PRIVATE MANNING OF NAVY VESSELS?

The Chief of Naval Operations of the Department of the Navy recently released the results of a study that examined "the ability of the active seafaring work force to man all de fense shipping needs during a mobilization scenario and also explored alternative manning concepts."

This study projected a shortfall of approximately 3,500 seamen in 1986 and an 8,100 shortfall in 1992. The study concludes as follows:* "The fail-safe solution is a robust, peacetime U.S.-flag fleet that supports as a minimum an active seafarer pool of adequate size sufficient to meet all shipping requirements in time of war.

* "Based on the current trend of the U.S.-flag fleet, manning shortfalls are predictable.

* "Stop-gap measures must be complemented now to assure availability of manning at time of contingency.

* "Further increases in the RRF are a losing battle from a manning standpoint.

* "A strategy must be developed and implemented as a national priority to reverse the declining trend of the U.S. flag fleet."

We have known of this shortage for some time. It would not be helpful to make light of the fact that the Navy is just now - some five to six years late - recognizing the known facts. It should be helpful in the efforts to restore the U.S.-flag merchant marine to some degree of adequacy, both from the commercial and defense needs, now that the Navy has officially stated there are not enough seamen to fulfill the minimum mobilization scenario.

Admiral Thomas J. Hughes, under whose command this study group falls, is Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Logistics). We have had enough contact with Admiral Hughes to believe that he is sincerely concerned about the adequacy or inadequacy of our U.S.-flag fleet.

Recognizing how severe and how long the Navy has known the shortage has existed is a matter of some speculation. It is believed that this report would have been released earlier except that by publicly admitting a shortage existed, it would have been embarrassing to the administration.

There are no new solutions or easy fixes to the existing problems. It does not take a genius to tell you the obvious: If our merchant marine is to exist, it must have cargo to carry. If we had an existing fleet that was carrying only 20 percent, instead of the less than 3 percent at present, the adequacy of ships and seamen would be far less severe.

This 20 percent is only half of what most of the world has accepted in the 40/40/20 United Nations Conference on Trade and Development Code. (Admittedly, the UNCTAD Code only applies to the liner trades, but it does represent the acceptance of the need to reserve a part of the trade for the nation's flag fleet. The administration can continue to ignore the obvious - our merchant fleet has to receive more from the government than just lip service.

There has been much use of the phrase "level the playing field" by the administration lately. If the administration continues to ignore the obvious and continues to give lip service to "free trade" instead of "leveling the playing field," the U.S.-flag fleet will continue to shrink.

The major question emanating from this study is how active the Navy will be in its efforts to reduce or eliminate the shortage.

"A major goal of my administration will be to assure that U.S.-flag ships carry an equitable portion of our trade, consistent with the legitimate aspirations and policies of our trading partners." This statement has often been quoted but the president has been criticized for walking away from this commitment. This commitment was the broader issue of restoring a U.S.-flag merchant marine that would, without addressing the issue specifically, eliminate the seamen shortage.

To the specifics of a manpower study addressed in the Navy study, the president said, "I know, and you know, that the maritime industry can assume many Navy support functions. It will save the Navy money, and it will release trained sailors to man the new ships my administration will build for the fleet."

The concept of manning a number of Navy's non-combatant vessels with private civilian merchant mariners has been discussed for the past dozen years. All of the studies conducted in and out of the government have demonstrated that the private civilian manning concept is feasible, practical and saves the government money. It was, therefore, encouraging to hear the president endorse the concept.

Again, when the president signed the so-called regulatory reform bill into law on March 20, 1984, he said that there remained "a great deal to be done" on behalf of the merchant marine and that he was moving forward on several matters. He specifically said that he was continuing to expand civilian manning of Navy support vessels.

In an effort to give direction and guidance to this concept, the NMU and some other unions proposed the establishment of a system whereby the Navy and/ or the Military Sealift Command would hire seamen directly from the union hiring halls to man the Navy's non-combatant vessels. This concept worked with another government agency without hitch for 45 years. The seamen who manned the ships of the Panama Line of the Panama Railroad Company and its successor agencies were hired directly from the NMU hiring hall. The agency paid the wages and fringes, including pension and welfare contributions, as established by the private industry. The agency, instead of signing an agreement with the unions that it contended it could not do, would be better to notify the unions of its intentions to pay the wages and fringes as established.

To make the proposal palatable from the Navy's perspective, the unions further proposed that they would agree to: sign a "no strike" agreement with the operating agency; the establishment of an adequate training program; a system that would provide for continuity of crew; security clearances for the crew and the issuances of "special" papers for shipping on Navy vessels; the application of health standards; discuss the application of the Jones Act and/ or federal workers compensation to seamen when injured; and appropriate manning sizes.

There are other ways in which the seamen and the government would benefit in the private manning of the Navy non-combatant support vessels. For example, job opportunities would be eliminated the shortages identified in the Navy study.

In response to our request, the Chairman of the House Post Office and Civil Service Committee, asked the Department of the Navy if it were interested or opposed to the introduction of legislation to make this possible. The response from the Navy was negative.

There are other issues that need addressing but they all begin and end with the administration. Will it continue to act as an undertaker or will it take an active part in doing the obvious?

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