Shipyard workers see chance to save their jobs

NEW ORLEANS – While no one is dancing and singing yet workers and their unions can’t help but feel a bit better these days about their fight to save 5,000 good-paying jobs at the Avondale Shipyard here.

Huntington Ingalls Inc., the U.S. Navy’s largest shipbuilder, is talking less about closing the shipyard here in 2013 and more about wanting to turn it into a site for other manufacturing jobs. The company’s CEO, Michael Petters, has told Bloomberg News and other outlets that the planned 2013 closure is “the least desirable of incomes.”

Sources in the labor movement here and nationally say this is more about responding to a chain of events set off by the Avondale workers themselves than it is to a sudden change of heart by the company’s CEO.

A few months ago many of the workers at the yard filled out sheets identifying local businesses they patronize. The result was a list of more than 400 local businesses that thousands of $60,000-a-year Avondale workers fuel with their hard earned dollars.

That helped create so much of a ruckus that professors at the University of New Orleans began work on a study of the planned closure on the surrounding area. The word is that their findings will document nothing short of another major economic disaster for the area.

Also as a result of the small business inventory taken by the workers, Republican lawmakers are getting a stream of complaints not just from workers, their families and friends but from bar owners, barber shops, restaurants and even tattoo parlors. (A union activist noted that there are 5,000 workers at Avondale with 19,000 tattoos!)

There are reports that GOP congressmen have come under strong pressure to fight to keep the plant open from local Chambers of Commerce. Backing the company’s closure plan with its resultant layoffs as the company walks away with $300 million in taxpayer funds has become politically untenable. 

The workers, the public, the unions, the small businesses, the colleges and their students and now even the churches are all on the same side. One after another, the religious institutions are signing on to a “Pray for Avondale” campaign.

In May, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a Louisiana Democrat whose district includes the Avondale yard, proposed an amendment to the 2012 defense budget that would have barred Huntington from receiving $310 billion in federal funds for the planned closure. Although it narrowly lost almost everyone here now believes that the chances are slim that the company would get that money any time soon.

The Pentagon’s procurement rules allow a contractor to get closing money if it can show that payment of that money by the government would result in a net savings to the government.

And today, everyone involved in the fight to save the jobs got some more good news.

The Pentagon’s audit agency let out the word that is has determined it cannot verify Northrop Grumman’s assertion that divesting its shipbuilding division and shutting the yard will save the U.S. government as much as $600 million.

The Pentagon auditors say the company’s claim for $310 million in federal funds to cover closing costs are “unsupported.” A Navy spokesperson said, “92 percent of the claimed shutdown costs are unsupportable.”

Workers, unions, community groups, small businesses and others in the fight to save the jobs here are feeling better now about the possibility of a victory. Robert “Tiger” Hammond, president of the New Orleans AFL-CIO expressed that sentiment when he said, “We’re kicking ass for the working class.”

Photo: Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base, New Orleans (March 5, 2007) – While leaving Avondale Shipyard, U.S.S. New Orleans travels underneath the Huey P. Long Bridge. Navy photo by Mass Communications Specialist 1st Class (AW/SW) Shawn Graham.



John Wojcik
John Wojcik

John Wojcik is Editor-in-Chief of People's World. He joined the staff as Labor Editor in May 2007 after working as a union meat cutter in northern New Jersey. There, he served as a shop steward, as a member of a UFCW contract negotiating committee, and as an activist in the union's campaign to win public support for Wal-Mart workers. In the 1970s and '80s, he was a political action reporter for the Daily World, this newspaper's predecessor, and was active in electoral politics in Brooklyn, New York.