VPAF a traditional, trusted and most practical AMO asset
By Paul Doell
A valid point always worth making, especially in this year of Congressional mid-term elections: the American Maritime Officers Voluntary Political Action Fund is the largest, most effective and most politically practical maritime account in Washington, a distinction sustained over generations by contributions from deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters AMO engine and deck officers.
In 1954, our union - the Brotherhood of Marine Engineers at the time - worked the capital with labor legend Paul Hall to secure the Cargo Preference Act and PL-480, the Food for Peace grain export program intended to relieve hunger worldwide. Each initiative boosted the privately owned and operated U.S. merchant fleet and enhanced job and benefit security for civilian American merchant mariners.
In 1985, AMO - then District 2 of the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association - was in the room when federal lawmakers agreed to increase the U.S.-flag cargo preference share from 50 percent as set by the 1954 statute to 75 percent in the interest of political peace between the maritime and agricultural industries. In partnership with all U.S. maritime interests, AMO has not abandoned the fight to restore the 75 percent cargo preference level for PL-480, which was pared to 50 percent in the dead of night under budget "sequestration" in 2011.
American Maritime Officers was a principal influence behind the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2021, which reaffirmed the national security value of the U.S. maritime industries as a matter of federal law.
This tradition continues to serve the legitimate interests of all AMO members and their families, as I will note as we go along.
But first, some additional points to emphasize. As its name confirms, the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund is secured through voluntary contributions from AMO members. There is no requirement that deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters AMO members to contribute to VPAF.
Nor are there partisan or ideological considerations driving distribution of contributions from the fund - money goes only to the campaigns of federal lawmakers who support positive, productive U.S. maritime policy.
And the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund pays for no parties - Congressional fundraisers are its exclusive purpose.
There is, of course, focus on key Congressional Committees - Armed Services in the House and Senate, Appropriations in both chambers, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee - and on bipartisan, bicameral Congressional leadership.
Between our savvy legislative staff and our political fund, AMO was very much a factor in the lead up to and Congressional approval of the 1996 Maritime Security Act, which authorized the Maritime Security Program. Anticipating the purchase of the last 47 ships in the U.S. liner fleet by overseas interests, our union drafted the law's language allowing foreign-owned U.S.-flag ships to participate in the Maritime Security Program.
The MSP - which was intended to replace lapsed operating differential subsidies authorized for the U.S. liner fleet under the Merchant Marine Act of 1936 - is subject to annual appropriations, and AMO is in the conversation and debate early in each fiscal year's budget cycle, locking up full funding of the MSP without fail.
AMO engine and deck officers today man one-third of the MSP fleet of 60 container and roll-on/roll-off ships - an impressive ratio, considering that our union had never been party to collective bargaining agreements with U.S.-flag liner operators.
While this history means much to many, this AMO administration is most proud to note that the AMO members in the MSP fleet are committed faithfully to the MSP mission - ships operate routinely in international trade while available on demand to the Department of Defense for the long-term supply of U.S. Armed Forces overseas in a "contested environment." During the prolonged wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, MSP ships delivered more than 90 percent of basic supplies, military hardware, rolling stock and helicopters to U.S. military personnel in both countries.
More recently, AMO held the lead on Export-Import Bank funding and the application of the cargo preference laws on a specific issue that resulted in the U.S. reflagging of what are now four heavy-lift ships under AMO contract, and AMO alone developed the strategy that led to the new Cable Security Fleet and its current U.S. reflagging of two Subcom vessels that will tend to the Defense Department's secure trans-Atlantic communications cables.
Current Congressional strategies supported by the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund include relentless behind-the-scenes advocacy of a permanent, prominent place for U.S.-flag merchant ships and civilian American merchant mariners in evolving defense policy guided by Military Sealift Command and DOD's U.S. Transportation Command, or TRANSCOM, and funding of the new Tanker Security Fleet program, an initiative separate from but modeled after the MSP.
To promote our union's interests on the Great Lakes, AMO remains firmly behind federal funding of a second large lock to accommodate 1,000-foot dry bulk carriers hauling iron ore and stone for Midwest steel mills and other industrial customers through the Soo Locks at Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. This issue dates back as far as the Water Resources Development Act of 1986 and the debate over potential cost sharing between the federal government and the eight Great Lakes states.
AMO also supports new icebreaking capability on the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Seaway to allow "Fourth Seacoast" vessels to operate for longer periods each year under harsh winter conditions. On these and other local matters with nationwide implications, AMO works with the Lake Carriers' Association and the Great Lakes Maritime Task Force, which originated under the late AMO Great Lakes Vice President Mel Pelfrey. The LCA and the GLMTF expect new demand for the U.S. fleet's raw material cargoes driven by the Biden administration's Congressionally approved $1.3 trillion infrastructure investment measure.
Our union's most persistent cause is defense of the Jones Act - Section 27 of the Merchant Marine Act of 1920. This domestic shipping law has endured on economic and national security merit at no expense to the government for 102 years. The Jones Act is targeted routinely by influential think tanks and a handful of Congressional critics demanding exemption, waiver or outright repeal of this venerable law.
For example, key committees in the House and Senate continue to debate aid to the economy in Puerto Rico, and the Jones Act is raised often in some specific if dubious context, but our Republican and Democratic friends in each chamber often call to brief our union on the underway Jones Act conversation to confirm that AMO sees no legitimate need for Jones Act "reform".
We are at this point a long way from my opening. But, having worked closely with our legislative operatives in Washington for weeks at a time over several years, and having served AMO full-time in Washington as Legislative Director for eight years, I have seen how well the AMO Voluntary Political Action Fund works, and I want to keep this tradition going to our lasting advantage.
Under the situations and circumstances outlined here, I encourage all AMO members to contribute to the VPAF at levels they can be comfortable with, either through direct payment to AMO or through authorized deductions from AMO Vacation Plan benefits. I ask that, in this time of extreme partisanship nationwide, AMO members set their political inclinations aside and protect their professional and personal interests by investing where the money is known to generate the greatest gain - the American Maritime Officers Voluntary Political Action Fund.
My hope is that, having entered our eighth consecutive year without a membership dues increase or a hike in the initiation fees charged to applicants for AMO membership, and with our dues and initiation fee rates standing as the lowest among the three U.S. merchant marine officers' unions, there is enough money left in AMO members' pockets and purses to keep us on track in DC.
As always, I welcome your questions, comments and suggestions.