Today, Avondale Industries is a subsidiary of defense company Northrop Grumman. World War II history buffs may recall the Grumman F4F “Wildcat” fighter planes that were the mainstay of U.S. Navy aviation between December 1941 and mid-1943. This relationship continues today as company continues to design, build and maintain surface ships for the Navy and Coast Guard, as well as a variety of commercial ships.
The Avondale Operations Division is headquartered on the banks of the Mississippi River 12 miles above New Orleans. It is the largest industrial manufacturing company in Louisiana, occupying a 268 acre facility and employing 6,000 workers.
Avondale Industries was founded in 1938 as Avondale Marine Ways, Inc. Originally, it was a small barge repair company. The original partners, James G. Viavant, Harry Koch and Perry N. Ellis, soon expanded into the construction of river boats and new barges as a way to keep workers busy between more profitable repair projects. By 1941, the company employed 200 workers.
As the U.S. began mobilization in anticipation on entering World War II, the federal government took control of the production of raw materials. Viavant traveled to Washington D.C. in 1941 in order to bid on defense contracts for small vessels. The company’s first major order was for four tugboats. As government contracts increased, Avondale expanded into new facilities at Harvey Canal in 1946. Throughout the remainder of the 1940s and 1950s, Avondale built a large number of tankers, drilling barges and other work boats.
Avondale was sold in 1959 to the Ogden Corporation of New York for $14 million dollars. The name of the company was changed to Avondale Shipyards the following year; for the next quarter-century, the company produced everything from guided missile destroyers and tankers to river barges and offshore drilling rigs.
Ogden sold Avondale and six other companies to its employees in 1985. These became the Avondale Corporation under the terms of an Employee Stock Ownership Plan. The corporation was 70% employee-owned, while Ogden retained a 30% interest. Two years later, the corporation sold off all the companies except for the shipyard, which continued to operate as Avondale Industries. The company went public in 1988; by 1991, employees still owned 54% of the common stock.
In 1999, Avondale was acquired by Litton Industries, and renamed Litton Ship Systems Avondale Operations. Litton itself was purchased by Northrop Grumman in 2001.
Since the company was founded seventy years ago, over 2500 hulls have been produced. Asbestos exposure was likely to have occured among employees who worked at the Avondale facility prior to 1980, as asbestos was widely used throughout the ship building industry as a flame retardant. The health hazards of asbestos, such as the possibility of developing an asbestos related illness like asbestosis (A scaring of the lungs), pleural plaques, or an asbestos cancer such as lung cancer or mesothelioma, was known as early as 1940, but due to concerns over war production and a desire on the part of the industry to internalize profits while externalizing costs, this information was kept from the public.