When a shipbuilder gladly accepts a gift of $42 million in Pennsylvania taxpayer dollars to keep itself afloat, then turns around and hires out-of-state workers with that windfall, it’s time to change course.
Recently, more than 200 members of Local People, Local Jobs, a coalition composed of blue-collar working men and women from the Greater Philadelphia region – many who reside in Northeast Philadelphia - staged a protest rally at the Aker Philadelphia Shipyard to draw attention to Aker’s shameful employment practices and rampant use of out-of-state workers at the shipyard. The coalition flexed its political muscle by enlisting the public support of U.S. Rep. Bob Brady, state Sen. Larry Farnese, state Rep. Bill Keller and City Councilmen Kenyatta Johnson, Jim Kenney and Mark Squilla.
In 2011, Aker sought and received a $42 million grant from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Were it not for the $42 million gift of Pennsylvanians’ tax dollars, Aker Philadelphia Shipyard may not have survived the economic ravages of the past five years. Pennsylvania threw Aker a financial lifeline when the company was drowning in a sea of red ink. The 2011 partnership forged between Aker Philadelphia Shipyard and the commonwealth was intended to preserve over 1,000 shipyard jobs and 7,000 indirect jobs over the ensuing three years until the present day. The agreement guaranteed the construction of two new oil tankers. The partnership prevented the likely closure of the yard during a lull in Jones Act shipbuilding in the United States as a result of the national economic recession. (The Jones Act is a federal law that mandates that ships trading between U.S. ports must be built in the United States).
The premise was that, as the recession ebbed, orders for new Jones Act commercial vessels would increase. That premise has come to fruition, with as many as eight new vessels in the production pipeline at Aker Philadelphia Shipyard. But what good is Aker’s successful turnaround if little to none of the economic spin-off is staying in the state that kept the company afloat in the first place? It’s not nearly enough to simply say, ‘Be thankful that Aker is still open.’ Recent news articles have stated that the shipyard is booming. The question is booming for whom? Certainly not local workers, whose families continue to struggle to make ends meet.
There was an expectation that Aker would show its appreciation for our state’s help by hiring qualified, local people for the shipyard’s good-paying jobs, instead of giving those jobs to less qualified, out-of-state workers. It’s sadly ironic that the taxes and salaries that should now be flowing back into our local economy are instead benefitting other states’ economies. Aker and its sub-contractors have turned their backs of our local workers and awarded family-sustaining shipyard jobs to workers from Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, Florida and other southern states. Take a drive through the Navy Yard, look at the workers’ auto license plates and see for yourself. It’s as unethical as it is outrageous. Local People, Local Jobs, along with our growing delegation of elected officials, will continue to apply public and political pressure until Aker and its sub-contractors do the right thing and award these valuable jobs to the people whose tax dollars saved Aker when it was on the brink of bankruptcy - local workers.
Frank Keel is the spokesman for the Local People, Local Jobs coalition.