Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Protectionist Legislation, The Jones Act

Ron Ault,
Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

Sometime I feel like Don Quixote, tilting at windmills. Fighting against the U.S. federal government, the combined might of four giant, multi-national corporations, the Maritime Labor Organizations, the U.S. Ship owners and a lot of heavy political hitters in the Philadelphia region could make you feel slightly paranoid. My wife tells me she wants me to increase my life insurance policy…such was the case last Thursday, April 17, 2008, when we appeared in Philadelphia federal district court in our lawsuit (PMTC v. Allen, et al.) against the U.S. Coast Guard whacky interpretation of the Jones Act that reverses the original intent of Congress and is plainly at odds with the requirements of the law. This is our third consecutive federal lawsuit against the Bush Administration on behalf of America’s workers.

Our lawsuit is really simple- The U.S. Coast Guard is allowing Aker Philadelphia Shipyard (we represent the workers) to partner with HMD (Hyundai Mipo Dockyards South Korean Shipyards) and jointly build the U.S. double hull Product Tankers (oil tankers). Aker basically builds most of the outer hull of these ships while HMD builds or buys everything else in South Korea and ships it over prefabricated and assembled to Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. Since we filed our lawsuit, General Dynamics National Steel Shipyard has developed a similar partnership with Daewoo South Korean shipyards also using South Korean prefabricated preassembled kit ships. This is contrary to the clear and plain language of the Jones Act.

The Jones Act (as described by the Coast Guard and its Justice Department lawyers) is an 80 year old “protectionist law” that protects American shipbuilding, American crews and American ship owners from foreign competition for port-to-port, U.S. coastal trade. The Jones Act requires U.S. flagged ships to be manufactured in the USA, assembled entirely in the USA, crewed by U.S. crews and owned by U.S. citizens. The purpose of the Jones Act isd to insure a robust U.S. Merchant Marine and U.S. Shipbuilding Industry in the event of national emergencies. For 80 years ships built for the Jones Act were made in the USA and assembled entirely in the USA. “PMTC v. Allen” is the first federal Jones Act lawsuit over the building of a U.S. vessel in the history of the Jones Act. Why? Because this is the first time anyone has “interpreted” the Jones Act to allow Hyundai Mipo Dockyards to build the guts of the ship, assemble all these foreign parts in their massive South Korea shipyards in huge “modules” of completed systems (hydraulics systems, Engine room systems, compressed air systems, complete deck winches and cranes with motors, cable and electrical controls, brake assemblies, etc. all painted and piped up, ready to operate. No U.S. assembly required.

I was saddened to witness the U.S. Department of Justice aggressively defending the Coast Guard’s actions in this case in federal court. One argument I heard was that the Coast Guard was advancing two of its three interests under the Jones Act by fostering a robust US Merchant Marine and a US Shipping interest at the expense of US Shipbuilding. The government indicated to the judge that the cost of building a ship in the US would be too high if it were built entirely in the US and that the Coast Guard had been making rules for many years that allowed U.S. Shipbuilders to use foreign parts to build Jones Act ships. They argued that these Korean built modules of completed assemblies (some weighing several tons and as big as 60 feet by 40 feet) were merely “parts” under the Coast Guard interpretation and as long as they were lowered into a hull in the U.S. for final “assembly” they met the requirements of the Jones Act. The Justice Department attorneys went on to argue that the Union should be happy that we are getting any work on new construction, that if we are successful in our lawsuit it might become too expensive to build Jones Act ships in the USA. And if the judge did find all this just too much to swallow, that she had to give deference to the Coast Guard’s interpretation of “manufactured in the USA and assembled entirely in the U.S.” unless she found that interpretation so outrageous as it was completely contrary to the law.

