After Surviving Pirates, the Real-Life Captain Phillips Fights Job Cuts

Steve Early

Captain Phillips (right) with Commander Frank Castellano. (Wikimedia Commons)

When Soma­li pirates cap­tured Cap­tain Richard Phillips in 2009, his large Irish-Amer­i­can fam­i­ly gath­ered at a farm­house in Ver­mont to await news of his fate.

At the time, the Maer­sk Alaba­mas skip­per was just one AK-47 round away from per­ish­ing at sea. But, as he recalls in his 2010 mem­oir, A Captain’s Duty (co-authored with Stephan Tal­ty), the Phillips are a wild bunch with our own brand of humor, which not every­one gets … One exam­ple: That night, my sis­ters were joking…about Hol­ly­wood mak­ing a film about the hostage-tak­ing and began cast­ing all the parts.” Accord­ing to Phillips, his sib­lings favored the dash­ing George Clooney to play the lead role.

Four years after his near-death expe­ri­ence off the coast of Africa, America’s most famous mar­itime union mem­ber has had to set­tle for Tom Han­ks instead. On Octo­ber 11, Cap­tain Phillips will get his sec­ond 15 min­utes of inter­na­tion­al acclaim when Sony Pic­tures unveils a big-bud­get film based on his book. In Cap­tain Phillips, it’s a toss-up who should get the hero’s gar­land — the film’s epony­mous cap­tain, his well-trained and fast-act­ing crew, or the Navy SEALs who res­cued Phillips after the pirates took him hostage and tried to escape in a small boat.

Phillips him­self has been exceed­ing­ly mod­est about his role in the Maer­sk Alaba­ma dra­ma. I do not like the movie named after me, as it makes it out to be just me out there,” he told Des­ti­na­tion Ver­mont, a trav­el mag­a­zine. There was a ship with 19 crew mem­bers that this sto­ry is about, not just me … They act­ed brave­ly and act­ed prop­er­ly … It would be a dif­fer­ent sto­ry with­out their actions.”

Civil­ian sailors at risk

Indeed, in his book and film-relat­ed inter­views, the Mass­a­chu­setts Mar­itime Acad­e­my grad­u­ate empha­sizes the col­lec­tive nature of freighter work, both on a day-to-day basis and in moments of dan­ger on the high seas. A Captain’s Duty, pro­vides a vivid account of the team­work and dis­ci­pline required to sur­vive at sea, amid the occu­pa­tion­al haz­ards cre­at­ed by hur­ri­canes, ship­board fires, con­tain­er acci­dents, col­li­sions, and, yes, armed assaults by would-be hijack­ers. On the 17,000-ton Maer­sk Alaba­ma, he notes, the crew and I were ready for each cri­sis” because we’d drilled for exact­ly those kinds of situations.”

Uti­liz­ing sim­i­lar team­work, the real-life Phillips and mem­bers of his AFL-CIO-affil­i­at­ed union, the Mas­ters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), are now ral­ly­ing against a threat to their liveli­hood more seri­ous than Soma­li pirates. Even before this month’s fed­er­al gov­ern­ment shut­down, sequester-dri­ven bud­get cuts were sched­uled to reduce fund­ing next year for the Mar­itime Secu­ri­ty Pro­gram (MSP). At a cost to tax­pay­ers of $186 mil­lion annu­al­ly, the MSP sub­si­dizes a fleet of 60 com­mer­cial­ly owned and oper­at­ed ships. But a pro­ject­ed bud­get short­fall, rang­ing from $25 mil­lion to $30 mil­lion. in 2014, has led the U.S. Mar­itime Admin­is­tra­tion (MARAD) to warn ship own­ers that one-third of the ves­sels in this fleet, includ­ing the now-famous Maer­sk Alaba­ma, face elim­i­na­tion from the program.

With­out action by a cur­rent­ly dead­locked Con­gress, these cuts in the MSP would dev­as­tate the pool of trained mer­chant mariners avail­able for sea-going ser­vice and crip­ple the indus­tri­al capac­i­ty of the mer­chant marine,” explains MM&P pres­i­dent Don Mar­cus. It’s high­ly iron­ic,” he says, that Cap­tain Phillips and the rest of the crew of Maer­sk Alaba­ma are being cel­e­brat­ed again for their courage and ded­i­ca­tion to duty — while the lifeblood of the U.S. Mer­chant Marine is under attack.”

As Cap­tain Phillips recounts in his book, civil­ian sailors — who remain heav­i­ly union­ized – have a long his­to­ry of invis­i­ble ser­vice” and unarmed valiance, includ­ing a casu­al­ty rate in World War II that was pro­por­tion­ate­ly greater than any branch of the armed forces. “[W]hen the boys from the car­go ships went home, there were no tick­er-tape parades, no G.I. Bill, noth­ing like that…no one ever remem­bers us.”

