Maritime labor urges action to reverse decline of U.S. mariner workforce, defense sealift capabilities

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American Maritime Officers submitted the following comments for the record on July 28, 2017 in support of and in addition to unified comments signed and submitted by the presidents of six U.S. seagoing unions.

Under the fiscal 2017 National Defense Authorization Act, the Maritime Administration is required to establish a maritime workforce study group within its Maritime Transportation System National Advisory Committee. The workforce study group's mission is to determine the number of qualified U.S. merchant mariners available to man the nation's strategic sealift assets during national security emergencies.

The unabated decline of the privately owned and operated U.S.-flag merchant fleet since Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf in 1990 and 1991 has resulted in an alarming shortage of U.S. merchant marine officers and crewmembers to staff 17 Military Sealift Command surge sealift ships and 46 Ready Reserve Force ships managed by MARAD and controlled by MSC upon activation and to keep all 63 ships operating simultaneously for as long as necessary during a crisis.

MARAD has confirmed this consequence of a diminishing U.S. merchant fleet in international trade - the fleet that is the principal source of surge and reserve fleet officers and crews - in Congressional testimony several times since 2014, putting the number of qualified and available mariners most recently at 11,200. Current scenarios call for a minimum of 13,000 officers and crewmembers for initial defense shipping in a conventional war.

Gen. Darren McDew, commander of U.S. Transportation Command, has discussed this publicly many times, as well, corroborating the direct, dire link between a waning U.S. merchant fleet in commercial markets and an evaporating mariner pool from which surge and reserve fleet mariners are drawn. Gen. McDew has said often that this increasing shortage of qualified U.S. merchant mariners is his single greatest source of concern.

This year, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and six state-operated maritime academies graduated nearly 1,200 cadets as marine engineers and licensed deck officers. But no one knows at this point how many of these young men and women will seek careers at sea in the U.S. merchant fleet or choose the military or jobs ashore as alternatives.

American Maritime Officers supports and encourages immediate action on all of the recommendations listed in the joint submission by Maritime Labor contained in Annex (1) with the following supplemental comments:

  • Maritime Security Program: Fully fund and examine potential for expanding the number of commercial ships by as many as 40 vessels.
  • Jones Act: Support the Jones Act to strengthen Homeland Security, National Security, the Industrial Base and the hundreds of thousands of American jobs created by the Jones Act.
  • Cargo Preference: A Presidential Directive is needed to ensure that 100% of government impelled cargo goes on American Flag Ships.
  • Cargo Preference Enforcement: The Maritime Administration needs regulatory power to exercise the Congressionally mandated authority to ensure shippers adhere to Cargo Preference laws.
  • Bilateral Shipping Agreements: Negotiate bilateral cargo sharing agreements to increase cargo available to the U.S. Flag fleet, expanding the fleet and increasing the number of mariners.
  • Energy Resources on U.S. Flag Ships: Support and promote pending legislation to reserve reasonable shares of U.S. energy exports - crude oil, liquefied natural gas and coal - for U.S.-flag merchant ships.
  • Infrastructure: Establish a National Transportation Policy and provide funding to stimulate a vibrant national Marine Highway System to fully utilize America's waterways and ports to reduce road congestion and pollution. Remove the double taxation of the Harbor Maintenance Tax.
  • Consider tax credits or other incentives to stimulate private investment in a larger U.S. merchant fleet and its attendant growth of the U.S. merchant mariner workforce.

Labor is dedicated to working closely with government and industry to coordinate the expansion and training that these initiatives will need to reverse the past decade's precipitous decline and rebuild the American mariner base back to its national security requirement.

Unified comments of U.S. seagoing labor

The presidents of American Maritime Officers; the Seafarers International Union; the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association; the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots; the Sailors' Union of the Pacific; and the Marine Firemen's Union signed and submitted combined comments in response to the working group's request for public input.

