Politicians Support Maritime, Working Families

April 2011

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A United States Senator, two Congressmen, an administration official and a governor each promised their ongoing support for the goals and aspirations of the U.S. maritime industry Feb. 24-25 during the AFL-CIO Maritime Trades Department (MTD) executive board meeting in Orlando, Fla.


Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), Deputy Secretary of Labor Seth Harris, U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.), Gov. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), and U.S. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) each pledged to champion the MTD’s objectives as opportunities availed themselves in their respective realms of influence. Carnahan and Rangel made live appearances before the board and guests while Begich, Harris and Abercrombie addressed them via video.


“We certainly know the value of the maritime industry in my home state of Alaska,” said Senator Begich. “Marine transportation is crucial in my state. We don’t have the highway infrastructure of the lower 48 states and as a result we rely on aviation and marine freight and transportation to keep geographically separated sections of the state connected.”


Begich recognized the thousands of hardworking Americans who are employed by the industry and elaborated on the vital role they all play in the nation’s commerce and economic recovery.


“As we look towards the strengthening of our economy and reducing our deficit, Congress must work to maintain and improve the viability of our maritime interests,” Begich said. “There’s an inherent advantage of having a fleet of American-built, owned, and crewed vessels.”


While there are several legislative actions Congress could take to spur maritime industry growth and ensure its preservation, none is more important than protecting the Jones Act, the senator said. Despite this opportunity to create a positive impact, Begich made the point that because of special interests, some lawmakers appear to be going out of their way to destroy the Jones Act.


“There were a few members of Congress who tried to use the Deepwater Horizon tragedy as a catalyst to repeal the Jones Act by making inaccurate claims that the Jones Act somehow inhibited our country’s spill response,” he said. “We know that this was a disingenuous argument that simply isn’t true.”


The senator then expressed his appreciation for the job done by the MTD to debunk the inaccurate statements about the Jones Act.


Begich said that as he and other lawmakers got to work in the 112th Congress, he looked forward to working with his colleagues in the Senate to protect the Jones Act and make sure that waivers are only granted in the most extenuating circumstances. He added that the he and his colleagues also would be working hard to continue on the successes of the Maritime Security Program (MSP) and cargo preference laws.


“This program (MSP) is vital to ensuring that our country has the U.S.-flag and strategic sealift capabilities it needs as well as a trained workforce of American Merchant Mariners during times of war or international emergency,” Begich said. “That’s why I was proud to support full funding for the Maritime Security Program in both 2009 and 2010.


“Cargo preference is another important program,” he continued, “In addition to bolstering the viability of the maritime industry, some of our greatest foreign policy comes from the rest of the world seeing American foreign aid arrive by our U.S.-flag vessels. We saw this firsthand with the relief efforts in the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti.”


Turning to the economy, the senator said there is no doubt that our nation faces significant budgetary challenges and further that our federal deficit is unsustainable. And while the senator agrees with President Obama’s observation that tough cuts will have to be made, Begich suggested that: “We need to invest in our crumbling infrastructure, including our marine infrastructure.


“This includes working with the corps of engineers in local ports and harbors to make sure that our channels are dredged and our waterways are safely navigated,” he continued. “Investing in our infrastructure today will ensure that we have the capacity to accommodate marine commerce that helps drive the nation’s economy tomorrow and it will put Americans employed in the maritime trades to work.”


The senator closed by telling the audience that he was honored to be selected at Chairman of the Democratic Steering and Outreach Committee in the 112th Congress.


“In this capacity, I’ll look forward to working with organized labor, and the maritime community to continue to grow the economy as we turn the corner on this recession.”


Harris reflected on the state of the economy and the campaign being launched in several states to eliminate their budget problems by slashing workers’ benefits and eliminating their rights to collective bargaining.


When he addressed the MTD a year ago, Harris noted that the nation’s economy was at a critical stage, but that signs of recovery from the worst recession in decades were visible on the horizon. The Recovery Act and other actions by President Obama and the Democratic majority in Congress stemmed the tide of devastating job losses, he said.


