[Interview] U.S. Merchant Marine: Battling the Charlatans and Barons

Don Marcu

Published May 22, 2015 3:18 PM by The Maritime Executive

MarEx spoke to Don Marcus, President of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots (IOMM&P) as he reflects on U.S. National Maritime Day:

As president of the IOMM&P what does National Maritime Day mean to the organization?

In my mind, National Maritime Day is meant to recognize the U.S. Merchant Marine for its support of military endeavors throughout the world and for its contributions to our economy.

Today, at the national celebration in Washington D.C., the gravity of the tasks ahead and the need to rally in support of keeping the traditions alive for the next generation affected me particularly, as it did other labors leaders. We are quickly approaching the point of no return on the relevancy of U.S. flag presence on the high seas, which seems to be less certain with each passing year.

Is there a next generation?

I think there is. The merchant marine seems to limp from crisis to crisis, but it is almost a certainty that the U.S. will be engaged in a conflict someplace, somewhere in the future. We need to continue to have the support of the decision makers in congress and the military. They need to realize there has to be a baseline logistical capability for times of conflict in the world, so there needs to be a way to sustain our capabilities in times of peace as well.

It’s exceedingly distressing to see us at this point. We can’t seem to get on the radar of the national consciousness. We get a blip such as the Captain Phillips movie and the occasional recognition when there’s a crisis. But, when you consider that the American Merchant Marine veterans were still trying 70 years after WWII to get their recognition, the likelihood of the significance of the merchant marine economically and militarily coming to the forefront is not high.

I still have hope because there are people in congress like Senator Barbara Mikulski – who is unfortunately retiring, Congressman John Garamendi, Congressman Elijah Cummings and Duncan Hunter. There are enough of our advocates who understand the importance of the merchant marine, but that list is not getting any longer. It’s a constant battle, and it’s a battle that if we lose once we could go under. So it’s a struggle, but it’s a struggle all of us are committed to. It’s life or death for us.

In the current political climate with fewer opportunities for transport cargo preference, what can the union do to build national awareness of the importance of our deepwater fleet and licensed STCW mariners?

We have been focusing on the decision makers as opposed to public opinion because of the daunting task of trying to affect public opinion with the resources we have available.

When you look at the current fight over the fast-tracking of the Transpacific Trade Agreement, this is a classic example of the immense power of neoliberal globalism that paints everything in the national interest as somehow protectionist and it puts labor and U.S. flags in unfavorable light. And, this is an argument used against national industries, when really what’s in the national interest is protecting the citizens, the taxpayers and the industrial base, which supports a strong middle class.

We’re fighting for life and death to preserve what is almost our sovereignty in trade issues. We’re dealing with a global plutocracy that wants to put national interest second to corporate profits. I think our industry is just one symbol of that in the case of Senator Bob Corker and his statements.

Here we pretty much have a classic charlatan. He’s a man that thinks Social Security and Medicare are generational theft, that they’re against financial regulation of the financial sector, but he wants to put working people under, not only in the merchant marine. He doesn’t want people at the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW) to organize workers in Chattanooga. He’s a classic robber baron in the 21 century and that’s what we’re up against.

How do we influence that? How do we get public opinion to swing, to recognize the importance of protecting your own citizens, your own job base and your own industrial capacity? That’s a difficult task. And, we’re doing what we can, but our focus has been, by necessity, on the decision makers and the administrators in congress who can with one stroke cut the legs out from under us.

We have to prevent that from happening before we can get to the bigger picture. We’ve been forced to focus on day to day survival.

How do we connect with local politicians and local media? 

What we’ve done and what we continue to do is we have developed maritime advisory committees where we engage with labor and management at a local level. We have the blessing that in this industry management and labor are together fighting for the industry.

So, we reach out at the local level to congressmen and educate them where we can. The Jones Act is under constant barrage of repeal by politicans working for special interests. We were very pleased when the Government Accountability Office report about Puerto Rico that was recently issued. It supported the necessity of the Jones Act for domestic commerce, which also strenghtened the labor base for this country. 

