When Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast region five years ago many of the workers at the Avondale shipyard near New Orleans stayed behind when the area was evacuated. They risked life and limb to protect the Navy ships being built there and to protect the profits of Northrup Grumman, the company that runs the shipyard.
Grumman is showing its gratitude, starting Oct. 4, by beginning to lay off the workers and shut down the yard.
Hundreds of union members and community leaders, fresh from battling the effects of the BP oil spill this summer, turned out to support the workers in Avomndale last Friday, to cheer the Navy's decision to keep the ship[yard in operation until 2014, and to demand a long-term solution that would prevent any layoffs.
Even though the Navy's decision means the shipyard will be cooking with business, Northrup Grumman remains committed to laying off the first round of workers on Oct. 4 and to an eventual shut-down of the yard. The company claims it is getting out of the shipbuilding business altogether.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Arlene Holt-Baker travelled from the federation's headquarters in Washington DC to be with the workers at the yard. "It's time to throw the heat on Northrup Grumman," she declared. "They turned the heat up on you, and decided they would throw workers and the whole community into the fire.'"
Hundreds at the rally wore t-shirts and carried placards emblazoned with the message, "Save Our Shipyard."
The yard currently provides jobs for 5,000 Gulf-area residents.
One of the workers whose last day on the job will be this Friday discussed his plight on WVUE TV, a local station. "The Navy announcement was really good news," said Bruce Lightell, a member of Boilermakers Local 1816, "but still people like myself are getting laid off. And my wife works here. She's getting laid off too. So it's a double whammy for us and for some families."
The campaign to save the shipyard is one of the most successful efforts the Gulf Coast labor movement has made to reach out and gain support from a variety of community organizations.
It was only last month that the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Department, along with 10 of its affiliated unions and the federation itself, started a public campaign to build support for keeping the ship yard open.
Religious leaders, local business leaders and team members of the New Orleans Saints, the current Super Bowl champions, all joined in the effort.
With the funds raised by the big coalition they were able to put up bill boards all over New Orleans.
Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department, says that the longterm solution the unions are fighting for will involve finding a buyer for the shipyard and working to rebuild the industry. "We are continuing our campaign to save our shipyards," said Ault, "because the Navuy's announcement didn't fix the underlying problems facing the industry. The industry will remain on death row until we can secure a permanent solution - with a multitude of fixes - to restore U.S. shiopbuilding to its rightful place in U.S. heavy manufacturing."