America's Dwindling Merchant Fleet Is Sending Out an SOS

Times Staff Writer

A sailor's life was the life for Andy Andersen. Lucky for him he was born 78 years ago.

Back in his prime, the U.S. merchant fleet was the largest in the world, with hundreds of cargo ships casting off each month from the Pacific Coast. Andersen still grins about the weeks he lost in Manila, Hong Kong, Malaysia's Sibu and other distant ports, whose names alone could set a young adventurer's heart racing.

"We were the blessed ones," he says, standing in an empty San Francisco hiring hall that once spilled over with eager seafarers. "It's a totally different world now."

These days, Andersen works behind the dispatch counter at the headquarters of the Sailors' Union of the Pacific, where he parcels out a handful of jobs each morning. There are regular cargo runs to Hawaii and Alaska, rare spots on oil tankers and, lately, an occasional shipload of arms to the Persian Gulf.

When he first picked up his membership card at that same counter in 1951, the bustling coast-wide union had about 9,000 members working everything from passenger ships to tramp steamers. Today, there are just 800 members, and many are close to retirement.

"There's no work for the young kids," Andersen says. "They might have the desire, but to make a living, they have to go somewhere else."

To explain what happened, he need only point to the giant ships lumbering past union headquarters on the San Francisco Bay. Nearly every one of them is foreign-owned, foreign-flagged and crewed by foreign sailors who count themselves lucky to earn $500 a month.

The same is true from Long Beach to Alaska and all along the Eastern Seaboard. Last year, U.S. ships carried less than 4% of the cargo entering and leaving U.S. ports, according to the Maritime Administration, a division of the Transportation Department. The portion probably would be close to zero if not for a few protective laws and subsidy programs that free-trade advocates would like to abolish.

After decades of bleeding, the U.S. merchant marine, comprising the nation's commercial vessels and seafaring labor force, has reached critical condition, industry veterans say. "We need to do something to at least stem the decline," says Maritime Administrator Capt. William Schubert.

The loss of jobs has gutted once-feisty unions representing deckhands, engineers, mates and pilots, and essentially has closed the door on what had been a bright option for working-class youths.

Risk to Security

Schubert and others also view the nation's dependence on foreign ships and crews as a security risk, especially now in the context of terrorism alerts and the possibility of war in Iraq.

A recent report on terrorism by the General Accounting Office noted that the military routinely uses foreign-crewed vessels to ship such battlefield essentials as helicopters and rocket launchers. It cited this practice as a "significant weakness" that could allow sensitive equipment to "fall into the hands of individuals or groups whose interests are counter to those of the United States."The dearth of trained U.S. seafarers would be felt even more keenly during a large-scale conflict, when commercial mariners typically are called on to supplement the military by operating supply ships.

The well already has run dry once -- during the 1991 Persian Gulf War, when the Sailors' Union kept members on back-to-back shifts and called 50 retirees back into service, according to Gunnar Lundeberg, union president. Today, the union is 500 members smaller, and fewer of its retirees are fit for service.

Schubert, the maritime administrator, advocates an expansion of commercial U.S. shipping, which would help draw more young workers into the business, and new training opportunities such as high school apprentice programs and a merchant marine reserve.

He also has lobbied Congress to maintain and even expand a $100-million annual subsidy program that keeps 47 commercial vessels on international routes under the U.S. flag, employing hundreds of U.S. mariners. The Maritime Security Program, which was the subject of three House subcommittee hearings last fall, will expire in 2005 without congressional action.

His motivation grows in part out of personal experience: Schubert himself worked as an officer in the Merchant Marine for 12 years. When he came out of the Merchant Marine Academy in King's Point, N.Y., in 1974, there were 45,000 qualified seafarers in the country, from sailors to officers. Now, he says, that number is down to about 15,000.

And global economic forces are running strongly against the expansion of a U.S. commercial fleet.

By registering their ships in tax havens such as Liberia, Panama or the Bahamas, owners realize immediate savings, along with more relaxed health and safety requirements and a staggering differential in crew costs.

Union sailors, who crew most U.S.-flagged ships, earn about $6,000 a month when they're at sea and enjoy good health benefits and pensions as long as they work at least 60 days a year.

Foreign crews, culled largely from pockets of poverty in the Philippines, Indonesia, Bangladesh, China and elsewhere, work for less than a 10th of that.

In response to the shift toward cheap Third World labor, seafarer wages in most developed countries dropped by as much as 65% in the 1990s, according to the International Labor Organization. U.S. sailors have managed to hold wages steady through labor contracts with the few remaining U.S. shipping lines.

New technology and work practices also have cut into seafarers' ranks. With computers monitoring everything from the operation of diesel engines to a ship's course, relatively few sailors, engineers, mates and radio operators are needed on modern cargo vessels.

"We went from crews of 50 to 20 or 21, and this is for ships that are two to three times larger than 20 years ago," says David Sears, a former naval officer and a professor of marine transportation at the California Maritime Academy in Vallejo, which is part of the California State University system. That means less time off at sea and a scramble during crunch times, such as arrival in port.

"Now when it's time to tie up the ship, you may have the cook helping. Everyone's wearing two or three hats," Sears says. "They've reduced manning as far as you can go.... If everything's fine, you have enough. But if there's a fire, flooding, a collision, you could be in trouble."

Another change has been in the length of port calls, shortened by more efficient loading and unloading operations. Most container vessels tie up for just a few hours, leaving no time for the adventures that once drew many sailors to the trade.

