BY TONY DUTROW
BRIDGE CITY, Louisiana - More than 1,000 workers, including two busloads of locked-out Kaiser Aluminum workers from nearby Gramercy, Louisiana, attended a rally here April 28 to demand "Justice at Avondale." About 6,000 workers build and repair ships for the U.S. Navy at the huge Avondale shipyard in this New Orleans suburb. The rally took place in a local church school yard within sight of the Navy ships docked at Avondale.
Six years ago, Avondale workers voted to be represented by the New Orleans Metal Trades Council, which is composed of several craft unions. Avondale Industries refuses to recognize the union vote or negotiate a contract.
Speakers at the rally included AFL-CIO president John Sweeney, Louisiana State AFL-CIO president John Bourg, and others. Jesse Jackson spoke to the rally via phone hook up.
Hundreds of workers from the shipyard attended, many wearing colorful T-shirts identifying them as Avondale union supporters. Workers provided cold water to help brave the sweltering heat and greeted supporters as they joined the rally.
Some shipyard workers came right from work, still wearing welding caps, boots, and hard hats.
Ellery Bridges has worked at Avondale for two years and just started getting active in the union drive. He was hired in as an electrician coming right out of the Navy.
"It's time for all of us to stand up. The company keeps saying, `We have to look after our shareholders.' But what about the workers in the shipyards?" Bridges explained he knows people who keep working with 30 or 40 years in the shipyard "because if they retired now they would only get $900 a month retirement, even with Social Security."
Protesting on-the-job deaths
Part of the rally was a Workers Memorial Day ceremony, which was dedicated to the 34 workers who have died at the shipyard since 1974. A shipyard worker sang the gospel song Amazing Grace, while a procession of workers brought 34 white crosses inscribed with a worker's name up to the platform reading out each, one by one.
April 28 was set as Workers Memorial Day by the AFL-CIO, to note the inauguration into law of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970.
Avondale Industries has had $3.2 billion worth of contracts with the Navy since 1993 and is one of the state's largest employers.
Meanwhile, Newport News Shipbuilding (NNS) announced April 14 it would go ahead with the purchase of Avondale Shipyard. Some 9,000 workers are currently on strike at NNS's giant yard in Newport News, Virginia.
Kaiser workers handed out black ribbons to all who attended the Avondale rally. Harold Miller, who helped organize the effort to get Kaiser workers to the rally, explained that he and other workers at the Gramercy plant had handed out black ribbons there every April 28 for eight years before the strike. "Everyone in the plant wore a black ribbon. We would all observe a minute of silence throughout the mill," Miller said.
Battle at Kaiser Aluminum
Last October 3,000 Kaiser Aluminum workers went on strike in Gramercy; Tacoma and Spokane, Washington; and Newark, Ohio. They are fighting company plans to impose steep job cuts and are demanding restoration of pay and benefits lost over previous contracts. On January 14 the bosses refused the union's offer to return to work and officially declared a lockout.
When the buses returned to Gramercy from Bridge City, Kaiser workers gathered at the gate. Stanley Folse asked for a moment of silence and rang a bell nine times to honor those who have been killed on the job at the Gramercy Aluminum plant. Folse then asked everyone to tie their black ribbons to the company's chain link fence. The black ribbons flapped in the wind while Vance security thugs video taped the workers from the other side of the company property line.
Following the plant gate event, everyone was invited to the Lutcher park pavilion next to the union hall for a jambalaya feast prepared in a huge kettle by one of the strikers.
On May 3 the company tried to press for an injunction against the union to stop mass picketing at the gate. Wayne Stafford, president of USWA Local 5702, explained in a phone interview that the union turned back this attack. "I think this was a victory. The company tried to stop our mass picketing, and cited as evidence the hundreds who turned out April 1 at a rally at the gate."
The USWA civil rights and women's conference meeting in New Orleans at the time sent several busloads to rally at the Kaiser gate on that day. Gramercy workers were featured guests at that meeting.
Stafford said that St. James Parish Judge Turner, who issued the current rulings relating to the strike, refused to charge the union with picket line misconduct or to end the court approved right of the pickets at the gate to halt vehicles for 45 seconds.
Hamilton Steib was one of the 25 workers who attended the all-day hearing. Steib said the company brought in someone with his arm in a sling. "Their lawyers claimed a picketer reached inside his vehicle and jerked his shoulder out of joint."
They even charged the union with sexual harassment. "The judge warned both sides he will enforce the injunction but throw out all charges lodged by the company since the beginning of the strike in October," Steib said.
In a related setback for the company, Steib reported two weeks ago the company removed its guard tower at the main gate. "They took that tower down because it hurt their cause. It looked like a concentration camp." Earlier, the company lost its bid to have the picket shack removed. It is now located in the middle of the front entrance.
The Louisiana State Highway Department ruled pickets had a right to maintain their shack on state road property. The sign "Welcome to Camp Creole" hangs from the side of the well- outfitted shack that has become a symbol of their fight. Kaiser workers in this area look proudly to their Cajun and Creole heritage, in this region just 40 miles upriver on the Mississippi from New Orleans.
Bob Bruce contributed to this article.
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