Port Arthur CURTAINS SAG from the open or missing windows of the Sabine Hotel, storefronts sell for about $5,000, and only Walgreen’s, Kress’s, and Wig Castle are left to compete with Capital Plasma Center and the Triangle Foodbank and Soup Kitchen. At the soup kitchen, a beatific Calie Simon serves two hot meals a day to 125 of the city’s hungry. Here is economic and architectural decadence unrivaled by the most decadent of the rust-belt cities. Grass isn’t growing in the streets but it is on the sidewalks. Not even through the early morning lenses of Allan Shivers’s cameras hired in 1954 to portray a sleeping Port Arthur as a city shut down by labor could this city have looked so utterly despairing. Seven blocks north of a port where no ship or barge is working, eight old men lean over two games of dominoes. Almost no one works anymore out of ILA 440’s west Port Arthur hiring hall. On this particular day, one of the eighteen remaining members of this black longshore local is at work in the port warehouse. The empty job board above the quieter of the two games tells the story. . “Ain’t no work out of this hall. One day last week, I had four men working, but mostly, if anybody’s working, it’s one man.” John Perkins is the business agent for Local 440; he takes the calls from the port and chalks up the day’s jobs on the board. How long has it been since the port was working? “Threeand-a-half, four years,” Perkins claims. Still, local members make ritual daily visits to the hiring hall where they play dominoes. And wait. Several blocks north, at the LIU unemployed laborers measure time playing cards and dominoes. Some sit under the shade of the huge oaks that line Thomas Boulevard. In this neighborhood, refineries border the backyards of 50-year-old frame houses. In black west Port Arthur no one, it seems, finds Louis Dubose, a regular Observer contributor, is a freelance writer living in Austin. work. Only the old hands at the refineries are securely employed. And they are not hired out of this hall. Of the 600 active members of the Laborers International, fewer than 150 are employed. How long since Local 853 has seen anything other than hard times? The answer is the same. “About three years,” says business agent Gladys Harmason. “This has hurt a bunch of people. Some of our older members have seen times this hard before. But most of us never seen it this bad.” And it is not only longshoremen and unskilled labor who are suffering from the regional depression that began three years ago, when Texaco, the city’s largest employer, announced that it would cut back its operation and lay off 1,400 of its 3,800 person work force. Other local refiners soon began laying off, and the industry-wide depression that followed staggered the region’s economy \(which is about as diverse as Jackie Kennedy, business agent for , the Sabine Area Building Trades Council, estimates that 55 to 60 percent of his people are out of work. Only electricians, he explains, are even remotely close to the Texas Employment Commission figure of eighteen percent unemployment. “And we’ve been invaded by the non-union shop,” Kennedy claims. Non-union contractors from Louisiana [the state with the highest unemployment rate in the country] and local non-union companies like Brown & Root have won a share of the few construction and refinery maintenance contracts available. “Three years ago,” Kennedy says, “we were a hundred percent.” ECONOMIC DEPRESSION somehow transcends the rightto-work law; union and non union workers here endure the same hardship. But, in the one corner of Texas where organized labor once ruled, the Chamber of Commerce line is that the labor unions have seen their day. There is talk of pressing on, developing a new economic base, rumblings about a service economy. “Texans might have forgotten Spindletop, but the rest of America hasn’t,” argued one future trender at the Beadmont chamber. What he proposed was the development of an oil theme park: “Where oil became industry.” Something with sufficient appeal to attract tourists from across the republic. The Port Arthur City Council recently denied a special purpose permit to Pass Petroleum, a barge company that had proposed a coal-loading facility on Pleasure Island. The island, the council held, must be preserved; it represents the city’s future, the one natural tourist attraction that will be there when the refineries are dismantled. Other such development schemes are in the works, and the Pleasure Island Commission is negotiating with Cal-Merc, a Florida firm with designs on a $45 million recreational facility on that island, which is only separated from Texaco Island by the intercoastal waterway. One of the underpinnings of these development schemes is a renewed dedication to the spirit and letter of the state’s right-towork law; its corollary seems to be that these old union hands are going to have to work for something closer to minimum wage. ONE NEW PLAYER in the economic development picture is the John Gray Institute. The privately funded institute was formed five years ago by local industry as Lamar University’s component for economic development and labor-management relations. The institute is independent of university control. Recently Merlin Breaux was named director. Breaux, a local product, was hired out of the very bowels of the Reagan executive office, where he served as Special Assistant to the President for Public Liaison on Economic Issues. He takes credit for “selling the business community on Reagan’s tax, trade, and budget proposals, as well as handling White House public liaison work on labor relations issues.” Prior to that, Breaux was a Gulf Oil vice president in charge of labor negotiations; local rank and file know him as the “8-for-8” man, the fellow who initiated the eight-hours-work-foreight-hours pay public relations ploy said to increase production at Gulf-Port Arthur. Some still wear the “8-for-8” decals on their hardhats. As a company vice president, Breaux was Gulf’s chief negotiator when the Gulf contract was the industry standard. Speaking before the Beaumont Rotary Club, Breaux embellishes his message with jokes he attributes to Ronald Reagan. He’s not as polished as the President, yet the audience seems engaged. They’re also likely to buy what Blue-Collar Blues By Louis Dubose 6 AUGUST 29, 1986
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