In South Louisiana, Mariners Fight for a Union

Like the sluggish flow of the mud-choked Mississippi, new ideas and outside influences creep slowly into south Louisiana. But these days, the idea of workplace organizing has become an important option for crews on the ships that transport personnel and supplies for the offshore oil industry in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1954, the Shell Oil Company erected the first modern offshore drilling platform in the world, "Mr. Charlie," off the Louisiana coast, and the economy of south Louisiana soon revolved around oil.

Local inhabitants were ideal employees for several reasons: many were already seaworthy boatmen, they knew the area, they were accustomed to work that entailed long periods away from home, and they were used to the difficulties of working in Louisiana’s climate. These seemingly custom-made workers found jobs as boat captains, deck hands, roustabouts, and rig hands. Also, south Louisianans were thrilled at the consistent nature of the work. They worked cheap, not realizing how much their skills and knowledge were really worth.

After two generations, life on the bayous became more and more indistinguishable from life in the rest of the country, and south Louisianans developed a "protectionist" policy towards their traditional way of life. Organizations to preserve the French language and music were founded. Linguists and scholars scrambled to record oral histories of the area. This really isn’t an unreasonable mindset. The big problem, however, is that those with the power and the need to maintain it are trying to turn this protectionism into a paranoia that could undermine progress and promote stagnation.

BIG, UGLY, YELLOW

This manufactured paranoia is realized these days on the sides of roads in south Louisiana as huge yellow signs that proclaim to passers-by: "There is no ‘YOU’ in Union!" To drive the point home, the creators of the signs have the word "Union" in a red circle with a line through it.

The signs’ sponsors, Concerned Citizens for the Community, regularly buy newspaper space to lambaste unions.

The group is organized and run by the management of Edison Chouest Offshore, a local family-owned corporation specializing in offshore vessel service and shipbuilding. With a long-whispered record of anti-worker abuses, corporate strong-arming, and less-than-safe working conditions, Chouest knows that any union that got going in the area would probably make Chouest a target of much unwelcome criticism.

Chouest Offshore is by no means alone in its fight against unionization. Other voices in the chorus include the management of Tidewater Marine of Amelia, Louisiana, whose chairman, William O’Malley, sent a somewhat threatening letter to employees last spring. "Let me clearly state that Tidewater is squarely against anyone or any organization standing between Tidewater as a company and its employees," O’Malley wrote. "We do not believe that a union is in your best interests or the future success of our company."

Also vocal in the union-busting camp is Trico Marine, a Houston-based boat company that has facilities in Houma, Louisiana, and the Offshore Marine Services Association, headed by Bob Alario. Trico is accused of using the confined quarters and hours-long journeys of its vessels to conduct anti-union "teach-ins," and Alario has spoken and written repeatedly about the damage he feels unions will do to the area’s economy.

While all this union-hating hysteria was being stirred up, however, the labor movement won a quiet, startling victory. The workers of the McDermott shipyard in Amelia voted in August to unionize. This victory came after a lengthy, expensive anti-union campaign on the part of McDermott. As this article is being written, McDermott and the newly established local of the International Union of Operating Engineers have signed a contract, and it seems that 500 jobs may be created in the process. Apparently, unionization has not caused the sun to turn black and the earth to open up and swallow St. Mary Parish. But the surreal anti-union campaigns continue.

THE UNION THEY HATE

The focal point of all this union bashing is two organizations: The Gulf Coast Mariners Association and the allied Offshore Mariners United. The GCMA was founded two years ago by five U.S. maritime unions: Marine Engineers’ Beneficial Association; International Organization of Masters, Mates & Pilots; Seafarers International Union; National Maritime Union; and American Maritime Officers. The association’s purpose was to give mariners a voice about safety issues, training, and working hours in the Gulf of Mexico, which are considered notoriously bad in mariners’ circles around the world—and to gauge local interest in forming a union.

Apparently, worker concerns and interest were serious enough for the five maritime unions to establish a new union, the OMU. GCMA’s lead organizer, David Eckstein, a long-time Teamster, now works for the OMU.

Those Gulf mariner concerns include:

1. Fatigue: Though it looks like a short trip on a map, a journey from a port town like Venice, Louisiana to a couple rigs 100 miles out in the Gulf and back can take over ten hours, often without a crew change. Twenty-hour shifts are not unheard of. Tired crews are more prone to mistakes, accidents, and injuries. The GCMA and OMU want the statutory 12 hour rule--which makes shifts longer than 12 hours illegal--properly enforced among mariners and their employers.

