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America's Dwindling Merchant Fleet Is Sending Out an SOS

The loss of jobs as a result of competition from foreign ships has decimated the ranks of commercial seafarers.

January 19, 2003|Nancy Cleeland | Times Staff Writer

A sailor's life was the life for Andy Andersen. Lucky for him he was born 78 years ago.

Back in his prime, the U.S. merchant fleet was the largest in the world, with hundreds of cargo ships casting off each month from the Pacific Coast. Andersen still grins about the weeks he lost in Manila, Hong Kong, Malaysia's Sibu and other distant ports, whose names alone could set a young adventurer's heart racing.

"We were the blessed ones," he says, standing in an empty San Francisco hiring hall that once spilled over with eager seafarers. "It's a totally different world now."

These days, Andersen works behind the dispatch counter at the headquarters of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, where he parcels out a handful of jobs each morning. There are regular cargo runs to Hawaii and Alaska, rare spots on oil tankers and, lately, an occasional shipload of arms to the Persian Gulf.

When he first picked up his membership card at that same counter in 1951, the bustling coast-wide union had about 9,000 members working everything from passenger ships to tramp steamers. Today, there are just 800 members, and many are close to retirement.

"There's no work for the young kids," Andersen says. "They might have the desire, but to make a living, they have to go somewhere else."

To explain what happened, he need only point to the giant ships lumbering past union headquarters on the San Francisco Bay. Nearly every one of them is foreign-owned, foreign-flagged and crewed by foreign sailors who count themselves lucky to earn $500 a month.

The same is true from Long Beach to Alaska and all along the Eastern Seaboard. Last year, U.S. ships carried less than 4% of the cargo entering and leaving U.S. ports, according to the Maritime Administration, a division of the Transportation Department. The portion probably would be close to zero if not for a few protective laws and subsidy programs that free-trade advocates would like to abolish.

After decades of bleeding, the U.S. merchant marine, comprising the nation's commercial vessels and seafaring labor force, has reached critical condition, industry veterans say. "We need to do something to at least stem the decline," says Maritime Administrator Capt. William Schubert.

The loss of jobs has gutted once-feisty unions representing deckhands, engineers, mates and pilots, and essentially has closed the door on what had been a bright option for working-class youths.

Risk to Security

Schubert and others also view the nation's dependence on foreign ships and crews as a security risk, especially now in the context of terrorism alerts and the possibility of war in Iraq.

A recent report on terrorism by the General Accounting Office noted that the military routinely uses foreign-crewed vessels to ship such battlefield essentials as helicopters and rocket launchers. It cited this practice as a "significant weakness" that could allow sensitive equipment to "fall into the hands of individuals or groups whose interests are counter to those of the United States."The dearth of trained U.S. seafarers would be felt even more keenly during a large-scale conflict, when commercial mariners typically are called on to supplement the military by operating supply ships.

The well already has run dry once -- during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the Sailors' Union kept members on back-to-back shifts and called 50 retirees back into service, according to Gunnar Lundeberg, union president. Today, the union is 500 members smaller, and fewer of its retirees are fit for service.

Schubert, the maritime administrator, advocates an expansion of commercial U.S. shipping, which would help draw more young workers into the business, and new training opportunities such as high school apprentice programs and a merchant marine reserve.

He also has lobbied Congress to maintain and even expand a $100-million annual subsidy program that keeps 47 commercial vessels on international routes under the U.S. flag, employing hundreds of U.S. mariners. The Maritime Security Program, which was the subject of three House subcommittee hearings last fall, will expire in 2005 without congressional action.

His motivation grows in part out of personal experience: Schubert himself worked as an officer in the Merchant Marine for 12 years. When he came out of the Merchant Marine Academy in King's Point, N.Y., in 1974, there were 45,000 qualified seafarers in the country, from sailors to officers. Now, he says, that number is down to about 15,000.

And global economic forces are running strongly against the expansion of a U.S. commercial fleet.

By registering their ships in tax havens such as Liberia, Panama or the Bahamas, owners realize immediate savings, along with more relaxed health and safety requirements and a staggering differential in crew costs.

Union sailors, who crew most U.S.-flagged ships, earn about $6,000 a month when they're at sea and enjoy good health benefits and pensions as long as they work at least 60 days a year.

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