With the hurricane in Puerto Rico, the Jones Act (Merchant Marine Act of 1920) has received more press than normal. Briefly, the Jones Act was adopted to protect U.S. shipbuilders, sailors, and ship-owners. Part of its protection includes restrictions on cabotage, which is when a foreign vessel conducts a voyage between two ports in the United States (also known as the coastwise trade). The Jones Act requires that any such voyage be conducted by a vessel built in the U.S., made or repaired mostly with U.S. steel, with U.S. owners, and also crewed mostly by U.S. seaman. The Jones Act also gives a procedural advantage to injured seaman suing for personal injuries in U.S. courts. (Seaman are not entitled to worker’s compensation, and therefore must resort to the courts for compensation for their losses).
The Jones Act has therefore been under attack by both foreign ship-owners and even U.S. shipowners. The situation in Puerto Rico presented an opportunity for the shipowners to exploit public opinion to their advantage, by claiming the Jones Act somehow limited aid to that stricken territory. The simple fact was, there was more than enough aid on the docks; what was lacking were the trucks to distribute the cargo. The Jones Act was suspended, but fortunately, that suspension was lifted. In fact, with the current focus being on America First, suspending the Jones Act appeared to be contrary to current policy. Hopefully, that now lifted suspension will be the high water mark for attacks on the Jones Act.