Activists in Puerto Rico Want the Jones Act Eliminated—So Why Are Unions Defending It?

Kate Aronoff

After Hurricane Maria, many in Puerto Rico have renewed calls to eliminate the Jones Act. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

In the after­math of the dev­as­ta­tion wrought by Hur­ri­cane Maria on Puer­to Rico, an obscure law gov­ern­ing mar­itime com­merce has grabbed nation­al head­lines: The Mer­chant Marine Act of 1920, known col­lo­qui­al­ly as the Jones Act. After fac­ing polit­i­cal pres­sure and at the request of Puer­to Rico Gov. Ricar­do Rossel­ló, on Sep­tem­ber 28, Pres­i­dent Trump issued a 10-day waiv­er of the Act to ease ship­ping reg­u­la­tions on the island. That waiv­er expired last week.

Many in Puer­to Rico, along with mem­bers of the Puer­to Rican dias­po­ra liv­ing on the U.S. main­land, argue that the stat­ue is sti­fling aid by pre­sent­ing an unnec­es­sary bar­ri­er to the pro­cure­ment of basic relief sup­plies. Mar­itime unions, mean­while, con­tend that the mea­sure is essen­tial for pro­tect­ing sea­far­ing workers.

So what is the Jones Act? What does it do? And what oth­er fac­tors might be get­ting in the way of sup­plies reach­ing Puer­to Ricans? 

What the Jones Act does and doesn’t do 

The Jones Act stip­u­lates that only U.S.-flagged ships can oper­ate between U.S. ports, so any Amer­i­can goods com­ing into Puer­to Rico via U.S.-governed ports have to arrive on U.S.-flagged, U.S.-made ships. This man­date pri­or­i­tizes the use of Amer­i­can ships and work­ers, and inhibits for­eign ship­ping com­pa­nies’ access to inter‑U.S. ship­ping routes.

Passed on the heels of World War I, the mea­sure, named for its spon­sor, Rep. Wes­ley Jones (R‑Wash.), was intend­ed to ensure that Amer­i­ca would thrive in mar­itime com­merce and be full of sea­far­ing men in case they were need­ed for anoth­er war.

The law includes pro­vi­sions pro­tect­ing sea­far­ers’ rights, requir­ing ships trans­port­ing goods between U.S. ports to abide by the mar­itime labor laws and envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards out­lined in the Jones Act.

For­eign-flagged ves­sels from for­eign ports are not pre­vent­ed from dock­ing in Puer­to Rico, only from shut­tling goods from the main­land to the island. The law also doesn’t man­date that import­ed goods bound for Puer­to Rico pass through a main­land port first.

The Jones Act doesn’t apply to goods shipped between the main­land and the U.S. Vir­gin Islands, but does apply to goods shipped between the main­land and Puer­to Rico. By com­par­i­son, U.S.-made goods on the Vir­gin Islands are about half as expen­sive as they are in Puer­to Rico.

The case against the act

Well before Hur­ri­cane Maria, the Jones Act was blamed for dri­ving up the cost of liv­ing in Puer­to Rico, where gro­ceries are as much as 21 per­cent more expen­sive than on the main­land. In 2011, the U.S. Trans­porta­tion Depart­ment Mar­itime Admin­is­tra­tion found that day-to-day oper­at­ing costs were 2.6 times high­er on U.S. ships com­pared to inter­na­tion­al ves­sels, and that labor costs could be as much as 5 times higher.

On the island and off, a waiv­er of the Jones Act has been a main­stay of demands for relief and recov­ery pack­ages, both to ease the flow of goods after the storm and for long-term reconstruction. 

If Maria is enough to get us out of that, that would be amaz­ing,” says Sofía Gal­lisá Muri­ente, an artist and orga­niz­er from Puer­to Rico who was also active in Occu­py Sandy before mov­ing back home to San Juan from New York City four years ago. That’s the best thing that could come of this storm, but I don’t know if we could pull that off. The most I think we could get would be a waiv­er for a year.”

