By Paul Doell
Paul Hall, the legendary labor leader who launched our union in May 1949, said it best: "Politics is pork chops."
Hall's meaty affirmation is as relevant now as it was in his day as president of the Seafarers International Union until his passing in June 1980. Hall understood that a good American seagoing job that puts food on the table depends upon what Congress does or doesn't do in a legislative year.
This timeless truth holds fast in its contemporary context - every job for every American merchant mariner in every domestic or international trade is contingent upon Congress.
This is especially significant to American Maritime Officers. Because our union has the largest number of licensed seagoing jobs under the U.S. flag at home and abroad and the only real and immediate prospect of continued job growth, AMO has the most at stake among officers' unions in every maritime policy debate in Washington.
This year, in an unprecedented and unpredictable political climate, all 435 seats in the House of Representatives and 34 seats in the Senate will be decided in the Congressional mid-term elections. Our exclusive interest in the long, contentious campaign season culminating in the nationwide balloting in November will be to safeguard the broad, bipartisan support base our industry has in each Congressional chamber.
Here, too, American Maritime Officers has a distinct advantage - the historically strong, effective, influential and widely acknowledged AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund.
As its name confirms, this fund is sustained only by voluntary contributions from deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland AMO members and applicants for AMO membership - astute men and women who pay freely into the fund when they can, and at levels they can be comfortable with. By law, AMO can't support its Voluntary Political Action Fund with money drawn from its operating, savings or investment accounts.
The AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund supports no business travel, lodging, meal or entertainment expenses. It pays no salaries and underwrites no parties - high end or low. The fund is not driven by partisan or ideological considerations. Without exception, disbursements from the fund go to candidates who support the U.S. maritime industry and American merchant mariners as proven national security assets.
Individual contributions to the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund are in fact personal investments in job security, and the returns thus far have been substantial.
Consider, for example, the Maritime Security Program, which now accounts for AMO engine and deck jobs on 15 U.S.-flag ships operating in commercial foreign trade, vessels that are available on demand to the Department of Defense for long-term strategic sealift in national security emergencies.
Our union had the licensed lead on securing the Maritime Security Act of 1996, which authorized the MSP, and AMO alone - foreseeing the eventual sale of the first 47 U.S.-owned and flagged MSP ships to overseas interests - won MSP access for ships owned abroad but documented in the U.S. and staffed by U.S. citizen officers and crews. Today, these ships comprise the entire MSP fleet.
American Maritime Officers was prominent as well in the expansion of the MSP fleet from 47 ships to 60, in the program's reauthorization through 2025 and, more recently, in increasing the annual MSP sealift stipend from $3.1 million per ship per year to $5 million per ship per year.
The Maritime Security Program is safe at the authorized annual funding level of $300 million through the end of the current fiscal year on September 30. But even as we begin to make the case for funding from October 1, we have to be alert to potential threats that could develop along the way.
For example, the federal tax law overhaul that kicked in at the New Year could result in as much as $1.5 trillion in new national debt, and deficit and debt hawks in the House and Senate could set their sights on the MSP among federal programs targeted for spending cuts to ease this tax law consequence.
On the domestic front, AMO is recognized as a powerful force in defense of the Jones Act, much to the chronic frustration of powerful and determined interests who want to open coastal deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters to foreign-flag cargo and passenger vessels owned and crewed overseas. The Jones Act - which is not a budget issue - provides jobs for AMO members on scores of ocean-going tankers, combination container/roll-on, roll-off ships, Great Lakes bulk carriers and tugs and tug-barges.
Other priorities for American Maritime Officers this year include: preservation of the PL-480 food aid export program, which generates cargoes for deep-sea bulk carriers and container and heavy-lift ships that employ AMO engine and deck officers; restoration of the 75 percent U.S.-flag cargo preference share tied to PL-480 between 1985 and 2011, when the food cargo amount set aside for U.S. ships was reduced to 50 percent; a full-strength Export-Import Bank, the source of additional cargoes for U.S.-flag heavy-lift vessels; adoption of cargo preference enforcement regulations by the Department of Transportation as required in legislation signed into law in 2008; significantly higher budgets for the Maritime Administration's Ready Reserve Force and Military Sealift Command's surge shipping fleet; and long-overdue recognition of and assistance to remaining U.S. merchant marine veterans of World War II - who, as one California Republican Congressman put it to me - "won the war for the Allies."
Given this agenda and the possible Congressional complications, I thank all AMO members who participate in the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund, and I urge those who don't to pitch in as often as possible this year. Of course, politics and pork chops are more expensive than they were in Paul Hall's time, and I recognize the need for careful spending. But I assure you the Voluntary Political Action Fund money is put to good, productive use, and that the judicious decisions that govern distribution reflect faith in the wisdom of practical politics.
As always, AMO members are encouraged to contact me with questions or comments on this topic or any other - your input is always welcome and considered. I can be reached on the headquarters office line at 954-921-2221 (Ext. 1001), toll-free at 800-362-0513, or on my cell at 954-881-5651.