Effort to Hasten US Food Aid to Ukraine Rebuked by Labor Groups

  • Unions go on offense against food aid shipping change
  • Bipartisan effort seeks to expedite deliveries to Ukraine

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Transportation labor groups are lobbying against a bipartisan push to enable more foreign-flagged ships to carry US food aid exports.

Lawmakers in the House and the Senate are working to waive requirements that 50% of US food aid exports ship on US-flagged vessels amid disruption from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The effort is under attack from union and industry groups that say it’s unnecessary and would hurt US companies and mariners.

“When foreign flag shipping companies are currently making record profits amidst global supply chain disruptions, now is not the time to weaken critical policies that would come at the expense of American businesses and working families,” the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, and USA Maritime, a coalition of carriers and maritime union, wrote in a letter sent Tuesday to lawmakers.

The war in Ukraine has spurred lawmakers and the Biden administration to focus on aid and sanctions. Lawmakers say this resolution would address potential food shortages by reducing costs and hastening the delivery of assistance. The US flag merchant fleet has declined significantly over time, while the world fleet has grown, data from the Bureau of Transportation Statistics show.

Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images
Shipping containers are stacked at the Port of Los Angeles on Nov, 24, 2021, in San Pedro.

The resolution (H. Con. Res. 92) in the House would waive the 50% requirement until February 2025. The current law boosted shipping costs by an average of about $52.6 million each fiscal year between 2013 and 2018, according to American Enterprise Institute data cited by lawmakers.

Russian President Vladimir “Putin’s unprovoked war on Ukraine has escalated the threat of food insecurity across the globe,” Rep. Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.), who sponsored the resolution, said last week. “We must take action to cut burdensome red tape, lower costs, and help get American-produced food into the hands of people in need.”

Sens. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Chris Coons (D-Del.) introduced a similar measure (S. Con. Res. 38) in the Senate. Lawmakers didn’t include it in the roughly $40 billion bill (Public Law 117-128) enacted this month to send aid to Ukraine, leaving the path forward for the resolutions unclear.

Ernst touted growing support for her resolution last week, as more lawmakers, aid groups, and agriculture organizations endorsed the effort.

Foreign shipping carriers have faced scrutiny during the pandemic from lawmakers and exporters who say carriers were sending empty boxes back to Asia instead of shipping U.S. exports, and were reaping high profits. Separately, lawmakers are working to advance legislation to overhaul maritime shipping rules.

“Why don’t we look at making sure that we can provide our own ability to ship goods overseas,” Greg Regan, president of the Transportation Trades Department, AFL-CIO, said. “That should be a national priority that we are growing our presence when it comes to international shipping, what this does is completely undermine what we do have right now and frankly, that is self-defeating.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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