Booming Business at Alabama Shipyard Fuels New Union Campaign

Bruce Vail

The Austal shipyard in Mobile, Alabama specializes in building littoral combat ships like the USS Independence. (Austal)

Rapid business growth may be the key to finally unionizing shipbuilding workers in Mobile, Ala., where an Australia-based defense contractor has successfully fought union organizing for more than a decade.

That’s the estimation of Ron Ault, President of the AFL-CIO’S Metal Trades Department (MTD), an umbrella group for unions representing boilermakers, machinists, pipefitters, and other skilled shipbuilding workers from around the country. There is a boom in Gulf Coast shipyards now,” Ault says, and high demand for skilled workers may give unions a foothold. Gulf shipyards are recruiting workers from all parts of the country, including heavily unionized areas, and the presence of this whole new generation of workers is a real opportunity for labor organizing, according to Ault.

Six MTD unions have joined together to back such a union campaign at the Austal USA shipyard in Mobile, where lucrative Navy contracts have fueled a rapid expansion of the business, including massive new hiring. Campaign organizers are settling down in Mobile for a long-haul effort to revive union shipbuilding in the city, Ault says.

The Australian-owned Austal is a relatively new player among U.S. naval contractors, but has made a big splash since setting up its first U.S. operations some 15 years ago. A specialist in aluminum-hulled commercial ferries, Austal made its move into military work in 2006 when it scored a contract with the Navy to build the first version of an entirely new class of warships — the Littoral Combat Ship, or LCS. The ships are lighter and more versatile than many traditional Navy warships, and are designed for use in the widely scattered hot spots of the War on Terror, rather than as part of the giant aircraft carrier battle groups. Austal has also developed a military version of its aluminum fast ferries, which can deliver heavy equipment such as tanks to remote areas of the world. The Navy liked the first examples of these vessels and has ordered up to ten copies of each. These multi-billion dollar defense contracts are now expected to keep Austal’s Mobile shipyard humming with activity for the next five to ten years, and perhaps even longer.

Austal’s rapid rise did not go unnoticed by Mobile-area unions. The city has been a center of shipbuilding since the early 20th century, and the MTD had a strong presence there starting in the 1930s. But ship construction suffered an almost total collapse in Mobile in the 1980s and 1990s, and Ault says there was no unionized shipbuilding left in the city by the time Austal opened its vessel fabrication shop there in 2001. Sheet Metal Workers International Association (SMWIA) Local 441 took an early interest in organizing the company, and asked for its first union certification election in 2002.

What followed was a ten-year saga of disappointment and defeat for SMWIA. Keith Maddox, leader of the new MTD organizing team, tells Working In These Times that SMWIA, renamed SMART with the merger with United Transportation Union in 2008, made an admirable effort, but was stymied by rapid change at the yard, including very high turnover of workers, and stiff opposition from Austal managers. Ultimately, there were three National Labor Relations Board-supervised elections at Austal, with SMWIA’s third and final defeat coming in 2011.

Unions were determined not to throw in the towel, according to Maddox, even though a new approach was clearly needed. So SMART joined with five other MTD unions — the International Brotherhood of Boilmakers, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, United Association of Plumbers (UA), International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM), and the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades—for another run at Austal. They formally kicked off the new campaign in July last year and are adopting an approach of building support in a slow and steady” fashion, Maddox says.

In some ways, the new campaign is facing a different company than that first challenged by SMWIA a decade ago, Maddox remarks. Back then it was a small, upstart outfit with a few hundred workers. Since then, Austal has expanded its manufacturing facilities, upped its workforce to more than 3,000 people, and established itself as a major Navy contractor. Heavy staff turnover means there is a whole new generation of workers who can potentially be convinced to support a union, he says, far outnumbering those who voted against unionization in the past. But the one thing that hasn’t changed is that the Austal managers in Alabama remain adamantly opposed to any union.

Some of the current workers are so scared because of the anti-union meetings” organized by shipyard managers, says former Austal worker Shannon Roberts, a union supporter and activist. Periodic anti-union meetings and disparaging remarks from supervisors have succeeded in creating an atmosphere of hostility toward unions among a significant portion of the workforce, he admits.

But the biggest challenge for the union, Roberts says, is to reach the younger workers. The young kids, and there are a lot of them [at the shipyard], just don’t know anything about unions,” he says. They’re young and they’re not really scared of anything. But they don’t have enough experience” in the workplace to have formed an opinion about unionization.

Maddox says he is aware of this challenge to organizing and has been devoting resources to it. The Deep South is not friendly to unions, he allows, but Huntingdon Ingalls Industries Inc. has a shipyard in nearby Pascagoula, Miss., with about 6,000 unionized workers, he notes. Maddox himself is a veteran of the long 1990s Avondale shipyard organizing campaign in Louisiana that is another example of how unions can win victories in the South. Part of the educational process is to impress on the fresh Austal workers that unions have a long and proud tradition of producing Navy ships in every part of the country, he says. 

Working In These Times made several requests, but Austal managers declined requests to be interviewed for this story.

The soft-spoken Maddox tells Working In These Times that his assignment to organize at Austal is a tough one” and that none of the MTD unions is expecting an overnight victory. This is a company that is just a bad actor,” he says, so a sustained campaign to turn things around will be necessary. MTD’s Ault said he believes that Maddox is up to the task and that the new shape of Austal will ultimately provide they way forward for the unions.

IAM is a website sponsor of In These Times. Sponsors have no role in editorial content.

Bruce Vail is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with decades of experience covering labor and business stories for newspapers, magazines and new media. He was a reporter for Bloomberg BNA’s Daily Labor Report, covering collective bargaining issues in a wide range of industries, and a maritime industry reporter and editor for the Journal of Commerce, serving both in the newspaper’s New York City headquarters and in the Washington, D.C. bureau.
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