With jobs scarce and less desirable, Sears said, he now steers most students to land-based jobs, such as cargo planning. "Until 10 years ago, all our graduates were directed toward a seagoing career," he says. "But it's silly to turn out a few thousand students a year when there are no jobs for them."

Restoring Camaraderie

The jobs that remain are on ships such as the SS Lihue, which runs between Honolulu and the California coast for San Francisco-based Matson Navigation Co. Just shy of 800 feet, the steam-driven container vessel was built in 1970. Its crew of 28 enjoys modern comforts -- air conditioning, computers capable of sending e-mail, a well-stocked video library, single rooms with private baths and entertainment centers.

Capt. Thomas Stapleton, who began his sailing career in 1968, worries that these comforts also lead to isolation, breaking down the camaraderie that once knitted together crew members like a family.

At sea, he stages picnics on the deck to invoke the old days of hours-long poker games and lazy calls in port that stretched for more than a week. "Before air conditioning, crew members kept their doors open. You could always pop your head in and say hi," he says. "Now the doors are closed."

From the stacks of containers on its deck to the hot, rumbling steam turbines five floors below, the ship has a heavy, industrial feel. But the bridge -- the brains of the vessel -- is as sleek and antiseptic as any office on shore.

From this perch, a row of windows spreads out over the bow. Sailors spend four-hour shifts at night here, monitoring the computer-guided steering mechanism and keeping an eye out for objects that might not show up on a radar screen. Others stand on the side bridge with binoculars, one of the few jobs that cannot be automated.

Lundeberg, the union president, says that what little work there is would disappear "in a hot second" if not for one landmark federal law: the 1920 Jones Act, which requires that all goods moved from one U.S. port to another be carried on U.S.-flagged and -crewed ships.

The law covers cargo vessels running from Los Angeles to Hawaii or Alaska, as well as local ferries and barges on inland waterways such as the Great Lakes. It comes under regular attack by international and U.S. business interests, from Japanese cargo companies to U.S. grain farmers, who contend that it inflates shipping costs and ultimately raises consumer prices.

"It's always a fight, a struggle," Lundeberg says wearily from his office at the San Francisco headquarters. "We have to do a lot of education in Congress. Without their support, we'd be dead."

Since taking office three years ago, he has been in defensive mode, lurching from one crisis to the next. The latest storm flared up in October when the Customs Service temporarily waived the Jones Act to relieve congestion at West Coast ports.

A huge backlog of containers had built up during the labor dispute between the shipping lines and the longshore union, and foreign shipping lines argued that they should be able to move stranded cargo from one port to another.

'Dangerous Precedent'

Although the waiver was rescinded three days later, international shipping lines lobbied aggressively for another one. Lundeberg and others quickly went into action.

"A waiver now, even the contemplation of a waiver ... could provide dangerous precedent for future action by foreign interests anxious to see the demise of U.S.-flag shipping," he wrote to Customs Service Commissioner Robert Bonner on Oct. 25.

One recent morning, Lundeberg chain smokes at a massive wooden desk and sifts through files of papers, hunting for a copy of that letter. His office is a monument to the past, filled with models of old sailing ships and photographs of key union strikes. A ship's bell chimes 11 a.m., signaling time to address the monthly membership meeting.

Years back, such meetings drew overflow crowds to the union's huge second-floor auditorium. These days, the balcony is closed. A few dozen chairs fill the center of the room, but most of those are empty.

It is a sad twist that Lundeberg, 54, is the one standing watch over the dying union. His father, Harry, was a firebrand organizer who orchestrated bloody strikes for higher pay during the union's glory years, rising through the ranks to the presidency.

The younger Lundeberg was 9 when his father died. He took to shipping as soon as he could, at the age of 16.

Back then, the union held contracts with more than a dozen U.S. cargo-shipping lines along with passenger lines and at least 30 tankers. Steamships still plied the coast, picking up sailors at every stop for months of adventure at sea.

Most steamships disappeared by the early 1980s, replaced by diesel vessels. The passenger lines became foreign-flagged in the 1970s. Only three tankers still have union contracts. In the month of September, the union shipped a mere 244 jobs from Seattle to Long Beach.

On a good day now, Andersen will dispatch four or five sailors from San Francisco.

During his first decade or two in the union, Andersen says, the hall was so crowded that only veterans were allowed into the main room. Those with six years at sea or less were relegated to the basement, where they bid on the leftover jobs.

But on this morning, only five men have gathered, nursing cups of cold coffee and swapping stories.

Among them is Robert Schindler, 68, a grizzled veteran with countless transpacific voyages under his belt, including eight provisioning runs to Vietnam. He still ships out at least once a year on domestic runs.

"I like the freedom, the travel," he says. "There's nothing like keeping watch at night. You're alone on the bridge. It's completely quiet. You're on a ship that's three football fields long. And you're steering it."

Andersen nods knowingly. Now white-haired and plagued with a smoker's cough, he still has a bit of mischief in his eyes. His arms are covered with tattooed mementos of adventurous times. To entertain visitors, he rolls up his sleeves and tells the tales of gambling, drinking and a girlfriend in Shanghai.

"There was a time you could look at a man's arms and know everything about him," Andersen says with a laugh. "That's not the case anymore.

"We're a dying breed, us guys that came in during World War II and after. We had the best of times, and now those times are over."

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