June 5 marks the 100th anniversary of the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. Within this important legislation is the language that governs America’s waterborne freight cabotage – the Jones Act.
Named for the bill’s primary sponsor – U.S. Senator Wesley Jones (R-Washington) – the Jones Act simply states that cargo moved from one domestic port to another domestic port must be carried aboard a U.S.-crewed, U.S.-flagged, U.S.-built and U.S.-owned vessel.
The Jones Act oversees the movement of goods along America’s ocean shorelines, Great Lakes ports and inland waterways.
“The Jones Act remains a pillar of not only the United States maritime industry, but also our country’s national, economic and homeland security,” stated SIU President Michael Sacco. “It’s a source of family-wage jobs both on the water and ashore. It protects our nation in so many ways.”
A 2019 study conducted by PricewaterhouseCoopers for the Transportation Institute showed the Jones Act is responsible for 650,000 American jobs creating more than $40 billion annually in income. Workers whose jobs are related to the law can be found in all 50 states.
Cargo shipping is not the only maritime aspect covered by the Jones Act. It includes the U.S.-flag dredging industry as well.
“The Jones Act has been attacked by unsubstantiated claims for years,” declared Maritime Trades Department (MTD) Vice President Jerry Abell. “In this day and time of viruses that we have no vaccines for and unprecedented death tolls, this act should be our first line of defense to protect the American shipping and dredging industries and the health of the American workforce from foreign enemies. I cannot stress enough how important the Jones Act is to the security and economic success of the country.” (Abell is President/Business Manager for Dredging Local 25 of the International Union of Operating Engineers.)
Throughout the decades, the Jones Act has received bipartisan support from the White House and members of Congress. Military leaders also have expressed their backing for the law as it not only provides well-trained American mariners who crew vessels taking needed goods for armed forces located around the world, but also supplies another set of eyes from American citizen-seafarers within U.S. ports, harbors and waterways for unlawful activities.
“Many people do not realize that the Jones Act was not America’s first cabotage law,” noted MTD Executive Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Duncan. “In fact, among the original laws passed by the first Congress in 1789-90 were several designed to protect the nation’s fledgling maritime industry.”
At one time, foreign-flagged and foreign-crewed vessels were permitted to sail along the inland waterways and on the Great Lakes. These vessels and crews did not then, nor have to now, meet America’s labor, building and safety standards. After a series of disasters that claimed American lives, Congress worked on various measures to strengthen the cabotage laws.
During World War I, the United States did not have much of a merchant fleet. Many businesses depended on commercial vessels from Britain, France, Germany and other nations to export and import goods. When the war took these vessels away, Americans were forced to pay a premium to move cargo. This led to the 1920 Merchant Marine Act with its inclusion of the Jones Act.
Despite its value to the American economy and the nation’s security, the Jones Act continually faces attacks from outside interests.
The cabotage law of the Jones Act is not unique to the United States, either. The London-based Seafarers’ Rights International released a study in 2018 listing more than 90 countries that have some type of cabotage law on their books. Maritime unions around the world have identified the Jones Act as “the flagship of cabotage laws.”
“This centennial is worth celebrating – and the Jones Act is worth fully preserving,” proclaimed Sacco. “America’s freight cabotage law has served us extremely well for a century, and that’s why it has always enjoyed strong bipartisan support along with powerful backing from top military leaders.
“God bless the Jones Act, which I believe is the most ‘All-American’ law in existence.”