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Commentary | COLUMN LEFT / ALEXANDER COCKBURN

Rule of Law Means Rule of Employers

Why isn't the federal government making Avondale bargain in good faith?

October 18, 1998|ALEXANDER COCKBURN | Alexander Cockburn writes for the Nation and other publications

These days Capitol Hill echoes with the voices of members of Congress proclaiming their fidelity to the rule of law. Elsewhere on the Hill, Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, a Republican who has been witch-hunting labor unions for the past few years, is calling for further Justice Department probes into conversations between former deputy White House Chief of Staff Harold Ickes and strikers at the Diamond Walnut Growers Coop, a huge western agribusiness.

To gain a sense of perspective on "the rule of the law" and on the rights of labor at this hour, nothing could be as instructive as the recent history of efforts to unionize the Avondale Shipyards in Louisiana.

In 1993, Avondale workers voted to join the New Orleans Metal Trades Council. The union organizers scored an extraordinary victory in a region particularly noted for its virulent "right to work" status and its anti-union posture.

Five years later, efforts by the owners of Avondale to deny the rule of law have resulted in the largest case in the history of the National Labor Relations Board, founded in 1935. These owners have refused to recognize the election, have refused to bargain and have unrelentingly fought the NLRB's decision, which accepted the union vote as legitimate. Amid this recalcitrance on the part of Avondale's owners, a federal administrative law judge found the company guilty of more than 100 unfair labor practices, imposed $3 million in fines and ordered the reinstatement of 28 workers fired for union activities. This judgment, too, is being appealed by Avondale.

Avondale's main customer is the U.S. Navy. The company builds 60% of all U.S. amphibious assault ships. It makes half the nation's Strategic Sealift ships and since the beginning of the present labor conflict in 1993, it has received $2.73 billion in U.S. government contracts.

Avondale's income is up 400% since the union vote, yet it continues to be the lowest-paying shipyard in America. At Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, skilled shipyard workers make $21.74 an hour. At Ingalls shipyard in Mississippi, skilled workers make $14.07 an hour. At Avondale, which alone among the largest shipbuilders is without a union, the skilled workers make $9.45 an hour.

What this means is that the average Avondale worker with a family of four qualifies for food stamps despite working a 40-hour week. Thus far, ill-paid workers at Avondale haven't been able to enjoy the always nebulous protection of U.S. labor law and of regulations on health and safety. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited Avondale for having an injury rate at least twice the average in private industry. Since 1990, three times as many workers have been killed on the job at Avondale as at any other major Navy shipyard.

So, as Hoekstra snarls about Ickes daring to talk to striking workers and about a call from then-U.S. Trade Representative Mickey Kantor to Diamond Walnut, we see a government-subsidized company rewarded for punishing its workers. We see the secretary of the Navy doing nothing. We see Rep. Robert Livingston, a Republican from Louisiana, pushing for additional Pentagon contracts for Avondale, a demand muscled by his rank as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee. And we see that self-proclaimed champion of labor, Al Gore, who has taken to thundering his devotion to workers' rights, acting as if the government has no power to intervene in a situation where workers' rights are being violently abused. Hoekstra should summon all these parties to a hearing and praise them warmly for their anti-labor comportment

The rule of law? As Harry Lee Thompson Jr., a pipefitter at Avondale, put it: The workers have "lost all faith that the law works. Really, if you get right down to it, they're right. It seems like America's laws just don't apply to us."

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