Jones Act provides essential benefits to a maritime nation and its workers

Economists say things are getting better and people are going back to work. But there is another side to the story. 

Many are going back to work in part-time and low-wage service jobs. But for workers, “recovery” means a job that enables them to feed and provide for their families. 

A bright spot is maritime, particularly shipbuilding and ship repair. Growth in these blue-collar, family-wage manufacturing jobs has remained steady, buttressed by the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, also known as the Jones Act. The Jones Act requires cargo-bearing ships moving between United States ports to be built in the United States, owned by American companies and crewed by American citizens.  

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The Jones Act keeps this country strong by supporting jobs at American shipyards, promoting industrial investment and training, and contributing to our country’s economy and national defense. 

Even so, every month you can count on special interests claiming that the Jones Act has outlived its usefulness and should be radically modified or repealed. 

An oil company executive will tell you that using foreign carriers to transport oil in the United States would dramatically reduce gas prices. Government studies show it might save a penny a gallon. Is that worth sacrificing our shipbuilding industry and hundreds of thousands of jobs? 

Critics who say the Jones Act is an economic impediment or barrier to job creation have it backwards. Without the Jones Act, virtually all the shipbuilding in the United States today would instead be done in China, Korea, Singapore and other countries.  American shipyards would close, and once that happens, they’re closed for good.

American leadership in shipbuilding is not just because of the Jones Act. We build to a higher standard with better and longer-lived ships. China, Korea and Third World countries also do not have the same strong commitment to protecting the environment that we do here. 

Every other shipbuilding country in the world has extensive programs to promote its industry through direct cash payments, subsidies or other practices. Loss of the Jones Act would not level the playing field. It would tie one hand behind our back and put United States shipyards and their workers at a tremendous disadvantage. 

Keeping our shipyards busy sustains the skilled jobs and encourages the massive investments in infrastructure needed to build and maintain vessels for the United States Navy, Coast Guard and other aspects of our national defense.

Ships used today for national security, commerce, energy exploration and many other waterborne activities are more technologically advanced and complex than ever. 

Eliminating the Jones Act would result not only in the closure of American shipyards but also losing the expertise that goes into building and maintaining our defense fleet and so many other vessels vital to our national security and economy. Instead we would have to rely on workers in other countries to fill those critical roles.  

There are many people in this country who are never going to make their living behind a computer terminal. Their strength and artistry is in working with their hands to build tangible things like ships with real value. Their skills need to be valued and recognized. In the maritime industry they can make $60,000 to $100,000 a year using their hands and skills. 

It takes a huge investment to build a shipyard and its workforce, and behind every shipyard are dozens of other suppliers, subcontractors and other support businesses. The overall economic impact, from jobs and sales to tax dollars that flow into government at all levels, is huge.  

A recent study by the United States Maritime Administration found that more than 107,000 workers are employed in the nation’s private shipyards, and the industry supports more than 400,000 jobs across the county – in all 50 states – and generates $23.9 billion in income and $36 billion worth of goods and services every year.  

Attacks on the Jones Act are misguided. Other shipbuilding countries use every competitive advantage they can muster. The Jones Act is about keeping pace with what the other shipbuilding giants are doing. It’s not an outdated protectionist vehicle; in fact it is probably needed more today than when it was enacted nearly 100 years ago. 

American industrial workers, including shipyard workers, are vital to this country. Their jobs are worth preserving. The Jones Act does that as it helps sustain our national defense and provide a multitude of other benefits to our country. 

Frank Foti is chairman of the Shipbuilders Council of America.