La Follette Seamen's Act

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La Follette Seamen's Act

United States 1915


Sailors and fishermen have historically faced grueling hours, hazardous conditions, and low wages. During the nineteenth century, they were also confronted with corporal punishment, poorly maintained vessels, and few labor rights. Despite union representation, seamen remained without a substantial voice in government and the courts. This changed in 1915 with the passing of the La Follette Seamen's Act.

In 1908 Andrew Furuseth became the president of the International Seamen's Union. He partnered with Senator Robert La Follette to create a bill devoted to changing important issues in the seafaring trades. However, like the oceans, politics are a fickle and ever-changing environment. It took years of sustained effort to see important legislation passed, but Furuseth and La Follette successfully championed the cause. With the passage of the La Follette Seamen's Act in 1915, the new legislation improved labor conditions and helped to protect the lives of America's seamen.


  • 1895: Brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière show the world's first motion picture—Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory—at a café in Paris.
  • 1900: China's Boxer Rebellion, which began in the preceding year with attacks on foreigners and Christians, reaches its height. An international contingent of more than 2,000 men arrives to restore order, but only after several tens of thousands have died.
  • 1905: Albert Einstein presents his special theory of relativity.
  • 1910: Revolution breaks out in Mexico.
  • 1915: A German submarine sinks the Lusitania, killing 1,195, including 128 U.S. citizens. Theretofore, many Americans had been sympathetic toward Germany, but the incident begins to turn the tide of U.S. sentiment toward the Allies.
  • 1915: Italy enters the war on the side of the Allies, and Bulgaria on that of the Central Powers.
  • 1915: At the Second Battle of Ypres, the Germans introduce a new weapon: poison gas.
  • 1915: Turkey's solution to its Armenian "problem" becomes the first entry in a long catalogue of genocidal acts undertaken during the twentieth century. Claiming that the Armenians support Russia, the Turks deport some 1.75 million of them to the Mesopotamian desert, where between 600,000 and 1 million perish.
  • 1915: D. W. Griffith's controversial Birth of a Nation is the first significant motion picture. As film, it is an enduring work of art, but its positive depiction of the Ku Klux Klan influences a rebirth of the Klan in Stone Mountain, Georgia.
  • 1915: Albert Einstein publishes his General Theory of Relativity.
  • 1917: On both the Western Front and in the Middle East, the tide of the war begins to turn against the Central Powers. The arrival of U.S. troops, led by General Pershing, in France in June greatly boosts morale, and reinforces exhausted Allied forces. Meanwhile, Great Britain scores two major victories against the Ottoman Empire as T. E. Lawrence leads an Arab revolt in Baghdad in March, and troops under Field Marshal Edmund Allenby take Jerusalem in December.
  • 1919: Treaty of Versailles is signed by the Allies and Germany, but rejected by the U.S. Senate. This is due in part to rancor between President Woodrow Wilson and Republican Senate leaders, and in part to concerns over Wilson's plan to commit the United States to the newly established League of Nations and other international duties. Not until 1921 will Congress formally end U.S. participation in the war, but it will never agree to join the League.

Event and Its Context

The Perils of the Sea

As an inspiration to writers and artists, the sea is often romanticized. However, the experience of those who toil to earn a living on the sea is far from romantic. Indeed, for centuries seamen have endured dangers and hardships. With seemingly endless workdays, their living conditions aboard the ship were riddled with difficulty. Their sleeping quarters were extremely cramped, and the food they were given was neither enough nor was it acceptable in quality. To make matters worse, they were poorly paid and often had to tolerate unfair and brutal treatment from ship captains, who were rightly called "masters," given their complete authority over the crew.

Seafaring trades have always involved great risk to workers. Harsh weather poses a constant safety threat. Sailors are repeatedly lost at sea through collisions and rough waters. Accidents, even minor ones, can prove fatal, as medical attention can be days away. The annals of seagoing history are filled with ships "missing and presumed lost with all hands" (Bunker, 2002). Work at sea is not for the faint of heart.

Historically, seamen had little opportunity to protest their situation effectively, let alone organize into a union. They were too busy trying to survive. Mutinies against the terrible conditions they faced were settled by force, often at the end of a gun, and rarely to the seamen's advantage. Seamen choosing not to take the law into their own hands often found little satisfaction through the legal system, which often decided cases in favor of the captains or shipowners.

