By Lincoln Cushing
After World War II ended and Henry J. Kaiser’s shipyards closed, he continued to be active in the shipping trade. One example of his support for sailors was the curious case of the freighter Pho Pho.
In 1950, members of the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific picketed the Panamanian-flagged SS Pho Pho, owned by a Greek-American, at the port of Redwood City in Northern California.
The Kaiser Gypsum Company had entered into a six-year shipping contract with the vessel owner because it was retiring its own ship, the SS Permanente Silverbow.
The sailors’ union demanded that “. . . The owners of the Pho Pho negotiate an agreement bringing wages and conditions [of the foreign crew] to the same level as (that of) American vessels.”[i]
Instead of digging in his heels and fighting the labor action, Kaiser saw the long-term value of labor peace and made a friendly bet with union president Harry Lundeberg. As the ship was idled for 10 weeks, Kaiser reportedly told Lundeberg “If you win this beef, Harry, I’ll name the ship after you.”
The union campaign was successful, and the vessel became the first to be crewed entirely by union members. Kaiser honored his word, bought the ship, and the SS Pho Pho became the SS Harry Lundeberg on July 20, 1950. She ran aground off the Mexican coast at Cape San Lucas (near San Marcos Island in Baja California, where gypsum was being mined) in 1955, and was replaced with a second ship in 1958.
After the Pho Pho victory, Sailors’ union members also operated two subsequent Kaiser Gypsum ships, the SS Ocean Carrier and the SS Western Ocean.