Frog Soup?

Tony Seideman’s recent article in the MARINE & CARGO BUSINESS NEWS deals with a very sensitive issue … the fact that Title XI and the Jones Act are slowly being eroded by government officials. Here’s his excellent article in its entirety:

“A lawsuit launched by the AFL-CIO claims that the Bush administration is chipping away at the Jones Act – not only through neglect but also deceit.” [That’s how Tony begins.]

“Using the same techniques of avoidance and neglect that have enabled it to evade federal regulations it did not want to enforce, the Bush administration has essentially rendered the Jones Act meaningless, says one of the leading shipbuilding unions.

“By interpreting the law so that shipyards can import 99% complete, prefabricated vessels, the Bush administration is further devastating an already damaged industry, says the head of the metalworking trade union, which has sued to secure enforcement of the law.

“It’s clear that the Bush administration’s behavior is following what’s become a very, very familiar pattern in recent months, says Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department of the AFL-CIO. ‘It’s kind of like death by 1,000 cuts,’ he says.

“Since the Jones Act was implemented more than half a century ago, no administration has even considered calling prefabricated vessels shipped to the United States and assembled ‘made in USA.’ In fact, the whole idea seemed so unlikely, the issue has never been presented to the courts before.

“Agencies that have no money can’t enforce the law. And laws that aren’t enforced pretty much no longer exist. ‘They’ve underfunded and ignored the Jones Act,’ Ault says. As a result, enforcement has been minimized.

“‘There is clear language in the law, and it’s a very simple law,’ Ault says. ‘But (they) interpreted it in their own way and used it in their own way,’ he says.

“Rather than favoring American workers, the Bush administration is making decisions that promote the welfare of large corporations – in this case, General Dynamics, through its National Steel and Shipbuilding Co. subsidiary in San Diego, CA, and Aker Shipyards in Philadelphia, PA.

“This would seem to be an issue in which the American Shipbuilding Council would be very interested in, but it hasn’t chimed in. ‘I believe Aker is part of that coalition,’ says Greg Kenefick, communications director for the metalworking union.

“Even as the metalworkers’ union has watched in frustration as their business has been threatened with what would amount to extinction, the Bush administration is presenting a facade of cooperation and support.

“‘On July 16, MARAD is holding a meeting with shipbuilders. They’ve invited folks from the US Navy, the Coast Guard, and industry and labor to discuss how we can be competitive in the shipbuilding process,’ an exasperated Ault says.

“Because there is a case in court, the Coast Guard cannot directly discuss the suit that the metalworkers’ union filed in US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, says spokeswoman Angela Hirsch. ‘Generally, it’s Coast Guard policy not to comment in cases where we’re involved in pending litigation,’ she says.

“Nothing has changed in the way the Coast Guard is dealing with the Jones Act, Hirsch says. Rather than have a traditional enforcement rule, the Coast Guard reviews plans for vessel production and advises the builders on whether or not the ships will fit the Jones Act demands.

“‘It’s not something where we go after anything that’s already happened. It’s a review process that is done before any work is done,’ Hirsch says.

“Complaints about new standards for evaluating the ships are misguided, Hirsch says. ‘These standards haven’t changed. They’re written into the Code of Federal Regulations,’ Hirsch says.

“‘The change is in the way that the ships are being built. There are a lot more modular parts that are being done to the interior of the vessels,’ she says, but the Jones Act doesn’t address vessel interiors. ‘The hull and the superstructure are the only parts that are addressed by the Jones Act,’ she says.

“That is a misreading of the text of the Jones Act, Ault says. ‘The Coast Guard has misinterpreted a simple law to mean that as long as the exterior hull itself is assembled in the United States in the main, the rest of the vessel can be entirely assembled overseas and brought in modules,’ he says.

“‘It’s a kit that comes in a box, and it’s mostly pre-assembled. About 90% of the interior parts of the ship are from overseas. It’s not an American ship. It’s a Korean ship, with South Korean design, South Korean parts, and South Korean cranes, handling equipment, rudders, screws shafts, and engine. And then they’re calling it a Jones Act American ship,’ Ault says.

“‘The Coast Guard made what we consider to be a political decision,’ Kenefick says. What makes the situation even more distressing is that a generation of tankers is about to be retired. So US shipyards have the opportunity to build 25-30 major new vessels.

“But no American shipyard in its right mind would even consider using US workers if the Coast Guard’s decision stands, Kenefick says. ‘The other shipyards are in a quandary. They can do the same thing,’ he says.

“In the end, what could happen is the addition of 100,000 manufacturing jobs to the 3mn lost since the Bush administration assumed power in January 2001. ‘We have both arms tied behind our back and a gun at our heads,’ Ault says. ‘It’s like the old frog soup recipe’.

“‘The Coast Guard is heating the water until it’s boiling, and we’re going to get cooked alive.’”