The recent accident in the Suez canal drew attention to an industry most people don’t think much about – the shipping industry. Even though some 90% of the world’s products and commodities arrive by sea, and tens of thousands of Americans are employed on board a variety of oceangoing and inland vessels, few of us know much about working conditions in the sector.
Much international freight traffic has fled the developed world, with ships flying “flags of convenience” and staffed by poorly treated crews recruited in the global South. However, the US recognizes a vital national security interest in maintaining a sizable merchant marine to service the military in case of war, and relying on Cargo Preference, the Jones Act and the Maritime Security Program, America maintains a fleet of nearly 200 oceangoing vessels. The US Merchant Marine also assists with relief in natural disasters and carries life-saving food to famine-stricken areas through the Food for Peace program.
These, along with the port vessels, barges and ferries that operate within the United States, employ mariners represented by a variety of unions – including the Seafarers’ International Union (SIU), the Sailors’ Union of the Pacific (SUP), the Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association (MEBA), the American Maritime Officers (AMO), and the Masters, Mates and Pilots (MMP).
Perhaps the biggest difference between the life and work of a mariner and a worker on land is the work schedule. Mariners put to sea for months at a time and work long hours while there. “It’s a solitary life,” says Lisa Rosenthal of the MMP. “You can’t come and go as you please as you would from an office onshore.” Mariners on board ship are likely to be on duty 60 or 70 hours per week. However, in between these tours of duty they can spend significant uninterrupted periods with their families. “When you’re home, you’re home,” adds Jordan Biscardo of the SIU. “Our members brag about escorting their children’s classes on field trips and things like that.”
To enter the trade usually means enrolling in one of the nation’s several maritime academies. A college degree is not required; several hundred apprentices enroll each year. “It’s a good career in this job market,” explains AMO’s Matt Burke. “You earn a family-supporting wage from the start and have great pay and benefits.” Depending on the job classification and number of days of service, it’s quite possible to pull down a six-figure salary, along with employer-paid health care and a pension. “And it’s a good way to serve your country,” Burke adds – merchant mariners see themselves as the fourth arm of the country’s defense.
America’s maritime unions work closely with the unionized domestic ship operators, who share their interest in preserving a US-flagged fleet.
The pandemic has been a special crisis for maritime workers. Ships are always on the move, and typically when a crew member’s term of service ends he or she will disembark in the next port and fly home; their relief will be waiting on the dock. But as covid spread, a growing number of countries refused to let crew members disembark for fear of importing an infection. Fatigued crew members remained on duty for 8, 10, 12 months at a time, adding to the risk of accident and injury. (Even in the best of times, work at sea is among the most dangerous jobs available.)
Catholic Labor Network Spiritual Moderator Fr. Sinclair Oubre is a member of the SIU in Port Arthur, TX, who leads Stella Maris, the Catholic ministry to mariners and people of the sea in the Diocese of Beaumont.