Workers Vanguard No. 893

25 May 2007


Pascagoula, Mississippi

Powerful Strike Sold Short by Labor Tops

After four weeks of struggle and sacrifice, union workers at Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi, voted to return to work on April 4. The powerful strike by this multiracial workforce shut down shipbuilding at Ingalls, where Navy destroyers and Coast Guard cutters are built, in the midst of U.S. imperialism’s murderous occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Workers emerged from the strike with pride in having held firm against the world’s largest naval shipbuilder despite the ongoing post-Katrina economic hardship weighing down on them and other working people along the Gulf Coast. Several workers told Workers Vanguard that they are determined to fight again when the new contract is up in three years.

The settlement was widely opposed by the workers interviewed by WV. It includes a pay increase of $1.68 per hour the first year, only 28 cents higher than the contract offer that was overwhelmingly rejected in early March. The agreement means “28 cents for 28 days” on strike, as some Ingalls workers put it. For many, the wage increase will not even cover the post-Katrina jump in the cost of gas. Meanwhile, family health care premiums will increase by $50 per month over three years and still will not cover dental or vision care. But workers did take satisfaction in making Northrop Grumman CEO Philip Teel “eat his words” after he had said he would not give more in wages, even as the company is rolling in billions of dollars of profits and handouts from the Navy.

There is anger and frustration at how the union officials ran the strike, which included giving the workers less than 24 hours’ notice to show up for the contract vote. As a boilermaker at Ingalls told WV, “Any time you rush a vote, it is better for the company.” With Ingalls workers spread over four states, and many having to work temporary jobs to make ends meet, less than half of the strikers were able to make it to the vote. Nonetheless, nearly 40 percent voted to reject the contract and continue the strike.

Others reluctantly accepted the settlement out of financial distress. Several of the 14 unions’ strike funds were never replenished after the money was used for post-Katrina emergency relief. The company also cut off the workers’ health insurance on April 1, three days before the strike’s end. On April 3, the Secretary of the Navy, in a major speech, pledged “tough love” in reining in shipbuilding costs, fueling fears of Navy intervention against the strike.

It is an indictment of the pro-capitalist union tops that they did not take steps to restore the strike funds. Eleven of the Ingalls unions are in the Metal Trades Council, a department of the AFL-CIO, and all are part of international unions. But, as several workers complained to WV, at no level did the labor officials give financial support to the Ingalls workers or mobilize concrete acts of solidarity for the strike. This stands in stark contrast to the record tens of millions of dollars both the AFL-CIO and Change to Win spent to “get out the vote” for mostly Democratic Party politicians in the 2006 midterm elections, or the money they have earmarked to boost the fortunes of the Democratic candidate in the upcoming presidential elections. What is required is a political fight in the unions to break the influence of the “labor lieutenants of capital,” who tie workers to the parties of their exploiters in the service of containing class struggle. This requires a political expression: a workers party that fights for a workers government.

Since the settlement seven weeks ago, city officials in Pascagoula have voted to shut down four FEMA trailer parks, once again displacing their residents, including a number of Ingalls workers. The racist atrocity in the Gulf Coast in the face of Hurricane Katrina should have been met with union mobilizations demanding a massive rebuilding effort that would have provided every unemployed person with a job at union wages, as well as decent housing and health care. But the heads of the labor federations did virtually nothing. And now when Ingalls strikers attempted to combat the ravages of Katrina—and the capitalist rulers’ criminal indifference—the union tops sold them short. Ingalls workers were not powerless victims of Katrina—they showed their muscle in the strike, which could have sparked a wider struggle on behalf of the Gulf Coast’s population and pointed the way forward to organizing the open shop South.

One of the groups active at the Ingalls picket lines was Black Workers for Justice, which is headed by Saladin Muhammad (who is also lead organizer of UE Local 150 in North Carolina). In a 21 April article printed in several publications, “Ingalls Workers’ Strike. Lessons on Labor Resistance in U.S. Gulf,” Muhammad wrote that the strike “can serve as an important catalyst for building a united and more conscious labor movement to strengthen the Reconstruction Movement throughout the region.”

The first step toward building a “more conscious labor movement” is a political break with the capitalist rulers and their parties. However, Muhammad’s criticism of the Democrats is that they did not support the strike, lamenting “this failure by the Democrats to challenge the injustices of this major U.S. defense contractor.” Meanwhile, his “Reconstruction Movement” calls for “state and local government constitutional provisions that ensure basic rights.” For all his criticisms of the labor bureaucracy, including for not supporting the strike, Muhammad is at one with the union tops in promoting the lie that the capitalist system, through the agency of the Democrats, can be made to serve the interests of working people.

The Democratic Party is the other party of American capitalism, committed to maintaining this system of exploitation and racist oppression. As one Ingalls worker told WV: “Politicians go with the company.” The Democrats are as responsible as the Republicans for the decades of neglect of the Gulf Coast’s infrastructure—and the resulting devastation—and for perpetuating the misery of those displaced.

Revitalizing the labor movement in the South will require a level of class and social struggle that challenges the very foundations of the American bourgeois order, not least the racial oppression of black people. It will mean taking on anti-union “right to work” laws, championing the struggle for black rights and fighting for full citizenship rights for all immigrants and “guest workers,” such as the workers from India who in effect have been trapped in indentured servitude at the Signal shipyard in Pascagoula. To prepare for these battles ahead, there needs to be a fight to replace the labor bureaucracy with a leadership committed to mobilizing labor’s power independently of the capitalist state and politicians, in the interests of all the exploited and oppressed.