May 2012

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N.H. Shipyard Leader: 'We Were Armed with Truth'

Paul O'Connor, a second-generation tradesman at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire who helped lead the successful campaign to prevent the yard from being shut down in 2005, says he was motivated by the empowering metaphor of New England's revolutionary colonists taking on the British Empire.

"We were armed with the truth," says O'Connor, head of the Metal Trades at the 5,000-employee facility, the oldest continuously operated naval yard in the nation. "We were able to project that truth to anyone we talked to. It was in our eyes, our voices and our hearts."

Seven years later, the yard — located on a group of islands at the southern boundary of Maine where the Piscataqua River leads to the Atlantic Ocean — is hiring up to 150 members of the metal trades every year.

Many of the new hires know that organized labor led the efforts to oppose the Department of Defense Base Realignment and Closure Committee's recommendation to close the storied yard, which produced 70 submarines during World War II. They are signing union cards as soon as they can.

But reverberations of the struggle against the closing — that mobilized 63 full buses of determined citizens, sporting yellow "Save Our Shipyard" T-shirts, to travel to Boston and protest before BRAC — has gone well beyond the shipyard gates. O'Connor, a father of six, has become an influential voice in New Hampshire politics and in policy debates within the Department of Defense.

"I did what I did because it would be too painful not to speak up when something is wrong," says O'Connor of the campaign that reached across Maine and New Hampshire.

Building a foundation of relationships one nail and one board at a time, O'Connor, the former business manager of Local 2071 — an electrician who built his own home for his family — is a kind of labor movement carpenter, connecting leaders with their constituents.

As presidential candidates troop to New Hampshire every four years seeking votes from workers at one of the largest employers in New England and an endorsement from the Metal Trades, O'Connor has even helped shape the politics of a nation.

"I don't approach politicians like some union leaders and immediately ask for something," says O'Connor. "I try to get on with them personally."

That can mean some flashy showmanship, like when he realized he was wearing a shirt commemorating the USS Albuquerque, a submarine worked on at Portsmouth, while he was introducing New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson during the 2008 Democratic presidential primary. He took the shirt off on the podium and handed it to the presidential candidate.

In 2004, with rumors about the yard's future swirling, O'Connor partnered with John Joyal, a former first vice president of the American Federation of Government Employees local at Portsmouth, to lead a campaign of lobbying and resistance. "Paul is thoughtful and intelligent and understands the pulse of the yard and the work ethic of the people he represents. I have his back," says Joyal.

The Seacoast Shipyard Association, comprising community and union leaders, documented the yard's annual economic impact — pumping $560 million into New Hampshire and southern Maine. Pride in Metal Trades members' skills and in the unique relationship they had built with the yard's management drove O'Connor and Joyal's activism.

O'Connor, whose children often accompanied him to rallies and meetings, says a vivid 1963 childhood memory symbolized the responsibility of the Portsmouth workers for the ships they once produced and now repair.

He was nine years old, watching TV with his father, a Portsmouth pipefitter, when it was reported that the USS Thresher, a submarine that his father had worked on, was lost at sea. "I didn't grasp the magnitude of the event, but the silence from my father was deafening," says O'Connor, who recently addressed some of the yard's apprentices and evoked the incident to remind them that the quality of their work can mean life or death to those who staff the submarines that today are repaired and overhauled in Portsmouth.

"I told Paul the morning of the closure commission's vote that, if the shutdown was reversed, our lives would change," says Joyal. With congressional elections coming soon after the decision, the endorsements of the two leaders would carry an extra premium.

Today, O'Connor is co-chairman of the Department of Defense Design Team to replace the National Security Personnel System and a member of the New Hampshire steering committee to re-elect President Obama.

The passion and pride that fueled O'Connor's opposition to Portsmouth's shutdown is now directed at reversing the gains of the tea party in New Hampshire.

"We used to have a respected legislature," says O'Connor. Now, he says, Republican legislators are introducing bills to carry concealed weapons in legislative chambers while cutting school funding, health programs, eliminating lunch breaks for workers on the job and vilifying federal and state workers. "This is not what our members wanted," he says.

As O'Connor's co-workers retire, more than 90 percent of the newly hired electricians are joining Local 2071. But O'Connor thinks that's only a start at maintaining the workplace's legacy.

"We can't just defend what we have," he says. "When our members are engaged, that creates excitement in the union and it snowballs," says O'Connor.

Paul O'Connor helped lead a community-based struggle to keep the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from closing. He says, 'I did what I did because it would be too painful not to speak up when something is wrong.'