Avondale Shipyard

Type of Campaign: New Member/Post-Election


Avondale Shipyard builds ships primarily for the US Navy in the New Orleans, Louisiana area and was the largest private employer in the state with more than 4,000 workers. After several failed organizing attempts, Avondale workers voted to unionize in June 1993 with the Metal Trades Department (eleven unions were involved, including: Asbestos Workers, Boilermakers, Carpenters, Electrical Workers, Ironworkers, Laborers, Machinists, Operating Engineers, Painters, Plumbers and Pipefitters, and the Sheet Metal Workers). Avondale management refused to recognize the union and initiated a broad anti-union campaign, including the initiation of legal appeals that were designed to delay and ultimately prevent certification of the election.

In the summer of 1998, responding to continuing unfair labor practices and extensive legal delays orchestrated by the company that was eroding worker support for the union, the Metal Trades Department and the AFL-CIO unveiled a campaign – Justice at Avondale – designed to win union representation and a collective bargaining agreement for workers in the shipyard. The campaign was waged in two locations: Washington, DC (because the US Navy provides about 80% of Avondale’s business) and at the shipyard in New Orleans, LA.

Safety and Health Conditions at Avondale Shipyard

The shipbuilding industry is the second most hazardous industry in the United States – second only to meatpacking. The injury and illness rate in shipbuilding is four times greater than the average in private industry. And safety conditions at Avondale were among the worst in this hazardous industry.

Since OSHA started conducting workplace inspections in 1972, more workers had died from on-the-job accidents at Avondale than in any other private shipyard with major contracts with the US Navy. In the last twenty five years, 36 Avondale workers had been killed on the job and thousands of workers have been injured. Workers viewed management as having no concern whatsoever for those who had died on the job and the impact on the families of the deceased and complete disregard for hazards in the yard that had injured thousands. Workers were also convinced that Avondale was underreporting the actual numbers of workers that had been injured or became sick on the job.

Role of Safety and Health in The Campaign

As a result of the erosion in support for the union due to Avondale’s extensive legal delays in certification of the union, the initial step involved re-assigning union organizers to the yard in New Orleans in order to establish a union presence. The first goal of this new effort was to build a Stewards Committee and to initiate a series of activities where workers in the yard began to act as though they had a union. The Stewards Committee received several training sessions that emphasized leadership development, the role that leaders play in the shipyard, how unions work, and information about collective bargaining. The stewards met regularly to develop goals and initiate strategies and actions that were designed to achieve their objectives. It was clear from the outset that safety and health conditions in the yard was the most important issue for workers, thus making it a critical issue for building support for the union.

An extensive focus on safety and health was incorporated into the campaign that included the following activities:

Building a Worker Safety and Health Committee

The safety committee was formed out of the stewards committee and initially consisted of a handful of workers. The safety committee’s overall objective was to have workers identify with the committee and the union, and not Avondale management, as the only entity genuinely concerned about hazards in the yard that would take action to improve conditions. Rank and file workers were encouraged to join the safety committee and at its peak, it grew to nearly 400 workers covering all three shifts (approximately 10% of the workforce).

Establish a Political Focus for the Safety and Health Committee

In addition to its safety and health role, the committee was given a political function to help workers understand that (1) building a strong union was necessary to winning safe working conditions (in this case, the strong union took the form of the worker health and safety committee) and (2) the struggle for on-the-job safety was an important part of the overall struggle for asserting their rights as workers under the broader general objective to “Take Back The Yard”.

Training Safety Committee Members

Training for safety committee members was provided by union safety and health staff. The training covered not only shipyard safety standards and rights to OSHA inspections but also covered how union committee’s function to build their strength and how to take collective action to win improvements for workers.

Weekly Meetings of the Safety Committee

The committee met weekly to identify problems and issues, identify actions to take, and to develop short and long range goals that were designed to take the offensive, arouse the rank and file, and to begin acting like a union.

Identifying Hazards in the Yard

An extensive effort to identify hazards throughout the yard by the committee was undertaken. Forms were developed for workers to use in identifying and reporting unsafe conditions.

