Obama Aims Budget Torpedo at Merchant Mariner Unions

Bruce Vail

A merchant mariner aboard a replenishment oiler prepares to attach a cargo net to a helicopter. Unions believe the Obama administration's proposed changes to a U.S. humanitarian food aid program could mean a loss of jobs for upward of 1,200 Merchant Marine personnel.

Washington mostly yawned last month when President Barack Obama presented his official budget proposal to Congress, but it rang alarm bells for the unions representing American merchant sailors, who felt their ships were suddenly under friendly fire.

The unions feel torpedoed by an obscure budget provision that would shift financial control of U.S. humanitarian food aid away from federal government agencies and place it in the hands of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) such as Oxfam America and Catholic Relief Services. Union advocates say the reform, touted as a way to benefit undernourished countries, would idle U.S. shipping and force crewmembers into long-term unemployment.

The humanitarian program was established in 1954 as a Cold War initiative to boost U.S. influence in developing countries. From the start, it specified that the food would be domestically produced and then shipped in U.S.-flag commercial vessels. The food was often carried in bags stamped From the American People” so that recipients would have no doubt about the source of wheat, rice and other food commodities being delivered. But now, in an attempt to stretch aid dollars, the Obama administration wants to reduce or eliminate the U.S. sourcing element of the program. 

To me [the change] is inexplicable. The point of the food aid program is to provide American help to people who are suffering, it’s not just about handing out bags of money,” says Don Marcus, President of the International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots (MM&P), a union representing ships officers. You are talking about American jobsnot just maritime jobs, but farming jobs and jobs all along the transport chain.” 

U.S. sourcing and shipping are indeed more expensive in most cases, Marcus concedes, but in addition to boosting U.S. jobs, they ensure that the federal agencies retain close control of the shipments, providing oversight of prices and delivery details. 

That the proposal comes from the nominally pro-labor Obama White House leaves a bitter taste, union officials say, but few believe the president was the driving force. Instead, they point to State Department official Rajiv Shah, appointed head of the U.S Agency for International Development (USAID) by Obama in 2009. Shah is a rising star in the Democratic Party and is championing the budget proposal as a needed financial reform. By handing over to NGOs the money now spent to buy and ship U.S.-grown products, the organization can then buy cheaper commodities and ship them for less, he argues. The hoped-for result is to feed far more undernourished people on the same budget.

That argument presents a daunting obstacle to protecting maritime jobs, says Brian Schoeneman, legislative director of the Seafarers International Union (SIU), who also serves as spokesperson for the shipping lobby group USA Maritime. In lobbying Congress, the administration is telling staffers on Capitol Hill that this is literally a choice between subsidizing the maritime industry or feeding starving children. It’s a totally distorted argument, but that is what we face every day,” he says. 

More generally, Schoeneman credits Shahand select NGOswith doing a masterful job of rolling out” the proposal. He notes that influential publications such as the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal have recently published articles or editorials sympathetic to Shah. The proposal also seems to answer persistent criticisms that food aid programs in general do more to enrich business interests than alleviate hunger.

Such arguments sound very familiar to Mike Perry, a Florida-based marine engineer. Perry has served on a number of food-aid ships in recent years, carrying relief cargoes to ports in Iraq, Libya, Angola, Kenya, and elsewhere. Perry even had a brush with maritime fame in 2009 when his shipthe U.S.-flag Maersk Alabamawas attacked by Somali pirates while carrying food aid to the Kenyan port of Mombasa.

Perry, a recently retired member of the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA) union, thinks some criticisms of the program are valid. He wonders, for example, why aid isn’t funneled directly to farmers in the afflicted regions in order to spur a long-term increase in local food supplies. He also said believes that the highly politicized nature of the aid creates corruption and inefficiency. But he disagrees with nixing the U.S. sourcing requirement.

I can’t say that I am a supporter of these aid programs in general…but if we are going to do them, we should be doing them with American ships and American crews,” Perry says. Turning the money over to some NGO isn’t going to correct those sorts of problemsit is just going to make sure that some foreign shipping company benefits instead. I’m all for fixing the problems in the program, but I just cannot see how cutting out American farmers and the American merchant marine does any of that,” he says.

If Congress approves the Obama proposal, the humanitarian aid program would lose the the support it has historically enjoyed in Washington from the influential agricultural and maritime lobbies. As it is, SIU’s Schoeneman says that a coalition of shipping and farm groups have now launched a high-intensity effort to block the Obama proposal. There are some signs it may succeed, he says. Republicans in Congress have little desire to help Obama achieve any of his budget goals, he notes, and traditionally pro-labor Democrats are mostly sympathetic to the arguments of the maritime unions. Therefore there appears to be a general outline for a bi-partisan coalition in favor of continued U.S. sourcing of food aid, Schoeneman says. Further, he notes that these kinds of budget reform proposals usually take years to work themselves through Congress, and the unions should have the ability to outlast both Obama and the USAID’s Shah.

One thing in our favor is that if you take way the U.S. sourcing, then food aid becomes just another foreign giveaway program, and those aren’t very popular anywhere these days,” Schoeneman notes.

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Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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