Identifying a given year’s top story – good or bad – sometimes may be difficult, but that’s certainly not the case when reviewing 2020.
The COVID-19 global pandemic impacted virtually all aspects of life around the world. By mid-December, the novel coronavirus had claimed 1.55 million lives worldwide (more than 300,000 in the United States). Upwards of 68 million cases had been reported across the globe (15 million in the U.S.).
For the U.S. Merchant Marine in general and the SIU in particular, the pandemic presented a challenge that is unprecedented in modern times. Nevertheless, the industry and the union rose to the occasion, delivering commercial and military cargoes around the world.
The following is a brief recap of some of the year’s top stories for the SIU.
The list of adjustments made by Seafarers and the SIU isn’t short. At various times, hiring halls were closed to personnel other than staff, though business was still conducted by phone, fax and email. Some halls periodically closed for precautionary reasons. When they were open (which was the norm), strict safety precautions remained in place – including temperature checks, social distancing, use of sanitizer, placement of dividers, wearing masks, and more.
Nevertheless, union representatives and members made it work, utilizing phones and emails and whatever other means of communication facilitated Seafarers shipping out safely and on time. By the fourth quarter of the year, it had become commonplace for mariners to undergo COVID-19 testing before sailing. Preboarding quarantines also became routine. Aboard the vessels themselves, precautions included wearing masks, temperature checks, extra sanitization of common areas, staggered meal times and more.
SIU President Michael Sacco repeatedly praised members for stepping up to meet the challenge, both in online and printed messages. So did U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao, U.S. Transportation Command commanding officer Gen. Stephen Lyons, and U.S. Maritime Administrator Mark Buzby, each of whom credited crews for living up to their federal designation as essential workers.
The can-do spirit of the SIU arguably was never more evident than during the summer, when the union helped crew up 19 vessels in a pair of turbo activations. These exercises are a critical test of the nation’s sealift readiness. The SIU filled more than 200 total jobs in those mobilizations. One of the biggest pandemic-related challenges faced by mariners around the world is very much ongoing as the calendar turns to 2021. Namely, crew changes have been postponed for periods as long as several months. Complications include local and national transportation restrictions. American-flag ship operators stepped up to tackle this component by chartering several crew-change flights to and from Diego Garcia, with no monetary assistance from the government. Travel also is a significant consideration for the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center for Maritime Training and Education (PHC), located in Piney Point, Maryland. The school implemented a gradual closure in the spring, during which students could choose between finishing their coursework or leaving the campus and rescheduling later. Then, following months of planning, the school reopened in early August, with myriad safety protocols in place. These included travel-related precautions, since students travel to Piney Point from all over the country (and because they likely sailed to numerous foreign countries).
Tom Orzechowski, the school’s acting vice president, credited students and staff for making it all work. As of mid-December, only a single positive case of COVID-19 had been reported on campus, and the individual who contracted the virus promptly isolated and didn’t spread it.
If the modified basic formulas for conducting routine business at the hiring halls and at the school gradually became part of the so-called “new normal,” there were distinctive considerations for running the SIU election. Union officers are elected once every four years, and the typical system for voting involves casting ballots either at the halls or via mail (absentee voting).
Due to the pandemic, the union’s executive board implemented numerous, one-time modifications (with membership approval) in order to promote participation in the election. The most visible change was conducting shipboard voting; union reps visiting the vessels were required to show proof of a recent, negative COVID-19 test.
Other changes included relaxing the requirements for requesting an absentee ballot and also making it easier to qualify to run for office. Election results will be announced in early 2021.
New Ships, Rescues, Outreach
For all the changes brought by 2020, some things felt timeless, including the addition of several new vessels into the SIU-crewed fleet. Those ships included the Matson con/ ro vessels Lurline and Matsonia, Schuyler Line’s bulker SLNC Severn (more details will be reported next month), and the expeditionary fast transport USNS Newport, crewed by members of the SIU Government Services Division.
Similarly, SIU crews took part in several rescues, upholding the finest traditions of the Brotherhood of the Sea. The ships and boats executing the rescues included the Mahi Mahi, the USNS Yukon, the Horizon Reliance and the Empire State (a NY Waterway ferry).
Members showed their mettle on shore, too. Among other philanthropic endeavors, Seafarers participated in community outreach projects in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Florida, Maryland, Washington State, Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Additionally, the Seafarers Health and Benefits Plan issued what is believed to be a record $152,000 in scholarships to members and SIU dependents.
All indications were that the year would end with one of the biggest legislative victories that maritime industry had seen in many years. At press time, the annual Defense bill appeared headed for enactment – and it included several crucial components that will boost the U.S. Merchant Marine.
Those elements included a new American- flag tanker program, reinforcement of the Jones Act and cargo preference laws, boosts for domestic shipbuilding and repair and more.
In June, the industry observed the Jones Act’s centennial. Throughout the year, various studies underscored how the law remains vital to U.S. national, economic and homeland security.
Also, in the early days of spring, President Trump signed an SIU-backed bill providing the U.S. Merchant Marine of World War II with a Congressional Gold Medal.
Finally, the SIU remained politically active at the local, state and national levels. SIU-backed candidates fared well on Election Day, signaling potential progress for the maritime industry and for America’s working families in the new year.
The SIU was saddened to say goodbye to far too many friends in 2020, including the following (any omissions are unintentional): Retired Port Agent Ed Kelly; retired MTD and SIU official Frank Pecquex; BCTGM President David Durkee; retired PHC instructor Bernabe Pelingon; GUDE Michael Vaughn, believed to be first active SIU member to perish from COVID-19; U.S. Rep. John Lewis; Jack Martorelli, president, St. Louis Port Council; Robert Chiesa, longtime crewing manager at Waterman; Arthur Imperatore, head of NY Waterway; and Larry Willis, president of the AFL Transportation Trades Department.