Fewer ships are flying the U.S. flag. What does this mean for America?

Many American cargo ships are fleeing the U.S. merchant marine in favor of countries with less regulations and lower paid workers. As a result, fewer ships are flying under the U.S. flag. That creates a national security crisis and can hold the transport of American goods hostage to foreign ship owners. Even the Defense Department may not be able to access the goods it needs due to a lack of American ships.

Don Marcus, President of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots, joined America’s Work Force Union Podcast to discuss the fight to keep the American flag on merchant ships to protect jobs, maintain the flow of American shipping goods and protect national security.

He also discussed how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected maritime workers, as well as his recent visit to the White House to hear President Biden speak during a Labor Day event.

American ships critical to national defense and the flow of goods

Since before the days of World War II, merchant marines were among the first to be globalized. Fewer are now flying the U.S. flag in an effort to undercut labor laws and regulations, Marcus said. For the last 75 years, the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots has been fighting to keep the U.S. flag on American ships and protect the jobs of American maritime workers, he said.

For the last 50 to 60 years, the U.S. merchant marine has been on a baseline survival basis — and the problem is getting worse. It is able to keep a certain number of ships in the water because Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the aisle recognize that maintaining a merchant marine is critical to national defense. It becomes a matter of national security — if American ships do not ship a reasonable portion of foreign trade, all American goods can be held hostage to foreign ship owners. This is increasingly becoming a problem, Marcus said.

Congress must protect American ships by improving the industry’s subsidies and regulations, Marcus stated. This would protect American shipping, improve national security and ensure the nation maintains access to critical goods.

How COVID-19 has affected the maritime industry

Around 2 million merchant seafarers of all nationalities were stranded for six to eight months in the beginning of the pandemic because their ships could not be repatriated. Workers were held beyond their usual length and could not leave the ships when docked in port. The COVID-19 pandemic has likely been the most stressful time to be a maritime worker during peacetime, Marcus estimated.

The availability of vaccines and the prevalence of masking has improved conditions. There are still outbreaks because not everybody is vaccinated. When a ship ports, the crew often must remain on board, but now vendors are usually allowed on ships, which provides some relief.

Biden promises to be most pro-union administration in history

Marcus also described a visit he made to the White House as part of a Labor Day event. He got to hear President Biden speak, as well as AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. Pres. Biden gave a heartfelt tribute to Richard Trumka, the recently passed AFL-CIO leader, and spoke at length of the labor movement and its power.


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