August 2010

Metal Trades Fight to Keep
Avondale Shipyard Open
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Cuts to the U.S. Navy’s 2011 budget are throwing the future of the Avondale shipyard in doubt, threatening the jobs of more than 5,000 skilled workers in the Gulf Coast.

The Navy announced last spring that it was scaling back on its requests for new ships, potentially freezing work at the Northrop Grumman shipyard, outside of New Orleans, for two or more years.

Workers at the Avondale yard, who two years ago completed work on the USS New York using steel forged from the fallen World Trade Center, were counting on producing a handful of new command war ships, but the new budget has put the vessels on indefinite hold. Now the economic future of the region, already reeling from the BP oil spill, is in question.

"This is going to have a devastating impact on southern Louisiana and Mississippi," said Pascagoula, Miss., Local 733 Business Manager Jim Couch, who represents more than 300 electricians at Avondale. "It’s one of the biggest employers in the state of Louisiana."

The effect of an Avondale shutdown would go far beyond the Gulf Coast, says IBEW Government Employees Department Director Chico McGill, drying up work for industrial suppliers across the country.

"This will directly impact the jobs of thousands of skilled craftsmen, many of whom are members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, along with other AFL-CIO affiliated unions," said IBEW International President Edwin D. Hill in a May 21 letter to President Obama.

The Avondale shipyard has a special historic significance for the members of the metal trades, being the site of a six-and-a-half-year campaign for justice against a notoriously anti-union employer.

Workers endured years of harassment, intimidation and firings after voting in favor of union representation in 1993, finally winning recognition only after the facility was sold to new management in 2000. Northrop Grumman took over in 2001.

The unions’ victory turned around Avondale, which previously had the worst health and safety record of any shipyard receiving Navy contracts. Now labor is working to protect its hard-fought jobs and keep the facility running.

In addition to lobbying President Obama to reverse the Navy’s cuts, leaders of the metal trades are reaching out to civilian industries to convince them to relocate some of their work to the yard. "If the Navy goes through with their planned cuts, we want to fill the void with new work," said Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department, AFL-CIO.

Oil tankers and other civilian ship-building projects are under consideration, says Ault, but they are also looking to diversify into new industries.

"We’ve got the skills, know-how and equipment to manufacture everything from wind turbines to small nuclear reactors here," Couch said. "If the work is out there, we are capable of doing it."

Couch points to a recent downturn in shipbuilding at the Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula during which shipyard workers filled the gap by building rail cars and oil rigs at the facility.

There are also rumors of a possible sale of the yard. If that happens, says Ault, union leaders want to make sure that it doesn’t end up in the hands of an anti-union employer. "We don’t want to see a return to the bad old days," he said.

In addition to appeals to Louisiana’s congressional delegation, Couch and other leaders of the metal trades are also hoping to set up meetings with Govs. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) and Haley Barbour (R-Miss.) to ask for their assistance in helping to keep the shipyard open.

"It’s important for our national security and the economy," Couch said.

The jobs of more than 5,000 skilled shipyard workers, including those of more than 300 IBEW members, could be at risk if the Avondale shipyard in New Orleans shuts down.