Sunday, July 18, 2010

What do Katrina, BP and Northrop Grumman have in Common?

For Louisiana, they have officially become examples of how bad things happen in groups of three.

I understand the economics behind the decision, I really do.  The economy is bleak all around, and companies have to do what they can to stay viable.  However, Northrop Grumman's decision to shut down their Avondale shipyard, particularly on the heels of the oil spill and drilling moratorium, is absolutely devastating.  It has been estimated that 11,000 jobs - well paying jobs, I might add - will disappear over the next couple of years as a result.  Northrop Grumman has about 5,000 employees, and there are roughly 6-7,000 jobs directly related to Northrop Grumman in the region that will also die off.  This includes everything from contractors and suppliers to restaurants, and everything in between.

Even the educational system in the region will be significantly hit.  Northrop Grumman has a phenomenal pre-apprenticeship program in local high schools which will vanish. They are also strongly tied to Delgado Community College and the University of New Orleans.  This shipyard has been the ultimate example of a forward-thinking employer who invests back into the community as much, if not more, than it receives.

Northrop Grumman's closing of the Avondale shipyard (for those of you not familiar with the region, the shipyard is located in Avondale, LA, right outside New Orleans, and is often referred to as simply "Avondale") is going to be devastating for the state economy, but on a more personal level, is going to cause serious financial hardships for their workers.  In stronger economic times, the region would have a better chance of providing decent re-employment opportunities for them.  However, I don't think I need to explain how that's not the case right now.  Far from it.  There are many instances where not just one family member works there, but two or three do.  Mothers, fathers, children and siblings will be in a situation where they won't have the support system in place to help them make it, because they all work for Avondale.  They have been such an excellent employer that their turnover is low, so many employees have been there for numerous years, even decades, before Northrop Grumman even bought the yard.  It is a way of life. It is a family.

So I ask you, where is the outrage?  While there is a great deal of talk, and some news coverage, the New Orleans region should be out there protesting!  The workers should be protesting!  Instead, it seems like they just sit back and take it.  They feel like nothing can be done.  This, my friends, is exactly the reason why the labor movement struggles.  We've (in most cases) lost our ability to get members motivated to take action.  Everyone is too afraid of being fired (particularly since this is a right-to-work state) over protests and strikes.  Without the threat (or action) of a very strong protest, in person or even online, then the powers-that-be hold all of the cards.  There is something to be said for very public, highly attended demonstrations.  I started a "Save Northrop Grumman" Facebook page/petition yesterday.  Only 20 people have joined it so far, and I advertised it with over 100 people initially who have a personal stake in this.  Pathetic. This is an IDEAL example of how labor should be using social media to connect with their members.  Email campaigns, Facebook and Twitter accounts with a continual feed of information on the status of the closing, while also using these online avenues to organize and gain support in the community for demonstrations.  If you've been following the "Boycott BP" Facebook page, or even just heard of it (because it's received TONS of press on CNN and the like), then you have seen the power of just what social media can do for a cause.  In the course of just a couple of months, this movement is 850,000 supporters strong, and many demonstrations against BP have taken place in various cities as a result.  This ONE Facebook page has had a tremendous affect on the BP Oil Spill reaction, and has generated a great deal of buzz, with examples here, here, here, and here - even a Diane Sawyer interview with the page's creator, Lee Perkins.

The Avondale workers and their local unions really have nothing to lose at this point.  It wouldn't be a strike, it would be a demonstration of support to keep the yard open!  Our politicians are supposedly trying to get involved, but we'll see how hard they try.  So, what would be the point?  Maybe, just maybe, a strong public relations campaign would buy the yard more time - more time for the economy to recover before flooding the market with the unemployed, more time to find a suitable buyer who could potentially keep a good percentage of employees in a job, more time for workers to figure out a game plan.  However, the first round of layoffs are rumored to be in the next few months.  Time is more scarce than it might seem, and the clock keeps ticking on this economic time bomb.

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