Avondale shipyard story could get a happy ending

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NEW ORLEANS - The long struggle by thousands of Avondale shipyard workers here to save their jobs appears to have been successful. After years of protests, marches and lobbying campaigns by the workers, mobilizations by national unions and an outpouring of support from the people of Louisiana, the jobs will remain with new industrial work replacing what shipyard employees once did for the U.S. Navy.

The workers, who were told in 2010 that their shipyard, along with their lives was headed for the scrap heap, will instead keep their union jobs which will now involve the building of industrial modules, oil well blower preventers and other heavy equipment.

The AFL-CIO's metal trades department spent years organizing the shipyard workers up until 2010 when the company put the sprawling complex up for sale.

When Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast region five years ago, many of the workers stayed at the shipyard after it was evacuated, risking life and limb to protect the Navy ships under construction there.

Northrop Grumman, the company that owned the shipyard, showed the workers how grateful it was for their service by announcing that on Oct. 4, 2010 it would begin laying off workers.

Union members and community supporters, not even done battling the effects of the BP oil spill, joined a massive coalition to demand that the workers keep their jobs. A prime organizer of the effort was the metal trades department of the AFL-CIO.

Ron Ault, president of the AFL-CIO's metal trades department, said on Feb. 6 that Huntington Ingalls Industries, Avondale's present owner, "announced the opening of a business development office in Houston to pursue opportunities in the commercial energy market. If successful in obtaining work, manufacturing will be performed at Avondale.

"With this new venture Huntington Ingalls plans to redeploy Avondale into a non-Navy manufacturing facility," he added.

Keeping the union jobs is a big victory for the workers. A previous owner, Al Bossier, used Navy, i.e. taxpayer money, to fund a drive that went on for years to convince workers against going union. Its pre-Huntington owner used Navy-i.e. taxpayer-money to fund a years-long campaign against unionization.

The unions overcame all the legal obstacles and unionized the workers anyway. Many of the Avondale workers are members of minority groups in one of the poorest areas of the U.S. But then, in a complicated financial swap, Avondale's former owner put it up for sale in 2010. That would have thrown all its workers out of jobs.

The metal trades department launched a "Save Our Shipyard" campaign to convince the company and the Navy to back a job-saving solution. Ault said the drive succeeded by convincing the new owner, Huntington, to convert the shipyard to other manufacturing.

Key factors were redirection of $300 million in Navy funds marked for Avondale's closure to conversion instead, and Louisiana's investment of $200 million-$225 million There are also new manufacturing opportunities in the area that could provide Avondale customers. Ault lobbied Obama's Navy Secretary, Ray Mabus, for the funds from the Navy.

The new manufacturing opportunities include equipment for the energy industry, as increases in U.S. gasification plants and oil drilling increase demand for metal containers, blowout preventers and other devices the industry needs. The Avondale workers can be retrained to make those goods, Ault said. "They could make six blowout preventers for every destroyer" the shipyard built, he said. It was a failed blowout preventer that was critical in causing the BP oil spill, the worst in U.S. history.

Local businesses were a key part of the coalition that fought to save the jobs. Shipyard workers made a list of over 400 local businesses that benefitted from the money spent by thousands of $60,000 a year workers. Businesses, realizing that the area would face economic disaster if the shipyard closed, worked hard to pressure for a job-saving solution.

"The big effort involving workers, unions, community groups and small businesses - all getting involved in a fight to save these important jobs has gotten everybody to feel good about working with each other. It portends well for the future," says Robert "Tiger" Hammond, president of the New Orleans AFL-CIO.

The union victory is particularly important to the African American community.

"Steve Striffler, an anthropologist at the University of New Orleans, said loss of the jobs would have been particularly disastrous for African Americans. "The shipyard is one of the only ways left many of them have of escaping a life of low-paid poverty wages," he said.

Workers at the shipyard say that jobs such as those at Avondale are also important because they break down barriers between groups that, at first, seem very different but actually have a lot in common. The annual Christmas party at the shipyard last month provides a clear example of why this is the case.

"The Latinos came in with their rice and pork, the Polish people with their kielbasa and the Jamaicans with their cod fish cakes. The Irish had corned beef and cabbage and African Americans brought in soul food. We had a blast like you wouldn't believe," said Billy Marks, a 50-year-old white electrician at Avondale.

In July of 2011, during the height of the struggle to save Avondale, Marks had also said that good paying union jobs help break down sexism in the work place. "You have to see women welders walking around wearing T-shirts that say, 'I am a woman. I am a shipbuilder," he said.

An earlier version of this story said that a previous owner of the shipyard, Northrop Grumman, used Navy money to fund an anti-union campaign. That was an error. Northrop bought the yard from Litton industies, who recognized the union after they bought it from Al Bossier, who billed the Navy for the costs of his anti-union activity.

Mark Gruenberg of PAI contributed to this article.

Photo: Arlene Holt Baker at Avondale Rally

Photo: AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt Baker joins workers at a rally to keep open Avondale, La., shipyard, September 17, 2010. John Chapman, Boilermakers. AFL-CIO Flickr.

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