Good News for Labor, Maritime


September 2015


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SIU President Michael Sacco discusses a new tanker order, plus the increasingly popular view of labor unions

An announcement in mid-August about the upcoming addition of four more new tankers into the SIU-crewed fleet is the kind of news that reinforces my belief in a bright future not only for our union but also for America’s shipbuilding industry.


Kinder Morgan’s purchase of four Jones Act ships to be built at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard is just the latest example of the fact there is plenty of work out there for the U.S. Merchant Marine, and it also demonstrates the outstanding capabilities of our nation’s shipyard workers. As a lifelong union man, it’s a point of pride for me to note that two of our country’s busiest yards – Aker Philadelphia and, on the West Coast, General Dynamics NASSCO – employ union workers. Put another way, union members at those facilities (and elsewhere) are constructing state-of-the-art tankers and containerships and RO/ROs that stack up against any others around the world.


Just a few days after the announcement about the four tankers, a new Gallup poll found that six in 10 Americans say they approve of labor unions. That’s the highest approval rate since 2008, according to news reports.


I didn’t realize it until reading an article last month, but Gallup has been surveying American views about organized labor since 1936 (two years before the SIU was chartered). That same article said approval of unions has grown by five percentage points in the last year alone, and by 10 percentage points since 2008 (the start of the recession).


I also found it interesting that 37 percent of Americans say they want unions to have greater influence, while 28 percent want to see us remain the same. Compared to other recent surveys, those figures also reflect a growing belief and trust in organized labor.


You may know that I’m usually at least initially a little leery of studies and statistics, but once I’ve had time to digest the facts, it’s not hard to separate hot air from reality. The Gallup poll shows that union workers are getting the job done, or people wouldn’t believe in us. It also shows we’re doing a better job of explaining to the general public why unions absolutely, positively still matter.


What that survey also showed is that most people believe unions will become weaker in the future, and that’s where I disagree. But we’ll have to work to revitalize our movement, and, for better or worse, that means remaining politically active. Our political activities are year-round, but the next presidential election will be especially important for America’s working families. As one of the candidates said to me and to others recently during the AFL-CIO executive council meetings, this next election is about doing away with unions. (But I can tell you, based on the reports I heard and read during that meeting, our movement is gaining strength through organizing.)


We will continue to advance our movement and the prospects for America’s working families. We’ve got too much to offer, and once again our own industry is a great example on so many levels. We’ve demonstrated how labor and management can work together effectively and with mutual respect. In the shipyards and on the vessels, we’ve proven that union workers can go toe-to-toe with anyone, anywhere, if the playing field is even. And we’ve proven that grassroots political action works. Does anyone believe for a moment that the commercial ship orders at NASSCO or Philadelphia would’ve happened if the Jones Act had been weakened or eliminated?


Brothers and sisters, we do indeed have a bright future – as long as we’re willing to work for it. That means continuing to do a great job aboard SIU-crewed vessels. It means keeping our affiliated school in Piney Point, Maryland, on the cutting edge of technology so that we continue providing top-notch manpower for all types of ships and tugs and ferries. It means promoting the labor movement and the U.S. Merchant Marine at every level of government.


There’s a difference between hope and confidence. When it comes to the SIU, I’m very proud of our record but I’m also confident that many of our best days are ahead of us.


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