by Jim Smith

Maritime unions are demonstrating and suing to protest an American shipping company taking a U.S. Government subsidy and then sending its work out of the country.

Nearly 300 union members and supporters turned out in front of the American Presidents Line (APL) dock in Wilmington, last month, to condemn the company for its announcement that six new ships will fly the Marshall Islands flag, not the stars and stripes.

"Foreign-flagging" of U.S. ships has decimated the U.S. merchant marine, says Cecil McIntyre, Branch Agent of the harbor's Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association (MEBA). "We had 2,000 ships in the '60s, now were down to 490."

What particularly galls union members about the American Presidents Line action is that the company will continue to receive a handout from the government, supposedly for operating U.S.-flagged vessels. In response, five unions have filed suit against APL, Transportation Secretary Francisco Peña and the U.S. Maritime Administration. MEBA, Masters Mates and Pilots (MMP), Seafarers International Union, Sailors Union of the Pacific and the Marine Firemen claim that a government waiver given APL to foreign-flag the ships violates the Merchant Marine Act. APL officials were unavailable for comment.

MMP Port Agent Tom Kirker says the new ships were not even built in the United States. Three of the ships were built in Korea and three in Germany. APL even went to a Cyprus-based ship management company to dig up foreign crews for the new ships.

Bill Smith, First Engineer on the President Lincoln (all of APL's U.S.-flagged ships are named for presidents), says that while his job is secure, he fears that many of his co-workers with less seniority will lose their jobs as older U.S.-flagged ships are retired from service and new ships go to foreign flags. "Maybe we'll be seeing ships called the President Marcos or the General Manuel Noreiga," joked Smith.

Panama, Liberia, the Philippines and now the Marshall Islands are the flags of convenience for much of the world's shipping. "Foreign flagging allows the shippers to skip out on U.S. taxes, safety regulations and a unionized workforce," says McIntyre. "Instead they pay only a small annual registration fee to the foreign country."

The new ships would give the tiny Marshall Islands a total of 35 world-class vessels. While nominally independent, the Pacific Ocean republic and site of former U.S. hydrogen bomb testing receives $40 million of its $55 million annual budget from U.S. foreign aid.

The maritime unions may be able to count on the support of the powerful International Longshoremen's and Warehousemen's Union. Its international executive board passed a resolution pledging "the full cooperation, support and strength of the ILWU. We stand by them (the maritime unions) &endash; as we have for generations and as they have for us &endash; in their struggle to preserve justice, jobs and their way of life."


A version of this article appeared in San Pedro's Random Lengths News

Copyright by Jim Smith