Politics: As Usual?
Maritime Labor has some interesting choices looming large in the porthole.
With another Presidential election coming up fast, the usual alliances are in place and we can expect another polarized election, just like the two that preceded this one. Or, can we? A savvy, Washington-based maritime attorney once told me that three months is a lifetime in any election cycle. I believe him. Anything can happen between now and November. What I want to know, however, is where the domestic maritime labor alliance will come out when it is time to put their money where their mouth is. The same crew that helped elect our current President cannot be happy about the past 3.5 years. What they will do about it is another thing altogether.
It’s been a couple of years since the economy hit rock bottom. My wife and I (fortunately) both have new jobs; both as a function of the “new normal” and although I assure you that we’re doing just fine, we had our moments during the depths of the worst recession in our lifetime. It was around that time that I looked at our 401K statements – down almost 40 percent from their peaks – and I told her, “When (and if) the DOW ever hits 13,000 and the NASDAQ 3,000 again, we’ll pull all of our money out of the markets.” We still haven’t done that as of COB yesterday. I’m not sure what I’m waiting for. Using the time honored Keefe family tradition of “buying high and selling low” as a barometer, however, this might be your signal to run for the exits.
At about the same time, I made a prediction: if the markets reached either metric before the November 2012 elections – something that just seemed so very unlikely back then – the President would be re-elected. I’m not so sure I’m wrong about that. That said, if I was a financial genius, I’d be penning this column from my favorite base camp in Botswana. And, I’m not. After sitting through a very entertaining AWO session in Washington a few weeks ago, complete with a very entertaining debate between former U.S. Congressman Bob Livingston and former U.S. Senator Breaux on the subject, I still don’t know who will win. I do know this: the past 3.5 years rank amongst the worst ever for the domestic waterfront; mariners, labor and U.S. operators of Jones Act tonnage.
The most recent drawdown of the Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) in 2011 also resulted in the largest number of Jones Act waivers ever issued in the history of the 90-year old law. The same administration that claims that “we can’t drill our way out of high gasoline prices,” at the same time thinks that a largely symbolic publicity stunt can do the job. Along the way, they packaged the drawdown into neatly parceled volumes that conveniently excluded most American tonnage from carrying the cargo from one U.S. port to another. And, this administration is set to do it again.
On two different fronts, the possibility is very good that history will repeat itself. Petroleum refiners and marketers have begun to lobby Congress to push the Obama administration for still more Jones Act waivers to avoid gasoline price spikes in the Northeast ahead of the planned expansion of the Colonial Pipeline to New Jersey. According to U.S. Jones Act operators, as many as 45 oceangoing vessels – mostly articulated tug and barge units – exist to plug the gap. Separately, rising gas prices across the country are again raising speculation that the administration may resort to another SPR drawdown. In either case, another flurry of Jones Act waivers would leave U.S. operators and their mariner employees out in the cold – again.
But Jones Act waivers aren’t the only place where the domestic waterfront has suffered in recent years. With 99 percent of all ARRA funding being funneled into pouring concrete for highways or worse; earmarked for multi-billion dollar high speed rail transit programs that no one (certainly not Ohio, New Jersey or Florida) seem to want, U.S. ports have been left to hold bake sales in order to get their harbors dredged, out in front of the scheduled 2014 opening of the Panama Canal. Closer to home for the 39,500 brown water hulls that comprise 99 percent of our remaining merchant fleet, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking at a 5 percent cut in its total budget in the face of massive inland river infrastructure demands.
Finally, I know of absolutely no one outside of the U.S. Maritime Administration – its collective employees virtually quaking in their boots lest they utter a single word that has not been first vetted by DOT Secretary LaHood in advance – who does not doubt that Marad has been simply emasculated and rendered irrelevant over the course of the last three years. America’s “maritime cheerleaders,” as Maritime Administrator David Matsuda characterizes his department, count among their most significant accomplishments the dismantling of the GMATS School at the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy. They’ve accomplished little else. Along the way, they’ve done a lot of damage. And, these periodic $10 million small shipyard grants, intended to stir up a little goodwill, can’t change any of that.
I haven’t said anything that isn’t absolutely true in the previous 850-odd words that preceded this sentence. Okay: any predictions made by yours truly should be taken with a grain of salt. I won’t tell you who I’m going to vote for in November and you probably don’t care. Maybe none of that has anything to do with the waterfront. And just maybe, the trucking and rail lobbyists are doing a better job than ours.
The maritime unions, on the other hand, have a lot to think about. And, their leadership has a lot to explain to their membership should they decide to endorse the current administration for a second term. Would a pro-business GOP crew treat them any better? I submit that it couldn’t get much worse. On the other hand and looking at the big picture, U.S. maritime labor makes up such a small percentage of the total population that their collective support, beyond the noise, might not make much of a difference. I think the President knows this. The only question left to answer from the waterfront is what our merchant mariners and their leadership will do about it. – MarPro.
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Joseph Keefe is the lead commentator of MaritimeProfessional.com. Additionally, he is Editor of both Maritime Professional and MarineNews print magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at Keefe@marinelink.com. MaritimeProfessional.com is the largest business networking site devoted to the marine industry. Each day thousands of industry professionals around the world log on to network, connect, and communicate.