“Our economy had begun growing again and I promised you that our priority of the coming year would be getting the American people back to work and laying the foundation for a sustained recovery that reflected our values,” Harris said.


Recalling key points of President Obama’s recent state of the union address, Harris said the president focused the nation’s attention on his administration’s plan for “winning the future” by making investments that would help boost education, innovation and industrial capacity.


“At the Department of Labor, we know that winning the future also means having the best prepared and most innovative workforce in the world,” Harris pointed out. “It also means ensuring workers across the country have safe and healthy work places, and that they keep what they rightfully earn and what their unions have rightfully negotiated.”


Harris said that some lawmakers in Congress seem to have no interest in providing working families help in rebuilding their lives or putting their talents to work rebuilding or nation’s economy. Others, he suggested, are calling for reckless budget cuts that could put another one million people out of work. “


Instead of working towards real solutions, they are looking for scapegoats; instead of seeking thoughtful ways to truly share the sacrifice needed to sustain this recovery, they’re trying to balance the burden on the backs of hard working Americans,” Harris said. “Instead of negotiating with workers to find solutions to difficult problems based on shared interests, they demonize and degrade in a vain attempt to show how strong and tough they are.”


The maritime industry has an important lesson to teach these politicians, according to Harris. “It’s a lesson this industry taught me almost 30 years ago when Mike Sacco was showing me what it took to build a strong union and what it took to fight for working families,” he said. “It’s a message which some in power have forgotten or willfully ignored: Strong leaders don’t run from negotiations, they embrace them.”


Harris said that if both sides come to the negotiating table to bargain honestly, there’s almost always room to reach an agreement. “The maritime industry has operated under these tenets for decades,” he continued. “And at a time when many seem to think that negotiations with unions are the problem, I’m proud that there’s at least one industry that’s demonstrated for years that good-faith bargaining can be the solution.”


Congressman Carnahan said he admired the partnership between the military, business and labor he saw being put on display in the MTD. Such cohesion has a major positive economic impact while also boosting national security, he said.


Using partnership as a framework, the congressman turned his attention to the recent assaults on organized labor, especially in Wisconsin. “They need to remember a little American history,” he said, “that America once had business leaders like Henry Ford who figured out that we needed to produce things here and also that we should pay fair wages and benefits to the people at work so they could buy the products. Too many folks have lost sight of the importance of partnership. You have not.”


After discussing government bureaucracy in Washington and all of the “red tape” that comes to bear effectively halting progress, the congressman told the audience that the only way to break down barriers of this sort is to work together as partners. As examples of what could be achieved through effective partnerships, Carnahan cited successes such as the Jones Act, the cargo preference program and the MSP, all of which help maintain a viable U.S.-flag fleet.


“That flag means more than being American,” the congressman said. “It means American employment, it means American security, it means smart cost efficiency in the spending of our tax dollars.”


Carnahan then told board members that despite the loss of some former industry champions after the last elections, maritime still has strong allies in Congress. “But it’s now time that we have to reach out,” he said. “We have to educate a whole group of new members on both sides of the aisle and we’ve got to workto build even more allies going forward.”

Turning his attention to the great American spirit, Carnahan elaborated on some of the tough challenges the country has experienced during its history including wars, depressions and recessions. It’s during times like these that Americans are at their best, he said.


“That’s why I was pleased to hear the president in his state of the union speech just recently talk about the way we are going to compete globally,” he said. Carnahan said he was also pleased one day later when the president of the AFL-CIO and head of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce made a joint statement indicating they agreed with the president, and they wanted to back him in his initiatives.


The congressman then thanked military leaders present for their service, business leaders for their innovation and investments, and labor leaders for their skills and commitments to joint efforts undertaken by all stakeholders in attendance.


“I want you to know that you can count on me and your longtime allies in the Congress, and your new allies in the Congress to be a partner in making this all success, for your industry and for our country,” Carnahan concluded.


Newly elected Governor of Hawaii and former Congressman Neil Abercrombie extended his thanks for the support he received during his gubernatorial race.