Why? Why is the Bush Administration so anti “Made in the U.S.A.” that they would go to such extremes as to disadvantage American business and reduce our national defense capabilities? This Administration has chosen again and again to give preference to foreign suppliers over American business:
• Sikorsky Aviation in New York was the lead defense contractor to build the new presidential helicopter (the next President will ride in it). However, the Bush Administration selected a European consortium headed up by an Italian corporation for the contract. Sikorsky’s helicopter was determined to be a better and safer helicopter than the Italian helicopter, but that did not matter. Neither did the requirements of Title 10, the “Buy American Act” that require goods and services for the U.S. military be purchased “made in the U.S.A.” whenever possible. This “Presidential Helicopter” is a military helicopter. In fact, under Bush the “Buy American Act” has been waived so often it is essentially unenforced. We buy our electronic chips for Navy sonar buoys from Communist China (funny, we can’t detect Chinese submarines with them), M-16 .223 ammo from Israel and other foreign countries while we lay off Remington ammo workers in Loneoak, Arkansas, and—still in today’s headlines—the European Airbus $4 billion initial contract for airborne refueling tankers (with an additional 40 billion dollars of contract options). In fact, we buy so much of our military hardware and supplies from foreign sources that we have lost the ability for a war time industrial surge capacity in America. America would not be able to defend herself if our foreign sources refused to sell us these essential manufactured military goods. We do not have stockpiles of these supplies any more…because we practice “just in time inventory”…- In the event of a shooting war, if our defense materials are not delivered in time we would have no choice but surrender our nation or pull the all out nuclear trigger of Armageddon. There is a passage in the Bible that says “there will be wars and rumors of war until the end of time.”

80 years ago a far sighted and patriotic Congress foresaw such a possibility and declared that it was in America’s strategic interests to have a robust U.S. Shipbuilding industry to protect our island nation in time of national emergency. They passed and the President signed the Jones Act into a law that has served this nation well. Indeed, shipyards are our nation’s defense arsenal. Obviously, the Coast Guard has lost sight of that purpose, we’re hopeful that the courts will put them back on the right track.
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Monday, March 3, 2008

Let Freedom Ring

Ron Ault,
Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

On March 1, 2008, the U.S.S. New York, LPD-21, will be commissioned in an elaborate, traditional Naval ceremony capped by a bottle of champagne breaking across her expansive bow at Northrop Grumman Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans, Louisiana. 7.5 tons of steel taken from the World Trade Center wreckage is cast into her majestic bow. The image of that cowardly terrorist attack is forever superimposed into the American psyche. It is poetic justice that an avenging United States Naval warship should contain as part of its soul, a portion of the destroyed World Trade Center structure that took more than 3,000 innocent lives.

Let Freedom Ring! Nothing could tug at the heart and inflame the national passions of patriotism more than this fitting image. Our members built the USS New York. They put their blood, sweat and expertise as highly skilled shipbuilders into building the USS New York. Working in a noisy, dangerous, heavy industrial environment with high humidity and air temperatures often hovering at or near 100 degrees, our members take hundreds of tons of raw materials, miles of piping, valves and machinery, cast, forge, form, bend steel plate into complex shapes and weld the hulls into sleek, highly complex, modern warships with offensive capabilities unheard of just a few years ago. Our members install and test highly classified, sensitive electronics, advanced weapons and propulsion systems in these 21st century naval warships.

Our Metal Trades Council members have built, overhauled and converted thousands of such advanced Navy ships over the past 100 years and we are justifiably proud of the craftsmanship and quality of these ships as they steam out of our shipyards and take their place in the fleet protecting our nation. We know they are the finest and most capable such ships in the world, because we build every ship knowing full well that it will be our Sons and Daughters who sail these ships in harm’s way and fight our nation’s battles.

But there is another untold story hidden in the shadows of the magnificent U.S.S. New York. Meet Mr. J.F. Martinez, a long term employee of NG Avondale shipyard who has worked at Avondale for 29 years. Mr. Martinez is a shipfitter/welder, and a member of Boilermakers, Local Union 1814, one of the affiliated Local Unions of the New Orleans Metal Trades Council, AFL-CIO, the umbrella labor organization that represents all the blue collar workers who build ships at NG Avondale shipyard. Mr. Martinez is a worker who welded the steel from the World Trade Center into the bow of this great warship. “I am very proud that my skills and hard work helped build this great ship and that the steel I welded from the World Trade Center is part of this warship,” said Mr. Martinez. “I used to live in New Orleans East and after Hurricane Katrina destroyed everything I owned, I wondered if I would ever be able to rebuild my life and continue to build ships. It has been so hard and we aren’t there yet.” In fact, Mr. Martinez’s life is anything but normal. Married with two grown Daughters, he is one of the hundreds of thousands of Gulf Coast workers who lost everything they owned, yet have struggled to maintain their dignity and rebuild their lives, while living in a FEMA furnished trailer.

While FEMA is evicting Gulf Coast families out of unsafe Katrina trailers, homeowners insurance is unaffordable and largely unavailable for Gulf Coast residents. Government could help by requiring private insurers to pool risks and resources to provide homeowners insurance and facilitate rebuilding the residential communities destroyed by Katrina and Rita. Government could do a lot to facilitate the reconstruction of the devastation, but it hasn’t. There has been no government coordination and streamlining of the various government agencies and programs into a clearinghouse of help for the hundreds of thousands of our fellow citizens. Just think about where America is today…We are in a major Recession. Foreclosures are at record highs as homeowners join the unemployed and homeless.

