Standing up for American Maritime Jobs

 

May 2013

 

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SIU President Michael Sacco offers a closer look at the battle to save a key American program

 

I’m sure no one in the SIU needed the reminder, but if anyone ever questioned why our union is so politically active, the current fight to save America’s Food for Peace program reinforces that reasoning.

 

Also known as PL-480, Food for Peace is one of the pillars of the U.S.-flag Merchant Marine. The program has served our nation well – and benefited countless individuals around the globe – going back to its inception in 1954. Throughout all those decades, it has enjoyed solid bipartisan support.

 

But at a moment when every budgetary dollar is being fought for in Washington, even though this would be an absolutely awful time to ship American jobs overseas, the program is under attack. (Not that there’s ever a good time to export our jobs, but given the ongoing economic problems and high unemployment here at home, let’s just say there’s bad timing and then there’s bad timing.) And this comes on the heels of a big cut last year.

 

As I said last month, we are treating this matter with utmost urgency and literally working on it seven days a week. Any time jobs are at stake, it’s a front-and-center issue for us. That’s also why we’ve teamed up with the AFL-CIO’s Maritime Trades Department for a grassroots campaign, launched in mid-April, to further let Congress and the administration know why full support of Food for Peace is so vital. You can bet it will also be a prime topic at this year’s maritime industry congressional “sail-in,” scheduled to take place May 8 on Capitol Hill.

 

The details are important. One proposal from the administration calls for additional reductions in the use of American-flag ships in the PL-480 program, with monies going directly to foreign governments and nongovernmental operations. If this were to happen, more than half of the U.S.-flag vessels used to move Food for Peace cargo – and their American crews – would be left at the docks. American farmers and dockworkers would suffer, too. And, as we have seen over the years, money has a way of disappearing while people continue to go hungry. For 60 years, there has been no doubt the food sent overseas by American farmers aboard American vessels has reached its destinations to help those in need. And, there is no doubt who is supplying this vital aid.

 

This battle couldn’t be more serious, but we do have a lot of support, as evidenced by recent letters to the White House from members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. We can only get that kind of support by remaining politically active – not just during election cycles, but all the time. Educating senators and congressional representatives about our industry is a year-round job. Candidly, we still have some catching up to do on that front, given the retirements and other departures in recent years of some our industry’s biggest backers.

 

I’ve often said that our grassroots activities and SPAD contributions and other outreach like the annual sail-in won’t guarantee success, but if we stayed on the sidelines, we’d be guaranteed to fail. Our odds are much better than if we were collectively buying a lottery ticket, but like the old commercial says, you’ve got to play to win.

 

As our members know all too well, we work in a very heavily regulated industry. That includes not only rules governing training requirements and shipboard safety, but also federal maritime laws and programs that maintain the very core of the U.S. Merchant Marine: Food for Peace, the Jones Act, and the Maritime Security Program foremost among them. Heck, that’s why we moved our headquarters from New York to near Washington more than 30 years ago. We have to protect our livelihoods, and much of that work takes place in the nation’s capital.

 

In our current fight to preserve Food for Peace, your help is critical. Let your senators and congressional reps know that American jobs and American sealift capabilities are at stake. Check with your port agent for sample letters that can be used to convey our message.

 

We have faced these attacks before and beaten them back. We will succeed again with your help.

 

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