NEW ORLEANS - People here are in shock after Republicans, just before Memorial Day, voted in Congress to reward the owners of the Avondale Shipyard $310 million for putting 5,000 local people out of work.
"It is totally absurd for elected officials to pay Northrop Grumman (the owner of the shipyard) to quit on America while those same lawmakers hold back on aid for storm victims and plot to kill Medicaid," said Professor Steve Striffler, an anthropologist at the University of New Orleans.
"It is even more absurd when you consider that federal funds for closing costs are only meant to reimburse private companies when they are operating at a military base or for defense purposes. Northrop Grumman is involved at Avondale as a private corporation raking in huge amounts of profits. In no way can you call this a military operation," he said in a May 31 phone interview.
Striffler heads a team of anthropologists from the university that is studying the impact of the shipyard's closing on New Orleans and surrounding areas. Labor and its allies consider the closing to be nothing short of another disaster for the area.
Last year, Northrop Grumman announced it was shutting down the shipyard and began laying off its 5,000 member skilled workforce.
In March, it spun off the shipyard to its newly created company, Huntington Ingalls, and now the workforce is cut to 3,000 who are building the final ship on the yard's order book.
The Republican-controlled House rejected by a margin of 246-177 an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act proposed by Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., that would have prevented the government from refunding $310 million to Huntington Ingalls for closure costs at Avondale. Only 19 Republicans jumped ship to join Democrats in supporting the measure.
In his emotional plea, Richmond said, "That is $310 million going to a company for quitting. That's not the American way. I ask my colleagues to support the amendment and not give $310 million to a company who just made $45 million in three months and is quitting on the American people."
In a phone interview, Richmond said, the Republicans are going to have a hard time explaining to their constituents why they are cutting Medicare and Social Security, while at the same time they are "giving $310 million to a company walking out on American workers."
University of New Orleans' Striffler said he couldn't "imagine" why politicians "wouldn't want to even go on record as trying to extract some kind of deal before they hand money out to a profit-making corporation.
"Why not try to get them to build cargo ships, for example? This is the biggest shipyard in America and they are going to let it go down the tubes?"
He said the impact on the area will be much bigger than most people realize.
"These 5000 jobs are, on average, $65,000 a year family-supporting jobs that we are losing. They are the backbone of local communities. I can't tell you how many of the college students in this area have been put through college with money that was earned by workers at Avondale," Striffler said.
The skilled jobs being lost were one of the only ways someone without a college education could make it into the middle class, he said.
He said that one of his biggest concerns regarding the Avondale closing is the impact it will have on African Americans.
"For African American workers in Louisiana, this is going to close off practically the only way left many of them have of escaping a life of low paid, poverty wages," he said.
Striffler, who has worked frequently on joint projects with local and national labor unions, will spend the first two weeks of June studying conditions for workers in coal mines in Colombia.
Photo: Delona Allen, owner of Mack's Cafe and Bar in Bridge City, La., says if Northrop Grumman's Avondale Shipyard closes so will she and many other businesses surrounding the huge facility. Chris Granger/The Times-Picayune/AP