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Puerto Rico and the Jones Act Conundrum

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Photo by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center | CC by 2.0

When Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico on September 20, the whole transportation and communication infrastructure went down- the power grid, bridges, roads, cell towers- devastating the entire island. Most people are still without the basic necessities of life, a month later. Emergency logistics are dysfunctional and telephone service barely exists.

FEMA’s bumbling for one month has looked like a rerun of a Keystone Cops movie. Although the marine terminals were loaded with commercial cargo since before the hurricane, there was no way for workers to reach the port facilities nor power to operate the port safely.  Day after day cargo sat idle as people’s desperation for water, food and life-saving medicine mounts. The early death toll was 48, but NPR has reported an additional 49 deaths since the storm and Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Reporting found 69 hospitals had morgue at  “capacity” as isolated towns and villages are reached the death toll will climb.

The Jones Act Under Attack……Anew 

Often when a major accident occurs the mainstream media are quick to blame workers. However, in the case of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, many liberals and leftists have joined in the union bashing charging the Jones Act, which is supported by maritime unions, with stopping vital shipments of aid. While it may be true that Jones Act cargo may cost more, it is not true that the Act (which requires that shipping between U.S. ports be in U.S.-registered vessels) is preventing necessary aid from reaching the people. However, no such protectionist U.S. laws, including the Jones Act, should be imposed on the colony of Puerto Rico, and that goes for the U.S. imperialist embargo on  trade with Cuba and trade sanctions on Venezuela and Russia as well.

The fact is there are plenty of U.S. bottoms to sail to the island. The Maritime Administration (MARAD) and the Department of Defense (DOD) manage 300 commercial vessels. And there are 4 Jones Act shipowners, Horizon, Sea Star, Crowley and Trailer Bridge that operate 5 container vessels and 12 barges on the Puerto Rico trade.

The blame for the lack of transportion and distribution of vital goods lies squarely with the U.S. government and its colonial oppression of Puerto Rico.

The Jones Act may pass on higher prices to an impoverished colonial people and that should not be, but there is another aspect to this question. Some of the most reactionary forces of the U.S. ruling class are trying to use the Puerto Rican hurricane relief crisis to get rid of the Jones Act, not because it would aid Puerto Rico but because it provides jobs for shipbuilders and seamen in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Much left opposition to the Jones Act comes from ignorance of the law and a knee jerk reaction to appear “anti-imperialist”. What it shows is their disconnect with the working class and blindness toward the capitalists’ machinations.

Capitalists and their news media often claim that good union wages cost the public higher prices.  That’s the mantra of Walmart and the non-union big box stores who extol their “virtues” of the profit system. The danger is that this cacophony, unwittingly supported by “progressives”, could lead to repeal of the entire U.S. Jones Act, a longtime campaign of the right wing, anti-union National Review, Senator John McCain and most of the Wall Street banksters.

The 1920 Merchant Marine Act or the Jones Act as it is known was promulgated to protect the American shipbuilding and seafaring industries.

The Jones Act does not include the territory of the U.S. Virgin Islands nor should it include the colony of Puerto Rico. Both should be independent. However, it should remain intact for the continental U.S.  Calling to free Puerto Rico from the restrictions of this U.S. cabotage law is part of the struggle for independence, but to call for abolition of the Jones Act in the U.S would mean the destruction of maritime unions and the loss of hard-won union jobs.

A Colony Faces Natural Catastrophe & Imperial Oppression

Today, the colony of Puerto Rico is in debt $70 billion dollars and is basically bankrupt. The island just sustained damage from Hurricane Maria up to $95 billion dollars, according to Moody’s Analytics. While President Trump has offered Puerto Rico a loan of $9.4 billion dollars, the state of New Jersey was granted $50 billion in emergency federal aid after Hurricane Sandy.  But Puerto Rico is a colony.