The union presidents pointed out that privately-owned and operated U.S.-flagged vessels and U.S. merchant mariners have "always responded quickly and effectively to our nation's call, providing the commercial sealift sustainment capability and civilian maritime manpower needed by the Department of Defense to support America's military objectives around the world."

The union presidents noted, "beginning in 2002 with the inception of military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, at least 98 percent of all related cargoes have been transported to the region on either U.S.-flag commercial vessels or U.S. government owned and/or controlled vessels - all of which have been crewed by United States citizen civilian merchant mariners.

"Most significantly, since 2009, privately-owned U.S.-flag commercial vessels and their civilian U.S. citizen crews have transported more than 90 percent of the sustainment cargo needed to support U.S. military operations and rebuilding programs in Iraq and Afghanistan. Vessels enrolled in MSP - all of which are crewed by United States citizen civilian merchant mariners - carried 99 percent of these cargoes.

"However, and despite more than two hundred years of essential and patriotic service - in war and peace - the viability of our industry and its continued ability to provide this invaluable service to our country is in jeopardy. In 1960, there were 2,936 ships over 1,000 gross tons flying the American flag. Today, there are only 169 - including only approximately 80 U.S.-flag ships operating in the U.S. foreign trades that carry less than two percent of all U.S. exports and imports. Compounding the serious loss in sealift capability is the concurrent reduction in the number of American licensed and unlicensed merchant mariners ready and able to crew the government and privately-owned vessels needed by the Department of Defense in time of war or international emergency.

"Unless this dangerous decline in American might is halted and reversed and we put American mariners back to work aboard United States-flag commercial vessels, we as a nation will soon be forced to hand over the security of the Untied States, along with the safety and supply of our troops deployed overseas, to foreign flag vessels and crews. This is totally unacceptable to us, and we believe it should be totally unacceptable to every American who wants to put the security of America first!"

To combat the dangerous decline, the union presidents urged the working group to include eight key provisions in the report it will prepare, providing detailed context for each provision and recommendation. The eight provisions and recommendations, in part, are:

  • Maritime Security Program: Congress and the Administration should actively work to ensure that the MSP is fully funded at the levels authorized in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2016 - Public Law 114-113.
  • Presidential Directive - Cargo Preference Shipping Requirements: The Administration should issue a directive to all executive branch departments and agencies instructing them to fully comply with existing U.S.-flag cargo preference shipping requirements.
  • Enforcement - Cargo Preference Shipping Requirements: Congress must encourage the Maritime Administration to immediately and more fully exercise its Congressionally-mandated authority to determine which federal programs are in fact subject to the U.S.-flag cargo preference shipping requirements and to closely monitor such programs to ensure full compliance as required by law.
  • Bilateral Shipping Agreements: Congress should give the Administration whatever additional authority it needs to negotiate meaningful bilateral cargo sharing agreements with America's trading partners to provide U.S.-flag vessels with a greater share of America's foreign trade.
  • Jones Act: Congress and the administration should affirm their continued support for this critically important national maritime policy.
  • Ready Reserve Force: The Congress and Administration should take the steps necessary to change the operational approach for the RRF by returning to a system that includes full crews on all Ready Reserve Force vessels and a true 2:1 manpower ratio for each billet.
  • Energy Resources on U.S.-Flag Ships: Congress and the Administration must undertake an immediate and thorough review to determine what must be done to encourage American jobs aboard vessels transporting oil, liquefied natural gas, and other strategic commodities and energy resources to and from the United States, and to ensure the operation of such vessels is under the U.S. flag.
  • Infrastructure Development and Maritime: Among other things, Congress must end the double taxation of domestic waterborne cargo under the Harbor Maintenance Tax (HMT) so it no longer discourages U.S.-flag vessel operations. This discriminatory multiple taxation of waterborne cargo creates a significant economic disincentive for shippers to use U.S. vessels to move their cargo from one U.S. destination to another.

The complete comments of the union presidents are available online.

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