International trade laws and deals are too often costing American jobs and hurting businesses because of unfair rules that give foreign competitors a competitive edge, including Open Skies agreements that favor Middle Eastern airlines and threaten thousands of U.S. workers.
Earlier this year, President Trump took a big step toward fixing these problems when he pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Now he should urge Congress to update antiquated laws to protect U.S. maritime workers, whose jobs could be at risk without reform.
Every year, thousands of workers in the maritime services industry, from the stevedores at port terminals who handle freight to the tugboat operators who ensure the security of shipping vessels, safely and efficiently move billions of tons of cargo at our nation's ports, harbors and waterways. These hard-working Americans play a vital role in supporting the international trade sector and overall economy.
But those jobs are increasingly at risk because of antiquated laws that have allowed big foreign ocean carriers to join together into major alliances to set rates and conditions for American maritime companies and the thousands of businesses that export goods via ocean shipping.
While most Americans have likely never heard of it, the century-old Shipping Act provides antitrust immunity to ocean carriers, allowing them to work together to negotiate service terms with port and harbor service providers. While the law was initially designed to protect American ocean carriers, today there are no U.S. companies that are part of the big three shipping alliances.
In other words, a U.S. law is creating an uneven playing field that gives power to foreign companies over American businesses and workers.
Throughout his campaign and during the first six months of his term, President Trump has focused on putting American workers first by pulling the U.S. out of global pacts that stifle our nation's businesses and give foreign competitors an edge. Working with Congress to reform deals that are hurting our maritime workers is an important step in continuing to accomplish this mission.
Congress can reform the law to ensure it once again puts American interests first. Lawmakers should start by giving the Federal Maritime Commission more power under the Shipping Act to challenge anti-competitive practices by foreign carriers in court. Over the past 30 years, the FMC has only taken legal action against a shipper once — and that effort was unsuccessful.
Congress must also allow the FMC to consider the financial impact of anti-competitive practices on U.S. maritime sector companies such as port and harbor services providers. Currently, the FMC can only take legal action if practices by foreign carriers are found to affect prices on American consumers; it cannot consider the impact on other industries. Congress should amend the Shipping Act so the FMC can consider the broader effects of collusion by the foreign alliances.
It does not matter what caused bad trade agreements, whether it is an obsolete and neglected shipping agreement or lack of enforcement as with Open Skies. These were designed to protect American businesses and workers. But without enforcement or reforms of obsolete laws and trade deals, many hard-working Americans who support the maritime industry will see their jobs disappear. These men and women are critical to our country's economic success, and our leaders must stand up for them by ensuring that our international competitors are all playing by the same rules.
Russ Brown is the CEO of RWP Labor and serves on the Board of Directors for the North American Transportation Employee Relations Association.
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