HOUSTON (PAI)- An Australian ship building company in Mobile, Ala., hired by the Navy is forcing workers to follow bad construction plans and, at the same time, is blocking their effort to unionize.
And the Navy's latest plan to reduce the number of new combat ships it orders may hamper the organizing drive of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department there.
Austal, the company that owns the yard, is already rabidly anti-union, both in the U.S., and in Australia, says Metal Trades Department President Ron Ault.
In an interview during the AFL-CIO Executive Council meeting in Houston, Ault explained the department, taking over from the Sheet Metal Workers when the proposed bargaining unit, and the organizing drive, got too big, hopes to organize up to 3,000 Austal workers toiling to build the Navy's new Littoral Combat Ship (LCS).
The catch is the Navy originally ordered 52 ships, but Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced on Feb. 24 the number would be cut to 32, as part of President Barack Obama's proposed budget for fiscal 2015, which starts Oct. 1. There's a reason for the cut.
The LCS was supposed to be a multi-purpose easily maneuverable ship, Ault explains, at a cost of $250 million for each 400-foot 210-ton vessel. Austal outbid other firms by saying it could build the LCS based on a civilian ship, with single sheets of aluminum hull to guard it against enemy missiles and torpedoes.
A normal Navy combat ship has separate compartments to segregate water, should a hit occur, and a double steel hull, at least.
The plans didn't work. The ships now cost $440 million apiece. "It's more of a design issue" as the firm and the Navy keep reworking specs for the ship, Ault says.
Meanwhile, the workers, concerned over what Austal demands they produce, are organizing with MTD to protect themselves against the firm.
"The Austal workers are telling us they (management) makes the same mistake on ship after ship, following the old blueprints that are not accurate," Ault adds. "The ship fitters have become refitters."
"And management won't listen to the workers, who know how to fix production problems and safety and health problems" on the job, too, he says. The results? A lot of reworking of the ships and "a huge amount of scrap."
"They got 10 ships to build already" in Mobile "while we're building a union" in one of the most anti-union states in the nation, Ault adds. "If we train up this workforce and they start building high-quality ships, there's no reason the LCS couldn't succeed long-term."
"Shut up and keep working," is management's reply to workers' concerns, he says. And management profits from worker training, including turnover, because the state of Alabama subsidizes salaries and training pay - while charging the Navy full price for training and paying shipyard workers. But Austal has another "reply" to MTD.
The Navy is the sole customer of the shipyard, which means that federal funds - taxpayer dollars - are being misused not just in misbuilt ships, but to fund the firm's hostility to MTD's organizing drive, and to its own workers in Mobile.
That's reminiscent of what management at another Southern shipyard, Avondale just outside of New Orleans, did more than a decade ago when MTD was organizing the workers there. After MTD succeeded, Avondale's owner tried to sell the yard for scrap. Eventually, another firm bought it, to create other products, but jobs are down sharply.
So the MTD has spent its time not just on the organizing drive at Austal, but lobbying the Navy Department and lawmakers in D.C. on the Mobile, Ala., yard, its problems, and how the workers, if they had a voice on the job, could fix them.
It's also had to file safety and health complaints with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration and labor law-breaking complaints with the National Labor Relations Board. OSHA has already cited Austal for violations, while the NLRB probes are continuing. Austal brought in a union-buster law firm to battle MTD.
"The supervisors always know when the OSHA inspectors are coming," Ault says. "They tell the employees, the employees tell us. And they (Austal) still get cited. They're more arrogant than stupid."
The Navy has taken a hands-off attitude towards the workers' complaints at the shipyard. Sens. Jeff Sessions and Richard Shelby, both R-Ala., show varying concern.
The Navy has told Ault that "when there's a conviction" against Austal for breaking federal law, they'll discuss conditions at Mobile. The local congressman supports keeping the LCS contract there, because it means jobs, and Shelby's position is little-known. "Sessions has not been hard-core; we've had a good dialogue" with his office, Ault says. "He says that if there is a union, they'll work with us."
Photo: Workers leaving the Austal shipbuilding facility after a 10-hour shift Nov. 7, 2013, in Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell, al.com/AP)