The Gulf Coast must be rebuilt. There is no option. The longer we wait, the more it will cost. Rebuilding the Gulf Coast in 2008 is a hundred times a better economic stimulus than the paltry $600 tax rebate program of the Bush Administration (that you and I will have to pay for in taxes next year.) Just stop and think of the economic ripple effect across the entire U.S. economy of tens of thousands of new, good-paying construction jobs rebuilding 740,000 homes and 9,000 business destroyed by Katrina. America would have a booming economy this year; not a recession, doing the right thing by rebuilding the Gulf Coast. Our Government has the power and the ability to appoint a Gulf Coast Reconstruction Czar at the White House level to cut across all agencies and programs. Such a bold and decisive move would draw wide bipartisan support in Congress and could be accomplished in just days, if we had bold and compassionate National leadership.

Are you ready for a booming economy that works for all? It is up to us to demand more than lip service by our politicians. Let Freedom Ring!

Thursday, February 14, 2008

“Pop A Top Again”

“Pop a top again
I just got time for one more round
Sit em up my friends
Then I'll be gone
Then you can let some other fool sit down”

Country/Western artist Alan Jackson sings a song about drinking….pretty much a standard C & W signature theme…why is this a topic I am writing about? Let me ask you an important question. Would you give an alcoholic another drink to help his recovery from alcoholism? That is exactly the solution President Bush has proposed for the ailing economy and is pushing through Congress…and not one member of Congress has the guts to stand up and say no to serving this drink to some estimated 200,000,000 voting alcoholics in an election year. What member of Congress wants to be the one that takes the blame for taking away your $600.00 tax rebate?

We need to think this through, logically…to fix the broken U.S. economy and bring us out of recession, the Bush administration is going to add even more national debt (to the tune of billions of dollars) just to give every tax payer $600 to $1000 dollars rebate and then urge us tax payers to go down to the local “Wally World” and spend it; buy a Red Chinese made flat screen TV so the “economy” will get better…duh! I am just a simple country boy from Amity, Arkansas, but it seems to me this is exactly how we got in a recession in the first place!

The credit card, “borrow and spend” Bush government took a trillion dollar surplus and in less than 12 months in office, sunk our nation into a trillion dollar deficit…even a simple country boy like me can add that up and see that totals two trillion dollars of unfunded Bush credit card spending. What was the money spent on?

The number one priority of that spending was to give Bush’s rich political supporters windfall tax breaks. Billionaires like Warren Buffet didn’t need a federal tax rebate, but none of them turned it down.

Bush went to war in Iraq to take out Hussein and when he did, he spent the treasury of our nation like a drunken sailor on liberty with a month’s sea pay in his pocket…and it has never stopped.

Even before the Iraqi war, the Bush administration was borrowing money to support his government spending. His national spending increased every month the war has continued. The U. S. national debt under Bush has increased geometrically and is funded by borrowing the money from foreign nations. Communist China has become a major U.S. lender and is one of the biggest bankers of the Bush government.

Every dime of this unfunded spending has been generated under the leadership of the standard bearers of the “Conservative” wing of the Republican Party: George W. Bush. Tom “the Hammer” DeLay, Vice President, and former Halliburton CEO, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Grover Norquist, Karl Rove, Denny Hastert, Bill Frist, Duke Cunningham, Lindsey Graham, Trent Lott, Haley Barbour, Mark Foley, John Warner, David Vitter, John McCain, Doc Hastings, Ted Stevens, Larry Craig, and the list goes on…In fact, nearly every Republican in each House of Congress—with few and very rare exceptions—marched in lock step with their Party’s leader, George W. Bush. None of the Conservative Republicans in Congress or in the Administration had a problem or voiced real opposition to the ballooning national debt as long as it was being spent on their priorities and not on any “Social Entitlement” programs like public schools, social security, veteran benefits, public health, aid to dependent children, or school lunch programs. Now, since Democrats took back the House and Senate, and are shifting national spending priorities away from the Republican’s war, suddenly we have a “fiscal” crisis in government spending and Bush and his followers are demanding a 50% reduction in federal spending or he will veto it? Does the word “Hypocrisy” come to mind?

