For more than 100 years, the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, commonly known as the Jones Act after U.S. Sen. Wesley Jones of Washington state, has been a legal bedrock of the United States maritime industry. Adopted by a congressional vote, the purpose of the Jones Act was to establish and protect a vibrant American maritime industry in times of peace, and one that would be a viable supporter of our military in times of war.
The law mainly focused on cabotage, the movement of cargo or passengers between two different places within a country. But it also established the Federal Maritime Commission, gave U.S. merchant seamen certain inalienable rights, and required that ships going from one U.S. port to another be owned by Americans, built by Americans and crewed by Americans.
In prohibiting foreignbuilt, foreign-registered and foreign-manned commercial vessels from working in the U.S. domestic trade, the Jones Act has saved thousands of shipyard and merchant mariner jobs. Without a doubt, many Americans have relied on it to protect their livelihood from unscrupulous foreign-flag ship owners/operators, companies that have no trouble treating their mariners with disdain and low wages. That includes myself, my dad before me, and all the great crewmembers I have sailed with on many United States flag vessels over the years. In fact, I believe that without the Jones Act, there wouldn’t even be a U.S. merchant marine today.
Before President Woodrow Wilson officially approved it on June 5, 1920, Jones Act opponents did everything they could to prevent it from becoming law. Lucky for us, they failed. Unfortunately, those opponents did manage to get some major exemptions built into the law before it was enacted. Perhaps the biggest one was excluding U.S. territories from having to follow many of its legal mandates.
A territory is an “administrative division” of the United States, one that is overseen by our government and under the protection of our military. There are 14 American territories scattered throughout the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean, with the major ones being Guam, Puerto Rico, American Samoa, the Northern Mariana Islands and the United States Virgin Islands. Aside from Samoa, everyone born in an American territory is automatically a U.S. citizen — and they have all the rights and privileges that go along with that. Those born in American Samoa are considered U.S. nationals, which means they can live anywhere in the United States without restriction but have to go through a legal process to become full-fledged citizens. Because territories are not states, those living there aren’t bound by all the laws that those of us living in the 50 states have to follow. For the American shipping industry, and especially U.S. territorial merchant mariners, that has not necessarily been a good thing.
Cargo vessels going between mainland ports and territories are allowed to be exempt from some, if not all of the Jones Act’s requirements. This means that American-owned, American-built, and American-crewed cargo ships have largely been left out — costing American shipyards and merchant mariners thousands of jobs over the years. In addition to the loss of jobs, allowing these foreign-flag vessels to replace American ships has cost our government billions in maritime taxes, money that could have gone directly into benefiting our citizens and economy.
There are also U.S. territories that have our government’s official approval to completely exempt passenger vessels from adhering to the Jones Act. A good example of this are the foreign-owned and registered cruise ships running between Puerto Rico and Florida. The shipping companies operating these vessels are permitted to hire foreign crews. That has resulted in the loss of thousands of United States merchant mariner jobs and pushed American ship owners out of these runs — and once again allowing foreign companies to dodge U.S. taxes.
Due to the large number of foreign-flag vessels running between our territories and ports on the U.S. mainland, mariners living in these territories have almost no choice but to sail on foreign ships if they want to work out of their home ports. This usually results in lower wages, less medical coverage and fewer benefits. In addition, the Jones Act gives U.S. merchant mariners the right to make a claim of unseaworthiness if they feel the vessel they are working on is unsafe. Foreign-flagged merchant mariners generally have no such right. There are many foreign vessels with spotty inspection records working on the high seas, and sailing on these ships could be a life-threatening risk as a result.
If we must continue to have territories, then I consider it morally correct to give U.S. citizenship to all their populations. They should also be protected by the Jones Act. No U.S. citizen should be treated less equally than any other. Either that, or the legal status of the 14 territories should be eliminated — requiring them to become official states or independent countries.
Till next time, I wish you all smooth sailin.’ •
Capt. Kelly Sweeney holds the license of master (oceans, any gross tons) and has held a master of towing vessels (oceans) license as well. He has sailed on more than 40 commercial vessels and lives on an island near Seattle. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org