U.S. help sought for cargo ships

Merchant marine's ability to aid in war at risk, unions say

Crew pool `disappearing'

Solutions proposed include better pay, working conditions

September 10, 2001|By Robert Little | Robert Little,SUN STAFF

Labor leaders in the U.S. merchant marine acknowledged that the United States lacks the manpower necessary to operate all of its military cargo ships adequately in a crisis and called on Congress to do something about it.

The presidents of two major unions of merchant seamen blamed the shortage on Third World competition and an apathetic federal government. They said that national security and the future of the U.S. merchant marine are at risk.

"We do have a shortage, and the government needs to understand that," said Tim Brown, president of the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots, a union of licensed deck officers. "It's a scenario that's on its way to disaster."

Added Larry O'Toole, president of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association, a union of licensed engineers, "The merchant marine is a national asset - we create a pool of mariners to feed to the government. And that pool is disappearing."

Merchant marine unions have long complained that government regulations and shifting economic trends in the maritime industry are gutting the U.S.-flag cargo fleet, causing ships to leave the fleet, wages to decline and sailors to flee the industry.

But rarely have union officials been so frank about their industry's declining ability to perform one of its most crucial functions - moving the U.S. military during wartime.

The United States owns nearly 100 cargo ships that are kept empty in ports around the world for use during wartime, and the government plans to man them with civilian mariners from the merchant marine. The Pentagon says the commercial shipping industry has a surplus of sailors available for emergencies.

The military cargo ships would need 3,594 civilian sailors if fully deployed, and the country's maritime unions have signed contracts promising to fill those positions if necessary. Brown and O'Toole did not say specifically that the merchant marine lacks that number of available sailors, nor did they say that their unions, or any others, could not fulfill their contracts.

But the unions are having difficulty filling jobs during peacetime, they said. And both predicted that the military would be forced to hire retirees and waive training requirements to fill all its ships, and even then would likely lack the manpower to relieve the sailors and operate commercial ships simultaneously.

"We have the strongest military in the world, and it has to have a merchant marine to do its job," O'Toole said. "People think the merchant marine is just ships and steel, but it's not. It's men."

Brown's and O'Toole's comments were made in response to a series of articles last month in The Sun revealing how a shortage of trained merchant seamen is compromising national security. The series showed that military leaders have been aware of the shortage at least since the Persian Gulf war of 1991 but mask it by allowing sailors to transfer from ship to ship, giving each vessel a full crew long enough to pass a drill.

The Army and Marine Corps cannot fight overseas without cargo ships, which typically carry 95 percent of the vehicles, ammunition, food and other supplies needed during a conflict. In every large war of the 20th century, including the gulf war, the United States relied on the civilian merchant marine to operate its military cargo ships.

Pentagon officials maintain that they could find enough sailors to crew the nation's reserve sealift vessels, even if they had to call up retirees or other sailors whose qualifications are less than ideal.

But military officials have also acknowledged in recent weeks that the shortage of mariners is a daunting problem for the sealift fleet.

During a recent speech, the departing commander of the Navy's Military Sealift Command pointed to mariner shortages as the first problem that should be addressed by his successor.

"We must get a proper handle on the number of mariners available and willing to sail," said Vice Adm. Gordon S. Holder, who assumed a new command at the Pentagon. "We must not count on things such as national waivers to bring them on board. These men and women must be properly prepared and certified."

Holder also said the nation needs to find ways to ensure that the merchant marine is not destroyed by cheaper foreign competition.

A group of officials from the industry, unions and government will meet next month to consider several proposed solutions.

Shipping companies have asked for tax breaks and regulatory reform, to place them on equal footing with foreign competitors, and the unions want to improve salaries and working conditions to attract and retain merchant seamen.

The unions also have proposed making merchant seamen largely exempt from federal income tax - as Americans working abroad are - to reduce the cost to shipping companies of hiring American sailors.

"The viability of the U.S. merchant fleet must be preserved," Holder said. "To lose the U.S.-flag merchant fleet would be the first step in the loss of our nation's independence."

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