U.S. army veteran Ricardo Ortiz a patient in the VA Hospital in San Juan warns “American troops, just like in Haiti a few years ago after the earthquake there, are not here in Puerto Rico to aid the people. They are an imperialist occupying force and no imperialist army can free a colonized nation. ”  Blackwater, the murderous military security firm, is patrolling the streets of San Juan. Ortiz went on to say that barrios in his hometown, Caguas, are self-organizing humanitarian efforts to clean the streets, distribute and share food, drinking water and medicines. The demand should be raised for all U.S. forces, including the private security firm Blackwater, out of Puerto Rico.

Puerto Rico is run by the Control Board set up by Obama in 2016 under the Puerto Rico Oversight, Management and Economic Stability Act (PROMESA). Puerto Ricans on the island didn’t vote for this Control Board just as they have no congressional representation or right to vote for president. It is a colony under naked imperialist rule. The 10 day waiver of the Jones Act has ended. It must be extended and Puerto Rico excised from it.

Yet, blaming the Jones Act is really a diversion. The real capitalist drive is for privatization. That gem is the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA), the largest publicly-owned utility in U.S.-controlled territory. With 90% of the electric grid down, the “green” capitalist Elon Musk offered to help rebuild the electric grid (and bulk up his profits). And Governor Rosello, the comprador bourgeois politician, suggested Musk make this his “flagship” project.

Both Democrat and Republican parties support the colonization of Puerto Rico and U.S. imperialist war policies. Their neo-liberal capitalist privatization schemes have targeted for years anything public, i.e. schools, prisons, social security. Many leftists oppose privatization of PREPA but support abolition of the Jones Act which would effectively  eliminate U.S. merchant marine jobs as companies would use foreign flag registry to avoid union contracts.

Why were leftists silent 25 years ago when the Puerto Rican government-owned Navieras de Puerto Rico which owned several ships was privatized and sold to the North American capitalists, Bankers Trust? The ships were later sold to Sea Star Line, a joint venture of Saltchuck (45%), Matson (45%), and Taino (10%), the Puerto Rican “pitiyanqui” capitalists. Saltchuck moved aggressively to buy out Matson.

Higher shipping rates on the Puerto Rico run were due, not to the Jones Act per se, but to actual price-fixing. In 2008, six executives of Saltchuck’s Sea Star Line, Crowley Maritime and Horizon Lines, all involved in the Jones Act trade of Puerto Rico were sentenced to prison for conspiring to fix ocean freight rates and cargo allocations. They incurred criminal fines, legal expenses and settlements of $100 million. Now, Saltchuck’s Sea Star Lines and Crowley Maritime are each building two new Jones Act containerships for the lucrative Puerto Rico trade.

In 2015, Saltchuck’s rush for profit drove its Tote Maritime ship, El Faro, into the eye of Hurricane Joaquin en route from Jacksonville to San Juan resulting in the loss of the entire crew of 33.  The U.S. Coast Guard, in the pocket of the maritime companies, blamed the hapless captain who went down with his ship and couldn’t defend himself.

The Downside of the Jones Act 

The contradiction in the Jones Act is that while it provided fertile grounds for union organizing, other motivations were national security and protectionism. Two seminal acts during the anti-communist McCarthy period made that clear by introducing toxic policies, one for foreign policy the other domestic. Both opened the floodgates for union-busting runaway flag ships. The anti-Soviet Marshall Plan began the process of transferring U.S. merchant vessels to registration in other countries like Greece, part of a campaign to encircle the Soviet Union and the Soviet Bloc countries. U.S. financing of anti-communist parties and trade unions was well known in Europe, especially in France and Italy where the left led mass parties of the working class. It’s no wonder that charges of Russia interfering in recent American elections are met with laughter and derision in those countries.

