Make your voice heard to save your job: Support the Jones Act

Jan 27, 2011 12:00 AM

In his younger years my dad sailed as an able seaman and boatswain. One summer, when I was around 10, a stout sun-tanned guy with a white cap showed up at the door of our home in Spokane, Wash. My dad greeted him warmly, introduced me, and then told me to fetch two cold beers from the fridge and bring them out to the patio.

Richard was an AB and had just been paid off an old break-bulk “stick” ship in Seattle that ran military supplies to Vietnam. He asked if I had ever thought of going to sea, and I replied yes, saying how great it would be to travel and see the world.

Richard laughed heartily and told me, “Young Sweeney, shipping out ain’t no glamour job. Just a few weeks ago over in Southeast Asia, I met men working on foreign-flag rust buckets who still get fed slop for food, are cheated on their pay and have to beg for a clean bed to sleep on.”

My dad nodded in agreement, then raised his beer in a toast and said, “Thank God for the Jones Act.” As a kid I didn’t know what he meant, but several years later while at California Maritime Academy, I found out just how important the Jones Act is.

A few weeks into my first training cruise on Golden Bear, the movie of the night was the 1946 classic Two Years Before the Mast. At the end of the show, I thought about how terrible it must have been for sailors to be mistreated like that. Luckily for us, things have changed.

A cornerstone of U.S. maritime law, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, otherwise known as the Jones Act in honor of its sponsor Sen. Wesley Jones (R-Wash.), guarantees U.S. merchant mariners the right to work on seaworthy vessels with decent living conditions and ensures they are cared for if injured in service of the ship or boat.

The Jones Act specifies that domestic cargo moving between U.S. ports be carried on U.S.-flag ships, boats and barges. These vessels must be owned by U.S. companies and built (or re-built) in the United States and are subject to our country’s stringent safety and operating standards. Jones Act U.S.-flag ships and boats are also required to carry licensed officers who are U.S. citizens, as well as unlicensed crewmembers who are either U.S. citizens or permanent residents with a “green card.”

As it stands today, the U.S.-flag Jones Act fleet numbers over 39,000 vessels, and transports around one billion tons of domestic cargo between our ports each year. According to the Transportation Institute, the Jones Act is responsible for nearly 500,000 jobs here in the United States, and pumps around $100 billion into our nation’s economy. Recognizing its benefit to U.S. maritime companies, mariners and our country’s security, the vast majority of U.S. senators and representatives, along with presidents as diverse as Roosevelt, Reagan and Obama, have supported the Jones Act. Without it, all the money and jobs it creates would soon be siphoned off to foreign interests.

Relying on flag-of-convenience vessels to carry our domestic cargo would leave us vulnerable to foreign companies — some of whom may have links to terrorists. After 9/11, U.S. government officials revealed that Al Qaeda and Osama Bin Laden had ties to at least 15 foreign-flag freighters. The lack of security screening for domestic cargo, coupled with minimal customs and immigration inspections while moving between U.S. ports, could provide a terrorist on a foreign ship an easy opportunity to put millions of American citizens living in coastal areas of our nation at risk.

Unlike foreign crews, U.S. merchant mariners in the Jones Act fleet have a patriotic interest in protecting our country, and as citizens can be relied on to keep a close watch for safety and security along the 12,000 miles of U.S. coastline. On a U.S.-flag ship, the officers and crew have been tested, proven competent and received their documents through the U.S. Coast Guard. In addition, U.S. merchant mariners undergo background checks from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and National Driver’s License Registry, and obtain a Transportation Worker Identification Credential (TWIC) — comprehensive security background checks foreign mariners are not subject to.

Since World War II, Jones Act vessels have been called into military service many times, underscoring the fact that although the Jones Act officially protects domestic shipping, it helps ensure that our merchant marine stands ready as part of our national defense.

In the early 1990s, during Operation Desert Storm, foreign-flag ships refused to carry U.S. military cargo into the war zone. By contrast, during Operation Iraqi Freedom, the U.S.-flag Jones Act cargo ship SS Northern Lights made 25 voyages to the Middle East after being called into service by the military. Thousands of vehicles, tanks and other pieces of equipment desperately needed for military operations were supplied — pointing out once again how much the U.S. military relies on U.S.-flag ships and boats.

Despite the many economic and security benefits the Jones Act has provided these past 90 years, there are those who continue to push for its repeal. In the early 1990s, Rob Quartel, Federal Maritime Commissioner under President George H.W. Bush called for its elimination. This past summer Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) proposed Bill S 3525, which would completely repeal the law — alowing cutthroat foreign interests to operate on domestic routes in our waters.

If McCain and others successfully eliminate the Jones Act, it could cripple and possibly destroy the U.S. merchant marine — which is why U.S. citizens need to make their voices heard. Let your U.S. senators and representatives know that you want them to support the Jones Act. You can also join and support pro-Jones Act organizations like the Navy League. Most importantly, get involved — the job you help save may be your own.

Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin’.


Kelly Sweeney holds the licenses of master (oceans, any gross tons) and master of towing vessels (oceans), and regularly sails on a wide variety of commercial vessels. You can contact him at captsweeney@professionalmariner.com.

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