Among those call­ing for a per­ma­nent lift­ing of the Jones Act for Puer­to Rico is the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance, a net­work of cli­mate jus­tice groups in the Unit­ed States with ties to sev­er­al labor unions, but not the Nation­al Mar­itime Union, whose mem­bers would be most affect­ed by a per­ma­nent lift­ing of the law. The net­work held a Day of Action on Wednes­day, Octo­ber 11 to call atten­tion to their list of demands, includ­ing full debt relief and a trans­par­ent deci­sion-mak­ing process around the dis­tri­b­u­tion of aid resources, among oth­er things.

After the Day of Action event in New York, Eliz­a­beth Yeampierre, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of Uprose, a New York City-based group and mem­ber of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance, told In These Times, To have the waiv­er because they want to make the sip­ping indus­try hap­py at the expense of the lives of the Puer­to Rican peo­ple is an inter­na­tion­al disgrace.”

Asked about mar­itime unions’ con­cerns over lift­ing the Jones Act, Yeampierre, her­self Puer­to Rican, says, It can’t just be about their pay and their resources right now, because cli­mate change is com­ing for all of us. Jus­tice is not one of those things you can parse. When I have a labor dis­pute it’s not about get­ting jus­tice for my peo­ple but no one else.”

Why unions and ship­ping com­pa­nies like it

Mar­itime unions have mount­ed their defense of the Jones Act on the basis that it pro­tects sea­far­ing work­ers and well-paid Amer­i­can jobs. The Jones Act is one way to insure that ves­sels oper­at­ing between U.S. ports respect fair labor stan­dards and don’t exploit sea­far­ers,” Craig Mer­rilees, Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Direc­tor for the Inter­na­tion­al Long­shore & Ware­house Union, told In These Times.

To get around strict labor stan­dards in the Unit­ed States and else­where, ship own­ers may adopt a prac­tice known as re-flag­ging,” or reg­is­ter­ing a ves­sel in a coun­try — say Liberia or Pana­ma — with lax work­er pro­tec­tions. Fly­ing under so-called Flags of Con­ve­nience” is a way for mar­itime oper­a­tors to exploit work­ers on their ships, who are espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to mis­treat­ment due to their depen­dence on employ­ers dur­ing extend­ed trips at sea.

By pre­vent­ing this eva­sion, Mer­rilees says, the Jones Act is an impor­tant pro­tec­tor of decent work­ing con­di­tions and good-pay­ing jobs for sea­far­ers in the ship­ping indus­try. Crews on U.S. flagged ships rarely expe­ri­ence any­thing like the ter­ri­ble abuse and exploita­tion often found on ves­sels fly­ing a flag of convenience.”

The Jones Act has cre­at­ed a some­what coun­ter­in­tu­itive set of polit­i­cal alliances: Ship­ping com­pa­nies like it for the access it gives them to U.S. ports and make hay about its impor­tance to nation­al secu­ri­ty, while mar­itime unions want to defend the work­place pro­tec­tions it pro­vides. At the same time, oppo­nents of the Jones Act make the case that the law unfair­ly dri­ves up the cost of liv­ing in Puer­to Rico, which is already high­er than on the main­land by virtue of the island being large­ly depen­dent on imports. Then there are the politi­cians such as John McCain and free mar­ket think-tanks includ­ing the Her­itage Foun­da­tion, that have lob­bied against the bill on anti-reg­u­la­to­ry, anti-labor grounds.

The scale of disaster

While the pol­i­tics sur­round­ing the Jones Act remain thorny, sev­er­al oth­er fac­tors also impede the flow of aid to Puer­to Rican res­i­dents — includ­ing the Trump Admin­is­tra­tion itself.

