Maritime labor unions were told last week they must intensify their efforts to educate Congress and the public about the national significance of infrastructure development and laws that preserve American maritime jobs, or risk even deeper cuts to these programs.
“These are treasures in this country that we ignore,” said Cedric Richmond, D-La., who is one of the founders of the maritime caucus in the House of Representatives.
The U.S. economy gets a return of $39 for every dollar that is spent on port development, harbor deepening and river dredging, Richmond told the quadrennial conference of the AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department in Los Angeles. “Let’s invest in the treasures and get a return on our investments,” he said.
Also, programs that support American seafaring and land-based jobs such as the Jones Act, Food for Peace (PL 480) and the Maritime Security Program are also under siege as budget cutters each year seek to pare down these programs.
Richmond came down especially hard on congressional representatives who represent districts where supporting the solid middle-class wages associated with maritime jobs is not a priority. “The people who say, ‘We want to cut,’ don’t want anything and they don’t need anything,” Richmond said.
Maritime labor unions scored an important victory this year when they helped to block legislation that would have altered the Food for Peace program.
Under the long-standing PL 480 program, the federal government buys food products from American farmers, and ships the food on U.S.-flag vessels to poor nations around the world.
Opponents charge that the buy-American and ship-American provisions add cost to the process. They proposed giving grants to other countries and letting them shop for lower-cost food sources.
Richmond noted that food shipments with U.S. labels promote the right image of this country abroad. Shipping food, rather than giving grants to foreign countries, also ensures that food cargo goes directly to the needy. “The chances of a 50-pound bag of food ending up in the right hands are a lot better than a 50-pound bag of money,” he said.
The Jones Act, which reserves domestic waterborne commerce for U.S.-built and U.S.-manned vessels, is always a favorite target of foreign-flag and oil industry interests. Opponents charge that consumers in Hawaii and Alaska would enjoy lower prices if the domestic trades were opened to foreign-flag operators, and the price of gasoline on the mainland would be also be lower.
Sacco noted that the Jones Act generates 500,000 American jobs and $11 billion in tax revenue. “It is the lifeblood of our industry,” he said.
Another target of cost-cutters in Washington is the Maritime Security Program under which shipping lines receive a stipend to maintain vessels in their commercial fleets, with the understanding that the ships must be quickly deployed to carry military cargo in times of national emergency.
“They are ready when needed,” said Michael Sacco, president of the Maritime Trades Department, AFl-CIO, and since the carriers maintain the vessels in good working order for regular commercial activity, and the vessels are operated by professional seafarers, the federal government incurs no cost in that area.
The U.S. Merchant Marine, according to Rear Adm. Thomas K. Shannon, commander of the Military Sealift Command, provides valuable military assistance by quickly and efficiently delivering supplies and materiel to U.S. troops around the world.
However, this effort is threatened by continued budget cuts and sequestration policies. The armed forces recognize the support they receive from the Military Sealift Command, but Congress and the country as a whole must be better educated about the contribution the U.S. Merchant Marine provides in the area of national security, Shannon said.