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Plight of Avondale workers remains in doubt

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L-1814 President Chris Burnett stands near the bow section of an LPD ship under construction at the Avondale shipyard in 2009.

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Joining New Orleans Saints tackle Jon Stinchcomb (with arms outstretched) during a “Save Our Shipyard” rally last fall are, l. to r., L-1814 consultant Joe Johnson, L-1814 President Christopher Burnett, L-1814 Sec.-Trea. Willie Ray, two members of the Laborer’s union, and L-1814’s Robert Kennedy, chief steward at the Tallulah shipyard. Also participating from the Saints were running back Deuce McCallister and cornerback Mike McKenzie.

Northrop Grumman plans to close shipyard by 2013

AS MEMBERS OF Local 1814 (Bridge City, La.) report for work at the Avondale shipyard each day, they do so with a sense of foreboding. Unless something changes dramatically, Northrop Grumman will shut down Avondale, eliminating about 4,500 jobs by 2013. Nearly 1,000 Boilermakers worked at the shipyard and at the smaller Tallulah shipyard until last fall, when the company began laying off workers. The firm ceased operations at Tallulah in late 2010. By early February 2011, only about 550 L-1814 members remained at Avondale.

Northrop announced last July that it would close its Louisiana shipyards and consolidate Gulf Coast shipbuilding operations at its Pascagoula, Miss., shipyard, where nearly 1,500 members of Local 693 are employed. The firm initially said it would consider selling its Gulf Coast shipbuilding facilities but later stated it would spin off the operations instead.

The company had originally planned to shutter Avondale before 2013, but in October 2010 the U.S. Navy committed to completing two LPD ships that were already under construction. The LPD is an amphibious transport dock. One such ship completed at Avondale in 2009 was the USS New York, which carries steel from the Twin Towers in its bow. Responding to public outcries about the closing, the Navy also agreed to move up procurement of new double-hull oil tankers from 2017 to 2014 to allow Avondale an opportunity to bid on the work and continue operating beyond 2013. However, Northrop has declined to bid on the tankers.

L-1814 members have joined with other unions on the property and the Metal Trades Department in a “Save Our Shipyard” campaign. Community leaders, local elected officials, the Louisiana congressional delegation, and even members of the New Orleans Saints football team have gotten involved. Avondale supporters have expressed hope that another company might buy the shipyard, and in fact Cleveland Shipbuilding Group has expressed an interest. However, Northrop has refused to consider selling its operations.

Meanwhile, the Boilermakers union and the AFL-CIO have worked closely with federal lawmakers and government officials to find a solution. Recently, Louisiana Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Cedric Richmond submitted a request to Labor Secretary Hilda Solis requesting an expedited assessment of the economic impact resulting from the closing. The letter said, in part:

The long-term economic impact of the loss of these jobs goes far beyond the immediate impact on these workers’ families. It will undoubtedly extend deep into the Gulf Coast communities that have yet to recover from the devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the recent economic downturn and last year’s BP oil spill.

Avondale shipyard workers have endured major challenges over the years. When the yard was owned by Avondale Industries, employees received the lowest pay of any major U.S. shipyard. They worked in a dangerous environment where injury and fatality rates were excessively high. In 1993, Avondale workers were organized by the Metal Trades Department, with individual unions like the Boilermakers signing up new members. But the harshly antiunion owner blocked every effort to secure a collective bargaining agreement. It wasn’t until 2000 that members finally were able to negotiate their first contract — with new shipyard owner Litton Industries. Litton owned the shipyard from 1999 until 2001, when the company was purchased by Northrop Grumman.

Northrop’s planned closure of Avondale would be a final blow for generations of workers who have contributed high-quality ships to the nation’s defense and to its commercial operations.

Northrop’s chief executive and president, Wes Bush, in announcing the intended closure, offered that, “We are extremely proud of our Avondale shipbuilders and their dedicated contributions to our company and our nation.”

Those words bring little comfort to the employees, families, businesses, and communities who depend on the Avondale facility. L-1814 President Chris Burnett said, “It’s going to be a very hard hit on 11 parishes in New Orleans.” Some small businesses that depend on the spending power of shipyard employees have said they will be forced to close. Local governments will see huge drops in tax revenue.

As for L-1814 members and other shipyard workers, they are losing their jobs during a down economy with an unemployment rate hovering near 10 percent.

“Unemployment insurance pays $275 a week here,” said Burnett. “You can’t live on that for long.” He said some of those who have already been laid off have scattered to other states throughout the South to find work. In many cases, they are forced to take lower-paying jobs at nonunion companies.

He said members can’t understand why Northrop refuses to allow another shipbuilder to buy Avondale and keep it operating.

“Companies are different these days,” he noted. “Some aren’t satisfied with six or eight percent profit. It’s all about cutting costs and making bigger profits. There’s no loyalty to the workers.

“We’re dealing with this as best we can,” Burnett added. “I hope all of our brothers and sisters keep us in their prayers.”

Noting that Northrop is the nation’s third largest defense contractor, International Rep John Chapman said, “This company has taken many millions of dollars of American taxpayer money. When Northrop had the opportunity to help those taxpayers out and keep 5,000 people working, they chose their investors instead. That says it all.”

For more information and updates about the Avondale closure, visit www.AvondaleSOS.org.

Tags  Headline News
Locals  L-693, L-1814
Reporter  V50N1
Published on the Web: February 8, 2011

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