PASCAGOULA, MS March 25 — “We’re on strike for the younger workers and their families,” was how a few strikers at the Ingalls shipyard explained their fight against Northrop Grumman, which owns the giant yard. Almost 7,000 workers, black and white, men and women, have been on strike since March 8 against the largest employer in Mississippi.
This strike has been billed as the first “post-Katrina strike,” in that housing and other costs have doubled in this area, which was devastated by the hurricane. A gallon of milk costs over $4.00. The wages at the shipyards in the Deep South are about half of those at the Bath shipyard in Maine, largely due to the intense racism in the South. This shows how racism is used to attack ALL workers. Workers on the picket line reject this racism saying, “Ain’t no black and white on this line, just brothers and sisters!”
To underline the point, many displaced shipbuilders in New Orleans, black workers who were scattered around the country, have been replaced by Latino immigrant “guest workers” for as little as $8.00 an hour! These workers live in small trailers, 8 -10 workers to a trailer, in fenced-off trailer parks in the middle of nowhere. New workers are rotated in every several months as “old” workers are sent home. There have been several protests, especially after one worker was killed, and attempts at unity between guest workers and black workers.
This strike, like Airbus strikers in Europe who are fighting the layoffs of 10,000 aerospace workers, striking auto workers in Belgium, France, Russia and Romania and the loss of 100,000 GM, Ford, Chrysler and Delphi jobs in the U.S., all reflect the sharpening inter-imperialist rivalry as bosses in every country are forced to attack workers more and more to stay afloat. This life-and-death struggle between bosses leads to more and bigger wars for control of markets, cheap labor and resources, especially oil. The Northrop Grumman and Airbus workers are vital to the bosses’ ability to wage war, and the key to stopping these imperialist warmakers dead in their tracks.
Northrop Grumman is one of the largest defense contractors in the U.S., raking in billions in profits from the war in Iraq. They received almost $3 billion from the Navy and FEMA to rebuild the shipyard after Hurricane Katrina, yet some strikers are still living in FEMA trailers. Northrop Grumman received $101 an hour per worker to clean up the shipyard, but the workers only received the $18 an hour they normally make. The company kept the other $83 an hour.
There are 12 unions on strike, the largest being the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 733. The Pascagoula Metal Trades Council represents the other 11 unions, including from carpenters and pipe fitters to the IAM. In February, 90 percent of the workers rejected a company proposal for a four-year contract with no pay raises and increased health insurance costs, after stealing almost $100 million from the workers’ health fund. In March the company proposed basically the same deal, and again 90 percent of the workers voted “NO!” This time, they walked out. On March 12, more than 2,000 strikers marched more than six miles from the shipyard to Pascagoula.
Three students from Chicago were received with open arms when they drove down to Pascagoula, bringing food and support to the strikers. After spending time with the workers, in their homes and on the picket lines, they left with a better understanding of how the bosses use racism to grease their war machine, and that multi-racial unity is the key to smashing racism.
While mostly white students were marching to mark the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war, a student told the strikers that even though they weren’t striking against the war, shutting down one of the biggest warmakers, leaving an unfinished Navy destroyer and two freighters sitting silently, was the most significant anti-war action in the country. The workers hadn’t thought about it like that, but most liked the idea. One guy started yelling that he was for the war, and other strikers, black and white, told him to go home. The vast majority of strikers they spoke with, including vets and those with family in the military, opposed the Iraq war.
The Northrop Grumman workers are striking for us all. They are showing the unity of black and white workers in a period of growing racism. They have shut down a warmaker in the midst of war. They are walking the line at a time when hundreds of thousands of union jobs in auto, steel, aerospace, the airlines and more are being wiped out with barely a whimper. They need our support.
Take up collections of food and money. Sign and circulate statements of solidarity. Send them to: IBEW Local 733, 2518 Market Street, Pascagoula, MS 39563.
[For information about the food bank, call Tweety at (228) 249-1600]
Note added: Company and union negotiators have reached an agreement to be voted on by the striking workers. Read more.