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The Jones Act and the American Maritime Industry at 100

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File image courtesy Crowley Maritime

By Michael Roberts 06-04-2020 04:38:00

This Friday, June 5, 2020, is the 100th anniversary of the Jones Act, the fundamental law of the American maritime industry. This centennial arrives at an extraordinary time for our nation—in the middle of a historic pandemic.

In many ways, the pandemic has illustrated why America needs a strong domestic maritime industry and laws like the Jones Act. I have seen first-hand how American maritime has responded to this crisis, and I am so very proud to be associated with this community. This is a black swan event, and there are gaps in the rulebook. But decisive decisions have to be made, and these are the times when character and culture take over. 

For American maritime – the choice is imminently clear. It is second nature for this industry to step up and answer the call to duty.  Our dedicated American mariners do not say: “There’s some risk in being outside our homes, so we’ll stay inside safe and Covid-free.” Instead, American mariners go outside their homes so that the grocery stores in San Juan and Honolulu and Anchorage are filled. They work around the clock to ensure basic commodities—lumber, iron ore, grains, petroleum, the building blocks of almost everything important to our nation—can move on our inland waterways and Great Lakes. American mariners proudly show up to clear our harbors, so that we can keep building modern ships to keep our supply chain working. It is simply what they have always done throughout the nation’s rich history – service without hesitation. 

I am proud to be part of this community, and I am grateful for the leadership that we have seen from across our government. As U.S. Maritime Administration Admiral Mark Buzby encouraged us: “These are the times when leaders lead.” 

The leadership we have seen throughout the industry has been extraordinary. From the top executives to the ship captains to the line mariners who lead by setting the right example by their behavior. Navigating new circumstances is what we must do in times like these. For example, the Ship Operators Cooperative Program put together a thoughtful and detailed set of protocols for how to prevent COVID-19 infection from reaching vessel crews, and how to deal with it if it happens. Other groups have done similar work, and all of it is continuously updated as more information comes in.

The character and culture of the American maritime industry is driving leaders at every level to find solutions to keep people safe and keep supply chains moving. We’re not unique, as many other American workers and businesses have stepped up with character to do the right thing. However, I do not believe all industries have this same ethic – commitment to delivering for our nation – as our American mariners demonstrate daily. 

In light of all this, I can say today—100 years after the enactment of the U.S. Merchant Marine Act, also commonly known as the Jones Act, and 230 years since its principles were originally adopted by the first American Congress—that this fundamental law remains as important as ever. The Jones Act provides critical national, economic, and homeland security benefits. It helps support 650,000 American jobs with an annual economic impact of more than $150 billion. It is embraced by our military leaders, and it helps keep our homeland secure. These are the reasons the Jones Act has a century of longevity. These are the reasons, and many others, that it enjoys broad bipartisan support in the halls of Congress today.  

While we celebrate this foundational law on its centennial, the real story of the American maritime industry today is its people. These are the essential workers serving on our front lines to keep the supply chain moving and delivering the goods and resources that sustain our nation. The 650,000 men and women of American maritime are the work horses that keep our economy moving and our nation strong, secure and true through even the worst possible national crises.  There can be no greater evidence for the importance of a strong American maritime industry and the Jones Act on its 100th anniversary than this industry’s response to the 2020 pandemic, against a backdrop of a century of service and sacrifice to always answer the call for American security. 

Michael Roberts is the senior vice president of Crowley Maritime and the president of the American Maritime Partnership, the national Jones Act coalition.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.