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Posted: December 27, 2011

Legendary AMO figure Gordon W. Spencer dead at 86

Gordon W. Spencer, a founding member and longtime official of American Maritime Officers, died at his home in Virginia Beach December 21 after a brief illness. He was 86.

Spencer, an Australian native who sailed as a marine engineer in the Norwegian and U.S. merchant fleets in World War II, was among those recruited by the late maritime labor leader Paul Hall to build the Brotherhood of Marine Engineers as an affiliate of the Seafarers International Union of North America in May 1949. The BME evolved into the union known today as AMO.

Spencer brought the BME into the Ports of Philadelphia and Norfolk, organizing tug fleets and negotiating contracts that included the first-ever health insurance and retirement benefits for tug officers and crews. He also helped organize deep-sea fleets as a representative of both the BME and the SIU.

Spencer rose to become executive vice president and secretary-treasurer of AMO when the union was known as District 2 Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association and District 2 Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association-Associated Maritime Officers.

In the mid-1970s, Spencer was assigned by District 2 President Ray McKay to expand the union's legislative operation in Washington DC. In the capital, Spencer focused almost exclusively on outreach to the Republican Party -- a savvy strategy that stands today as a fundamental element of AMO's successful legislative effort.

"Gordon Spencer was in Washington with Paul Hall and Ray McKay during the battles for the Cargo Preference Act of 1954 and the PL-480 'Food for Peace' program that same year," AMO National President Tom Bethel said. "He made a compelling case for U.S. merchant ships carrying government cargoes in the interests of national security and diplomatic dividend, and American merchant mariners remain at work today because of the work Gordon Spencer did on these issues 58 years ago."

In the mid-1990s, when a powerful coalition of U.S. and multinational interests pursued Jones Act repeal with unprecedented zeal, Spencer was "front and center, defending the domestic shipping law in virtually every office on Capitol Hill," Bethel said. "Gordon did his part quietly, but everyone in the Jones Act's corner at the time acknowledged his leadership in keeping this increasingly important law on the books."

Bethel also cited Spencer's behind-the-scenes leadership as a principal factor in Congressional approval of the Maritime Security Act of 1996, which authorized the Maritime Security Program that today provides jobs for AMO members on 15 ships.

"AMO had no liner fleets under contract at the time, but we supported the legislation as a matter of principle -- we did not want to see liners abandon U.S. registry in response to the phase-out of the Operating Differential Subsidy program that had been in place since the Merchant Marine Act of 1936," Bethel said. "We did not want to see American merchant mariners lose their jobs, no matter what unions they belonged to.

"But Gordon took the issue up a notch," Bethel continued. "He persuaded lawmakers to allow Maersk Line Limited into the new program, and that opened the liner trades to AMO -- many new and lasting AMO jobs were linked directly to Gordon Spencer."

Bethel concluded: "I had the privilege of working with Gordon in Washington for many years. He had an easy, disarming charm, a subtle wit and a keen instinct, all of which combined to make him one of the most respected and most well liked figures on Capitol Hill. I will miss Gordon Spencer's friendship and his counsel -- the joy of the Christmas season is tempered significantly by his passing."