Workers Vanguard No. 889
30 March 2007
Key Battle for Labor in the Open Shop South
"It's Most All About Katrina"
MARCH 26—Some 7,000 Ingalls shipyard workers in Pascagoula, Mississippi, are standing firm as they enter their fourth week on strike against Northrop Grumman, the worlds largest naval shipbuilder. At a company where skilled workers make less than $20 per hour, workers walked out after the company offered to raise wages a measly $2.50 by 2009 and demanded that workers contributions to their health plan be hiked 50 percent. This was a direct provocation against the workers, who were among the hundreds of thousands of victims of Hurricane Katrina. Federal mediators intervened last week to put pressure on the 14 striking unions, most of which belong to the AFL-CIO Metal Trades Council, to settle. Picketers told a Workers Vanguard reporting team about rumors that the Navy was getting ready to intervene to force an end to the strike, which has idled one of U.S. imperialisms key military contractors.
We stressed last issue (WV No. 888, 16 March) that this strike is a crucial battle for labor throughout the open shop South. Its also a chance to fight back against the capitalist rulers who viciously abandoned Gulf Coast residents, especially black people and the poor, to their fate following Katrina. We didnt have enough time to get our houses fixed up before they wanted to write people up and fire them, one worker told us. We felt that the company should give the people enough time to do what they had to do. When they didnt, that had a lot of impact on it. He continued, Katrina dealt us a blow and our insurance wasnt paying—still not paying. Its most all about Katrina.
Workers described staying in the shipyard during the hurricane in order to save the facility, risking life and limb while sunk into water up to their necks. Then they started cleaning up muck in an area reeking of human feces and dead snakes, alligators and birds. The company gave them a pathetic two weeks off with pay. Only a few weeks later, management threatened to fire those who could not immediately get back to work. One striker told WV: We had workers who had that dilemma, coming back to work and keeping their jobs right after Katrina, while trying to find a place to stay for their families.
Some workers had to live in cars and tents outside the plant gates—and many still live in FEMA trailers today. Workers are faced with skyrocketing costs for everything from milk to rent. The workers hardships are compounded by the loss of cost-of-living raises in their last contract. And none of the production workers get sick leave. But the same company that squeezes its workers received billions of dollars in handouts from the Navy and FEMA after Katrina hit. Last year alone it did over $30 billion in business. Workers revile the companys nepotism and its grossly overpaid managers, who collect huge bonuses when ships are commissioned while the workers only get told to work faster.
The companys war profiteering and wage-gouging give the lie to the notion pushed by the pro-capitalist labor misleaders that American workers have common national interests with their bosses. The U.S. proletariat must oppose the imperialist pillage carried out by its own government, from the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to the mounting military provocations against Iran, and fight tooth and nail against the attacks on democratic rights at home carried out in the name of the war on terror. The military, police, courts and prisons form the core of the bourgeois state, whose role is to protect the profits and rule of the capitalists against the working class at home and against their rivals and challengers abroad.
The racist malice and class contempt displayed during Katrina by the capitalist rulers—represented by both the Democratic and Republican parties—continue apace. Earlier this month, FEMA agents ordered everyone living at the Yorkshire Mobile Home Park in Hammond, Louisiana, to pack up and go within 48 hours. It was like shock and awe, one tenant told the Washington Post (12 March). We called it Hurricane FEMA. But the Ingalls workers are not just victims. This unionized workforce is showing that labor has power to fight back by shutting down production and the flow of profits. This social weight exercises a powerful pull in the surrounding community, as evident in the widespread sympathy for and identification with the strikers.
Although this is about as deep as you can get in the Deep South, the industrial concentration and the presence of strong, integrated unions make the area feel much less like an oppressive backwater. The current strike has the potential to spur unionization in the right to work South, just as earlier strikes at Ingalls helped to organize other Gulf Coast shipyards. Due to a me too contract clause, gains at Ingalls would be passed on to workers at other Northrup Grumman Gulf Coast yards in Avondale and Tallulah, Louisiana, and Gulfport, Mississippi.
Particularly in the South, where the racist color bar has historically been used to drive out unions, the labor movement must actively champion the fight for black rights. Mississippi put a right to work amendment in its state constitution in 1960. As University of Mississippi journalism professor Joe Atkins wrote in the Hattiesburg American (25 March), Dixiecrat governor Ross Barnett pushed it with the same fervor he gave to fomenting a racist frenzy against attempts to integrate the University of Mississippi in 1962. Mississippis state flag still incorporates the battle flag of the slaveowning Confederacy.
