Ferdinand Christopher Smith (1893-1961)

Ferdinand Smith
Courtesy National Museum of the U.S. Navy (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Jamaican-born Ferdinand Christopher Smith became a prominent twentieth century international labor activist and leader.  At an early age Smith left Jamaica’s poor economic conditions in search of work as a migrant laborer.  He spent five years in Panama, where he worked as a hotel steward and a salesman.  After WWI he moved to Cuba and by 1920 was working as a ship’s steward.

In the 1920s, impressed by their commitment to racial issues, Smith joined the Communist-led Marine Workers Industrial Union.  Although maritime workers faced oppressive working conditions including high rates of disease, low wages, poor rations, and unventilated quarters, they had virtually no union representation aboard ships.  This began to change as part of the New Deal’s support of labor unions. In 1936 Smith supported the strike against West Coast shippers.  When maritime strikes spread to the Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, Smith became one of the nine members of the national strike Strategy Committee.

Smith was a founding member of the communist-backed National Maritime Union (NMU) and was elected to the position of Secretary Treasurer at its first convention held in 1937.  This was the second highest position in the union and the highest union office held by any African American labor leader at the time.  The NMU grew quickly in the late 1930s, and by 1944 represented approximately 90,000 maritime workers.

The NMU was a Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) union, and like many leaders involved in the CIO, Smith wanted a union that welcomed all maritime workers regardless of race, class, craft, or ethnicity.  As NMU’s Secretary Treasurer, he promoted labor rights and civil rights.  Smith guided the passage of a non-discrimination plank in the union’s constitution.  The NMU’s 1944 contract, accepted by over 100 ship companies, contained a pledge of non-discrimination.  He furthered the cause of civil rights by participating in the National Negro Congress and the Negro Labor Victory Committee.

The Red Scare that swept the country after 1945 soon led to Smith’s expulsion from the NMU.  After World War II, Smith critiqued the U.S. government’s crackdown on labor unions.  Since Smith had never become a citizen he was an easily labeled an “Alien Red.”   Joseph Curran, president of the NMU, under pressure from the federal government, expelled a number of communists from the NMU, including Smith in 1948.  Smith’s expulsion is a stark example of the decline of union power in the face of anti-communism. Smith, who had been under government surveillance for years, was detained by the federal government beginning in February 1948 and was deported in 1951.

He briefly worked for the World Federation of Trade Unions in Vienna before returning to Jamaica in 1952. In Jamaica Smith organized sugar workers and led a union federation.  These efforts failed to bear fruit when the government refused to recognize the union.

Ferdinand Christopher Smith died in August 1961 in Jamaica.