The Jones Act and free trade

Walter Blessey, chairman and CEO of Blessey Marine Services, the Harahan, La.-based tank barge operator, wrote an op-ed piece for on Sept. 20 in support of the Jones Act (“Support the Jones Act”).

It’s no surprise that a U.S. inland barge operator would support the Jones Act, and Blessey’s arguments generally follow traditional reasoning in favor of the 100-year-old law. For that reason, it’s useful to examine them one-by-one as emblematic of the pro-Jones-Act resistance to what appears to be a growing national movement toward repeal. Certainly, the debate was reignited recently when the Trump administration relaxed Jones Act restrictions on cabotage in response to hurricane-related fuel shortages.

Tellingly, Blessey writes, “I am a free trade guy except when it comes to our national security.” Herein lies the central problem for conservatives who support the Jones Act: How do you reconcile a commitment to free trade with support for the most anti-free-trade legislation ever passed by Congress? But taking Blessey at his word, let us assume that without a national security angle, his commitment to free trade would overcome his other objections to its repeal. Accordingly, we can discount his claim that, “Yes, we could possibly hire foreigners cheaper. However, we would risk a lower standard of performance. We would risk an industry with more collisions, allisions, and oil spills.”

Whether this issue is central to national security is questionable. Not only is this insulting to foreign maritime professionals, it is not supported by statistics. Every day supertankers captained and manned by STCW-certified foreigners enter and leave U.S. and worldwide ports with no higher rate of accidents than tankers crewed by U.S-licensed mariners. And, looking to anecdotal as well as statistical evidence, let’s remember that the infamous Capt. Joseph Hazelwood of Exxon Valdez fame was U.S. Coast Guard licensed.

To support his argument against foreign crewpersons working in the U.S., Blessey asks, “Who would monitor these foreign crews? Neither the USCG nor Homeland Security is set up to regulate foreigners working on inland vessels. We would risk saboteurs who could cause incredible damage.”

Considering our porous southern border, the number of illegal aliens living in the U.S., and the fact that no foreign mariner has ever (according to a quick internet search) committed a terrorist act on U.S. soil, this argument is nothing but a makeweight. The very idea that a fully licensed, certified, and vetted foreign crewperson serving on a vessel in the U.S. presents a significant threat to national security — as a saboteur, no less — is naked jingoism.

Blessey’s second national-security argument is, that the “Jones Act requires that majority ownership of any vessel operating coastwise must be U.S. citizens. This makes sense to us. Do we want foreigners controlling our domestic commerce?” Surely the Coast Guard is capable of monitoring and regulating all maritime commerce in the U.S., including vessels operating under foreign ownership, but it’s a moot point. The reality of vessel ownership means that foreign interests are already free to dip their fingers in our cabotage trade to their pocketbooks’ content.

Finally, Blessey argues, “if ‘built in America’ is done away with, significant jobs will be exported and significant skills will fade away.” He doesn’t explain this contention, but one can hardly expect the skills of welding, pipefitting, electrical-system installation, etc. — required in many trades besides shipbuilding — to fade away.

Blessey is also incorrect when he says, “Export our textile industry, which we already have done since there is no national security interest in doing so.” The fact is that any reduction in the GNP affects our ability to fund an adequate military force, so exporting any industry affects our national security. What about the wholesale export of the automobile industry or the Marines’ purchase of foreign-built Harrier jets? If the shipbuilding provisions of the Jones Act are the sole or even major justification for the law’s continuance, then a better argument than creating Works Progress Administration (WPA)-style job security for welders and pipefitters will be needed.

Blessey concludes, “I believe that our national security interests trump free trade.” In doing so, he implicitly raises the question of what else trumps free trade? If all industry affects our national security, what doesn’t? A single-payer health system? Compulsory union membership? Nationalization of utility companies? Surely the power grid affects our national security. But, in the end, it may be that our national security will depend on the enlargement of free trade, not its diminution.

About the author

Capt. Max Hardberger

Max Hardberger is a maritime attorney, flight instructor, writer, and maritime repo man. He has been a correspondent for WorkBoat since 1995. His memoir, Seized: A Sea Captain’s Adventures Battling Scoundrels and Pirates While Recovering Stolen Ships in the World’s Most Troubled Waters, was published by Broadway Books in 2010. He’s appeared on FOX, The Learning Channel, National Public Radio and the BBC, and has been the subject of articles in Fairplay Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, Men’s Journal, Esquire (UK), and the London Sunday Guardian.


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    Capt. Hardberger seems to miss the whole national security argument. In time of war, who will man the merchant ships that must sail in to war zones? Philippino or Indian sailors? Will foreign owners risk their valuable ships to torpedoes and missiles? Will their insurers even allow them into a hot war or will their insurance be cancelled if they take such a charter? The only sure way to have a viable war time merchant fleet is to have US tonnage manned by US sailors – it is one of our most important war time requirements. It is something that will never be able to be outsourced to any other nation.

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        Yeah, a land locked senator from the desert should rewrite the Jones Act. He’s a true stakeholder. While we’re at it let’s allow Mexican truckers to move freight around Arizona. It would save millions and help Arizonas economy

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    The Jones Act is absolutely essential to our country in order to be able to build our American military fleet and support ships with skilled American workers making a fair standard of wages and benefits. Additionally, if the Jones Act were repealed, our shipyard workers and seamen would be replaced with low-wage foreign crews manning and building foreign vessels performing interstate commence that was once solely occupied by American workers. Repeal of the Jones Act would devastate our maritime industry, drive wages down and hurt our economy. Of course, repeal of the Jones Act would benefit the financial reserves of some big corporations and their shareholders, who are pushing for the repeal. Profits over people!! Hasn’t the hard working man suffered enough over these FREE TRADE deals, not FAIR TRADE deals that seemingly benefit the richest 1% among us?