The Ingalls shipyard is notorious for vicious harassment of black workers. One striker showed us a 2001 lawsuit by black workers against the company that documented racist graffiti blanketing restrooms, hangmans nooses left in black workers areas and even mock lynchings. In 2000, Ingalls worker Earlean Bell, two of whose relatives had been lynched in the 1930s, sued the company after a white supervisor placed a noose around her neck and pulled on it. The union tops did nothing to mobilize the workforce in her defense. Such capitulation to the racist status quo can only cripple the cause of labor.
Strikers told WV about a column on the shipyard by New York Citys Jimmy Breslin in Newsday (27 December 2002), titled Shipping Out Name of NY. They fly the rebel flag in our faces, Breslin quoted the head of the area NAACP saying. At the shipyard? Oh, they fly it all around there.... They still got the rebel flag to let us know who they think we are.
Several workers said that there is more unity and cohesion in this strike than the one in 1999. A white pipefitter credited this to the black trade unionists and remarked that too many white workers were still hanging back, to the detriment of the union. It is through united class struggle that workers can overcome the racial divisions sown by the capitalists to weaken labor. In the first week of the strike, at least 2,000 workers, black and white, marched from the shipyard to downtown Pascagoula in a powerful show of their determination. In fact, the WV team found out that the march was twice the size we reported last issue. Before the strike, the workforce had voted twice, by as much as 90 percent, to reject the contract proposed by the union tops.
One former head of the Ingalls shipyard has brought managements plantation mentality to nearby non-union Signal International, a major marine fabricator servicing and repairing oil rigs. Some 300 workers from India were enticed to Signal, each paying recruiters as much as $15,000, only to find themselves jammed into cramped bunkhouses on company property, denied the residency they had been promised and getting far lower wages than they had been told they would get. We were like pigs in a cage, an Indian pipefitter told the Los Angeles Times (14 March). A number of workers who complained were fired without notice. Under the H-2 work program, some 100,000 such guest workers are effectively trapped in indentured servitude. And a new bill being proposed mainly by Democrats like Senator Ted Kennedy as an immigration reform would expand this brutal exploitation (see article, page 1).
The plight of the workers at Signal puts a sharp focus on the need for the unions to champion the cause of immigrant and foreign workers. Subcontractors at Ingalls employ Mexican immigrants and others in non-union jobs. Labor must oppose all racist anti-immigrant measures and actively organize immigrant workers, legal and illegal, into the unions. We demand: Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! Union-run recruitment and skills programs for blacks, women and immigrants would be a powerful way to break down the divisions in the workforce. Such divisions are reinforced by the separation of the shipyard into more than a dozen craft unions. Unity in struggle can open the road to industrial unionism. We say: one shipyard, one union.
Although the strike has shut down shipbuilding, large numbers of office workers organized in OPEIU and some other workers are scabbing by going into the plant along with management, and owner-operated tractor trailers are entering the yard. Meanwhile, there is some fraternization between strikers and the cops. IBEW Local 733, which represents electrical workers at Ingalls, also includes Pascagoula County deputy sheriffs, while plant security guards are represented in the Metal Trades Council. Lets be clear: The role of the police and security guards is to protect capitalist property and profits and to enforce racist repression against black people and other minorities. In the struggle between labor and capital, the cops are on the side of the bosses. Cops and security guards, out of the unions!
The WV team heard a number of pointed comments about Mississippi Republican Senator Trent Lott, who a few years ago openly praised Strom Thurmond, the late arch-segregationist Senator from South Carolina. The Republican Party does not pretend to be friends of labor or of black people. But that does not mean that the Democrats are.
Quoting leftist writer Mike Davis, we wrote last issue in Down With U.S. Imperialism! For Class Struggle at Home!: Pressure from conservative white Democrats led the partys strategists to deliberately delete any mention of New Orleans from 2006 campaign advertising. We left out that Davis had also noted that the Congressional Black Caucus has been surprisingly listless in its response to an unending series of Bush administration provocations, such as ending housing aid to Katrina survivors and tearing down public housing in New Orleans. The labor movement needs a leadership that will mobilize workers independently of, and in opposition to, the capitalist government and its Democratic and Republican parties. We fight to build a workers party that can lead the struggle for a workers government.
The labor movement can win only by relying on the workers own strength, drawing on the support of the impoverished and oppressed. The strike at Ingalls is an important battle for labor in the South and for the rights of the dispossessed. Victory to the Pascagoula shipyard strike!