The 1980s were a difficult time for both the labor movement and the U.S. maritime industry. A fatal strike by the Professional Air Traffic Controllers (PATCO) early in the decade set the stage for what was to come.
Federal programs that had provided a minimum safety net for millions of American workers were axed. The National Labor Relations Board was packed with anti-union appointees. Business groups began holding seminars on how to break unions. The percentage of the American workforce holding membership in a union dropped below 20 percent for the first time in the post-war era. The situation was exacerbated by the rise of a new economic order: globalization. Even in the early stages of its development, it was clear that U.S. companies were exploring ways to transfer American jobs overseas to places where they could evade U.S. wages, safety and environmental standards.
The maritime industry was hit hard as well. Funding for the Construction Differential Subsidy program was halted, which resulted in the virtual demise of the nation’s commercial shipbuilding industry. Attacks were made on the Title XI Loan Guarantee Program and the Capital Construction Fund. The USPHS hospital system, which had provided civilian mariners with quality medical care for nearly 200 years, was shut down. The federal government procrastinated on a new vessel liner subsidy program, even though the program, which was central to the continued survival of the U.S. maritime industry, had begun to expire.
Anti-maritime groups began targeting core industry programs, particularly the Jones Act and cargo preference. While support for the Jones Act remained steady during the decade, agricultural groups were able to mount a serious challenge to the Cargo Preference Act of 1954. The MTD and its affiliated unions played a leading role in bringing about a compromise between maritime and agricultural groups on the issue.
Despite these tense conditions, maritime workers were able to survive the decade in decent enough style. MTD-affiliated unions representing shipyard and shipboard workers were able to take advantage of the tremendous increase in Naval construction and a restructuring of the federal procurement process to save tens of thousands of vitally important maritime jobs. Shipboard unions continued to invest heavily in their training facilities and began establishing an important foundation for a productive new working relationship with the Department of Defense.