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Scapegoating a law that protects good jobs will not help Puerto Rico

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More than a month after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, the situation remains dire. Forty percent of the island is without running water. Many roads and bridges are impassable. The electric grid is largely offline. The people of Puerto Rico desperately need and are entitled to help from the U.S. government. But instead of acting swiftly to pass an aid package, which Congress finally did last night, Sens. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) had threatened to hold up relief unless Puerto Rico is permanently exempted from the Jones Act, a law that protects good U.S. jobs.

The problem? Gutting the Jones Act is a misguided proposal being fueled by misinformation. Repealing this law will not solve Puerto Rico’s immediate humanitarian crisis, nor will it fix the country’s long-term financial problems. Since 1920, this law has created thousands of jobs for American mariners, shipbuilders and others in the maritime sector by ensuring goods shipped between two U.S. ports be carried on vessels made, owned and crewed by Americans. Today, the Jones Act supports 500,000 jobs and is vital to national security by guaranteeing the U.S. military can rely on American vessels and skilled mariners in times of conflict and crises.

{mosads}Those who favor repealing the Jones Act say it hinders relief efforts by slowing or preventing foreign ships from delivering aid to Puerto Rico. That is simply not true. Not only is there ample capacity on U.S. ships to supply relief cargo to Puerto Rico, but more than two thirds of ships that deliver cargo to the island come from foreign countries. If, in an emergency, American vessels are unable to provide relief, the federal government can and does temporarily waive the act. We will not oppose these waivers when they are needed.

The Jones Act does not require foreign cargo destined for Puerto Rico to come through the United States first. It does not slap punitive tariffs, taxes or other fees on foreign cargo being shipped to Puerto Rico. It does not force Puerto Rico to turn away relief supplies that did not come from the United States. Thousands of containers full of relief supplies have already been delivered, but goods are unable to reach people in need because of damaged infrastructure on the island. Repealing the Jones Act can’t fix the broken roads, bridges, communications systems or power grids that are vital to distribution efforts.

Others claim the Jones Act is responsible for Puerto Rico’s financial crisis and will increase costs of rebuilding efforts. This argument is based on the myth that the Jones Act doubles the cost of shipping to Puerto Rico. In 2010, the Government Accountability Office debunked this claim. More recently, pricing information submitted to Congress shows Jones Act rates to Puerto Rico are comparable, and sometimes lower, than foreign shipping rates to nearby Caribbean islands. The real cause of Puerto Rico’s economic crisis is a deep recession made worse by debt, Wall Street greed and indifference here on the mainland to the plight of our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico. Only real debt relief, economic stimulus and significant federal resources can provide the help that’s needed. Gutting the Jones Act accomplishes none of that.

Such a move will, however, threaten thousands of good U.S. jobs by paving the way for foreign built, foreign crewed vessels to take the place of American vessels. Because foreign vessels are not bound by America’s labor, safety and environmental rules, crews serving on foreign ships can be cherry picked from anywhere in the world, and are often selected from countries where labor and wage laws are especially weak. Instead of receiving a decent wage and working under safe conditions, which occurs on U.S. vessels under the Jones Act, crews on foreign vessels are sometimes paid just dollars a day, and face despicable working conditions.

The labor movement is committed to helping our fellow citizens in Puerto Rico rebuild their communities. That’s why working people from dozens of unions banded together to assist with relief efforts. By flying into Puerto Rico, first responders, nurses, doctors, electricians, engineers and truck drivers started making progress by reaching those most in need of help. Hundreds of union members collected supplies, helped clear road blockages, cared for hospital patients, delivered emergency supplies, and restored power and communications.

The work done by these selfless volunteers represents only the tip of the iceberg of what is needed. It will take years before Puerto Rico is fully recovered from the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria and has an economy that is whole again. Scapegoating a law that protects good American jobs will not help Puerto Rico.

Larry Willis is president of the Transportation Trades Department of the AFL-CIO.

Tags Congress economy Hurricane Maria Jeff Flake Jones Act Mike Lee Puerto Rico

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