Pres­i­dent Trump threat­ened on Twit­ter last week to dis­band fed­er­al relief efforts on the island entire­ly. An offi­cial state­ment lat­er clar­i­fied that suc­cess­ful recov­er­ies do not last for­ev­er.” Reports in the weeks since the storm have told of ship­ping con­tain­ers strand­ed at ports due to downed logis­tics net­works and gov­ern­ment mis­man­age­ment, and even goods being con­fis­cat­ed at the San Juan air­port after being flown in on com­mer­cial planes.

Gal­lisá Muri­ente dealt with sim­i­lar issues after Hur­ri­cane Sandy, strug­gling to pro­cure aid for some of the hard­est-hit parts of New York City, albeit on a dif­fer­ent scale. That was a big les­son for me from Sandy: That there’s no such thing as a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter,” she says. It’s real­ly the human dis­as­ters that com­pli­cate things — social con­di­tion­ing, pri­or­i­ties, bureau­cra­cy. And it doesn’t work to go back to nor­mal when that nor­mal was also problematic.”

Already, Gal­lisá Muri­ente notes, she and oth­ers have put some of the lessons learned in Occu­py Sandy to work on the ground, while rec­og­niz­ing that there are major dif­fer­ences between con­duct­ing grass­roots relief efforts in the Big Apple and on a small, aus­ter­i­ty-strick­en island.

There are cer­tain gen­er­al logis­ti­cal things that we’ve bor­rowed from that expe­ri­ence: cre­at­ing lists of sug­gest­ed dona­tions, Ama­zon reg­istries where peo­ple can buy spe­cif­ic things that we need,” she says. The gov­er­nor keeps say­ing every­thing is fine and is talk­ing about all the aid com­ing in, but no one sees it or feels like things are get­ting any better.”

Herib­er­to Martínez-Otero, who teach­es eco­nom­ics at a high school in San Juan and at the Inter-Amer­i­can Uni­ver­si­ty of Puer­to Rico, told In These Times via Skype that there are still 5 or 6 munic­i­pal­i­ties that are incom­mu­ni­ca­do. Most of the munic­i­pal­i­ties with com­mu­ni­ca­tions,” he adds, don’t have ATMs or open banks. The schools are not open, and the hos­pi­tals are with­out power…except for some areas here in San Juan and some of the priv­i­leged sub­urbs, every­thing is a com­plete disaster.”

He also notes issues with the sparse relief efforts that are being admin­is­tered, main­ly by the U.S. gov­ern­ment. FEMA, I don’t know where they are. But the U.S. mil­i­tary are mov­ing around most parts of the island with big guns,” says Martínez-Otero. These guys think this is a war zone.”

What’s next for the island

Many Puer­to Ricans — while rec­og­niz­ing the role the U.S. mil­i­tary plays in dis­as­ter relief — are weary of hav­ing troops on the ground for the long-term. Speak­ing to me from his class­room in San Juan, Martínez-Otero says, On the streets here, in front of the school, this is a mil­i­tary state.”

I am against the Jones Act,” Martínez-Otero con­tin­ues, but I don’t know if waiv­ing the Jones Act is the way to solve the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion we’re in.” He also men­tioned that it was hard to tell whether the 10-day waiv­er had improved con­di­tions on the island, say­ing that a year-long waiv­er would like­ly be nec­es­sary in order to improve Puer­to Rico’s dis­tri­b­u­tion infrastructure.

Debates around the Jones Act aren’t like­ly to be resolved in the near future, and cer­tain­ly not before the Sen­ate moves to vote on the short-term, loan-based aid pack­age for Puer­to Rico that the House passed on Thurs­day. What does seem clear is that the over­lap­ping crises on the island aren’t like­ly to end any­time soon — and U.S. pol­i­cy is only help­ing deep­en them.

Kate Aronoff is a Brook­lyn-based jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing cli­mate and U.S. pol­i­tics, and a con­tribut­ing writer at The Inter­cept. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @katearonoff.
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