Develop High Visibility in the Yard

The committee worked hard to establish a visible presence at the shipyard. All safety committee members wore special bright colored T-shirts that identified themselves as members of the committee. Workers were encouraged to identify unsafe conditions and practices for members of the committee and to have the committee confront the company about eliminating the hazards. The committee periodically held lunch gatherings with workers in the yard to stage an action or make a demand of Avondale.

Leaflets and Communication

Plant gate leafleting and distribution of a newsletter for workers frequently highlighted safety and health issues that were of importance to workers. An aggressive outreach to the local and national press about the plight of workers at Avondale, including the extremely hazardous conditions in the yard, was implemented.

Travel to Washington, DC

On several occasions, members of the worker safety and health committee went to Washington to tell Members of Congress and officials of the U.S. Navy about the serious safety problems at Avondale. The Navy, as Avondale’s primary client and source of revenue, was constantly pressured during the campaign to hold the employer accountable for its treatment of workers and anti-union actions that was being bankrolled by taxpayer funds.

Filing Complaints With OSHA

Using the comprehensive list of hazards that were gathered by workers, a request for an OSHA inspection was filed by the International Brotherhood of Boilermakers. Workers selected their own walkaround representatives to cover all three shifts at the yard. In response to retaliatory action by Avondale against workers for exercising their health and safety rights, Section 11(c) discrimination complaints were also filed with OSHA.

Workers Memorial Day Event

A Workers Memorial Day rally was held outside the shipyard. AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and the Reverend Jesse Jackson addressed the rally in memory of Avondale workers who had been killed or injured on the job.

Building Public Support

A major effort was made to raise public awareness of the workers struggle to have a union at Avondale and to develop allies among the religious organizations and community groups. Safety and health conditions were featured prominently in these activities.

Outcome of the Campaign

In this campaign, safety and health became the key issue for workers. Avondale workers were extremely upset about the dangerous conditions in the yard and management’s unwillingness to respond to any of their health and safety demands, even those hazards that could be easily fixed. Management’s attitude about safety confirmed in the minds of workers that the company had no concern for their welfare and that the union could make a difference.

While the actions initiated during the campaign highlighted Avondale’s disregard for safety, the strategies and tactics used in this organizing drive convinced workers that, with a union, workers do have power and that they can fight and win. Workers throughout the yard became convinced that only the union was genuinely interested in protecting workers from hazards.

The worker safety and health committee was the key focal point for developing and implementing the strategy and tactics around safety during the campaign. Its high visibility in the yard made it the entity that workers sought out when they had safety and health problems in the yard. By acting like a union, the safety and health committee developed leaders that workers looked to for advancing their interests and concerns. As the campaign progressed, the committee began to experience and understand the power that it had to collectively take the offensive against Avondale and demonstrate to workers that it was only the union that genuinely cared about worker health and safety.

The complaint to OSHA gave workers a strong sense that they had rights that they could effectively exercise. The inspection resulted in numerous instances of willful and serious violations of safety standards and fines of $537,000. Following OSHA’s successful action in federal court to obtain medical records Avondale had refused to give them, OSHA issued additional willful violations, and $180,000 in fines, for failing to properly record hundreds of injuries and illnesses. These findings confirmed what workers and the unions had been saying about the hazardous conditions in the yard and Avondale’s disregard for the safety of its workers. These inspection results were also used in the campaign to apply pressure on the Navy, build community and religious organization support, and expand the publicity efforts with local and national press.

The Workers Memorial Day rally electrified the two thousand Avondale workers and their supporters. Avondale management tried to shut down the rally by scheduling overtime for an additional two hours, letting workers out after the rally was supposed to be over. Instead, over one thousand workers marched out of the shipyard early to attend the rally, led by the chair of the worker safety and health committee. At this point, the workers had truly taken back the yard.

Several months after the Workers Memorial Day rally, Avondale was purchased by Litton Industries. Litton also owned Ingalls Shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi where workers were represented by various unions. In an agreement between the Metal Trades Department and Litton Shipbuilding, Avondale’s new management agreed to stay neutral and let workers decide if they wanted to have a union through a card check process. Within ten days, the Stewards Committee collected nearly 3000 cards and the Metal Trades Department was certified as the collective bargaining agent. A contract was negotiated and ratified by Avondale workers. The new agreement contained language on safety issues, including the establishment of a safety and health committee and development of a safety and health program.