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A New Era for Avondales Work Force: First Union Contract Overwhelmingly Approved

January/February 2001 IBEW Journal

A hard-won and historic victory for more than 4,200 Avondale shipbuilding workers in Louisiana late last year is cause for labor-wide celebration. This victory has been a long time coming.

Signing the historic Litton Avondale 45-month contract are, from left: Ron Ault, AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department East Coast representative; New Orleans Metal Trades Council President Peter Babin of the Operating Engineers; and IBEW Local 733 Business Manager William D. Chico McGill.

Avondale shipbuilding employees voted overwhelmingly to approve the terms of their first union contract with Litton Industries, Inc., reported the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department in December 2000. In balloting held December 6, Litton Avondale Industries shipyard employees approved the pact by a 4-1 margin.

Following years of determined struggle, Avondales workers won union recognition in August 1999nearly seven years after having voted in 1993 for union representation. Workers staged a six-year battle for a voice at the shipyard that was met with harsh and vicious antiunion tactics by former owner Avondale Industries, which was purchased by Litton in 1999, noted the AFL-CIOs Work in Progress. During those years of struggle, the IBEW joined labor-wide rallies in support of the heroic and determined workers at Avondale shipyard. [See IBEW Journal articles Justice Finally Prevails at Avondale, January/February 2000; Rallying for Justice, November 1998; and Updates on Labor Struggles, June 1998.]

It took the sale of the shipyard to Litton Industries, Inc. to break the bitter antiunion campaign of firings, harassment, intimidation and legal maneuvering by former owner Avondale Industries, the Journal reported. The workers determination to have a union was displayed dramatically when the new owner agreed to card-check recognition. With one year allowed to sign up 2,100 for a majority, far more than that signed union cards in less than two weeks. For the IBEW, this triumph [meant] an addition of about 800 workers to the membership roster in the Fifth District.

The 45-month Litton Avondale contract, negotiated by the New Orleans Metal Trades Council, provides an immediate 3 percent wage hike on January 1, 2001, followed by a 3 percent increase on April 1, 2002, and a 3 percent increase on July 1, 2003. The contract, which took effect January 1, 2001, establishes a formal skill-progression system, which will move many employees into higher-paid categories. The agreement also sets up a series of joint labor-management committees to address ongoing concerns of the Avondale work force, including a Joint Safety and Health Committee, whose goal is to establish Avondale as the safest shipyard in the nation, and a Joint Labor-Management Training Committee. Other contract provisions include improved overtime practices and expanded vacation time. The agreement covers all rank-and-file workers at Litton Avondales New Orleans-area yards, a small facility in Gulfport, Mississippi, and a new yard in Tallulah, Louisiana.

"These were difficult negotiations, conducted in an amicable atmosphere with an employer who shared our interest in developing a functional agreement which would improve the wages and conditions of Avondales workers, said John Meese, president of the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department.

Litton Industries also owns Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi. IBEW Local 733 has represented some 1,300 electrical-electronic workers at Ingalls in Pascagoula for decades, and the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department has represented some 10,000 employees in the work force there since 1940. The Metal Trades Department, made up of 17 AFL-CIO affiliates, negotiates for craft and trade workers in the shipbuilding industry in both the public and private sector, and in other industries.

The IBEW Fifth District and the officers of Local 733 have provided much of the quality leadership needed to bring about this successful agreement, noted then-International President J. J. Barry. And they continue to provide leadership to the Metal Trades Council affiliates in organizing the shipyard employees as members of their respective unions.

This agreement is a testament to the courage and determination of the Avondale workers, added Gil Bateman, director of the IBEW Government Department. It brings a new era of equality and dignity for the work force there.