Boilermakers attend ASA conference

Congressman Thomas Allen (D-1st ME) discusses legislative issues with Assistant Director of Government Affairs Abe Breehey

DGA staff members meet with owners, key members of Congress

When Boilermakers Director of Government Affairs Bridget Martin and Assistant Director Abe Breehey attended the annual conference and legislative workshop of the American Shipbuilding Association (ASA) in November, the arguments they made (and the ones they heard) were nearly identical to the ones made each year at the Boilermakers LEAP Conference. That fact is surprising to many people, because the ASA is an organization that represents shipyards – that is, Boilermaker employers.

But in shipbuilding, as in some other industries, the Boilermakers’ legislative agenda coincides very closely with that of the companies who employ our members. ASA members want to build ships. So do we. And members of Congress hold the key to making that possible. The ASA Conference provides a vehicle for Boilermakers and shipyard owners to meet with key legislators who can help us enact our legislative agenda.

Breehey says, “It is much easier to get Congress to act on critical shipbuilding issues – especially those related to federal spending – when labor and management work together to advance shared goals.”

DGA Director Martin explains, “It is vitally important that we provide our perspective on the need to ensure that America maintains a strong fleet of U.S. built ships that keep shipbuilders working and America secure and economically prosperous. The ASA conference provides a forum for union leaders, industry leaders and distinguished members of Congress to build relationship and discuss the critical role of budgets and policies to rebuild our shipbuilding industrial base.”

This year’s conference drew ten members of the House of Representatives: Tom Allen (D-ME), Corrine Brown (D-FL), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Jo Ann Davis (R-VA), Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), David Hobson (R-OH), John Mica (R-FL), Bobby Scott (D-VA), Gene Taylor (D-MS), and Bennie Thompson (D-MS). These representatives sit on numerous committees that shape legislation vital to shipbuilding, including Budget, Energy, and Commerce; Transportation and Infrastructure; Appropriations; Armed Services; Government Reform; and Homeland Security.

“The presence of the Boilermakers at the ASA Conference demonstrates to those Representatives who attend that investment in shipbuilding means investment in good jobs,” says Breehey.

Government action shapes shipbuilding

For over 100 years the actions of the federal government have had an enormous impact on the U.S. shipbuilding industry. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the buildup of the U.S. Navy expanded the nation’s shipyards. Electric Boat, an ASA member and Boilermaker employer, first began building submarines for the U.S. government during this period.

Wartime shipbuilding greatly expanded the nation’s shipbuilding industry during World Wars I and II, and also expanded membership in the Boilermakers union.

Although a post-war decline in shipbuilding was inevitable, a single government action in 1981 – President Reagan’s suspension of the Construction Differential Subsidy Program – nearly dealt a death blow to U.S. shipbuilding. When the United States ended its subsidies, other nation’s increased theirs to try to get our share of the shipbuilding market.

And they succeeded. In 1987 the United States did not have a single commercial ship on order or under construction. The U.S. market share dropped from nine percent in 1979 to zero in 1988. Since that time, the United States has managed to regain nearly one percent of the worldwide market share for commercial ships.

That tiny share is the result of another government action – the Jones Act, a federal law that requires ships carrying cargo between two U.S. points to be built in the United States. With the Jones Act, there would be zero commercial shipbuilding in the United States. Any erosion of the Jones Act is a serious concern for both the ASA and the Boilermakers.

Since the 1980s, nearly all U.S. shipbuilding has been sustained by orders from the U.S. Navy. Although he all but destroyed commercial shipbuilding in the United States by ending construction subsidies, President Reagan kept the shipbuilding industrial base from disappearing altogether by promoting a 600-ship U.S. Navy. His successors in the White House have not supported a Navy of this size, resulting in a rapidly shrinking Navy and an equally rapidly shrinking shipbuilding industry.

Under Reagan, the Navy ordered an average of 19 ships a year. During the 1990s and continuing to today, the Navy has been ordering only six ships a year – the fewest on order since the Great Depression.

Low rates of both commercial and Navy construction have contributed to a contraction of the shipbuilding industry to dangerous levels. Only one shipyard currently builds nuclear aircraft carriers. Each of the other types of Navy ship – nuclear submarines, surface combatants, and auxiliary ships – is being built in only two shipyards. The loss of any of these six yards will lead to a single source for certain types of ships.

Many critical ship systems and components are already threatened. For example, for more than 80 percent of the Virginia Class submarine components, there is only one source. Production rates are simply not sufficient to sustain more than one company. If that company closes shop, there will be no source for these components inside the United States. With differing percentages, the same is true for nearly all ships made for the U.S. Navy.

Boilermakers see the decline in the U.S. Navy fleet as both a threat to the country’s defense capability and a threat to the livelihoods of our shipbuilding members. If continued low levels of production force the closure of a few more shipyards, Congress may need to repeal the buy-American stricture and allow the U.S. Navy to purchase ships build in foreign shipyards.

The ASA and the Boilermakers union are determined to keep that from happening, and we are working together to convince Congress to take the steps necessary to keep our shipyards open and productive.