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Attempts to Gut Jones Act Concern US Maritime Unionists

by Shane Mott

In January 2015, the U.S. Senate was set to debate the fate of one of the most important maritime and construction worker protection acts, popularly known as the Jones Act. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) attempted to attach an amendment to the Keystone XL pipeline bill that would effectively remove the 90 year old Act. With this amendment, McCain attempted to remove the building requirement that US oil tanker vessels be built by US companies and on US soil, which would allow foreign vessels to be purchased or completely outsource their construction altogether. American Maritime Partnership (AMP) Chairman Tom Allegretti voiced his opposition as follows:

“The McCain amendment would gut the nation’s shipbuilding capacity, outsource our US Naval shipbuilding to foreign builders, and cost hundreds of thousands of family-wage jobs across this country.”

The Jones Act (officially titled the Merchant Marine Act of 1920) regulates shipping within U.S. ports. Essentially it disallows foreign flagged vessels from transferring goods or people between US ports. A foreign ship (or flight) may bring in goods or people, but once they land in the US and need to be transferred to another US port, an American vessel and crew must to be used.

McCain has vowed repeatedly to pursue a full of repeal the Jones Act. He and other opponents view the act as overly protectionist and detrimental to an unfettered free market economy. Jones Act supporters recognize that this act is one of the only national level legal buffers or protections afforded to American maritime union members. In November President Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline deal, effectively shelving McCain’s amendment, at least for the moment. In January 2016 Senator McCain again attempted to attach his infamous amendment to a new energy bill, the Energy Modernization Act of 2015. The Energy
Modernization Act of 2016 and McCain’s adjoined amendment have passed the Senate and House of Representatives and are in a conference committee at this time with Obama threatening a veto.
This is not to say that there aren’t complaints about the Jones Act. As The Progressive Farmer claims that, the Jones Act has a negative effect on US aid, specifically food shipments, as it has driven up costs of U.S. aid delivery. There has also been a consequence to Puerto Rico and its debt crisis, they stated:

“The island lies nearly 1,000 miles from the US mainland, and imports 80% of what it consumes, so the Jones Act is seen by many as an example of ways that domestic US laws disproportionately drive up costs for a distant and cash-strapped territory.”

It seems that the Jones Act will remain contentious and debated in the near future as Puerto Rico’s debt crisis begins to resolve. It also seems reasonable to consider how the new relations with Cuba will be handled within the Act.

Stay tuned for updates in Union Democracy Review.