MOBILE, Ala. - Corporate ineptitude on a big U.S. Navy shipbuilding contract in Mobile, Ala., is looming over the latest organizing drive among Austal shipyard workers there, a drive run by the AFL-CIO's Metal Trades Department.
As a result, one point that department President Ron Ault makes to Pentagon officials to get them to ban Austal from using taxpayer dollars to defeat the union organizers is to explain that a unionized workforce at the yard would help solve the mess in Mobile.
MTD's drive at Austal USA is important for several reasons. One is that success would add yet another Navy-oriented shipyard full of union workers, preventing builders from undercutting union workers elsewhere. A second is unionizing Austal would be yet another beachhead - aiding underpaid, exploited workers - in the anti-union South.
Right now, there are two battles brewing in the Austal shipyard, where workers toil at constructing the littoral combat ship (LCS), a multipurpose warship that is supposed to be able to sail with a relatively small crew and easy ability to change missions by changing modules of high-tech equipment.
One is between Austal USA, the U.S. subsidiary of an Australian firm known for anti-union attitudes Down Under - attitudes and actions it repeats in the U.S. Austal is one of two contractors building the littoral combat ships. Northrop-Grumman, in Wisconsin, is the other builder in the combined 52-ship $40 billion 10-year program.
Austal is so hostile to unions, says Ault, that when workers at one of its Australian shipyards unionized, the company retaliated by unilaterally closing the yard and moving the work to Singapore.
And Austal broke U.S. labor law so flagrantly during past Sheet Metal Workers organizing drives that the National Labor Relations Board threw out two prior elections, which the union lost, as tainted. Some 2,100 workers toil on the LCS in Mobile.
"They're more worried about the union coming in than they are about building a good ship for the Navy," Sheet Metal Workers organizer Jim White says of Austal.
So the Sheet Metal Workers turned to Ault's department for more power, after losing the first election to the firm's general labor law-breaking in 2002 and the second to racism-laced labor law breaking - including linking unions with the "n" word and the anonymous posting of a noose and a threatening note in the men's bathroom - in 2008.
"They were extremely aggressive and played things along racial lines," adds Paul Pimentel, the Sheet Metal Workers' Director of Research and Government Affairs. "This is a horrible company. They don't even fly the American flag at the yard. They fly only the Australian flag - in Alabama, which is deeply conservative."
Ault's department took over the organizing at the Mobile yard, and the latest drive involves all the Metal Trades unions, just as MTD organized the Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans almost a decade ago.
In the Sheet Metal Workers' prior election drives, pro-union workers were harassed and their welding machines were sabotaged. White says the harassment continues. "The workers are excited, but they're feeling the heat with one-on-one meetings, long anti-union group meetings" called by management "and workers getting written up if they go outside their areas" to get supplies, he adds.
When MTD started the third drive, in mid-June, Austal promptly fired one worker whom bosses observed signing an union recognition election authorization card. That forced the department to file a labor law-breaking charge with the NLRB's Atlanta regional office. And White says the firm is taking the cards from workers' lockers.
"Everybody's watching them every minute," he adds in a telephone interview.
The other battle is between Austal and the Navy: Costs have escalated and the mission has shrunk for the littoral combat ships.
The non-partisan federal auditors, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), recommended on July 25 that the Pentagon should either slow down its purchases of the littoral combat ships, or temporarily halt buying them, until the department figures out what the ships' mission should be - and how to adapt them to it.
"Significant questions remain about the littoral combat ship program and its underlying business case," GAO procurement specialist Paul Francis testified, even as the Navy continues to order ships from Austal and Northrop-Grumman and weapons packages from other suppliers.
"Given the program's cost growth and schedule delays, the cost cap has increased from $220 million in fiscal year 2006 to $480 million in fiscal year 2010 per ship. Expected capabilities have lessened from optimistic, early assumptions to more tempered and reserved assumptions," Francis added.
One sign of Austal's incompetence that Francis didn't mention: The first ship the Mobile yard sent out, in 2008, took on water due to faulty welds and started to sink,
says Pimentel. "It had to be towed back to port."
So Ault of the Metal Trades Department uses Austal's ineptness as a tool in lobbying the Navy to enforce an Obama administration executive order barring the use of taxpayer dollars for or against union organizing drives. "All we want is a fair fight" in organizing, rather than the firm using federal (taxpayer) dollars against unions, he adds.
"Navy Secretary Ray Mabus is very accessible and we're asking him for a Navy
audit of Austal," Ault says. "The company lost $12 million last year and now they're a penny stock on the Australian stock exchange. They're stretched out for cash, yet they're spending money on an anti-union drive.
"And they haven't hit any of the contract's benchmarks on price" of the littoral combat ships, Ault adds. "Congress is up in arms. But we're telling Mabus that if we go in there with training and programs for the workers, we can fix this mess."
White elaborated on how the yard, if workers went union, could solve the problems the firm faces.
"We spend $70 million a year on specialized training in SMWIA," he explains. "We have certified welding instructors and certified welding inspectors" to train and evaluate the workers before they start working on the littoral combat ships.
White says the union can quickly bring the Alabama yard workers up to speed on highly technical skills. Austal now trains the Alabama yard workers and gets a state subsidy for doing so. The Sheet Metal Workers stepped in with such specialized training, White explains, to provide 350 welders within one year for a major project refurbishing and retrofitting the Savannah River, Ga., nuclear power plant.
Austal may need the help. The ship's problems have attracted congressional attention. In a floor speech, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., criticized the LCS purchases.
During House Armed Services Committee work in July on the Defense Depart-ment's money bill, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., proposed, then withdrew, an amend-ment to eliminate two of the four littoral combat ships the Navy wanted to build in the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. Speier wants the Navy to respond to the critical GAO report, first. The Navy rejected GAO's go-slow recommendations out of hand, Francis testified.
"I am troubled by the idea that we are purchasing first and testing second," Spe-ier said. "How do we make sure this 2-year oversight opportunity we have is actually exercised in a way that we just don't say at the end: 'Well, too bad we missed the window. We are going to build all these ships, they're not going to meet the standards, the cost overruns are going to be extraordinary and that is just the way it is.'"
Photo: The littoral combat ship (LCS), a "multipurpose" war ship that can sail with a small crew and change missions by changing modules of high-tech equipment. Austal.com