In the nineteenth century, a seaman who left the ship before the voyage's end faced dire consequences, as maritime nations imposed strict laws against such behavior. In fact, it was legal to use force, if necessary, to bring a seaman back on board. In the event a wayward seaman did not return on his own or was not found, "he automatically forfeited his pay and any belongings left on the ship" (Bunker, 2002). An unhappy sailor who decided to protest quickly got a reputation for being difficult, which thwarted his ability to find future work. Sailors wishing to form a union found themselves in an equally precarious position, because to organize a union required meetings on land and time away from the sea. This resulted in lost wages—wages they could ill afford to lose.

The Formation of the International Seamen's Union

Nonetheless, many seamen persevered and, over the years, participated in numerous strikes, requesting, among other things, higher wages and better living conditions aboard ship. Various unions were created; however, for the most part, they were dissolved in a relatively short period of time. Diverse opinions and divided energies sometimes caused problems, but small gains were made, although often on a regional basis only. By 1892 it became abundantly clear that a single powerful voice was needed in Congress to speak on behalf of the seamen—a voice calling for sweeping legislative changes. Therefore, in a wise strategic move, various union representatives from the Great Lakes, West Coast, and the Gulf of Mexico joined forces to form the National Seamen's Union of America, which later became the International Seamen's Union (ISU).

Elections were held, and Charles Hagen, a native German who had helped organize the Gulf Coast union, was chosen as the first president. A seasoned sailor and vocal activist, Thomas Elderkin had long sailed on the Great Lakes and was chosen the union's first secretary. James McLaren, a Nova Scotian from the West Coast with "shrewd energy and unswerving devotion to the sailors' cause" was chosen as the union's first national organizer (Bunker, 2002). A union of this size required a determination period to iron out its goals and direction. Then, in 1908 Norwegian-born Andrew Furuseth, a seasoned sailor and passionate activist, was elected president of the union. By coupling his no-nonsense approach with his deep-seated desire to help his fellow seamen, Furuseth became the respected voice that was heard within congressional halls and quoted in the press. Joined with him in the cause was Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin, who supported labor legislation because, in his opinion, "unions were battling the same enemies that menaced consumers and because consumers benefited directly from improvements in working conditions" (Eastland Memorial Society, 2002). Furthermore, La Follette thought it unjust that only a privileged few, most specifically powerful investment bankers, dominated the economy. He believed wholeheartedly in balancing the scales of justice so hardworking people were not held hostage by an unfair system.

The Importance of the La Follette Seamen's Act

While clearly a proponent of social justice laws, La Follette was a progressive Republican who did not support government sponsorship of big business. In addition, he sometimes found himself in disagreement with President Woodrow Wilson, who he thought "ignored the ideas of progressive Republicans and shaped most legislation in the Democratic caucus" (Eastland Memorial Society, 2002). However, Wilson and La Follette did have a meeting of minds over one important piece of legislation: the La Follette Seamen's Act of 1915. Designed to regulate the safety, living conditions, and food standards on ships, this groundbreaking legislation also reduced captains' power, defined seamen's legal status, and established rules of compensation.

Specifically, the act addressed the sailor's work schedule, outlining a maximum nine-hour workday in port. It called for a two-watch system for the deck and a three-watch system for the gang, which was intended to help improve safety and workload. The seamen's longtime complaints regarding cramped living quarters and too little food were rectified. A broader meal schedule was outlined, and the customary 72 cubic feet each sailor had for living space, which Furuseth described as "too large for a coffin, too little for a grave," was increased to at least 100 cubic feet (Bunker, 2002).

An interesting element of the act dealt with the need to improve communication and promote the hiring of American sailors, mandating that at least 75 percent of the crew be required to understand commands in English. In the eyes of many, this would also help to improve safety for all concerned. Additionally, the act heralded the idea that the number of lifeboats kept on each ship should be increased and special attention paid to their quality. Naturally, this garnered much support from the Boats for All movement, formed after the Titanic sank in 1912.

