Politics, Cooperation Remain Vital to Maritime

April 2011

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Political action and cooperation in the months and years ahead will remain vital both to the domestic and international fleets, according to several guest speakers who addressed the AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department (MTD) executive board Feb. 24.


U.S. Maritime Administrator David Matsuda, World Shipping Council President Chris Koch and American Maritime Partnership (AMP) Counsel Mark Ruge separately discussed some of the key issues facing maritime, including preservation of the Jones Act, efficiently complying with new environmental regulations, fighting back against piracy and promoting greater use of the nation’s waterways. Educating members of Congress about the industry is central to many if not all of those efforts, they said.


Matsuda is in charge of the Department of Transportation (DOT) agency whose mission is helping promote and maintain a viable U.S. Merchant Marine. The first speaker at the two-day board meeting, he thanked the MTD for “championing the industry.”


He also said both the DOT and Maritime Administration are regularly seeking input from all segments of the industry, definitely including maritime labor.


“This department, from the secretary on down, believes that the best public policy comes when we have the most seats at the table,” he stated. “That’s why we’re rolling up our sleeves and listening to you in (an ongoing series of) face-to-face meetings.” Matsuda reiterated President Obama’s support for the industry. He said the administration recognizes in particular the value of U.S. seafarers.


“We know that educated and trained merchant mariners are a fundamental resource for seagoing and shore-side occupations and are indispensible to our national defense,” he declared.


Additionally, Matsuda touched on current efforts to combat piracy, the need to replace aging U.S.-flag tonnage, and recent progress in the long-awaited marine highway program.


“For too long, America has overlooked the economic and environmental benefits of moving domestic goods on the water, but the marine highway program will change that,” he concluded.


Koch presides over an international group whose companies operate approximately 90 percent of the world’s liner ship capacity. He said that in addition to the aforementioned challenges, the rocky economy has taken a toll. Koch described 2009 as “the worst year ever for container shipping. It was a near death experience for many of the carriers. The bottom dropped out.”


However, 2010 “was a year of recovery” and the early returns from 2011 are positive.


He pointed out that one result of the still-challenging times is that ships are “slow steaming,” which drastically reduces fuel consumption. Also, larger ships are being ordered because they’re ultimately cheaper to operate.


Concerning policy, in Washington, it is currently “difficult to get maritime up on the priority list. Frankly, it’s difficult to get transportation up on the priority list in the current environment in Washington, D.C.,” he said.


He discussed competition for funding in various industries and the need for improved, modernized maritime infrastructure.


While crediting organized labor for grassroots political support, Koch said that when looking ahead “the environmental agenda will continue to be one we have to pay a lot attention to. Politically, we know in many port communities there’s a concern about the environmental impact of the shipping industry.”


The industry has put emission controls in effect starting next year, he added.


Concerning piracy and shipboard security, Koch said that the recent murder of four yachtsmen was “a brutal and appalling tragedy” that spotlighted the ongoing problem. “The concern that our industry has is that as appalling and abhorrent as that was, there are 800 seafarers that are hostages to these pirates, and people tend to forget them,” he continued. “It’s not something that should be forgotten. There are daily attacks on ships in that area. It’s costing the economy, it’s costing seafarer welfare, it’s costing everybody – and governments need to step up and do a better job. We have to bring attention to this. I fully recognize there’s no simple solution but unless efforts are brought together by governments, including efforts on shore in Somalia to set up some sort of infrastructure that can try to bring discipline to this situation, we have an intolerable situation that’s only going to continue. I’m pleased to say we are working closely with labor on this.”


He added, “We need to recognize that by working together as an industry, we can affect a positive outcome for all of us, from dealing with climate change to protecting commerce from terrorist risks to making real increases in dealing with the transportation infrastructure challenges we all face. The maritime industry and the maritime labor community are generally on the same page when it comes to addressing maritime public policy challenges.”


Ruge reminded the audience that his newly renamed coalition – formerly the Maritime Cabotage Task Force – “represents every segment of the American maritime industry. In fact, you could say AMP is the American maritime industry.” (The SIU is one of hundreds of AMP affiliates.)


He discussed “unprecedented threats” to the Jones Act and the industry’s response. (The Jones Act is an indispensible part of the American maritime industry’s foundation. It requires that goods moving between domestic ports be transported on vessels that are crewed, built, owned and flagged American.)


Among the concerns cited by Ruge were the recent losses of many industry champions in Congress; unfair and inaccurate blame placed on the Jones Act and U.S. maritime labor during the BP oil cleanup; and 2012 elections that may result in erosion of maritime support.


Reflecting on the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the lies about the Jones Act, Ruge said, “It was ridiculous at times. We were so much in the bullseye, particularly in the right-wing media and right-wing blogs. At one point Sarah Palin tweeted to her people that the only reason that President Obama was not waiving the Jones Act was that, quote, ‘He was trying to protect his union friends, who are all thugs.’ Rush Limbaugh told his listeners that what the law says in the Jones Act is that the only way you can serve on a ship is if you’re in a union. So there was lots of misinformation. A lot of that problem has been solved in the last couple of months due to everybody’s efforts to correct the record. In fact, pretty much everybody involved in government has admitted the Jones Act was not an impediment. But if we think for one second that there’s no scars left from that experience, we are kidding ourselves.”


However, Ruge promised “a significant response from the industry” which already is under way. He thanked the MTD for “being there from the start. There would be no AMP without the Maritime Trades Department.”

Talking about a recent message-testing study involving the Jones Act, Ruge said that the average person outside the industry appreciated the economic and national security aspects of the law. The Jones Act helps maintain roughly 500,000 American jobs and pumps billions of dollars into the economy.


From a national security standpoint, “Everyone knows that a foreign vessel can safely come into the carefully controlled environment of a U.S. port,” he continued. “But what would happen if the Jones Act was repealed and if foreign vessels could move freely throughout the United States? What really concerned people during our focus groups was the thought of tens of thousands of foreign-controlled vessels, manned by foreign nationals, roaming freely through the navigational bloodstream of our country: under bridges, near cities, near sports stadiums, near schools.


“Our task now is to take our message to Capitol Hill. We have an aggressive plan to do that.”

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Chris Koch

Chris Koch, President, World Shipping Council.


David Matsuda

David Matsuda, Administrator, U.S. Maritime Administration.


Mark Ruge

Mark Ruge, Counsel, American Maritime Partnership.