By Dean Corgey
Updated 08:22 p.m., Tuesday, April 17, 2012
“For nearly 100 years, labor and management, industry and government, and Democrats and Republicans have respected the vision of Andrew Furuseth that seamen are entitled to basic rights – and among the most basic of rights is the right to a job. As Furuseth liked to say, “Freedom and equality is a flower that grows in strife and amongst danger.” We are certainly in strife and amongst danger, so maybe it’s time to let the flower we know as the Jones Act grow. That will be good for Texas and good for America!” [Dean Corgey]
A founding father of our union was a mariner, a Norwegian immigrant and labor activist named Andrew Furuseth. He lived in a time, much like today, of social, political and economic upheaval at the end of the Gilded Age of the robber barons and the dawn of the Progressive Era of great reformers such as President Theodore Roosevelt.
At the turn of the 20th century, seamen had few legal rights and suffered abuse unimaginable today, including inhumane conditions, forced labor, beatings and imprisonment. In 1915, Furuseth testified before Congress and spoke these immortal (in our industry) words: “You can put me in jail but you cannot give me narrower quarters than as a seaman I have always had. You cannot give me coarser food than I have always eaten. You cannot make me lonelier than I have always been.”
This powerful statement helped give birth to the American maritime labor movement and the eventual passage of the Seamen’s Act of 1915 and the Jones Act of 1920. Furuseth is credited as a driving force behind these bills, with the support of Sen. Wesley Jones, R-Wash., Robert M. La Follette, the great progressive Republican senator from Wisconsin, and President Woodrow Wilson. The Seamen’s Act established basic working and living conditions for merchant mariners, and the Jones Act implemented a workers’ compensation system for seamen similar to the railroads. More importantly, the Jones Act introduced cabotage provisions requiring for the first time that domestic cargo be carried on vessels that are owned, built and crewed by Americans. These laws changed forever American seagoing life and transformed our domestic maritime industry into an innovative, cost-effective and secure transportation system that bolsters our nation’s security.
Leaders from both sides of the aisle understood the importance of maintaining a fleet of vessels to provide good jobs and economic security in peacetime and a pool of qualified personnel to man those vessels and defend the homeland in a time of war. The Jones Act always has enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, the White House and the military and has been instrumental in the massive sealifts of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Grenada, Panama, Kuwait, Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as the humanitarian efforts in Haiti and Japan. In each instance, the U.S. Merchant Marine has never missed a sailing and has performed with distinction and professionalism in the face of sacrifice and peril.
Texas has a proud maritime history and many know that a major factor in the victory of World War II was Texas crude refined in Port Arthur, Houston and Corpus Christi and transported to the European and Pacific theaters on Jones Act tankers crewed by fearless American sailors. Many of these ships were torpedoed and the crews paid the ultimate price. We were able to win by maintaining a steady supply of fuel as the enemy ran out, thanks to the Jones Act.
Texas is America’s premier maritime state, with more tonnage moving through our ports than any other – much of it on Jones Act vessels. Our state has benefited from Jones Act-related investments by shipowners, and many thousands of Texans depend on Jones Act-related employment, both at sea and ashore. To his credit, Texas Gov. Rick Perry is an ardent supporter of the Jones Act, as was President George W. Bush.
On the national level, the Jones Act fleet consists of 40,000 vessels engaged in domestic waterborne commerce representing an investment of $30 billion. The industry moves a billion tons of cargo and 100 million passengers yearly, generating $100 billion in annual economic output. This has created 500,000 American jobs with a yearly payroll of $29 billion and $11 billion in taxes per annum. The Jones Act fleet provides reliable service to markets such as Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico, which depend on waterborne commerce for their very existence.
Our domestic fleet is invaluable to our homeland security and border protection; our companies and crews are regulated by the U.S. Coast Guard and by federal law enforcement agencies. Our domestic maritime industry is clearly vital to our national, economic and homeland security.
Unfortunately, we have recently seen a disturbing trend of anti-Jones Act rhetoric based on false information, including calls for blanket waivers and outright repeal. It seemed to begin with the Deepwater Horizon disaster in 2010, continued with the Strategic Petroleum Reserve waivers in 2011 and the politicization of cabotage in Puerto Rico and the current efforts of the American Petroleum Institute to seek waivers to move fuel from the Gulf Coast to the Northeast. In each case, the facts do not bear out the claims of those who seek to destroy a law that has served this state and country well.
In this time of economic uncertainty, high unemployment and threats of terrorism, we should be talking about expanding, not chipping away at, the Jones Act. Real opportunities for growth are on the horizon for the domestic maritime industry. Refineries are closing in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, St. Croix and Aruba. Refining capacity is being concentrated in Texas and Louisiana, with Houston being the leader. Domestic crude and natural gas from shale operations and the eventual Keystone Pipeline will produce increased prospects for coastwise movements of refined products and LNG to the East Coast and Caribbean.
Serious consideration is being given to the creation of a “marine highway” network to distribute containers coming from an expanded Panama Canal in a safe, efficient and green manner to coastal destinations. This all equates to good jobs that are sorely needed by young folks graduating from maritime training facilities and veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
For nearly 100 years, labor and management, industry and government, and Democrats and Republicans have respected the vision of Andrew Furuseth that seamen are entitled to basic rights – and among the most basic of rights is the right to a job. As Furuseth liked to say, “Freedom and equality is a flower that grows in strife and amongst danger.” We are certainly in strife and amongst danger, so maybe it’s time to let the flower we know as the Jones Act grow. That will be good for Texas and good for America!
Corgey is vice president, Gulf Coast Region, of the Seafarers International Union.