Aside from the pragmatic concerns affecting the everyday life of the sailor, unfairness in the legal system was addressed in the act. Creditors could no longer engage in the unscrupulous practice of coercion, which involved demanding a "mortgage" on a sailor's wages in exchange for lodging and food (Bunker, 2002). In addition, sailors who left a ship before the end of a voyage no longer faced prison terms for desertion, and corporal punishment aboard ships was banned.

Having spent many years passionately crusading for seafaring improvements, Furuseth had the ISU's full support and the public's attention. Couple that with the determination and persuasive talents of his longtime friend La Follette and the stamp of approval from the secretary of labor, and it wasn't long before many other congressmen were on board too, so to speak. Nonetheless, the bill met with resistance during the congressional hearings. For example, A. A. Schantz, president of the Detroit and Cleveland Navigation Company, testified that the addition of more lifesaving equipment to the shallow Great Lakes vessels would render them top-heavy and pose unnecessary passenger risk. None of the controversy, however, swayed Furuseth from the cause; he labored tirelessly, and finally, after a two-year battle in Congress, the bill was signed by Wilson on 4 March 1915.

The La Follette Seamen's Act was a crowning achievement for La Follette, who never gave up on the bill and truly believed it was in the best interest of both the passengers and the seamen. In fact, a tragic event illustrating its importance occurred in July 1915, just a few months before the act went into effect. The Eastland, owned by St. Joseph and Chicago Steamship Company, was granted a license to carry 2,500 passengers despite the fact that terms of the imminent act would have restricted the number of passengers to half that. Even though additional lifeboats were installed, there were not enough to save the 844 who drowned when the ship capsized. This event not only stressed the value of the act but also put a spotlight on the importance of an effective Steamship Inspection Service.


Sadly, by the early 1920s the shipping industry had suffered numerous losses, which resulted in companies going out of business and ships being sold at bargain prices to pay off debt. Some people blamed new legislation that governed the quality of ships and the improvement of seamen's working conditions for reducing the competitive ability of the United States shipping industry. As some owners clamored to reregister their fleets under the Panamanian flag, others saw little hope in the situation. Steamship companies saw a drop in passengers and income, as they were no longer allowed to overbook their vessels because of the passenger-to-lifeboat restriction. In addition, as the automobile gained in popularity, water travel began to lose its appeal, which affected the shipping industry as well.

By the 1930s the Great Depression had taken a substantial toll on the ISU. Internal politics weakened the union even further. Finally, it dissolved altogether, and a new union was formed—the Seafarers International Union, which still existed at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

Key Players

Furuseth, Andrew (1854-1938): Furuseth was a fiery, straightforward man with Norwegian roots who spent most of his life fighting for the rights of his fellow seamen. Known as the "Abraham Lincoln of the Seas," Furuseth was elected president of the International Seamen's Union (ISU) in 1908. In a lifelong friendship that proved rewarding for both, Andrew Furuseth and U.S. Senator Robert M. La Follette were committed to improving maritime labor. Furuseth worked tirelessly for two decades to see the La Follette Seamen's Act passed, having drafted much of its content.

La Follette, Robert M. (1855-1925). Beginning his career as a county district attorney, La Follette was quickly recognized for his oratory skills. He served three terms as governor of Wisconsin, having been elected on a platform that embraced tax reform, corporate regulation, and political democracy. In 1906 La Follette was elected to the U.S. Senate, where he supported the growth of trade unions and strongly believed that he was responsible for protecting the people against corporate tyranny. He and his wife, the feminist Belle La Follette, founded the La Follette's Weekly Magazine, which embraced the suffrage movement and racial equality.



La Follette, Robert M. La Follette's Autobiography: A Personal Narrative of Political Experiences. Madison, WI: The Robert M. La Follette Co., 1913.

Weintraub, Hyman. Andrew Furuseth: Emancipator of the Seamen. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1959.


Bunker, John. "A History of the SIU" [cited 2 February2003]. <>

Eastland Memorial Society. "Robert Marion La Follette (1855-1925)" [cited 2 February 2003]. <>

Additional Resources

Unger, Nancy C. Fighting Bob La Follette: The Righteous Reformer. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.

Weisberger, Bernard A. The La Follettes of Wisconsin: Love and Politics in Progressive America. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1994.

—Lee Ann Paradise

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La Follette Seamen's Act

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