
The next week, he wrote: "It was all quiet on the wharves, no labour going on with either carpenters, caulkers or riggers. This is a great inconvenience but we must bear it till the men come to their senses."
Agreement to a 10½-hour day was finally reached May 6, Coope wrote, and work on the whaling ship resumed.
Of course today the idea of a 10-hour day seems like a quaint reminder of labor battles long since won.
But some of the bad blood between rich 19th-century merchants and overworked employees still seems to linger around the Morgan today, with the disparity between big six-figure salaries for top museum management and the modest pay for rank-and-file workers an issue in the current unionization campaign.
A spokesman for the union trying to organize Seaport workers told me this week the effort is going well, with "way over" 50 percent of the workers signing cards that will be used to call for an election.
Some workers who oppose the union say the issue has raised tension among employees in some departments. The anti-union employees say they would rather see communication with management improved and that union representation would be costly and confusing in a place where so many people do so many varied jobs.
John Cotter, deputy regional director in Hartford for the National Labor Relations Board, said Tuesday that once cards are presented to the board, hearings could be held to determine whether all Seaport workers might be part of the same union or whether seasonal workers should be included in an election.
"There could be an issue because it is such an unusual workplace," Cotter said.
There was no NLRB back in 1841.
Merchants like Charles W. Morgan just had to wait it out and see if the men would come to their senses.
This is the opinion of David Collins.