As president of the New Orleans Metal Trades Council, most days now I’m on steward time, going around the shipyard and talking to people who have problems on the job or on safety issues and since they started talking about shutting down the yard 18 months ago, people have plenty of problems. I get questions about the severance package, about the layoffs—and they’re laying off between 70 and 150 people a month.
I haven’t been working in the trade for some time now, but when I was, my job was to apply rubber tubing around pipes, sealing fiberglass, or insulating air conditioning ducts. I might do some stud welding, too.
All this work was done inside ship holds—lots of tight spaces. When you’re insulating ducts or chilled water pipes you just follow the line wherever it goes.
I started right out of high school. We didn’t have an apprenticeship program in the yard like we do now. I was just assigned to a mechanic until I picked up the skills.
Until 1972, we were all working with asbestos products—fitting it around hot pipes two to four inches thick. Asbestos was in the cement, it was in the cloth we used to wrap pipes. We all had to go through testing—x-rays and such. A lot of guys got sick. I got a touch of exposure.
Most of the folks here are like me, lots of years on the job and we don’t really know what’s going to happen once we finish that last Navy ship—due for launch sometime in 2013. Still, they’re working hard and looks like they’re going to get a productivity bonus in June. They’re still working lots of overtime to meet the schedules. But, unless somebody comes along and begins building some commercial ships, we’re just done.