AMO in Washington, DC – government relations and the many roles it serves for the union’s membership

By Alaina Basciano
Director of Government Relations

There is a constant and often unseen battle AMO is fighting in order to sustain and strengthen the laws, programs, and policies that shape the maritime industry in which we all work today. AMO’s Washington, DC office is on the front lines, both here in the States and in the international arena. I am honored to be in the nation’s capital representing our members and their best interests, as well as the interests of the U.S. Merchant Marine in its entirety, through our interactions with federal agencies and with international organizations.

While my maritime story and connection to the U.S. Merchant Marine go back farther and reach much deeper, my own professional sailing career began in 2009 at an inland towing company in the South. Then, I joined American Maritime Officers in 2011, first on tankers and next on T-AGS vessels, making my way from Third Mate to sailing as Captain in eight years. Eventually, I began to wonder how the work of the union impacted me as a member. By the time 2020 had arrived, I was made aware AMO had an office in Washington, DC, although I’m not entirely sure I knew at that time what roles the representatives who worked there played with respect to serving our members.

In July of the same year, the late and very much missed Captain Mike Finnigan invited me to the AMO DC office. At that time, the office was located in L’Enfant Plaza. With it being the height of COVID, AMO seemed to be the only organization in the building with an active presence. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that little observation was telling. My visit concluded with an entirely new perspective on the importance of the work our union does from the Washington, DC location. It was clear that AMO’s legislative work can never stop and our access to the centers of influence in DC is crucial.

I went back to sea, sailing as Captain aboard USNS PATHFINDER for a few more years, returning home to Maryland between rotations. When COVID regulations began to relax, I was asked to return to the AMO DC office to discuss an open position within the union in government relations. My years of work as a senior officer in the Military Sealift Command fleet, my family connection to the service of the U.S. Merchant Marine in World War II, my ongoing role in the Naval Reserves as a Strategic Sealift Officer, and my lifelong dedication to the advocacy of American merchant mariners (a passion I began pursuing in earnest in 6th grade) all contributed to a strong background for and a compelling interest in working for AMO in Washington, DC. The Vice President of Government Relations, Christian Spain, recommended me for the director of government relations position to the union’s National President, Paul Doell, and I was hired to begin work in January 2023.

Although the title may have changed over the years, the AMO director of government relations post was first established, as it is today, in 2007 when Captain Mike Murphy was appointed to the position. Except for a couple years surrounding the COVID pandemic, someone has stood in this position since it was created. Other than Captain Murphy, and before my appointment, Christian Spain has been the only other AMO member to serve in this capacity. Both Captain Murphy and Christian Spain were elected to the office of Vice President of Government Relations following their tenures in the appointed government relations position. Although there were representatives serving similar roles in DC prior to 2007, Captain Murphy recognized the need to completely reinvigorate the purpose of this job in order to better serve our members and their interests. His standards set the bar high for what we strive to accomplish for our members today. We are actively battling on your behalf to ensure that the many executive branch agencies and international authorities maintain policy that will strengthen our U.S. Merchant Marine and benefit you as our members.

All of what AMO endeavors to accomplish in the U.S. capital is relationship-based. Consistency is paramount in this setting, as creating and maintaining these relationships is no easy feat. It takes a lot of time, a particular personality, and ongoing nurturing to accomplish. Because AMO representatives are often required to be in many places at once, it is also vital to maintain redundancy in the office with personnel who have the knowledge, connections, and expertise to professionally represent our union in these various forums. This will make certain that at least most of our bases can be covered at all times. Building and fostering relationships takes an immense amount of time and effort, eventually yielding trust between AMO and other industry stakeholders. This trust can turn into support, actions, and something as simple as someone taking the time to just listen to our side of a particular matter. Clearly, high turnover in this position would not be ideal.

AMO maintains two main divisions in DC: lobbying and government relations. Brenda Otterson, our top-notch lobbyist, works closely with elected senators and representatives and Capitol Hill staff on legislative matters most beneficial to the continued strength of the U.S. Merchant Marine. Christian Spain and I make up the government relations side of the DC operation. Our work is centered around interacting with many federal agencies, such as the Coast Guard, Maritime Administration (MARAD), U.S. Transportation Command (TRANSCOM), and Military Sealift Command (MSC). We are also heavily involved with numerous international bodies overseeing worldwide maritime labor and regulatory policies, as well as industry initiatives, to include the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), International Maritime Organization (IMO) and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

While there is a clear distinction between the lobbying work Brenda does with the Senate and House of Representatives, and the interaction AMO has with the federal agencies under the Executive Branch, our advocacy intersects in more than one area. Although mostly managed by Brenda through lobbying efforts, government relations also has interactions with elected representatives and their staffers. These interactions allow us to provide professional and real-world experienced perspective and testimony to the elected representatives and House and Senate committees. Our government relations team also participates in the work of various coalitions with Brenda, such as USA Maritime.