Think of this- Do you balance your home budget? Keep your family’s checkbook balanced? How do you do it? Do you just keep maxing out all your credit cards and never send in any payments to the creditors? That is how George W. Bush’s administration and his Republican Congress ran our federal government. Even today, Republican Congressional lawmakers in the House and Senate are blocking any attempts by Democrats to change any of the spending priorities of the Bush Administration.

We can’t run our households the way Bush runs America, can we? We have to limit our family spending and pay our bills or the power companies will turn off our utilities. We either have to get a better job that pays more money or cut back on what we spend.

Bush thinks the recession is a result of you and I maxing out our credit and cutting way back on our consumer spending. Bush thinks giving us more debt and another $600 a year of more credit is a great idea and will fix the recession. You and I will spend a lot more than $600 a year on just the increased price of $3.00 a gallon gas and $4.00 a gallon milk…under George W. Bush’s leadership, the Federal Reserve has dropped interest rates for borrowing all the away down to 3% in an attempt to get the economy going. Giving you more debt and cheaper credit is the way the Republicans think we can borrow our way out of recession. As Alan Jackson sings…Pop a top again! Give us another round, my friend…

Fixing a recession is very, very simple. Democratic President Franklin D. Roosevelt figured it out in the early 1930’s after Republican President Herbert Hoover’s administration (an uncanny likeness in its economic policies to today’s Bush Administration) had led America into the worst “recession” in history (but it was called The Depression then).

Roosevelt put America back to work by creating millions of blue collar jobs to rebuild public infrastructure. Franklin D. Roosevelt also created a fair system of redistributing America’s national wealth. Roosevelt legalized free trade unions by advocating, supporting and passing the National Labor Relations Act. Roosevelt knew that free trade unions were the most effective way to redistribute wealth from the super rich/big business owners to the average hourly worker, whose work and toil made these owners rich. Under Franklin Roosevelt’s administration workers’ wages and standards of living rose dramatically, public schools and colleges were built to educate millions of the children of the “working class” and union membership in America peaked.

The elite “old” money “ruling class” families hated Franklin D. Roosevelt, and considered him a traitor to his family’s ruling class traditions. The conservatives labeled him a “socialist” and demeaned his depression recovery plans as “entitlement programs.” Businessman and banker Prescott Bush, George W. Bush’s grandfather, was typical. As a businessman, Prescott Bush publicly berated Social Security and vigorously opposed Roosevelt’s legislative programs. By the time he worked his way up to win a Republican Senate seat in Connecticut in 1950, Prescott Bush was considered a rising star among his conservative Republican colleagues.

When George W. Bush came in office the very first Executive Order he signed as President prohibited unions from entering into “Project Labor Agreements” for building large public construction project like the new Interstate 495 Woodrow Wilson bridge across the Potomac River from Virginia to Maryland.

Under George W. Bush’s leadership, every department of the federal government declared an open war on America’s free trade unions. For the past seven years, Bush’s Department of Labor has been prostituted into an anti-labor/anti-worker organization and like the biggest, meanest junkyard dog, Bush has sic’ed it on organized labor and America’s workers. The National Labor Relations Board has become the hand maiden of corporations, and the enemy of America’s workers. The DOL advises employers how to avoid paying hourly workers overtime pay.

No department of the federal government has been exempted from the pro business, anti worker policies. The Right Wing, Think Tank zealots like those of the Heritage Foundation have been assigned by President Bush to take over every aspect of the federal government and to systematically dismantle every program President Franklin D. Roosevelt built.

The Bush recession and his war on America’s middle class are the direct result of his politically driven, Neo-Conservative policies made possible by the aid and support of the Republican Members of Congress. These unrelenting seven years of attacks by Bush and his cronies, have resulted in the greatest unfair distribution of wealth in the history of our nation and has systematically destroyed what free trade unions created—the American Middle Class. Today, there are only two classes in America; the “Haves” and the “Have Not’s.” That will not change until we change the mission of government back to the clear vision of our founding Fathers—that the federal government’s mission is to provide essential goods and services to its citizens.

A vote for Republicans in the November 2008 General Election is a vote to stay the present course of government and give George W. Bush’s vision of federal government a third four year term…..or America can vote to change the direction of our nation. Only you can make that happen. If we listen to the dishonest-dirty tricks “Swift Boat” smear ads and chase the old emotional wedge issues, they will win again.

Make your Vote count! Your nation and your family’s future are depending on you!

