AVONDALE, La. - Billy Marks, 50, a union electrician at the massive Avondale shipyare near here, described last year's Christmas party at the yard: "The Latinos were there with salsa and roast pork, the Puerto Ricans came in with their food, the Jamaicans with their cod fish cakes, African Americans with soul food. The Irish came in with corned beef and cabbage and the Haitian and Creole soups and gumbos were out of this world. My favorite was the Dominican rice dishes. We had a blast like you wouldn't believe.
"You had to see those women welders walking around wearing T shirts that said: 'I am a woman. I am a shipbuilder.'"
No one says it more eloquently than the workers themselves: The powers that be don't want big projects with lots of union workers because they tend to break down the racial divide that has slowed progress in this part of the country ever since the end of the Civil War.
Marks and 5,000 others stand to lose their jobs if the yard is closed. Northrop Grumman, the parent company, has been planning to shut it down in exchange for a $330 million payoff from the Navy.
"It's obvious that profits are far more important than human beings," said Marks, interviewed this week at the Electrical Workers union hall here. "What we made at Avondale helped win World War II," he said. "We might have no democracy left in this country if it were not for what the workers here have done. A company gets so big it has a responsibility to the community." (Story continues after video.)
A broad coalition of unions, community groups and churches in the region has mounted a campaign to save the shipyard.
Marks said that fairness is not the only issue that concerns him.
"I have never worked at a place where the workforce is so diverse," he said. "At Avondale, groups that you think would have nothing in common with one another have come together as a family."
Marks, a white worker who is married to a Dominican woman, said he is convinced that if workplaces like his could be created all over the region, racism could be severely weakened. "It would be a lot harder for them to use that plantation tactic of divide and conquer," he said.
A little later, on the other side of the Mississippi in Chalmette, La., two young men walked together into Today's Ketch, a seafood restaurant.
Michael Johnson, 34, African American, and Giuseppe Todaro, 22, white, sat down to share a table. Both are union workers on a federally funded playground construction project in town. Johnson is helping train Todaro, who is in IBEW's apprenticeship program.
"I am glad I joined the union," Todaro said. "It's the chance of a lifetime for me. Mike and other guys are training me so good that by the time they're done with me I'll have skills I could never get anywhere else."
"When you have a union," Todaro said, "you get training that lasts your lifetime and you get protection and good benefits."
Todaro said that, based on his experience, "all those politicians attacking unions and pushing for cuts don't make sense to me. This town was destroyed by Katrina when I was a teenager. Federal dollars are building the playground we need and giving me the job."
Two tables away, three other union workers were having lunch. They were working on another federally funded operation in Chalmette, a sewer restoration project.
"Without the federal funds and without the unions none of us would have a chance at entering the so-called middle class," said Johnson, the African American worker who is helping train Todaro.
"To me it's all really very simple," Johnson said. "Give us good paying jobs, give us rights on the job and we'll take care of rebuilding this place just fine. It would be bigger and better than it ever was."
Jeff Pohlmann, the restaurant owner, was getting soft drinks out of the machine near Johnson's table, and overheard that part of the conversation. "After all we've gone through," he said, "they're the reason I'm still in business down here."
Photo: Giuseppe Todaro, 22, apprentice electrical worker at federally funded playground construction site in Chalmette, La. Blake Deppe/PW