Outside of the SIU, the year 2021 could easily be confused for 2020. The world was still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, including a number of variants which evolved and threatened even the vaccinated population.
By December 2021, more than 48 million cases of COVID-19 were reported in the United States alone. At the same time, 196 million people in the U.S. have been fully vaccinated, and an estimated 231 million people have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. The vaccination numbers are always climbing, and seemingly signify a real chance at putting the pandemic in the rearview mirror.
Within the SIU, 2021 arguably should be known as the year of the contract. As of early December, at least 15 different contracts had been ratified during the year, and those agreements dominated the Seafarers LOG headlines. The pandemic certainly had an effect on how those negotiations took place, with countless video conference calls replacing or supplementing in-person meetings. But the work still got done, and each contract included major wins for Seafarers.
The following is an overview of some of the year’s top stories for the union, the maritime industry as a whole and the labor movement.
The year 2021 saw contract after contract successfully negotiated and ratified, and across the board each agreement included gains for the covered members. Without exception, each contract boosted wages while maintaining or improving benefits.
Newly ratified pacts included: three-year contracts with Crescent Towing, Seabulk, OSG Inland, Penn Terminal, Intrepid Personnel and Provisioning/Crowley ATB, Argent Marine, Crowley Towing and Transportation, and G&H Towing; four-year agreements with Inland Lakes Management, American Steamship Company and Virginia Pilots (which has been ratified as of press time); five-year contracts with Matson and Watco Transloading, LLC; a six-year contract with Luedtke Engineering Company; and a groundbreaking nine-year agreement with Norwegian Cruise Line that significantly improved on the old contract.
The Biden Administration has proven to be a consistent ally to Seafarers, as well as the labor movement as a whole. In January, President Biden issued a “Buy American” executive order, which specifically mentioned the administration’s support of the Jones Act. The executive order also calls for federal dollars to be spent on goods made by American workers using domestic content, and attempts to close loopholes that have allowed jobs and production to be shipped out of the country. In June, the White House issued guidance to provide transparency around the process of waivers from the established Made in America Laws, which includes any potential Jones Act waivers.
As part of his Labor Day proclamation, Biden doubled down, saying, “In my White House, labor will always be welcome. I intend to be the most pro-union president leading the most pro-union administration in American history.”
The House passed the “Protecting the Right to Organize Act of 2019” in March, which has been identified as a critically important piece of legislation for the labor movement. Despite this, no further actions have been taken regarding the PRO Act.
In August, the union lost its arbitration against the American Maritime Association (AMA), which had required all mariners sailing aboard any of their affiliated companies’ vessels be vaccinated against COVID-19. The union’s argument was that the AMA should have first negotiated with the SIU, rather than impose the mandate unilaterally.
In the months that followed, vaccine mandates became the norm across many industries, and federally required for all government employees. As of December, the union’s vaccination rates are very high, with union employees and officials having reached a 98 percent vaccination rate. Those who remain unvaccinated have received medical exemptions.
Crossing the Bar
The labor community lost AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka on August 5. A true giant in the movement and a longtime friend of the SIU, Trumka helped fight for the union way of life right up until his death, making an impassioned speech in support of the Mine Workers just days before he passed. His legacy will continue to have a lasting impact on workers’ rights. In the wake of Trumka’s passing, Liz Schuler was elected the next president of the AFL-CIO. She’s the first woman to fill that position.
Additionally, AFL-CIO President Emeritus John Sweeney passed away February 1; American Maritime Officers (AMO) Executive Vice President Mike Finnigan died on March 19; longtime Paul Hall Center Instructor and Director of Training J.C. Wiegman passed away on May 5; maritime industry pioneer David Tolan passed away on July 6; and retired SIU Patrolman John “Jack” Sheehan died on October 29.
Rescues and New Tonnage
SIU crews were on-hand for several rescues last year, jumping into action to save lives in dire circumstances. In each instance, Seafarers used their training and skills to rescue stranded boaters – the training they hoped never to need to use.
In March, the survey vessel Wolf River, returning from a crew change on the Great Lakes Dredge and Dock-operated Padre Island, diverted course when the crew saw a group of people whose vessel was taking on water in the bay. The crew saved a family of six, two adults and four children. Also in March, the crew of the CS Decisive rescued a boater in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. In April, the crew aboard the Sunshine State rescued two boaters from their disabled craft, and in July, the CIVMAR crew of the USNS Patuxent rescued 15 people off the coast of Somalia. Nine days later, the Patuxent would again divert, rescuing four fishermen who had been adrift for 12 days in the Gulf of Aden. The crew of the Golden State rescued two boaters near Key West in August – just before a tropical storm came through the area – and in November, the CIVMAR crew of the USNS Charles Drew rescued two Iranian sailors who had been adrift for eight days in the Gulf of Oman.
New tonnage entered the fleet, including the reflagged tanker Pohang Pioneer and (for the SIU Government Services Division) the USNS John Lewis and USNS Harvey Milk.
Union and Industry
Beginning in September, the maritime industry was alerted to reports of alleged sexual assault and sexual harassment involving U.S. Merchant Marine Academy cadets who said they were victimized while serving their Sea Year aboard U.S.-flag vessels. The SIU, while not involved in any of the allegations, is committed to continuing to educate members about the ongoing importance of protecting shipmates from any and all harassment, and will continue supporting those who have been victimized at sea.
While a U.S.-flag vessel was not the cause of a major blockage in the Suez Canal in April, SIU members were negatively impacted by a historic backup as crews worked to clear the obstructing vessel. Many Seafarers shared their stories during this time, and provided photos to better illustrate the magnitude of this incident.
Within the SIU: Union election results were tallied and announced in January, with SIU President Michael Sacco, Executive Vice President Augie Tellez, Secretary- Treasurer David Heindel and others re-elected by large margins; longtime SIU official Kate Hunt retired, and Nick Celona was appointed to serve as the Vice President of the Government Services division; Heindel was named an Admiral of the Ocean Sea recipient by the United Seamen’s Service; the SIU-affiliated Paul Hall Center opened a brand-new, state of the art Media Center on campus; and as of press time, significant progress was being made in clearing the backlog of medical paperwork with CHS.