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    Max is totally missing the point on national security.The Jones Act protects the few and fragile group of shipyards, their work force and domestic mariners. This group is invaluable to the USA, in wartime, to build and operate marine equipment. His argument on having the same trades elsewhwere (electricians,welders, etc.) is completely wrong.The facilities, knowledge and workers ability in this specialized field cannot be bridged over in a snap of your fingers. We do not have enough skilled workers in these fields, regardless!They simply do not exist. We do not have the ability to borrow them when the need arises!

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    I don’t see an upside to rescinding the Jones Act. I think that a strong US crewed merchant marine in time of war would be a benefit to our country, and when not at war a strong US shipbuilding industry is important to our economy. I come to this argument as a U.S. manufacturing link in the shipbuilding supply chain and have watched seven million skilled jobs from other industries leave our country for cheaper labor overseas. The “skills” do not fade away. The jobs do. I would expect that if the Jones Act is lost, many shipyards will follow the history of steel mills, textile factories, hardware manufacturers and others to become rusted tomb stones on the horizon. You may call me a protectionist, however I think the Jones Act has security merit and a return to tariffs would be a help with trade.

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    Captain Warner Athey on

    If we could get rid of the Jones Act cruise ships would be able to carry passengers from New York to Miami.
    If we could get rid of the Jones Act ships could carry passengers to Hawaii with out having to kill a day stopping in Mexico.

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    Captain Warner Athey on

    How many new American Passenger ships have you seen around? The last large American Passenger ship I saw was the SS United States. It sat at the pier in Norfolk for 17 years. The Jones Act is protecting a merchant marine that basically does not exist. We need to get rid of the Jones Act.

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    Bos Smith, Mark Chase, Chris Kennedy, and Scott Winter; I could not agree more with the statements and arguments you guys are making. I would only add this…Why would we want to abandon a law that protects jobs for thousands of Americans? Why are we okay with possibly throwing away the livelihood of thousands of Americans who hold the various jobs that the Jones Act protects? I think we should be coming up with more ways to protect and save Americans and American jobs, like the Jones Act, and stop coming up with ways to keep tearing us down. We should be looking out for ourselves and each other, because that’s the right thing to do, and that’s exactly what other countries do for their citizens.

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    I have been in shipyards around the world and of course many in the USA.
    We need to protect but also bring up to world class our shipyards.
    Of course I am a capitalist but some things are too important to leave to capitalist greed.

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    Tellingly the captain shows his biase by calling it the “most” repressive free trade legislation EVER passed. Not really, look at the laws written to protect sugar in America from free trade.
    We have outsourced almost all of our manufacturing, so now we will outsource our maritime sealift capabilities? These disasters has show the lack of American hulls. My question is why was the Navy Seabees not sent down to open the port in Puerto Rico ? Why has the navy not been mobilized? Or the Army they have hundreds of hulls, and a lot of these are shallow draft an do not need modern docking facilities. Why has these resources not been fully utilized? Pretty easy lack of leadership at the top, tweeting about taking a knee holds more sway than Puerto Rico.

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    I’m biased. In my life I have worked in shipyards, served on on Jones Act ships and my family in coastwise ships for longer than the Jones Act has existed. I think national security is the trump card. Our industry that won WWII is less than 1% of what it was. Most of the steel mills and shipyards no longer exist. Almost none of the factories. Lodge and Shipley (major maker of machine tools) closed in 1986. The 4 yards I was in no longer exist and some are wiped clean, not even a grease spot from a crane.
    The yards and skilled people that manned them are gone. In a naval war, one it appears China is gearing up for, our small number of skilled ship builders could be spread around to start up yards only with the loss of production at the present yards. We’re at the point now that the Navy is having trouble finding capacity to repair the current two damaged destroyers. Mild damage to what was seen in WWII.
    As a welder, few welders in other trades could switch to ship (let alone submarine) welding without some schooling and much practice. And their skills would still be needed in their current trade.
    Personally I would favor something like the British Navigation Act – requiring goods shipped to be in British bottoms. At some point we need to make America our 1st priority. There are still huge numbers of Americans out of the workforce.
    Even now we don’t have enough mariners to divide up among new ships. Without the Jones Act, we wouldn’t have today’s numbers. The maritime schools would all close. I suppose we could farm out our warships construction to China. Maybe we could get inland mariners from Bangladesh, the Philippines or maybe Pakistan, one of the great exporters of terrorists. Bangladesh and the Philippines usually make the news yearly with a ferry sinking. Maybe they could build and run Washington State ferries? And all this for what? With cheaper ship, barges and crews do you really think the freight rates will suddenly go down. Eventually even US ownership will fade away. The only things we’ll be left with are oil slicks.

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    Captain Hardberger has again “hit the nail squarely on the head of the issue”. He is absolutely correct and all this “security issue” is just nonsense.The Jones Act is, in my humble opinion, causing the ultimate demise of the American Merchant Marine.

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    The so called Captain that writes this editorial is either dumb, or don’t like America so much. The Jones act protects our jobs and prevents other nationalities from taking them. You take the middle east they don’t have anything protecting their nationals so they use cheap labor from India, Pakistan, Philippines and other countries to work on their vessels . So please support the Jones act with all your might to protect the sovereignty of our mariners.

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      Captain Warner Athey on

      At one time the United States had the second largest Merchant Marine in the world. We need to get rid of the Jones Act. so American Ships can compete with the rest of the world. The Jones Act is protecting us into non existence. The United States is the largest cruise market in the world. No American Cruise ships runs between the United States and ANY foreign country. They are all foreign ships. We need to get rid of the Jones Act so we can compete with the rest of the world.

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