“I’ve been elected governor in Hawaii in great measure because of the support of the working people throughout the state and in great measure because of the support of the Seafarers and the Maritime Trades,” Abercrombie said. “They’ve never let me down and I’m never going to let you down.” The governor concluded, “You can count on this governor; you can on this former Congressman Neil Abercrombie to be with you in solidarity.”


Congressman Rangel, to a thunderous round of applause upon taking the podium, was the final speaker to address the board. “This is the time for us to get together and remind our brothers and sisters in other unions that it was not always this way,” Rangel said as he commented on the assaults being launched against union members in several states around the country. “People who have gone before us have fought, they have died, they have lost so much, and we have an obligation to make certain that we don’t lose this on our watch.”


Because of this crisis being faced by working families and the inspiration received as a result of the contributions made by the MTD during rough times as well as easy ones, Rangel said, “When Russ (Congressman Russ Carnahan) and I get back to Washington, I can tell you without fear of contradiction that the first thing he and I will be doing is to make certain that when we talk about jobs.


“We’re not talking about jobs in China,” he continued. “We’re talking about jobs in our ports, on our ships, for our workers. We’ll make certain that we talk about what has made this country so great: It’s being able to fulfill the dreams that our fathers and our grandparents have had; making certain that the quality of life is going to be better for our kids.”


Rangel said that it’s our dreams that have made our country great. “To be able to say that you have an aspiration for your children and your grandchildren, that’s what makes America great,” he said. “You don’t have that in many countries. There are millions of people that want to come into this great nation. We have a lot of people complaining, but nobody is asking to leave. This is the greatest country in the world.”


The congressmen reminded his audience that middle class Americans have fought hard for what they have and that if it was not for the trade union movement, we would still have 12-hour workdays, unsafe working conditions, child labor, no health care, no Social Security or the ability to get an education.

“But there are people out there who don’t believe that we deserve this,” he continued. “If you believe that there is not a conspiracy, please read your newspapers and see what is happening around the country. I am so pleased to know that the AFL-CIO recognizes that the advancements that we have made are under a threat.”


Commenting on the country’s economic health, Rangel said that there is no question we have a fiscal crisis. “We owe over $14 trillion,” he pointed out. “A lot of that we owe to ourselves because we borrow from ourselves. We also owe money to China and other countries.”


But each time you pick up the newspaper, he said, pundits and some politicians are saying that we cannot close the budget gap unless we first attack the public workers. “So you have the workers that they are going after, and then they are going after health care and saying you have to make a bigger contribution, and then they are going after pensions,” the congressman said. “This is not only immoral but heartless. This is not what our country was built on. This is not what people have fought for and let me tell you … this is not going to happen.”

Rangel said that everybody knows what sacrifice means and further that it is not a word that people run away from. “If we have to make sacrifices, let us put everything on the table,” he said.


Rangel then told the board that less than one percent of the American public owns 40 percent of America’s wealth and less than 50 percent of all Americans own three percent of that wealth. “Do we deny that the rich become more rich? Do we recognize that during the last couple of decades we have created more billionaires than in the whole history of America? Do we not say that if you work hard, make the right decisions or just inherit it that we want to take it away from you?” he asked. The answer is no, he continued, “but during a time of sacrifice, you (the rich and wealthy) better be at that table with us. And if we have to put everything we’ve worked for on the table, they better put what they’ve fought for on the table, too.”


In closing, Rangel directed his remarks to MTD President Michael Sacco. “Mike,” he said, “You don’t have to call on us in Congress, we all know who you are. If indeed there’s a fight in Wisconsin, in Indiana and Ohio, we will be there and we will let them know that we got to where we are the hard way. We never thought for one minute that this was the end of the improvement for the quality of life for ourselves and for our children.”

In his parting remark to all present, Rangel said, “More important than anything else, don’t forget the contribution that you have made for this country. Don’t ever forget that it was not management that was talking about health care, education and pensions. It was you that made these dreams come true. Don’t let us wake up and find that we have a nightmare.”

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Sacco, Rangel and Carnahan

From left to right: MTD President Michael Sacco, Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.), and Rep. Russ Carnahan (D-Mo.).