I think the best parallel we can show with regards to the Jones Act is to take a look at the U.K. or Canada or Australia. Canada cannot build their naval vessels and the U.K. cannot build ships either. In the U.K. there is only one or two shipyards left that can build warships. Most of their vessels are being built overseas and they are dependent on foreign shipbilding for their naval vessels. In Australia and Canada particularly, they are also dependent on foreign shipping for their international commerce and trade.

The U.S. is no longer the first trading nation in the world. We are second behind China. If the U.S. loses the Jones Act, we’ll be finished as a maritime nation. Today, we are hanging on by our fingernails in the international trade arena. What is really sad is that congress cannot understand that a strong maritime base translates into a stronger economy for all Americans. But, it’s all about special interests swaying votes with lots of cash on Capitol Hill.

What can we do? That’s a difficult question except to point to other countries that have lost their maritime industries are now dependent on foreigners for imports and exports. Those countries, which have allowed their maritime base to falter are now totally dependent on foreign shipping including for their domestic trades as well. At the end of the day, they’re paying more for everything. There have been no costs savings because their flag lines were allowed to diminish on the promised savings to the consumer. It’s a myth of free traders looking for more profits at any costs.

Have the countries mentioned benefitted at all from the loss of their flagships?

I think it is obvious they have not benefitted because they lost an important part of their industrial base, which created good paying jobs. What’s left of their merchant marine? They are now dependent on foreign shipbuiling for much of their tonnage, which also applies to their national navies as well. Now, consumer prices are based on whatever the traffic may bear. The cost of products is whatever the shipper can get away with in order to make more profits on products. You cannot make an argument that consumers have prospered. And, those countries that have allowed their maritime sectors to diminish have also lossed their middle classe and jobs and, more importantly, skilled labor.

The Transpacific Trade Bill will definitely impact U.S. maritime shipping. The political line is that Americans will benefit by more exports and U.S. products will be more competitive in the marketplace. U.S. maritime interests are not part of the equation.

We don’t really know what this trade bill is all about because no one has been allowed to really see it. In fact, were heard today, that there was an amendment was attached by one of the foreign trading partners that would decertify the longshore unions if there were a slowdown at the docks. It’s another attack on labor by companies including foreigners wanting more access to the U.S. economy by breaking down what they preceive as barriers to profits. 

If you look at the Canadian Trade Agreement (CETA), they want to gut what’s remaining of the Canadian cabotage laws. While we don’t know what protocols there are, their actions are directed against labor and national flagged shipping. The fact that this debate is going on behind closed doors is outrageous.

Our entire political system has been taken over by moneyed interests as you review the recent Supreme Court cases. Our democratic values have been lost in a sea of political contribution money – anything can happen. When you’ve got closed-door negotiations that are privy only to a few privileged partners, it doesn’t build confidence or bode well for the people in general.

Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

Over 100 years ago the Seamen’s Act of 1915 was passed. I mentioned this recently to the American Merchant Marine veterans and several cadets at SUNY Maritime: This act was the lifelong project and work of Andrew Furaset from the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific. He advocated that American mariners should be entitled to decent working conditions. There was also a provision in the act that 75 percent of the seamen on U.S. flagged ships be English-speaking. The whole idea was to have a safer better workplace and to protect jobs.

Almost immediately after the act, flags of convenience began. Today, U.S. flag ships bring in less than two percent of U.S. foreign trade. The circle has gone completely around, and we are back at square-one trying to preserve the U.S. maritine industry. During the Spanish-American War, the U.S. had to charter vessels to supply our troops, and we had to charter vessels to carry coal to support the Great White Fleet.

Today, we are at the point that we were before WWI, when there were not enough ships to move the armaments and goods to Europe as we were about to engaged in the war. There was a massive shipbuilding program, but most of the ship weren’t built until the war was actually over. And, here we are again, repeating ourselves, getting down to the point of no return. It is a disturbing pattern.

I’m personally proud to be part of this industry. I think it’s a wonderfully important industry. It’s one of the foundational industries of our nation – a trading nation. It’s an industry we want to pass on to the next generation. Why shouldn’t the women and men of this country have the same opportunities that will allow them to make an honorable living at sea? And, to see that it might go away, is a sad day in the history of this great nation. And to watch a bunch of charlatan and robber barons set on profits over the well-being of the American people is distressing to say the least.

Thank you Don.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.