Maritime Cabotage: A Long Fight To Defend American Jobs

By Ron Davis, President, Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association
Air Line Pilot, March 2004, p.34

A Long Fight To Defend American Jobs

In the U.S. maritime industry, cabotage law is known as the Jones Act, named after Sen. Wesley Jones, a Washington State politician from the early decades of the last century. Sen. Jones may be largely forgotten now, but the maritime law that carries his name is still a critically important element of the American merchant marine—and a continuing subject of attack and counter-attack.

That the 1920 Jones Act has become synonymous with maritime cabotage is a little misleading because America’s first such law was actually passed in 1789, during the first session of the newly created U.S. Congress. Thus the importance of exerting national control over a critical transportation system within our own borders was recognized at the very founding of our republic. That recognition has continued to this day, despite periodic attacks on the Jones Act from enemies both foreign and domestic.

The essence of the Jones Act is a strict requirement that cargo transported over the water between points within the United States must be carried in vessels that are

• owned by American citizens,

• constructed in American shipyards, and

• crewed by U.S.-citizen seafarers.

Sound economic and military reasons underlie all of these provisions, and that’s why the Jones Act and its predecessors have stood the test of time. In the modern era, the military considerations behind the Jones Act have carried the most weight, and for good reason.

First, American ownership of cargo ships has proven to be vital when U.S. "allies" have failed to support us. In conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq, our government has had to rely on the patriotism of its own citizens to ensure that our fighting forces are supplied by safe and efficient U.S.-flag vessels.

Second, the Pentagon has explicitly endorsed construction of Jones Act vessels in U.S. shipyards as critical to maintaining the commercial viability of U.S. naval shipbuilding capabilities.

And the third requirement—that U.S. citizens crew the vessels—has always had special resonance for labor, and especially for the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA). Indeed, over the 129-year history of MEBA, many thousands of our members have earned a good living aboard Jones Act vessels. For these men and women, the cabotage laws are not an abstract economic concept, but something they live with every day.

The Jones Act provides these mariners with the ability to live and work without constant fear of losing their jobs to cheaper foreign labor. This is a very real threat that adequately compensated seagoing workers face around the world. The Jones Act succeeds in protecting American mariners from unfair foreign competition without requiring any direct government subsidies. In my view, that would be sufficient justification for the Jones Act alone, but a further national security consideration is at work.

Today, the Pentagon maintains a large fleet of military cargo ships in reserve. These vessels sit idle at the dock most of the time and are maintained specifically for the purpose of rapid activation and deployment in time of national emergency.

Just as critical as the availability of these ships is the readiness of trained crews to operate the ships at a moment’s notice. That’s where the crewing provisions of the Jones Act come in as a national security concern. The fact is that, without the Jones Act, the U.S. merchant marine would not have the pool of seagoing workers needed for a large-scale activation of the military’s reserve fleet. Steady employment opportunities in the Jones Act fleet are therefore absolutely necessary to maintaining the manpower pool needed to support our fighting forces in times of crisis.

The events of 2003 in Iraq prove the soundness of this pro-Jones Act argument. Deserted by many traditional allies, the United States had to rely on its own fighting forces, and its own merchant marine, to carry the day.

Of course, they did carry the day, and one of the reasons was the selfless service of American merchant mariners. This was eloquently recognized in a letter I received early last year from Air Force Gen. John Handy, who was in charge of supplying the U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He wrote that "MEBA mariners were directly responsible for the rapid activation of some 40 vessels....

"These actions proved critical to the early movement of ammunition, tanks, aircraft, vehicles, and other fighting needs. Now embarked on over 30 vessels, MEBA mariners continue to deliver critical combat material to our war fighters. Simply put, we are prepared today because of your mariners’ impressive courage and determination.

"In time of crises," he wrote, "our ‘island nation’ has always relied upon the willing sacrifice, skill, and heroics of its merchant mariners. You and your MEBA mariners perpetuate that sterling legacy of service, patriotism, and bravery. You have our greatest respect and admiration."

Regardless of the importance of the Jones Act to national security, the law has come under almost constant attack in recent years, as individuals and commercial organizations have sought financial advantages for themselves.

In the mid-1990s, for example, the Jones Act was subjected to a sustained assault by a failed politician who was seeking to ingratiate himself with powerful interests convinced they could make more money by dismantling the Jones Act. I’m happy to report that the maritime community was able to unite and rally to the defense of the law. Intensive lobbying on Capitol Hill and the creation of a new joint labor-management organization—the Maritime Cabotage Task Force—to defend the Jones Act was successful in beating back the attack.

We’ve also seen attacks from foreign interests. For a number of years now, a handful of foreign countries have lobbied for the inclusion of the Jones Act in the negotiations of the World Trade Organization. Their goal is to overpower the U.S. domestic maritime market on behalf of their own national shipbuilding organizations and shipping companies.

Although successful thus far in keeping the Jones Act out of the World Trade Organization, a united American maritime community is now on constant alert against adversaries who seek to manipulate the international trade system to their own advantage.

At MEBA, we have a deep understanding of the importance of maintaining a secure base of well-paid jobs that, in turn, make it possible for our members to thrive—and to help in the defense of our country. We have also come to understand that though our adversaries seem very powerful at times, they can be defeated by a unified and persistent action.

When it comes to cabotage, the best defense is the rightness of our principle, and I believe that we can prevail with the right on our side.