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2. Under-staffing: Although the Coast Guard requires all boats that operate in the Gulf to have at least a minimum acceptable number of hands, many mariners insist that the "minimum acceptable" standard can fall short of the number of people realistically needed. Under-staffing can result in overworked and injured mariners. The Mariners’ Union of Australia claims that in that country, the same type vessels as in the Gulf of Mexico are operated with three times as many hands, on average, as in the Gulf.

3. Pensions: Also upsetting many mariners is the lack of pension plans. In Louisiana, 401k plans are the norm for offshore workers and mariners. The OMU hopes to change the face of retirement in Louisiana to conform to much of the rest of industrial America with defined pension benefits that are not so beholden to the whims of the stock market.

DANGEROUS JOBS

4. Safety: Locals don’t have to do much digging in their family tree to find a relative who was killed, disabled, or badly injured in the offshore petroleum industry. The GCMA testified before the Louisiana State Committee on Labor and International Relations that mariners in the Gulf of Mexico oil patch are three times more likely to die on the job than any other mariners in the world.

University of Arizona anthropologists Diane Austin and Thomas McGuire quoted one local deckhand: "The worst thing about the oilfield [in the Gulf] is that...they are not really concerned with safety. As long as they are making money, they are happy. In the beginning of 1998, I got my front teeth knocked out because they had a guy who was not certified running the crane."

5. Licensing Concerns: By February 2002, all mariners working in U.S waters must be licensed according to the Standards of Training, Certification, and Watchkeeping (STCW), which is a program of seaworthiness enforced by the U.S. Coast Guard. The original STCW training requirements were updated in 1995 to reflect new technology, making licensing a more complex issue than it has ever been before.

Many in the mariner community say the boating industry bosses have too close a relationship with the Coast Guard and have too much say in the process of deciding certification requirements. Boating industry leaders have tried to negotiate a less extensive, less expensive licensing process for captains of offshore supply vessels, which are usually smaller and make shorter runs than the bigger boats. Critics point out that while this plan is cheaper and easier for the boat owners (who often pay for the training needed to get mariner certification), it hurts the job prospects of the mariners who may need to find work elsewhere.

The GCMA and OMU have pledged to make sure that mariners’ voices are heard in negotiations concerning the STCW issue. The GCMA recently received a $4 million grant to implement free training programs for mariners.

6. Employer Reprisals: Some local companies have fired vocal pro-union mariners. Duane McCullough, a boat pilot with Trico, claims he was illegally discharged because of his position on the union matter. "They told me that, as a supervisor, it was my duty to turn over the names of the [union] card signers," McCullough told WTIX radio in New Orleans. When he refused to do so, he was summarily fired.

7. Jones Act Watch Dogging: The union and the GCMA also say that they will act as the voice of Gulf mariners in the ongoing fight for the preservation of the Jones Act. This law, passed by congress in 1920, mandates that domestic shipping be done on boats built in the United States, staffed by American crews, and owned by companies whose stock is at least 75 percent U.S.-controlled. One reason the law was passed was to protect U.S. shipping from foreign competition paying wages below what would be subsistence levels in the U.S. But now, in this era of "free trade" delirium, many would not mind seeing U.S. maritime work in the hands of desperate sweatshop labor. In fact, there are now legislative efforts to reform or repeal the Jones Act.

Bills to weaken the Jones Act are usually led by legislators from landlocked agricultural states who would like very much to see waterway transport at the lowest possible prices. But the legislation is also backed by such oil interests as Phillips Petroleum, Chevron, and the Western Independent Refiners Association--all of whom have stakes in the Gulf region.

THE FUTURE

In this part of the country where bosses are revered and company pride is literally worn on the sleeve in the form of uniform patches, the anti-union lobby may simply overpower the labor people with money and repetition of union-bashing rhetoric in public forums. But those who have lived here and have seen the economic rug pulled out from under working families with little warning or apology know that self-protection of some kind is needed for workers in the shipyards, boats, and docks, and eventually the rigs.

As the new economic realities make the uncle and aunt-owned boats and boat companies of the past less common, and merging corporate giants take over more and more aspects of offshore marine services, workers here will eventually have to take a serious look at their situation and decide what to do. Regardless of whether or not they feel it best to unionize, the GCMA and OMU will surely play a part in the decision.

Darryl Eschete is a librarian and activist in Louisiana.