In Solidarity,

Ron Ault
Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO

Thursday, January 10, 2008

A “Special Interest” Group

I was up on Capital Hill testifying before a select Committee on Energy just before the Christmas holidays. One staffer identified me as representing a “special interest group.” This is not the first time I have had this experience when presenting labor’s views or testifying on behalf of American workers. Isn’t it a shame when the average American worker—the men and women who support themselves and their families by turning wrenches, bending their backs and applying their knowledge and experience to turn out the products and services that make America work—is considered a “special interest” by our elected representatives in Congress? Isn’t it a shame that the folks who play by the rules, pay their taxes, support our defense, serve in the military, volunteer for charitable causes, coach youth sports, act as the backbone to our churches and civic organizations are considered a “special interest” just because they speak out against stagnating wages, compromised job safety or demand the right to decent health care and the right to organize into unions?

These same politicians don’t attach the “special interest group” label to the lobbyists for the Insurance Industry, the Medical Corporations, the Banking/Credit Card Industry, Oil and Gas Industry, Airline Industry, Drug Companies, Defense Contracting Industry and the Transportation Industry… and they all seem to get special treatment with head-of-the-line privileges. Is it because they are contributing big bucks to political campaigns? I think American workers are “special” because we make America work. But, when the politicians use that “special interest” label on labor reps, the connotation is that in pursuing our interests we are somehow cheating the rest of the nation or “gaming” the system.

Big money has corrupted our political system and has stolen our democracy. Every so often you hear some huff and puff from politicians that we need to curb the influence of money in elections…yeah, and I’m Santa Claus, too…that rhetoric is nothing more than smearing a little lipstick on this pig. Every so-called “campaign finance reform” that Congress has passed has been matched with an equal number of loopholes that allow “exceptions” and neutralize real reform. And, still the corruption in government continues—the vote buying, graft, bribery, misconduct and a general attitude of “I am above the law” by some elected leaders rubs our noses in the inequities of this corrupt system. No matter how many Americans want our government to change to make their lives better, no real change takes place. No matter how many polls show we want no more American jobs sent overseas, Congress and the President continue to negotiate and sign unfair trade treaties that mortgage our children’s future.

It is against this back drop that the results of the Iowa Presidential caucus shout “Americans want a change.” Surprise, surprise…the political pundits stand out in the freezing cold with cherry red faces, clouds from their steaming breath reporting live from New Hampshire and act as if this was front page news. Duh! After eight years of seeing the standard of living for the average American plummet; as home values drop; as our savings remain at an all-time low; as the U.S. dollar turns into devalued “monopoly money” like some third world country; as we relive the vivid images of Hurricane Katrina survivors dying for lack of water while waiting for days in sweltering 100 degree temperatures on bridges, rooftops and the Super Dome…and as the price of gasoline becomes unaffordable for the tens of millions of American minimum wage workers…Yeah, America wants a new deal. A “New Deal” like Franklin D. Roosevelt delivered when America’s workers were in the darkest hours of the Great Depression?
Eight years ago George W. Bush promised “change” as an outsider to the “inside the beltway” Washington establishment? His administration and the majority Republican Congress delivered a terrible change in government!

This game is crooked and the rules are unfair. We can’t win and our government is the problem; not the solution. When the U.S. Department of Labor website gives employers tips on how to avoid paying their workers overtime pay for working more than 40 hours in a work week, our system of government is broken. Government is supposed to provide essential goods and services for citizens. When government has been prostituted to serve the interests of industry and commerce at the expense of the citizens, it is delivering oppression and exploitation, not service. We don’t need just a “change.” We’ve already had the Bush “change” and it hurts! We need an entirely new deal.

I am disappointed that no one has yet put forth a comprehensive plan to bring back the American middle class and redistribute the unfair distribution of wealth in America. Wages have been stagnating in the U.S. for almost forty years. The wealthy have gotten an unfair and disproportionate share of America’s resources. They are not going to share that wealth without a fight. And they won’t fight fair. They buy their way in by corrupting honest, but weak people with obscene amounts of money.

If America’s workers sticks together, go to the polls and vote, money won’t distort elections. That is a big “IF” and it hasn’t been the case for many years….Big money has found that it’s easy to divide and conquer working people…the hired political guns separate workers by race, religion, by ethnicity, geographic region, by “hot” emotional “value” issues like “gay marriage”, “gun control” or “abortion.” And, big money interests stay in power and manipulate our government for their own benefit. We all know these “divide and conquer” false political issues are not ever going to be addressed or fixed, but we still get caught in the trap.

I’m an optimist…But I also believe that we’ll only get genuine change and a valid new deal when all of us every day Americans; the so-called “special interest group,” stand up and demand it.
In Solidarity,
Ron Ault
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