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Puerto Rico, Trump and the Jones Act

By Joel Schor - Facts for Working People, September 27, 2017

The recent extreme weather events effecting the Carribbean have made clear the humanitarian situation in Puerto Rico is dire and in stark contrast to Trump’s drab belittling comments about the National Football League opposing him on the conduct of the players during the national anthem.

As a merchant seaman for over 15 years I am very familiar with the law which protects both the rights of seaman while signed on American flagged Vessels and at the same time grants further monopoly powers to shipping companies that register and flag their vessels in the United States.

The Jones Act enacted shortly after WWI to resurrect what was thought of as a dying Merchant Fleet in the United States at the time, went along with a massive subsidy program whereby the overproduction of Navy bottoms were sold at fire sale prices to private shipping companies who had previously established themselves mostly in the highly monopolized and unregulated coastal trade.

As the era of anti-trust legislation was coming about, the big shipping lines needed a way to secure the lucrative coastal trade as foreign operators came in. The Jones Act basically provides that 1) A seaman is entitled to a certain portion of wages earned during a voyage (foreign or domestic ) whenever a vessel arrives at a U.S. port as well as the right to leave the ship, and also sue a shipping company for any injuries the seaman has incurred.

This first part of the Jones Act law pertaining to seaman's rights came about after a series of legislative efforts were made over two decades by the head of the West Coast section of the Seamans’ Union, a man by the name of Andrew Furuseth, who's cause was to take the seaman "out of slavery" or the conditions which were more akin to indentured servitude at one time.

Previous acts outlawed flogging at sea, capturing seaman to be forced to work on ships ect. 2) The post WWI Jones Act also made law that the American Shipping Companies would be entitled to a monopoly on all Inter Coastal trade in the United States. In other words, the law mandated that any commerce between one United States port and another US port could only be carried out by a vessel registered and flagged in the United States. The flag registration of a ship entails that it operates under the laws and regulations of that flag country as far as the employment of its crew, the inspections of its seaworthiness according to international standards etc.

As far as the meaning of this for Puerto Rico today, there is a dire need for assistance from any country that can provide it, but only US flagged and registered vessels can conduct commerce directly with Puerto Rico because of its protectorate status under the Jones Act.

Any aid that would come from Mexico or Latin America would have to be shipped to the continental United States, and then transferred to an American flagged vessel to be shipped to Puerto Rico. Although Hawaii is a state and not a protectorate, the provisions of the Jones Act also mandate that foreign originating cargo must land in the continental United States before being shipped to either of these areas. The Jones Act is also a way of keeping these island regions economically dependent on the United States and hinders the development of their own industries except that which assists the American Military for the most part. Hawaii is home to a large military base at Pearl Harbor and Puerto Rico is actually where a large portion of National Guardsmen are recruited to protect Merchant Ships in War Zones.

In 2003 I was on a Merchant Ship taking military equipment to Gulf State ports in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait for pre-positioning during that conflict. That ship along with many others I heard of, had crews of National Guardsmen from Puerto Rico patrolling the decks to protect the military equipment. Many of them told me stories of having been on foreign ships as well that the US military had contracted out to transport ammunition containers. The guardsmen were sometimes not given water to drink on their deck rounds in the hot Mediterranean sun and through the Suez Canal. While the Puerto Rican's serve the U.S. military as such, they do not have the right to vote for the president of the United States. 

Another note as to the usefulness and political convenience of the Jones Act. In 2004-2005 during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, the Maritime Administration of the United States tentatively activated several Ready Reserve Fleet RRF pre-positioned ships to send aid into the disaster zone which were to be Jones Act ships - ie crewed by US civilian mariners.The tentative activation was cancelled by Vice President Dick Cheney who subsequently waived the Jones Act allowing foreign flagged ships to carry the aid into the disaster zone and also house fire fighters and rescue workers. While this may seem expedient, the practice of contracting out to foreign companies in this case most certainly cost much more than pre-positioned RRF government ships which are already manned and in a state of readiness at all times, the cost already accounted for by the Ready Reserve program.

The foreign operator who came into New Orleans - Carnival Cruises - was not only a crony deal for Cheney who had an interest on its board of directors, but also a slap in the face to any kind of public response to disaster relief. By waiving the Jones Act in Maritime and also the Davis Bacon Act prevailing wage law in the disaster area, the capitalists show that they can and will handle things as they see fit and not as the majority of us in society would decide it if we had any choice in the matter.

The Jones Act is a complex law which is played up according to its usefulness politically. Trump claims he was told not to waive the Jones Act in Puerto Rico because " some people in that industry said it was important". Like many of his statements it is vague and cryptic, and most likely without knowledge of what it even is.  His decision also places the profits for US shipping companies above the interests of the people of Puerto Rico.

Joel Schor is a member of ILWU Local 10 and the Sailors Union of the Pacific.

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