Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Puerto Rico, Trump and the Jones Act

By Joel Schor
Member - Sailors Union of the Pacific S.U.P.
Also affiliated with - International Longshore and Warehouse Union ILWU - local 10

  The recent extreme weather events effecting the Carribbean have made clear the humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico is dire and in stark contrast to Trump’s drab belittling comments about the National Football League opposing him on the conduct of the players during the national anthem.

As a merchant seaman for over 15 years I am very familiar with the law which protects both the rights of seaman while signed on American flagged Vessels and at the same time grants further monopoly powers to shipping companies that register and flag their vessels in the United States.

The Jones Act enacted shortly after WWI to resurrect what was thought of as a dying Merchant Fleet in the United States at the time, went along with a massive subsidy program whereby the overproduction of Navy bottoms were sold at fire sale prices to private shipping companies who had previously established themselves mostly in the highly monopolized and unregulated coastal trade.

  As the era of anti-trust legislation was coming about, the big shipping lines needed a way to secure the lucrative coastal trade as foreign operators came in. The Jones Act basically provides that 1) A seaman is entitled to a certain portion of wages earned during a voyage (foreign or domestic ) whenever a vessel arrives at a U.S. port as well as the right to leave the ship, and also sue a shipping company for any injuries the seaman has incurred.

  This first part of the Jones Act law pertaining to seaman's rights came about after a series of legislative efforts were made over two decades by the head of the West Coast section of the Seamans’ Union, a man by the name of Andrew Furuseth, who's cause was to take the seaman "out of slavery" or the conditions which were more akin to indentured servitude at one time.

 Previous acts outlawed flogging at sea, capturing seaman to be forced to work on ships ect. 2) The post WWI Jones Act also made law that the American Shipping Companies would be entitled to a monopoly on all Inter Coastal trade in the United States. In other words, the law mandated that any commerce between one United States port and another US port could only be carried out by a vessel registered and flagged in the United States. The flag registration of a ship entails that it operates under the laws and regulations of that flag country as far as the employment of its crew, the inspections of its seaworthiness according to international standards etc.

  As far as the meaning of this for Puerto Rico today, there is a dire need for assistance from any country that can provide it. While the Jones Act does not prohibit foreign ships from bringing aid directly to Puerto Rico as many have claimed, the fact that Puerto Rico is under US protectorate status means that most of goods and distribution companies located there are US based such as Walmart and the like. On an ongoing basis this makes goods more expensive than they would be on the mainland because those US based companies must transfer their cargo from one operations center to another only on US flagged ships. During a crises such as this, the government could and actually has brought in Aid from foreign flag ships, but there is no logisitical set up with port terminals and inland distribution routes set up for these.

  It is not only the inland distribution problem as Trump and reactionary labor leaders have accused, or the Jones Act itself which some misguided liberals and progressives have blamed for this conondrum. It is the overall effect of Puerto Rico's protectorate status which allows US corporations to dominate and control the supply chain according to their profit driven interests rather than the needs of the people in US oversees territories. The Jones Act legislation was the culmination of over a century long struggle to enforce certain basic rights for seaman which the late progressive era Senator La Follette supported at the time. The US government and the big shipping companies had worked to co-opt the intention of such laws put forward by the unions during this era with the wartime shipping boards and fink halls. More can be read about this in Henry Lang's book Maritime put out by the Socialist Workers Party in 1942. For Puerto Rico today, the Jones Act is ultimately a US law and should not be imposed on the people of Puerto Rico. Ultimately the question of independence is part of this dilemna, and the Democratic politicians who are calling for more immediate relief are partially at fault for not making this central. Interestingly enough the territories of Hawaii and Puerto Rico also serve US imperialist interests. Hawaii is home to a large military base at Pearl Harbor and Puerto Rico is actually where a large portion of National Guardsmen are recruited to protect Merchant Ships in War Zones.

In 2003 I was on a Merchant Ship taking military equipment to Gulf State ports in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for pre-positioning during that conflict. That ship along with many others I heard of, had crews of National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico patrolling the decks to protect the military equipment. Many of them told me stories of having been on foreign ships as well that the US military had contracted out to transport ammunition containers. The guardsmen were sometimes not given water to drink on their deck rounds in the hot Mediterranean sun and through the Suez Canal. While the Puerto Rican's serve the U.S. military as such, they do not have the right to vote for the president of the United States. 

  Another note as to the usefulness and political convenience of the Jones Act. In 2004-2005 during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Maritime Administration of the United States tentatively activated several Ready Reserve Fleet RRF pre-positioned ships to send aid into the disaster zone which were to be Jones Act ships - ie crewed by US civilian mariners.The tentative activation was cancelled by Vice President Dick Cheney who subsequently waived the Jones Act allowing foreign flagged ships to carry the aid into the disaster zone and also house fire fighters and rescue workers. While this may seem expedient, the practice of contracting out to foreign companies in this case most certainly cost much more than pre-positioned RRF government ships which are already manned and in a state of readiness at all times, the cost already accounted for by the Ready Reserve program.

  The foreign operator who came into New Orleans - Carnival Cruises - was not only a crony deal for Cheney who had an interest on its board of directors, but also a slap in the face to any kind of public response to disaster relief. By waiving the Jones Act in Maritime and also the Davis Bacon Act prevailing wage law in the disaster area, the capitalists show that they can and will handle things as they see fit and not as the majority of us in society would decide it if we had any choice in the matter.

  The Jones Act is a complex law which is played up according to its usefulness politically. Trump claims he was told not to waive the Jones Act in Puerto Rico because " some people in that industry said it was important". Like many of his statements it is vague and cryptic, and most likely without knowledge of what it even is.  His decision also places the profits for US shipping companies above the interests of the people of Puerto Rico.

1 comment:

Joel Schor said...

While the Jones Act specifically pertains to trade by ship between one US port to another , with the given freight rate structure and private market incentives, foreign direct trade by ship to Puerto Rico and Hawaii is scarce. Basically it is highly unprofitable for a shipping company to dedicate a route directly to these island nations rather than split the route with the continental US. Therefore paying the extra cost of complying with the Jones Act makes sense from the standpoint of economies of scale.