NEW ORLEANS – A group of interns with Union Summer, a national program that aims to infuse the labor movement with the energy of youth, is working here to stop the Avondale shipyard from closing. Located just 20 miles upriver from New Orleans, the yard provides jobs to 5,000 highly skilled workers, 70 percent of whom are African American. Official plans are to close the shipyard in 2013.
A 10-week program funded by the AFL-CIO, Union Summer’s primary focus here this year is saving the yard, which is owned by Huntington Ingalls, a spinoff of the Northrop Grumman Shipbuilding corporation, and makes boats for the U.S. Navy.
The program recruited six young interns in New Orleans to pursue this. Four of them – Emily Mendenhall (who coordinates the four), Sarah Mandel, Andrew Brooks and Kyle Shepherd – spoke with People’s World about their work on the Save Our Shipyard campaign. They also shared their views about the future of New Orleans, and about young people and the labor movement.
Union Summer, said Mendenhall, has existed since 1996. It has involved the training of hundreds of interns, who work with local labor councils on a variety of issues. This year, the interns are working in New Orleans, Miami, Charlotte, N.C., Milwaukee, St. Paul, Minn., Los Angeles, Portland, Ore., and Washington.
Here, the summer interns are working on building a broad-based campaign to save the 5,000 jobs that would be lost if Avondale closed. They have been helping contact small businesses who stand to lose if the shipyard closes. They are also working on a Pray for Avondale campaign, which involves enlisting local churches in the effort to save the jobs.
Shepherd, who is a student at the University of New Orleans, remarked that the process was all about “raising public awareness” and “increasing pressure on decision makers.”
If the yard does close, said the interns, the result could be tantamount to another “Katrina,” – an “economic hurricane” in which the number of unemployed New Orleans residents would skyrocket.
If this happens, said Mandel, “people are gonna leave the city.”
According to Mendenhall, the U.S. Navy’s motivation to close shipyards is that they view it as a way to save money. Avondale is no exception. But, she suggested there might be people who want to buy Avondale and make it a commerical yard for inland transport.
An alternative vision Mendenhall has for shipyards that once turned out warships is to turn them into commercial yards for inland transport. In an age when the auto industry is beset with problems, Mendenhall said, we might think about a “movement toward revitalizing the ‘marine highway'” in America.
The idea of a “marine highway” is that rivers, streams, and lakes across the U.S. could be developed into an intricate transportation network.
Brooks, also a student at the University of New Orleans, said the only major manufacturers that New Orleans has going for it right now are a “NASA facility, a tank factory, and Avondale. Avondale has the biggest impact because of its location.” Without it, he said, “communities are gonna dry up.”
Mendenhall pointed out that one of the many immediate effects of the shipyard’s closing would be a radical depression of wages in New Orleans. This would be due to the fact that those 5,000 newly jobless workers would have no choice but to seek out jobs in the city’s enormous but lower paying tourist industry.
Despite the uncertainty on the horizon, the interns had positive and hopeful feelings, especially concerning their own role in helping the fight to save jobs at Avondale.
This was “something I could feel good about doing,” said Mandel.
“I think the labor movement is extremely important right now,” she said. “Programs like Union Summer want to engage people in affecting the future.”
Shepherd added, “There needs to be a greater class consciousness.” He spoke approvingly of recent efforts by the AFL-CIO and unions to reach out to non-traditional labor organizations. These include, for example, groups that fight for immigrant rights. “There’s a need for a revamped model on a certain level,” he said.
The interns said they feel that the economy is to blame for a portion of the organizing difficulties faced by today’s labor movement.
“You can’t find stable jobs,” Brooks pointed out. “It’s because the benefits and wages have either been stagnant or regressed in the past 20 years. There was [in the past] also failure on the part of labor to get into new models of employment.”
Brooks said he believes that workers can come to understand the significance of unity. He noted that recent events, such as the struggles in Wisconsin, are “a good example of people recognizing that if you attack one particular group of workers, that’s going to lower everyone’s protection.”
Brooks said he had always wanted to become a lawyer. Since joining the intern program, he has started thinking about becoming a labor lawyer.
“We’re a pretty good team,” said Mandel. “I hope this will segue into a full-time thing.”
Photo: Union Summer interns in New Orleans, left to right: Sarah Mandel, Emily Mendenhall, Andrew Brooks and Kyle Shepherd. PW/Blake Deppe