Maritime workers demonstrated that their strong performance during the first Persian Gulf War was no fluke. Throughout the 1990s, they provided strategic sealift support for U.S. efforts in such far-flung places as Haiti, Bosnia, Somalia and Iraq.
Realizing that the maritime workers had important roles to play in protecting America’s strategic interests in a post-Cold War era, Congress began taking steps to preserve a viable domestic industry. It started with the nation’s shipyards.
In the previous decade, thanks in large part to the dismantling of the CDS program, the number of domestic shipyard and repair facilities had declined by one-third; more than 100,000 jobs were lost. Determined to preserve this vitally important industry, bipartisan majorities in both chambers of Congress enacted the Defense Reconversion Act of 1993. Signed into law by then President Clinton, the bill restored funding for the Title XI shipbuilding loan guarantee program and put incentives in places for economic research and development.
Over the next decade, hundreds of vessels of all types—ro-ros, containerships, barges and tankers—were built in U.S. shipyards. The historic Philadelphia naval shipyard, which had been forced to close its doors, reopened under new management. (Despite these impressive developments, Congress eventually cut all funding for the Title XI shipbuilding loan program. Restoring it remains a priority for the Department.)
The federal government continued making progress in laying the foundation for a strong national maritime policy by enacting the Maritime Security Act of 1995. Among other things, it created a Maritime Security Program (MSP) that provides for a fleet of militarily useful U.S.-flag commercial vessels, crewed by U.S. citizens that can be immediately called upon during national emergencies or war. The 10-year program established a fleet of 47 U.S.-flag vessels engaged in the waterborne commerce of the United States.
Seeking to make use of the intermodal capabilities of the private-sector companies enrolled in the MSP, the federal government also put into place the Voluntary Intermodal Sealift Agreement, or VISA. The program has ushered in an unprecedented era of comprehensive and integrated peacetime planning and exercises—something not done before the Gulf War.
Thanks to the exceptional performance of U.S. mariners throughout the decade, attacks against the Jones Act, which had reached serious proportions during the late 1980s, began to subside. However, opponents of the nation’s premier cabotage law hadn’t given up, they merely had adopted a different strategy. Instead of seeking to repeal the law outright, they sought to chip away at its integrity one waiver at a time. They also lobbied to get non-contiguous trade areas like Hawaii and Puerto Rico exempted from the nation’s cabotage laws, even though federal studies demonstrated that those places were benefiting from the law.
Realizing that a stealth campaign against the Jones Act was every bit as dangerous as an outright frontal assault, some 400 maritime organizations, including the MTD and many of its affiliated unions, came together under one umbrella group, the Maritime Cabotage Task Force. Since its inceptions, the organization has played a leading role in protesting unnecessary waivers of the Jones Act and in educating the public about the importance of preserving the nation’s cabotage laws.
During the 1990s, globalization and international trade became big issues for all American workers. Despite calls from organized labor, the federal government failed to include adequate safeguards in treaties like the North American Free Trade Agreement. Luckily, the MTD and its allies were able to keep maritime services out of that agreement and others, even though South Korea, Japan and many European nations had targeted them for inclusion.
The tremendous increase in international trade started putting great pressure on U.S. ports. However, modernization proved difficult, given the fact that many federal and state agencies had overlapping jurisdictions. Moreover, the Supreme Court declared the Harbor Maintenance Tax, the main source of port funding, unconstitutional, and Congress was unable to come up with a viable alternate.
Another problem was that many environmental groups were opposed to any kind of economic development or modernization on the waterfront. Working under the premise that environmental safety and economic development were not mutually exclusive goals, port maritime councils like the one in New York helped push through badly needed modernization plans.