WASHINGTON -- The heads of three major maritime unions have called on all segments of the maritime industry to work collectively to create a national program to save U.S.-flag shipping.
Industry observers hailed the unprecedented joint statement Monday by the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, the Seafarers International Union and a division of the National Marine Engineers Beneficial Association, as a potentially important step toward demonstrating the industry unity needed to prod Congress to enact new programs to revitalize U.S.-flag shipping.
The three unions together represent some 30,000 officers and unlicensed seamen working on U.S.-flag ships.
"It's very encouraging to see this very important combination of maritime labor looking beyond some of the more immediate difficulties and focusing people's attention on the need for new corrections and solutions," said Peter Finnerty, vice president of public affairs for Sea-Land Service Inc. Congress has been reluctant to move on maritime reform until the industry resolves its difficulties by itself, he said.
In their joint statement, the three shipboard labor leaders said, "The reality is painfully clear: America's privately owned merchant fleet continues its dangerous slide, a victim of national neglect and apathy, with even the industry itself seemingly unmoved by the painful consequences."
The leaders "flatly reject the notion that the situation is irreversible" and appeal to the "owners, managers and builders of vessels" and the personnel who work on them to pull together "to create an atmosphere that could end Congress' frustration over the division within the industry" and develop "a maritime program that will work for and serve America now and in the foreseeable future."
Although it contains no specific legislative program, the statement refers to the Merchant Marine Acts of 1936 and 1970 as potential models.
"Something like the [1936 Act] is called for," said Gordon M. Ward, chairman of the licensed division of District No. 1 of the National Marine Engineers Beneficial Association/National Maritime Union and a co-signer of the statement.
The other officials signing the statement were Capt. Timothy A. Brown, president of the Masters, Mates & Pilots, and Michael Sacco, president of the SIU.
Union officials said their statement, which is aimed primarily at policy-makers in Congress and the Bush administration, is a first step in establishing a united front within labor to set the stage for action in Congress this session.
"We're tired of fighting on the waterfront," said James T. Hopkins, the international secretary-treasurer of the Masters, 11 Mates & Pilots. "It's time for a little peace." Both that union and the marine engineers' union have been involved in serious leadership conflicts in recent months.
Finnerty agreed that the 1936 Merchant Marine Act was a good place to start because it "dealt with the entire industry." Most proposals on operating subsidies in recent years have only dealt with a segment of the industry, he noted.
Gerald Seifert, a maritime attorney and former counsel to the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, said a unified position was "one step forward" in getting congressional attention. But it is unlikely that Congress would consider a shipbuilding and employment program on the scope of the 1936 act, which was passed during the Depression and in anticipation of World War II. "I don't think that's possible," Seifert said. He noted that any maritime subsidy program would require the cooperation of the Bush administration, which "doesn't have a program in mind that would require additional funding."
The most realistic program, he said, would be based on national defense requirements. If Congress could agree that a viable merchant marine was essential to the national defense, he said, funding for the industry might be provided from sealift funds, which are being reviewed in the wake of Operation Desert Storm.