SOS from Avondale

Alex Woodward on Avondale Shipyard's scheduled closing, and how a campaign to save the multi-billion-dollar business is calling on the faithful for help


Save Our Shipyard activists and Avondale Shipyard workers at a 2010 rally. The Pray for Avondale campaign begins Sept. 9. - PHOTO COURTESY SAVE OUR SHIPYARD
  • Photo courtesy Save Our Shipyard
  • Save Our Shipyard activists and Avondale Shipyard workers at a 2010 rally. The Pray for Avondale campaign begins Sept. 9.
Changing the conversation" is a strategy used by spin-doctors and politicos on all levels to get people talking about something other than the topic that needs to be discussed. For advocates hoping for a future for Avondale Shipyard, the conversation isn't about the plight of the facility but rather how to save it. "A year ago it was, 'That's a damn shame.' Now it's, 'What do we do about Avondale?'" says Nick Unger, a national coordinator for the AFL-CIO.

  The shipyard is scheduled to close by 2013 but has been downsizing since last fall when the first wave of layoffs hit. Rolling layoffs (every 60 days) affect 4,500 workers, Unger says, and about 8,000 other jobs in neighboring communities also are at risk.

  Unger and community activists, union leaders, businesses and shipyard employees represent Save Our Shipyards (SOS), a campaign to keep the shipyard in the public eye. Billboards, flyers and posters hanging in nearby shops and restaurants read in large, bold letters, "Save Our Shipyards." "Today it's not a closed shipyard, but an open shipyard with people thinking about what comes next," Unger says.

  This year the campaign that started in July 2010 turned to another community to keep the conversation going and raise Avondale's profile through word of mouth. More than 100 congregations ranging from Avondale and New Orleans to other parts of the state and representing all faiths will participate in a Pray for Avondale weekend Sept. 9-11. "We're treating [the congregations] as a member of the community," Unger says. "Each of these congregations is doing something inside the congregation, which means that the number of people reached is magnified tenfold, a hundredfold."

  An SOS pledge letter addressed to congregations (and signed by several pastors, church presidents, interfaith organizations and an imam) reads, "The faith traditions that inform our deepest commitments remind us that we have a moral obligation to stand together with our brothers and sisters who work at Avondale in faith and solidarity. We invite you and your congregation to join the growing community working to save Avondale Shipyard."

  Archbishop Gregory Aymond wrote a letter to parish pastors about the Pray for Avondale weekend, calling members of the Archdiocese of New Orleans to join the campaign. "A diverse group of faith leaders are joining together to lift this situation up in prayer so that God's will may be done," Aymond wrote. "Let us come together and ask God's blessings on the workers and their families that their hope may be sustained."

  "A year ago when the closing was announced, nobody thought it could be saved," Unger says. "It was just a fact of companies closing and the shipyard closes. Everyone thought it should be saved. It wasn't that you had to convince people of the should, the question was the could."

With decreasing demands for naval shipbuilding, Northrop Grumman announced last year that it was consolidating its shipbuilding by closing Avondale, the smallest of its shipyards (others are in Newport News, Va., and Pascagoula, Miss.) The company acquired Avondale in 2001, and in 2003 it began "modernization" renovations — a $112 million project using $56 million in state funding. Gov. Mike Foster said in a statement at the time, "I want to thank Avondale's employees for being the type of productive people who make it possible for a company like Northrop Grumman to come here and stay here. It's because of employees like you, who are proud of their work and who do it right the first time, that companies want to come to Louisiana."

  The four-year renovation project and production at the shipyard both were hit with delays following Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and were further impacted by rising production costs. By July 2010, Northrop Grumman announced it would close the shipyard.

