The Seamen's Act, formally known as Act to Promote the Welfare of American Seamen in the Merchant Marine of the United States or Longshore and Harbor Workers’ Compensation Act (Act of March 4, 1915, ch. 153, 38 Stat. 1164), was designed to improve the safety and security of United States seamen.
"The 1915 statute ... has been described as the Magna Carta of sailors' rights."
Trade unions like the ISU provided much of the impetus for the bill, further promoted by the increasing international tensions in the years preceding World War I. The bill was first proposed in 1913, but became law after the beginning of hostilities in Europe, though before the United States joined the conflict. The sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912 raised the issue of safety at sea as a political issue as well.
The Act was sponsored in the United States Senate by Robert Marion La Follette. The International Seamen's Union (ISU) had significant influence on the drafting of the Bill, with the President of the Union, Andrew Furuseth, cited as being behind the intent and content of the bill. Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson supported its passage.
It was the culmination of twenty years of agitation by the Seamen's Union President Andrew Furuseth. President Woodrow Wilson had supported such a bill at the beginning of his Administration, but in late 1913, United States Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan had been negotiating with the British for a Convention on Safety at Sea Treaty which would have established international, rather than national, standards for the treatment of sailors on ships. The Senate ratified the Bryan Conciliation Treaty on August 27, 1914, and the Secretary urged Wilson to pocket-veto the La Follette Bill. One look at Andrew Furuseth in person, however, an almost pitiful looking elderly man dressed haggardly and resembling an old "Popeye the Sailor", convinced both of them to change their mind. Furuseth came to Washington to literally beg Wilson to sign the bill. Bryan was nearly moved to tears, realizing the sincere determination and conviction of a man who had labored for such legislation for decades, and the President signed it into law. Explaining his signing of bill, Wilson said that he did so “because it seemed the only chance to get something like justice done to a class of workmen who have been too much neglected by our laws.”
The Act was designed to promote the living and working conditions of seamen serving in the United States Merchant Marine. It applied to vessels in excess of 100 gross tons, excluding river craft.
Provisions of the act
The Act included provisions, inter alia (among other things), to:
The Act did little to help seamen who were injured in the course of their duties, and the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act, was passed in an attempt to address such incidents.
Shipowners generally opposed the Seamen's Act and the Jones Act as excessive and unnecessary interference with the freedom of contract. They responded by pioneering the now-common practice of chartering ships overseas under a flag of convenience. Shipping companies claimed the unhappy result was the crippling of America's merchant marine, as freight rates spiraled upward with crew's wages.