Wednesday, March 28, 2012

MERCHANT MARINE INTEREST (updated: 11/25/2015)

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Too many American Seamen Today are Working in Third World like Conditions
 Richard Henry Dana wrote Two Years Before The Mast describing his experiences aboard an American commercial vessel in the nineteenth century.  His vivid descriptions of squalid shipboard conditions, brutal work hours, bad food, and cruel shipboard discipline launched a maritime law reform movement that lasted into the third decade of the twentieth century. Today the American flag international transport merchant fleet has shrunk to about two hundred vessels , mostly engaged in government cargo operations and naval support.  These ships are heavily unionized and the merchant mariners generally enjoy working conditions, quarters, and food far superior to the legal minimums provided for in law as a result of union contracts. Unfortunately, while things in the international large transport fleet have improved, for the remaining seamen, even while the fleet has shrunk in response to foreign competition, the same is not true in the one growth sector of the American Merchant Marine.

Editor's note: The National Mariner's Association Ceased Active Operations and Publications a little over a year ago. Their numbered reports will soon be available through the Library of Congress. None of the abuses complained of the mentioned report in this post have yet been addressed by Congress. There is no other active lobby for non union seamen that we are aware of.

 The National Mariner's Association (NMA)  has just published its second report on the abuse of 126,000 American Merchant seamen employed as the officers and crews of the vast fleet of offshore service and supply vessels that provide logistic support to our offshore oil industry, and the nation's harbor tugs.NMA members also include the crews of the towboats and barges that bring the export grain down the Mississipi and the heating oil and gasoline up by barge, as well as a wide variety of other "work boats".  It comes as a surprise to many Americans, even naval veterans who are well aware that we import by sea 66 of 77 strategic materials, to learn that America conducts more commerce by water between and among the states than between our nation and the world. The lion's share of our export coal and grain travel by river barge to tidewater for transfer to seagoing ships and export. Most of the heating oil and gasoline used in the American Midwest is refined in Baton Rouge and New Orleans from both domestic Gulf and imported foreign crude stocks and distributed inland by towboat and tank barge.Most of the jet fuel used to power the Navy and Air Force planes stationed in the Florida Panhandle is transported by tank barge from Houston area refineries. This is just the barest sample of American interstate commodities being transported by our domestic ( "Jones Act") merchant fleet, manned for the most part by U.S. Coast Guard credentialed members of the United States Merchant Marine. In these vital trades, unions are the exception, not the rule.

 According to NMA Report # R-370, Revision 4  now available through the NMA website and soon to be delivered by hand to Congress conditions in the Jones Act and offshore service fleets have degenerated to minimum 12 and 15 hour workdays, unsanitary and haphazard food preparation conditions, and the entire work force suffers from chronic fatigue where ever the "two watch system" is in place. While even third world crewmen enjoy a standard 8 hour work day under the International Convention of Standards of Training and Watch Keeping (STCW), American work boatmen are often subjected 12 to 15 hour minimum work days as a result of the two watch system exception that our nation took to the Convention. The 12 and 15 hour daily work limits were originally intended to be maximum allowed work days but management shrank the crews by eliminating certain "extra" personnel like the cooks making it impossible for the crews to actually avoid working over these limits which a two watch system imposes. More importantly, the way these long working hours are imposed , often on a six hours on / six hours off rotation what little sleep the crews get is broken and disturbed. Within the pages of the NMA report are Coast Guard study results that clearly indicate that many crewmen including pilot house personnel are so fatigued that their key cognitive skills are as impaired as someone under the influence of alcohol.

 This impaired condition of America's work boatmen has impacted more than their health, it has killed ordinary land lubbing Americans just trying to cross the bridges over America's commercially navigable inland waters.  The Queen Isabella Causeway disaster put 15 Texans in the water. There were others before and since Queen Isabella, and not all involved just automobiles, the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway at New Orleans years ago lost a passenger bus when struck by a tug and barge, and more recently in Alabama a passenger train was derailed at a bridge by an errant barge. The incidents have been wide spread geographically and separated by time but the death toll is too large to ignore. Fortunately for the work boat company managers responsible for imposing these conditions and the Coast Guard officials who have apparently been lax in enforcing working hour rules or producing the fatigue reduction regulations that Congress has asked them to produce; the maritime manslaughter law that was imposed a few years ago on a New York Ferry System , office bound manager has not been invoked ....yet.

 The new NMA report is actually the second in a series that describes and documents the horrific working conditions in this segment of the American Merchant Marine.  An earlier report NMA Report # R202, RV 5 was simply titled " Deplorable Treatment of Limited Tonnage Mariners (many work boats are under 1600 gross registered tons) was the first canary in the coal mine.  These NMA reports are well documented, accurate, and very useful to legislators, lawyers, analysts, and safety managers; but probably more than a bit technical for the average American who would simply like to get the scoop on how to avoid getting killed on their next bridge crossing. The loss of lives is not the only loss being imposed on America by the short sighted management practices of America's non union work boat fleets. While the fleet and available cargoes are generally expanding, the labor pool is drying up.What young person in their right mind wants to sign up for the type of working conditions described in these reports?

 We must hope that this industry doesn't disappear because it is the most fuel efficient form of transport and in many states the only real competition to rail transport.  Of equal importance, and rarely recognized in even government circles, this segment of the Merchant Marine is not the "weak sister", but the heart of the system. It is the Jones Act protected activities that harbor and grow our maritime skill base between major conflicts when we suddenly have to expand from 200 international transports to 5,000 ( the estimated number for a two theater of war operation that featured a major return of forces to Europe).  Sailors and ship builders can't be produced overnight. It is our Jones Act fleets and the "second tier" shipyards that serve these fleets that keep the pool of skilled labor large enough to be expandable.  This role of domestic shipping as the critical mass of the American Merchant Marine has existed since colonial times.

 In our Merchant Marine Interest section we describe the recent history work  THE WAY OF THE SHIP which describes the history of our Merchant Marine with the domestic fleets front and center and clearly identified as the heart of the system.  Unfortunately this large but well written history does not describe the present deplorable management imposed, and Coast Guard tolerated working conditions that are destroying the system.  So a layman would have to read a large history volume and two book length technical reports to grasp what is going on and what the typical voter has at stake.  The battle is one of David and Goliath, on the side of the status quo are maritime management and their industry associations and lobbies. On the side of public safety are the much abused mariners of the out of sight and out of mind domestic fleets. What is needed is another Richard Henry Dana and another Two Years before The Mast. We need a highly entertaining and rather scary, fact based book with real page turning "infotainment" value that the general public will read. Tom Clancy, where are you?  



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