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Posted: November 10, 2009

In AMO, we go where the work takes us

By Tom Bethel
National President

When Chief Mate Bill Butler spent a day with our union's Washington staff recently, he told me he was surprised to learn that I generally spend more time in the capital than I do at American Maritime Officers headquarters in Dania Beach, Fla. As I explained to Bill, there are several good reasons for that.

I spent several years representing American Maritime Officers on Capitol Hill, just minutes from the AMO office at L'Enfant Plaza. I know how important it is to keep up with lawmakers and Congressional staff members I worked closely with, and to meet with newcomers to the House and Senate in my current capacity as national president of AMO.

It is also important that I have immediate and direct contact with the legislative staff (Legislative Director Paul Doell and Assistant Legislative Director Phree Baker), especially when threats to AMO job and benefit security emerge - too often with little or no warning. For example, I was briefed thoroughly at least once each day as key Congressional figures - Democratic Reps. James Oberstar of Minnesota and David Obey of Wisconsin and Republican Reps. Steve LaTourette of Ohio and Candice Miller of Michigan among them - crafted the strategy that resulted last month in a reprieve for the U.S.-flagged Great Lakes bulk fleet, which had been threatened by a proposed Environmental Protection Agency air emissions rule.

Under the rule, 13 steam-powered Great Lakes vessels would have been forced out of service permanently in August 2012, and 13 more would have been forced into engine modification at crushing cost.

Washington is also home to the U.S. Coast Guard in the Department of Homeland Security, the Maritime Administration in the Department of Transportation, the Navy's Military Sealift Command and other agencies that influence the work seagoing AMO members do in all domestic and international trades. When I can, I join AMO Vice President at Large Mike Murphy in meetings at these agencies because it is the most practical way for me to understand the federal regulations and administrative decisions that affect the AMO membership.

In addition, all of the other major seagoing labor unions - the Seafarers International Union, the International Organization of Masters, Mates and Pilots and the Marine Engineers' Beneficial Association - are based in or near Washington, and I want to be at the table when officials of these unions meet on matters of common interest.

Trade associations of U.S.-flagged deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters merchant vessel operators - American Maritime Officers Service, Transportation Institute, the Maritime Institute for Research and Industrial Development and American Maritime Congress - also work the capital. Brenda Otterson, a former chief of staff to several Congressmen and an expert on the mechanics of lawmaking, represents AMOS - which is funded by deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters vessel operating companies that have collective bargaining agreements with American Maritime Officers. Brenda works closely with our union's legislative staff and with representatives of TI, MIRAID and AMC.

The capital is also close to major ports like Baltimore - where Bill Butler's ship, the Cape Washington, is moored - Philadelphia and New York-New Jersey. I can visit ships in these ports and others in the Northeast - as I did recently with Mike Murphy and AMO Plans Executive Director Steve Nickerson - with less expense and with greater ease than I could if I were in Dania Beach full-time.

Washington is also close to cities where several AMO deep-sea and inland waters employers have their corporate offices. This makes it easier - and more efficient - for me and for AMO Executive Vice President Bob Kiefer to do routine business with these companies - from contract negotiations to crafting reasonable, competitive responses to Requests for Proposals (RFPs) from MSC and MARAD.

I am not suggesting here that Dania Beach is insignificant or irrelevant - far from it. Dania Beach is where the new AMO headquarters building will rise as a fitting reminder of AMO's standing as the nation's largest, most innovative union of licensed seagoing professionals.

Dania Beach is where the AMO Pension, Medical, Vacation, Safety and Education and 401(k) Plans operate, and it is home to the AMO Safety and Education Plan's STAR Center - the most advanced simulator-based training, certification and license upgrading resource in the world.

Dania Beach is also convenient to Faststream Recruitment. Under a unique and unprecedented agreement between our union and Faststream, AMO members can sign on for secure long-term employment in diverse seagoing markets or ashore in senior maritime management positions worldwide, with full participation in all of the AMO benefit funds.

I go to Dania Beach to participate in monthly AMO membership meetings, to hold meetings of AMO officials, representatives and employees as necessary, to meet with Faststream executives or with nearby vessel operating employers, and to participate in the appropriate conferences or seminars sponsored by or held at STAR Center.

But I also go to Dania Beach to meet my responsibilities as alternating chairman and secretary of the joint union-employer boards of trustees that govern the AMO Pension, Medical, Vacation, Safety and Education and 401(k) Plans. Much of this work is intended to ease the agendas at subsequent trustees' meetings - and much of it concerns the AMO Pension Plan, which has reeled in recent years under prolonged recession, investment market meltdowns and persistent market instability and the difficult, unreasonable funding requirements of the Pension Protection Act of 2006.

Most often, I trust the day-to-day Dania Beach operation to AMO National Secretary-Treasurer Jose Leonard - who brings professionalism and dedication to the job - and to the talented team of AMO officials, representatives and employees assigned there.

Location, location, location? Not necessarily - like Bill Butler and all other deep-sea, Great Lakes and inland waters AMO members, I do my work where it takes me, and I focus exclusively on the job at hand.