(This is the third and final installment.)
When Michael Sacco became president of the MTD in June 1988, he already was very well acquainted with the department’s work in the nation’s capital and at the grassroots level.
Under the direction of Paul Hall in the 1960s in New York, Sacco walked picket lines and passed out so many cups of coffee from that Port Council’s van that he lost count. When the Seafarers assigned him to Maryland in the 1970s, Sacco participated in the department’s luncheons and seminars for congressional, administration and government officials in the shadow of the White House. Working in St. Louis during the 1980s, he was one of four area Labor officials instrumental in revitalizing that city’s Port Maritime Council (PMC).
Sacco is the longest serving president in the department’s history. Because of his background, grassroots activism has remained a major focus for the MTD.
From walking with striking Eastern Air Lines Machinists and flight crews at airports around the country in 1989-90 to operating drive-through food banks for laid-off union members during the 2020-21 covid crisis, Port Councils continue to answer the bell. Many of the formal PMC dinners of the late 20th century have given way to outdoor activities (including golf and sport shooting) to raise funds for charities and scholarships. Following the hurricanes and earthquakes that devastated Puerto Rico last decade, Port Councils worked with affiliates and their communities to gather and rush vital goods to the island.
The value of the PMCs’ community efforts comes alive when the U.S.-flag maritime industry is under attack. The network springs into action by writing, calling and visiting their local elected officials to remind them maritime is not just a federal issue. It affects the local daily economy. Such has been the effect of Port Council activities within their jurisdictions that legislation proposed to attack the Jones Act or cargo preference has been thwarted before even being introduced.
Sacco and the department have made sure maritime and its issues remain at the forefront.
Shortly after he took over, U.S. military activity in the Middle East reminded Americans how important U.S.-flag shipping is to the national defense and the economy
As American forces were sent to free Kuwait from Saddam Hussain’s Iraq in 1991, military planners thought they could rely on vessels owned by Americans but registered overseas and crewed by foreign mariners. The nation soon discovered the difference between those ships and the ones sailing under Old Glory crewed by American-civilian mariners. As the head of the U.S. Transportation Command, Air Force General Hansford Johnson, told the MTD Executive Board in February 1991, “We literally had a steel bridge across the ocean. I cannot find a more patriotic group in America than the men and women you represent.” Meanwhile, reports began surfacing about the foreign crews on several foreign-flag vessels refusing to deliver goods needed by the fighting forces.
This was the opening salvo in the effort to revitalize the U.S.-flag fleet.
“An active fleet contributes to the economy,” stated Sacco. “It creates jobs and raises revenue through corporate and personal income taxes. It doesn’t drain the Treasury into a sinkhole.”
In 1992, the George H.W. Bush administration offered legislation to address the needs of the U.S.-flag fleet. For the next five years, operating with two different White Houses and three different Congresses, the MTD and its affiliates worked with Democrats and Republicans to pass the Maritime Security Act of 1996. Though reluctant to take public credit, Sacco was widely recognized behind the scenes as an especially forceful, effective proponent of the measure.
The MTD launched a nationwide grassroots campaign in 1993 to “Keep America’s Flag Flying” to bring local attention to the industry. During the 1993 MTD Convention, Sacco declared, “The futures of the U.S.-flag merchant marine and domestic shipbuilding are at stake.”
That same year, longtime MTD Secretary-Treasurer Jean Ingrao retired. Prior to her leaving, the department reached its all-time high of 44 affiliates before mergers among the unions reduced the number. MTD Administrator Frank Pecquex moved up and continued the Washington lobbying effort for mariners and the industry. Pecquex had served as a lobbyist for the Seafarers before coming to the MTD in 1991.
Strong bipartisan support carried the legislation across the finish line. In signing the measure, President Bill Clinton said, “It will ensure that the United States will continue to have American-flag ships crewed by loyal American citizen merchant mariners to meet our nation’s economic and sealift defense requirements.”
The Maritime Security Act of 1996 established the Maritime Security Program (MSP) to allow the Defense Department access to militarily useful U.S.-flag commercial vessels as well as their infrastructure support system in times of conflict or national emergency. Since its passage, the MSP proved its value during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan following the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. Its original 10-year calendar has been extended into the 2030s and it has been expanded to include more U.S.-flag ships.
Sacco told the MTD Executive Board during its 1997 meeting, “Last year, despite terrible odds, we won a Maritime Security Program to take us into the 21st century… Our grassroots lobbying efforts turned the tide. And just as we mobilized for the Maritime Security Act, we will be there for the Jones Act.”
As throughout the MTD’s 75 years, pressure continues to amend or do away with the nation’s freight cabotage law. Passed as part of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920, the Jones Act simply states that cargo carried from one domestic port to another domestic port must be aboard a U.S.-owned, U.S.-built, U.S.-flag, U.S.-crewed vessel. Cabotage has been part of the nation’s heritage since its founding. At the 2018 MTD Executive Board meeting, the London-based International Transport Workers’ Federation released a study that more than 90 countries have some sort of cabotage laws to protect their workers and support their economies.
Yet, there remain those who believe foreign-flag vessels should be used because they would save money. During 1995, the MTD joined a national coalition of unions, shipowners, suppliers and shipbuilders to create the Maritime Cabotage Task Force. With more than 400 members, this group still keeps its focus on any-and-all attempts to attack the law, including amendments buried within international trade agreements.
This fight is not limited to the United States. Canadian affiliates and Port Councils created the Canadian Maritime and Supply Chain Coalition in 2014 to preserve that nation’s cabotage laws. MTD Executive Secretary-Treasurer Daniel Duncan (who succeeded Pecquex in 2011) joined brothers and sisters outside the Parliament building in Ottawa in a march of support.
In January 2021, the MTD witnessed how its years of grassroots support for elected officials who back the Jones Act came to fruition. In his first week in office, President Joe Biden issued his “Buy American” executive order, which included language that he “will continue to be a strong advocate for the Jones Act and its mandate that only U.S.-flag vessels carry cargo between U.S. ports, which supports American production and America’s workers.” As a U.S. Senator and Vice President, Biden (who spoke at the 1987 MTD Executive Board meeting) maintained solid support for American mariners.
Following Pecquex’s retirement as Executive Secretary-Treasurer in 2011, Sacco picked Duncan because of his grassroots Labor experience in Florida and Virginia. On his first day in the position, Duncan marched in southwestern Pennsylvania through rain, sleet and snow with MTD-affiliated Mine Workers and Steelworkers fighting for worker safety and pension reform.
Following the example set during the fight for the Maritime Security Program in the 1990s, Sacco and the MTD last year won Congressional approval for a similar U.S.-flag Tanker Security Program. This would provide the Defense Department access to petroleum-hauling vessels that it has publicly declared are needed to maintain forces around the world. Additional provisions within the measure called for new builds and repairs to be done in domestic shipyards.
As the slogan for the department’s 75th anniversary proclaims – “Anchored in the past, full ahead toward the future!” – the MTD, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils continue the work of promoting the U.S.-flag and Canadian-flag merchant marine, their workers, their families and the whole maritime industry. The names may change, the issues may vary, but the cause endures and the values remain.