AMO representation in the United States is not the only vital area of importance. Equally as imperative is the ability to represent in “international waters.” This year, Christian Spain and I have traveled to several committee and subcommittee meetings at the IMO headquarters in London. Here, we represent the ITF and, thus, represent the interests of not only American mariners, but all mariners worldwide. In London, we are also able to collaborate with members of the delegation from the United States on matters that may affect our industry on our own soil. It is to the benefit of our members that we have consistent representation at these meetings to guarantee that mariner interests are considered when policies are developed and enacted by the IMO. These policies that are developed on the international level are eventually implemented in the U.S. and affect American mariners.

A major focus at the IMO is to ensure AMO members are not further burdened by increased training regulations with a net zero (or less) approach to new requirements. With the many voices of industry at the IMO, fighting to minimize the scope of new burdensome regulations is always a challenge. Most notably, we have begun work rewriting the STCW regulations, starting with the 1978 amendments, in order to make the regulations more current and enduring as years pass and technology changes. All current mariners have felt the impact of STCW implementation in the recent past, and our presence can help to ensure our members are not negatively affected by the newest regulations when enacted. We are also working to reduce the burdensome effects of policies already in place to create a less painful licensing process for future mariners – professionals our industry so desperately needs.

As with the policy and legislative battles in Washington, DC, representing the interests of AMO members and all professional mariners in the international arena is a constant challenge. These regulations often start at the IMO. So, being able to have a voice during their creation from the very beginning is crucial to guaranteeing an outcome that will better suit YOU, our members!

In the U.S. capital, we in AMO, as well as the other unions and industry advocates, are often tasked with providing information and strategy to defend the American maritime industry. Laws such as the Jones Act are always under attack. It truly is a bipartisan effort, and it becomes imperative to know who you can turn to for support during these times. We are fortunate to employ one of the most experienced and well-known maritime lobbyists on the Hill to assist and often drive these vital efforts.

On day three of working ashore with AMO, I attended a USA Maritime principals meeting, a coalition of industry ambassadors created to inform policy makers, the media, and the public about the U.S. Merchant Marine. Many company CEOs and presidents, their legal counsel, high-ranking union officials from the other sailing unions, and lobbyists, as well as members of the Federal Maritime Commission, were in attendance. I soon came to realize spending time collaborating with industry leaders, professionals and representatives, such as those listed above, is business as usual here in DC.

Our network is VAST. Advocacy for mariners by mariners and maritime professionals is an invaluable undertaking involving other major organizations also represented in Washington. However, it is not only the unions and carriers who do this work. Some other organizations that are part of the maritime network in Washington include USA Maritime, the American Maritime Partnership (AMP), the Navy League, and the Society of Naval Architects and Marine Engineers (SNAME), to name a few. The relationships we have built and maintain are the core of our advocacy for a strong U.S. Merchant Marine.

Since I started in January, AMO in DC has accomplished many noteworthy tasks, but we couldn’t do it alone. We are constantly working together with the other unions, lobbyists, and representatives to sustain our industry, as well as to protect the laws and programs already in place to ensure seagoing jobs remain in America, and that American mariners remain employed and available to serve when our Armed Forces are deployed around the world.

I have learned that AMO has always been very involved in the work outlined above, and we have always been very successful to the lasting benefit of all AMO members and our industry as a whole. Bottom line: We cannot be successful as a union, nor as an industry in whole, without the work our AMO DC team does. Locally and overseas, we are all fighting for the same cause: A strong U.S. Merchant Marine and a successful and solid American maritime industry.

I got the idea to write an informative piece about the work we do in government relations because it became apparent that a lot of members, frankly, aren’t aware of what we do in Washington, DC. I was pointed in the direction of some old newspaper articles written by Captain Mike Murphy when he was in this role. After reading some of his articles, it was obvious that his teachings have not been lost and have already been passed down to me in his absence.

Having grown up volunteering on the World War II Liberty Ship, S.S. JOHN W. BROWN, I have always had a passion for this industry and a great respect for the “salts” who came before us. I fully understand the impact our jobs have on the nation, in both peace and war. My grandfather was a U.S. Merchant Mariner in World War II and very much influenced both my older sister and I to pursue careers in the maritime industry. I genuinely care about this industry and I am grateful to have the opportunity to assist AMO members in many capacities and to serve in an active role helping to ensure the U.S. Merchant Marine’s continued existence and success. For me, it’s personal.