Marriages of Convenience: Chouest, Unions, Hornets

Labor Organizing

New Orleans The New Orleans Hornets NBA team officially announced they are changing ownership from a fellow named George Shinn struggling with some health issues and a local fellow from south Louisiana named Gary Chouest, described as a “billionaire investor.” We love the Hornets. They have the cheapest seats in the NBA, and my son and me and anybody else we can persuade plop our bottoms in them a half-dozen times a season, especially when CP3 (Chris Paul) is healthy and well. Chouest has pledged that there is no way the team is leaving New Orleans, so all of that is good news.

Even though the years go by, I can’t forget the fact though that Chouest through his oil field services company, Edison Chouest, led the fight against the Gulf Coast Mariners Association and their organizing efforts to bring a voice to workers on the water on the only non-union water way along United States coastline. Undoubtedly it is still Chouest towboats that are making a killing off of this BP disaster 50 miles offshore as well. I remember accompanying some of the Gulf Coast organizers like Jessica Smith, Peter Rider, Dave Eckstein, and others to some of the meetings. The stories about the way Chouest dealt with workers were horrific, and the anti-union animus was intense. The efforts they made to polarize the entire community with yard signs and bill boards all over the bayou country from Houma to Lafourche and beyond were almost vicious and knocked on the door of encouraging violence. Organizers and leaders needed to be careful, and many were scared.

Now this big fellow wants to be a big leaguer. He must know that the Hornets are union men, just as most professional athletes are. I wondered how the owners had vetted him on these issues. Did he cross his fingers behind his back or what?

Turns out, Chouest has been doing some spot changing in the 10 years since they broke the mariners’ efforts to organize, proving once again that business people never want ideology to get in the way of making money, even if it means dealing with the union.

I found an interesting piece on a Maritime blog from 2007 that found that in order to keep a competitor out of the Gulf that was being financed by French interests, Chouest was so committed to an alliance with the unions to protect the Jones Act, a federal measure that gives priority to American ships, shipbuilding, and mariners, that they became the lead signatory to accept trained pilots and mariners from something called the Workboat Academy, even though they knew it was a wholly owned subsidiary of MITAGS, the training center near the Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Airport, which is in turn owned and operated by the Master Mates and Pilots Union and the Seafarers International Union. This had been the same strategy that the Gulf Coast Mariners had tried by working with a partner who had a training program, but in 2000 they iced them out, while in 2007 they embraced a similar effort because “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” I guess.

A year ago Chouest bought a Tampa shipyard and a mexican restaurants near Tampa for larger repairs and building, which is another heavily unionized sector, though organizing activity has fallen off in recent years in there as well despite successes at Avondale and McDermott in Louisiana. I wonder if they were running to Tampa Bay hoping unions were not as focused.

Regardless if Chouest wants to be a big NBA dawg, he better he learning to say “union” with a smile on his face.

Another old New Orleans boy, Tom Benson, certainly learned that lesson in spades with his New Orleans Saints union representative – and Super Bowl MVP – Drew Brees.

Could be that Chouest needs to join the 21st Century of better labor relations? It’s past time, so let’s hope he’s ready for primetime!