The second dose of toxicity was the 1947 Taft-Hartley Act, called the slave labor bill by unions. Aside from forcing workers on strike back to work, it banned reds from holding union office and made sympathy strikes illegal, all essential building blocks of the labor movement.  On top of that the Coast Guard screened thousands of maritime workers from ships and ports, branding them communists.  Many of them were black and brown, including Puerto Ricans and Jamaicans. A couple years before the crew of a merchant ship organized by the Communist-influenced National Maritime Union (NMU) sent President Truman a telegram protesting their transport of French soldiers back to Vietnam to recolonize that country. That was the first U.S. protest against the imperialist war in Vietnam.

The evisceration of the maritime unions was complete when militants of all stripes were purged by union officials-turned-finks like Joe Curran, president of the NMU. What began as a trickle of runaway flag ships with foreign registry became a flood. The Jones Act only protected coastwide trade not trade union jobs. But by then the deep sea unions were left defenseless with no militants to organize internationally.

The West Coast ILWU was the only maritime union to remain unscathed by the anti-red terror and became a haven for many who were purged from other unions. It was the only maritime union to have opposed U.S. imperialist wars from the Korean War to the Middle East.  On May Day 2008,  the longshore union shutdown all West Coast ports to demand an end to the imperialist wars. ILWU even called for Puerto Rican independence and opposed the U.S. using the island of Vieques as a military target practise.

Retired longshoreman Jose Ojeda Jimenez, like his father before him, worked in the port of San Juan. He identifies himself as a proud ”independentista and socialista” who opposes the Jones Act being imposed on Puerto Rico. A member of the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 1575 he fought within his union for years against a discriminatory practise that denied Puerto Rican locals equal benefits like the pension and Container Royalty. Those benefits are provided for all longshoremen in the Master Contract, but shamefully not for those in the colony of Puerto Rico. ILA locals, especially the predominantly African American locals in the Southeast and Gulf ports, should demand equal treatment for all longshore union members.

 U.S. Stops International Humanitarian Aid to Puerto Rico

An offer of teams of doctors and medical aid from Cuba was made to Puerto Rico, but President Trump has denied the humanitarian aid and continues to ramp up the illegal blockade of Cuba. Venezuela President Maduro pledged a “special plan of support and solidarity” assumed to be donated petroleum. That too has been rejected. Why? Venezuela is the majority owner of CITGO which maintains state-of-the-art refineries in Texas. Russia’s state-owned Rosneft owns 49.9% of CITGO and U.S. sanctions against both countries are what sank that offer of aid.  Likewise, the Hess Oil refinery on the U.S. territorial island of St. Croix adjacent to Puerto Rico, and half-owned by the Venezuela government was closed in 2012. At the time it was the largest petroleum refinery in the world. Its shuttering reeks of U.S. imperial designs in the Caribbean.

Hostile relations against Russia, Cuba and Venezuela didn’t start with Trump. The U.S., has attempted to militarily overthrow the government in each of those countries: Russia (U.S. Expeditionary Force 1918-1920), Cuba (Bay of Pigs 1961) and Venezuela (U.S.-backed military coup 2002). Vietnam is a big exporter of rice to Cuba. Shipping rice to Puerto Rico would not be in violation of the Jones Act, however it could jeopardize relations with the U.S. that Vietnam has been cultivating through the TransPacific Partnership (TPP).

United Socialist Islands of the Caribbean 

Perhaps the arrogant imperial disdain for the plight of the working people of Puerto Rico will stir the cauldron of their desire for freedom and independence. That struggle must transcend the narrow confines of U.S. bourgeois democracy which even denies that Puerto Rico is a colony while the comprador bourgeoisie is besotted with their imperialist American partners. A revolutionary Puerto Rican socialist movement, the embers of which were seen in the celebration of the release of Puerto Rican freedom fighter Oscar Lopez Rivera after 36 years in prison, could rise up with the call for independence and reach out to the working class in the Virgin Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti and Trinidad and forge a united socialist islands of the Caribbean.

More articles by:

Jack Heyman (jackheyman@mac.com) is chair of the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee www.transportworkers.org and a retired longshoreman who writes on labor politics and history. 

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