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The Jones Act

The foundational labor law of the U.S. Maritime industry

The Merchant Marine Act of 1920 includes a cabotage provision, known as the Jones Act, that requires ships moving cargo between two points in the United States to be carried aboard vessels built, crewed, flagged and owned American. Since its inception, the Jones Act unfailingly has proven its value as an indispensable law that benefits American workers and the American economy.

The measure’s sponsor, Senator Wesley Jones of Washington, declared in almost prophetic fashion, “Nations are not free that depend on foreign fleets to carry their products and bring them their supplies.”

One major reason the Jones Act has survived for more than a century is that it’s just common sense. More than 90 other nations have implemented similar cabotage laws because they are integral to those nations’ economic sovereignty to keep domestic trade domestic.

Furthermore, some of the original laws passed by the first Congress were cabotage laws that laid the groundwork for what we have in today’s Jones Act. Additional cabotage laws designed to fend off foreign operators were passed and implemented during the years between that first cabotage law and the passage of the Jones Act over a century later.

In other words, cabotage laws like the Jones Act are customary world-over, and have been since time immemorial.

Nevertheless: despite over a hundred years of success, the Jones Act is still targeted by detractors as a measure that needs either to be weakened or altogether eliminated. With each passing year, the Act’s opponents become even more craven than before. It is a testament to the cohesion and political savvy of the Act’s defenders that this essential legislation survives unscathed.

Among its backers are legislators from both sides of the aisle; U.S. military leaders; non-partisan, non-profit think tanks; well-respected journalists; published researchers; and every White House no matter the party. Without exception, Jones Act supporters concur that the law is critical to the national, economic and homeland security needs of the United States. Its value has been proven time and again.

According to the American Maritime Partnership coalition, whose member organizations include MTD affiliates, the measure since its origin has:

  • Ensured that 70 percent of the oceangoing self-propelled vessels in the Jones Act fleet are militarily useful, which is of vital importance as 95 percent of materiel used by forces overseas moves by water;
  • Moved an average of 1 billion tons worth of cargo every year with a market value of $400 billion;
  • Pumped $29 billion in annual wages into the American economy;
  • Sustained nearly 500,000 jobs directly and indirectly;
  • Added $46 billion to the value of U.S. economic output each year;
  • Produced $11 billion in taxes annually; and
  • Maintained a pool of skilled civilian mariners capable of meeting the nation’s strategic sealift needs.
  • Provided reliable, affordable and consistent domestic freight service between the contiguous United States and Hawaii, Alaska, and Puerto Rico. 

For these and other reasons, the Maritime Trades Department, its affiliates and its Port Maritime Councils and grassroots organizations like the American Maritime Partnership remain resolutely committed to doing everything in our power to ensure that the integrity of the Jones Act remains firmly intact.

Under the MTD’s watch, the domestic maritime industry continues to defend the Jones Act in every possible way, including by educating elected officials and the American public about its critical magnitude and irreplaceable value.

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