The intersection of our nation’s maritime law with our employment law is a unique one. Unlike most U.S. business and industry employers, maritime employers deal with historical maritime law that can conflict with or supersede employment law.

It is common knowledge among human resources professionals and employment law counsel that the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) gives employees the right to engage in protected concerted activity or strikes – whether unionized or not. Employees may normally withhold their services when there is an issue involving wages, benefits and/or terms and conditions of employment. This is a fundamental right of employees under the NLRA, which has been enshrined in federal legislation since 1935. This principle of employment law, however, has been found by the U.S. Supreme Court to conflict directly with the long history of maritime law.

On July 18, 1938, a vessel, The City of Fort Worth, was docked at the Port of Houston. A majority of the crewmembers had previously chosen the National Maritime Union (NMU) as their representative in an NLRB election. However, the vessel owner refused to recognize and bargain with the NMU – an unfair labor practice under the NLRA.

In response, some crewmembers went on strike that morning while on board the docked vessel. They sat quietly until the strike ended that evening, engaging in no violence and not interfering with the officers of the ship or the non-striking crewmembers. The strikers did not claim to hold the ship in defiance of the right of possession of the owner, but when the captain ordered them to return to work, they refused. When the ship reached its homeport of Philadelphia, the striking crewmembers were informed they would not be reshipped – tantamount to discharge.

The NLRB and a federal appellate court found that the ship owner engaged in an unfair labor practice when it discharged the crewmembers. The U.S. Supreme Court reversed those decisions. The court stated:

Ever since men have gone to sea, the relationship of master to seaman has been entirely different from that of employer to employee on land. The lives of passengers and crew as well as the safety of ship and cargo are entrusted to the master’s care. Everyone and everything depend on him. He must command and the crew must obey. Authority cannot be divided. These are actualities, which the law has always recognized.

The court held that the crewmembers engaged in a mutiny, which violated Sections 292 and 293 of the U.S. Criminal Code. Under the original Mutiny Act of 1790, the court followed the holding of Justice Story from that period that a refusal to work while a vessel was in a U.S. harbor was a violation of the statute. Southern S.S. Co. v. NLRB, 316 U.S. 31 (1942).

So, as you can see, the intersection of U.S. maritime law and employment law is a fascinating one. Stay tuned for more on this unique subject.

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