By Tom Conway
USW International President
Fortune-seekers feed the slots and wager on horses at a Chester, Pa., casino where thousands of shipbuilders once forged the commercial cargo vessels that transported America’s goods to the world. The old Sun Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. closed in 1989, unable to compete with foreign producers highly subsidized by their governments.
Other shipbuilders suffered a similar fate, and today, America produces virtually no oceangoing commercial vessels at all. The industry’s demise puts American exports at the mercy of foreign shipping and deprives the armed forces of ships they sometimes need to transport troops and supplies into combat.
Without U.S. shipbuilding, America is not safe.
America once led the world in commercial shipbuilding, but the federal government quit supporting the industry in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan decided to let the industry sink or swim.
As the U.S. curtailed assistance, intended to ensure an adequate supply of commercial vessels to back up the military, other countries — especially China, Japan and South Korea — pumped even more money into their shipbuilding industries. Companies like Sun went out of business or scaled back operations as foreign competitors undercut U.S. shipbuilders’ prices and captured the world market.
In 1975, U.S. shipbuilders sold 77 big commercial vessels. Between 1987 and 1992, they sold eight.
As dozens of yards closed, America’s shipbuilding capacity ebbed away. Facilities rotted.
Sun’s site remained a sprawling ghost town until Harrah’s opened there about 15 years ago. It put slot machines in the gutted fabricating shop and built a bridge over a wet dock.
The fate of another important facility, the Philly Shipyard, now hangs in the balance. The shipyard is one of the last in the country capable of making big, commercial oceangoing vessels. It has no orders for new ships, however, and the company laid off most of its workers.
Nationwide, tens of thousands of workers in shipbuilding and related industries lost their jobs since the 1980s. The number of U.S. commercial vessels sailing the oceans fell from 183 in 1992 to 82 in 2017, and American companies now rely on foreign companies to ship their products.
But countries at odds with America, like China, can stop their vessels from serving American ports whenever they want. Disruption like that would throw America’s economy — the U.S. exported $2.5 trillion in goods and services in 2019 — into chaos.
America produces liquefied natural gas (LNG) for much of the world. LNG from Pennsylvania alone goes to 20 foreign countries. Foreign demand for U.S. energy keeps workers employed and undermines America’s oil-producing adversaries, such as Iran.
However, U.S. LNG exporters depend entirely on foreign shipping. The U.S. does not have a single commercial vessel transporting LNG overseas.
Neglecting commercial shipbuilding hands business, jobs and even military advantage to foreign interests.
America’s armed forces press commercial vessels and crews into service when they need help moving personnel and equipment for combat operations or other emergencies, such as hurricane relief.
The government maintains its own fleet of semi-retired vessels it can use for “sealift” missions, but many of those ships failed a recent readiness test and failed even to leave port. That makes the scarcity of commercial vessels especially alarming.
Crane and dry dock manufacturers are part of the shipbuilding infrastructure. As Sun and other shipyards closed, America failed to maintain capacity in these industries as well, placing the nation’s commercial prospects even more firmly in the grip of other countries.
Shipbuilders use a dry dock to drain water from around a vessel, enabling workers to reach parts of a ship that are normally underwater. Ingalls Shipbuilding, which makes ships for the military, currently wants to buy a dry dock from China. It claims that no American company can build one.
American companies aren’t making the super-cranes required to lift the ever-larger cargo loads delivered to U.S. ports by all of those foreign-built ships, either. Ports buy those from China, too.
But China can refuse to sell dry docks and cranes just as easily as it can order its ships to stop serving American ports. America’s water-borne trade is vulnerable on multiple fronts.
Just as alarming, as shipbuilding died, the nation’s corps of civilian mariners also dwindled.
Without ships to serve on, prospective mariners pursued other careers. Academies now train students largely for cargo routes within the U.S. that must — under federal law — be serviced by American ships.
The federal government estimates that the corps is about 1,800 officers short of what it needs for emergency military sealifts. It’s so concerned that it hopes to line up former mariners who would be willing to return to the seas if a crisis erupts.
But that’s not a solution.
America’s economy and security require a wholesale resurrection of commercial shipbuilding. A bipartisan bill sponsored by Rep. John Garamendi of California and Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi is a start.
Their legislation requires that U.S.-built ships transport 15 percent of LNG exports by 2041 and 10 percent of total seaborne crude oil exports by 2033. They predict that would spur the construction of more than 40 ships, plus help to rebuild the industry’s support infrastructure and mariner corps.
American workers must produce the steel that goes into the new ships. They must build the cranes and dry docks needed to modernize ports and shipyards. And the government must give shipbuilders the help they need to compete against subsidized producers in other countries.
Residents of financially ailing Chester welcomed the Harrah’s racetrack and casino in 2007.
The casino created jobs, but many came with low wages. It certainly doesn’t stimulate the economy like the shipbuilding company that provided family-sustaining jobs to thousands of workers for 70 years.
Slot machines and poker games can never replace cargo ships and oil tankers. That’s why American workers have to build ships again.