Phillips hopes that the film, based on his life, will lead to greater pub­lic under­stand­ing of the role played in today’s glob­al sup­ply chain by the 5,700 mem­bers of his own union, as well as 50,000 oth­ers in the Marine Engi­neers Ben­e­fi­cial Asso­ci­a­tion and Sea­far­ers Inter­na­tion­al Union. We are the ones who allow inter­na­tion­al trade to flour­ish and grow,” he says. Through our jobs dur­ing peace­time we safe­ly and cheap­ly car­ry the world’s goods from man­u­fac­tur­er to con­sumer and keep the food and prod­ucts stocked in our stores at home.”

Ves­sels like the Maer­sk Alaba­ma are also essen­tial to get­ting Unit­ed Nations’ World Food Pro­gramme ship­ments to coun­tries dev­as­tat­ed by famine and war. For exam­ple, when Phillips’ ship was attacked in 2009, it was car­ry­ing five tons of food­stuffs des­tined for refugees in the Con­go and neigh­bor­ing countries.

As Mar­cus points out, the Depart­ment of Defense and com­mer­cial ship­pers will still need ves­sels to trans­port their sup­plies and prod­ucts — but the work of U.S.-based union mem­bers, like those depict­ed in Cap­tain Phillips, will be out­sourced to for­eign-flag ships instead.

The president’s ninjas

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, among action film view­ers in the U.S., the take­away from Hollywood’s ren­di­tion of A Captain’s Duty may be that mak­ing the world safer for Amer­i­cans, on land and sea, requires an even big­ger Pen­ta­gon bud­get. The SEAL team snipers dis­patched to kill three of the pirates and save Phillips were part of the U.S. military’s now wide-rang­ing Joint Spe­cial Oper­a­tions Com­mand (JSOC). As chron­i­cled in Dirty Wars: The World as a Bat­tle­field, by Nation cor­re­spon­dent Jere­my Scahill, the res­cue mis­sion was per­son­al­ly over­seen by Pres­i­dent Oba­ma. Accord­ing to Scahill, after tak­ing out the pirates, JSOC became the president’s prized ninjas”

As one of Scahill’s Defense Depart­ment sources not­ed, based on JSOC’s role in Iraq and Afghanistan, it already had the best tech­nol­o­gy, the best weapons, the best peo­ple — and plen­ty of mon­ey to burn.” In the last week, Pres­i­dent Oba­ma has turned these same counter-insur­gency assets” loose again in Soma­lia and Libya. From a mil­i­tary, for­eign pol­i­cy, and pub­lic rela­tions stand­point, the results have been far more mixed than the hap­py end­ing to Cap­tain Phillips ordeal. Yet the con­tin­u­ing momen­tum of U.S. mil­i­tary inter­ven­tion abroad, in non-war zones, has great­ly accel­er­at­ed since Oba­ma was first elect­ed and the Maer­sk Alaba­ma sit­u­a­tion became an ear­ly test of his lead­er­ship. Most fed­er­al agen­cies may have been oper­at­ing with a skele­ton crew this month; as of last week, the Navy SEALs and oth­er well-fund­ed foes of ter­ror­ism” were def­i­nite­ly not stand­ing down.

Next year, the Unit­ed States could avert a major reduc­tion in its mer­chant marine fleet, and result­ing union job loss­es, for less than the com­bined price of just two MQ‑9 Reaper drones and a sin­gle Preda­tor drone. To do that, how­ev­er, the sequester-dri­ven cuts to fed­er­al pro­grams, like the MSP, would have to end and the new bud­get pri­or­i­ties pro­mot­ed by U.S. Labor Against the War would have to be embraced by the Oba­ma administration.

Sequester relief has become more unlike­ly in the wake of the fed­er­al shut­down trig­gered by right-wing Repub­li­cans. As Politi­co report­ed on Octo­ber 3, Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats have tried to end the dis­pute over defund­ing Oba­macare by aban­don­ing their own bud­getary vision” and call­ing on the House GOP to pass a clean’ gov­ern­ment fund­ing bill…that would fund the gov­ern­ment at $986 bil­lion spend­ing lev­els,” which would pre­serve the sequester that Democ­rats pre­vi­ous­ly said they staunch­ly oppose.

With that bi-par­ti­san solu­tion loom­ing, union pres­i­dent Don Mar­cus has good rea­son to be wor­ried about the future of the Maer­sk Alaba­ma, and oth­er ves­sels manned by his mem­bers. What the Soma­li pirates couldn’t take away, Con­gress could,” he warns.

Steve Ear­ly worked for 27 years as an orga­niz­er and inter­na­tion­al rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Work­ers of Amer­i­ca. He is the author of sev­er­al books, includ­ing Refin­ery Town: Big Oil, Big Mon­ey, and the Remak­ing of an Amer­i­can City (Bea­con Press). 

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