Seafarers’ irrational opposition to Sen McCain’s Jones Act reform bill
by Michael Hansen, Hawaii Shippers Council, August 4, 2017
The Seafarer’s International Union of North America AFL-CIO (SIU) posted to its website for August 2017 an opinion-editorial, “Jones Act an All American Law,” written by their president Michael Sacco as his contribution to their monthly “President’s Column.”
Sacco’s column was in response to U.S. Senator John S. McCain’s introduction on July 13, 2017, of Open America’s Waters Act of 2017 (S. 1561 – 115th Congress), and its referral to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation.
The SIU and its 12 affiliated unions including the American Maritime Officers (AMO), the Pacific Coast Marine Firemen, Oilers, Watertenders and Wipers Association (MFOWW) / Marine Firemen’s Union and the Sailors Union of the Pacific (SUP) largely represent seafarers employed on board ship. The MFOWW and SUP represent engine and deck unlicensed crewmembers respectively on Matson Navigation Company Inc., TOTE Maritime Alaska and APL Ltd U.S. flag ships.
As we previously commented on July 17, 2017, despite Sen McCain’s press release stating his legislation would “repeal the Jones Act,” his 2017 bill and previous versions would only eliminate the U.S. domestic vessel build requirement broadly across the domestic maritime industry. This would change the domestic shipping laws formally known in American jurisprudence as the “coastwise laws of the U.S.” and can be informally termed Jones Act cabotage.
In his response to the McCain bill, Sacco claims the measure is “calling for outright repeal of the nation’s freight cabotage law,“ which is a reference limited to just Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920 commonly known as the Jones Act (which is not true as the bill is far broader). Sacco buttresses his opposition to Sen McCain’s bill by siding with U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s trade protectionist policies summed up by his campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again” and invoking the necessity of the Jones Act to support national security especially for the sealift of materiel in the foreign trade.
The SUI’s reference to sealift in the foreign trade as a rationale for their opposition to Sen McCain’s bill is not substantive as virtually no U.S. built Jones Act ships are employed in that activity. The sealift of materiel for overseas U.S. military operations in the foreign trade is largely provided by the 81 privately-owned ships of the U.S. flag foreign trade fleet, all of which are foreign-built and not Jones Act eligible. (The ship count is from MARAD as of July 1, 2017).
Sacco’s opposition to Sen McCain’s bill seems short sighted on its face. The bill would only eliminate the U.S. build requirement for domestic trading while retaining U.S. flag and crew requirements paralleling the requirements for the U.S. flag foreign trade fleet, which currently employs many SIU and affiliated union members. In addition, Sen McCain’s bill would increase the number of U.S. flag ships employed in domestic trading offering greater employment for their members.
Sen McCain’s bill would substantially increase the employment opportunities for Mr. Sacco’s membership by allowing foreign-built commercial ships operating U.S. flag in the coastwise trades.
Ironically, the most recent attempt to scuttle the Jones Act coincided with a White House initiative to highlight American-made products.
For those that missed it, a bill was introduced in the United States Senate in mid-July calling for outright repeal of the nation’s freight cabotage law. While we take every threat seriously, I’m optimistic that this particular proposed legislation won’t go anywhere.
The reason for my confidence is, many legislators on both sides of the aisle as well as people in the military and administration understand the numerous, irreplaceable benefits that the Jones Act provides to the United States. It’s an easy case to make, and in fact I would argue that the Jones Act is one of the ultimate “All-American” statutes
One thing that shouldn’t be overlooked regarding the Jones Act is its national security implications. Without this law, our country’s shipbuilding capacity would be devastated, and our pool of U.S. mariners would take a potentially fatal blow. Military leaders have said we’re already at a critical point when it comes to availability of U.S. civilian mariners, who ably crew up the vessels that support our troops wherever and whenever needed. As a nation, we simply cannot afford to undermine our own wellbeing by weakening or eliminating the Jones Act.