SIU President Emeritus Michael Sacco: 1937-2023

Union leaders honor the man who served as the voice of U.S. seagoing labor

Seafarers International Union President Emeritus Michael Sacco died December 28 in St. Louis, surrounded by family members. He was 86 years old and passed away from natural causes.

Sacco was the longest-serving president in SIU history, having led the organization from 1988 until his retirement in February 2023, a period spanning nearly 35 years. He was succeeded by David Heindel.

“Mike was truly a once in a lifetime presence in the labor movement, dedicating 65 years of his life to supporting the U.S. and Canadian maritime workforce. For 35 of those years, he served as president of both the Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO, and his home union, the Seafarers International Union of North America,” Heindel said in a statement released by the Maritime Trades Department.

“President Sacco shrewdly navigated the MTD through so many decisive points over the course of his career that listing them all seems nearly impossible. Now more than ever, his wisdom and clarity of judgment serve as an inspiration to us all.”

Sacco’s passing could also be felt in the halls of American Maritime Officers, where he would often attend National Executive Board and AMO Plans Board of Trustees meetings, delivering inspiration and affirmation to officials and rank-and-file members alike on the work and everlasting importance of the U.S. maritime labor movement, of which he served as the leader and voice for so many years.

“Mike was nothing but good to American Maritime Officers during his many years as president of the SIU, as president of the AFL-CIO’s Maritime Trades Department and as a senior vice president of the AFL-CIO,” said AMO National President Paul Doell. “We extend our deepest sympathies to Mike’s family and to Dave Heindel, Augie Tellez and the maritime labor community.”

“I joined the SIU in December 1990,” said AMO National Secretary-Treasurer Bob Rice. “This was during Operation Desert Storm when the SIU School in Piney Point Maryland had close to 500 students training to get their credentials to man the vessels necessary for the massive sealift.

“I remember hearing President Sacco at my first union meeting telling us all, ‘if we worked hard, played by the rules, and applied ourselves, we could achieve anything we set our minds to.’ Those words have resonated with me over the years. Mike Sacco was a man committed to ensuring a lasting legacy of a person who always put the needs of his members above everything else, in terms of available jobs, competitive wages and also great benefits.”

Sacco served in the U.S. Air Force from 1954 to 1958. He joined the SIU in 1958 and worked aboard U.S.-flagged merchant vessels. In 1960, he came ashore to serve the SIU in a succession of union posts, including those of patrolman, port agent and headquarters representative. He served as vice president of the Seafarers’ Harry Lundeberg School of Seamanship from 1968 to 1979 and helped prepare the next generation of merchant mariners.

From 1980 to 1988, Mike directed the SIU’s Atlantic, Gulf, Lakes and Inland Waters Division as vice president, and in June 1988, the Seafarers International Union of North America Executive Board appointed him president, a post he masterfully helmed for nearly 35 years. His steadfast service as SIU president and president of the Maritime Trades Department, AFL-CIO, brought security and stability to the Seafarers, and solidarity with the numerous maritime trade unions.

In November 1991, Sacco was elected to the AFL-CIO Executive Council, beginning his distinguished tenure as its longest-serving member. His big personality and even bigger heart were relentless in ensuring that working people had a seat at the table in every boardroom and that their voices were heard in every hall of power.

In a statement released December 29, AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Fred Redmond said Mike Sacco was a trusted mentor and leader to his members, a dear friend of the AFL-CIO and an inspiration to the entire labor movement. We send our deepest condolences to his family, his SIU brothers and sisters, and all who knew and loved him. While our hearts break today for this loss, the legacy of Mike’s service to the SIU and trade unionism will live on forever.

“On behalf of the ITF and the Maritime Union of Australia, I extend the deepest sympathies and condolences to Mike’s wife Sophie, his family, friends and our SIU brothers and sisters at this demanding time,” said International Transport Workers’ Federation President Paddy Crumlin. “What a character Mike was. You could take the man out of Brooklyn, but you couldn’t take Brooklyn out of the man. Charismatic, tough, determined, a great and inspirational leader with a sense of humor that always seemed to sum up the situation perfectly. He will be greatly missed.”

“The American maritime unions hold unique place in the world,” said ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton. “Mike’s influence both before he became president and then during his record breaking 35 years at the helm set an example not only in the U.S. but across the globe.”