  In March 2011, Northrop Grumman lumped its shipbuilding in with its spinoff group, shipping magnate Huntington Ingalls. That company is seeking a $310 million subsidy from the Navy based on Huntington Ingalls' presumption that closing Avondale will save the feds more than $600 million. The Navy, however, is only authorized to give the shipyard $27 million, according to SOS, and in July, an audit by the U.S. Department of Defense disputed the shipper's estimate of what the Navy would save.

  To survive, Avondale must consider selling the shipyard to a commercial buyer.

Avondale Shipyard opened in 1938 and served as the Navy's largest U.S. shipbuilder, beginning with World War II. Its $2 billion annual impact in the state makes it one of the state's most lucrative businesses, ranking right behind Louisiana's $2.25 billion seafood industry. The shipyard currently is building two ships to be completed by 2013.

  A research group headed by faculty from the University of New Orleans, Loyola and Tulane Universities and Southern University at New Orleans comprise the Avondale Research Project, which looks at the impact Avondale has had on the region historically and what its closing could mean to the region, says Steve Striffler, UNO anthropologist and project researcher.

  "The hope, aside from the more scholarly aspect of it, (is) trying to generate or contribute to a public discussion," he says. "If you said, 'In a year from now, we're going to close the LSU campus in Baton Rouge,' we'd be talking about it every day, 24 hours a day. .... It's not that far an exaggeration to suggest this can have that kind of an impact."

  Researchers estimate the loss of more than 4,500 jobs at the shipyard could have a trickle-down effect throughout the surrounding community that may result in a loss of 7,000 to 10,000 additional jobs ranging from car dealerships and banks to restaurants and churches.

  "It has historically been kind of one of those rare places where you can pretty much leave high school and get a career (at Avondale), starting relatively low on the ladder, but they effectively offer a college education there, the way they train people," Striffler says. "The problem of course, not always, is it tends to be very specialized. You're the world's greatest painter of the exterior of a ship, but that doesn't mean it translates into a high-paying job outside that sector. .... When they lose their jobs, there are close to no alternatives for some of them. That's definitely a concern."

  The shipyard now needs a savior, financially speaking. In May, a $1.48 million grant, the largest of its kind, from the Department of Defense was awarded to the Louisiana Economic Development office to find possible solutions for Avondale. That grant followed a push from Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, urging then-Commerce Secretary Gary Locke to help ease the potential economic disaster following the closure. Sen. David Vitter and Rep. Steve Scalise, R-Metairie, also have voiced similar concerns to other agencies.

  In a statement released after the grant was announced, Gov. Bobby Jindal said, "As I have said from the beginning, we will do everything we can to secure the future of Avondale, the workers who depend on jobs there and the communities around them that are all tied to the work there."

  The Save Our Shipyards and Pray for Avondale campaigns are uring the congregations to write or email elected officials to push that message, because they likely will pay more attention to what the community and politicians say and take action than if only shipyard workers were making the pleas.

  "Some folks can hear [what congregations and public officials say] clearly who can't hear other folks saying the exact same words," Unger says. "You can bemoan the fact that exists, or recognize the fact that exists and do something about it."

Avondale machinist Ray Mercier has worked at the shipyard for 37 years. He helped co-organize the Pray for Avondale campaign, and personally got 40 churches on board.

  Union Summer, a 10-week internship the AFL-CIO organized in which students work with communities and laborers, is behind the Pray for Avondale campaign. Union summer places 45 interns in eight cities, including New Orleans. Other organizations backing the weekend include Interfaith Workers Justice, Shir Chadash Conservative Synagogue and the National Baptist Convention of America, the largest black Baptist convention with millions of members across the U.S. Hundreds of Louisiana churches and schools under the direction of Aymond and the archdiocese also have a role in the weekend's services.

  "The message of the archbishop is not 'What a shame it will be when it closes,' but rather, 'Let's bring the power of prayer and god's blessings so people can find a way for it not to,'" Unger says. "The Avondale workers can realize their hopes. That treats it not as inevitable but as something that gets worked out. This is in the realm of the possible. Avondale can be saved."

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