OXFORD—Haley Barbour's "Port of the Future" has taken another hit. Chiquita, known as the United Fruit Company before that name became synonymous with political bullying and corruption in Latin America, announced recently that it was moving its operation at the Port of Gulfport to New Orleans.
This was sad news indeed to the scores of International Longshoremen's Association members who worked for Chiquita in Gulfport and accounted for one-third of the work hours by unionized longshoremen at the port in 2013. Within days, port officials announced that the Houston, Texas-based piping and energy services company McDermott Inc. would be moving operations to Gulfport and bringing as many as 100 non-union jobs with it. Still, losing Chiquita was a bitter pill. Chiquita's 635,000 tons of shipped cargo in 2013 was 30.5 percent of the total tonnage shipped through Gulfport that year.
The Port of Gulfport was to be a shining star in the constellation of Haley Barbour's accomplishments as governor. Now back to his old job as a high-powered lobbyist in Washington, Barbour negotiated the redirection of $570 million in federal funds to the port's expansion and away from their original purpose: the building of affordable housing in the Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Gulf Coast. The funding was in addition to $90 million the port expected in insurance payments for damage repair.
An outcry from advocacy groups and a lawsuit by the Mississippi Center for Justice and the NAACP failed to deter Barbour, who claimed the "Port of the Future" would create as many as 6,000 jobs. U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., even bought into Barbour's vision and helped get federal approval of the diversion. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant later did his part by signing a bill limiting state oversight of how the money would be spent. In the world of Republican politics, the best and only real use for taxpayer money is corporate welfare. Barbour envisioned a world-class port for tenants like Chiquita and the Dole Food Company, as well as for the new casinos and hotels that would be built nearby.
Yet the rebuilding has proceeded at a desultory pace, while the Port of Gulfport has lost its once-crucial chicken-exporting business to neighboring ports and now Chiquita, one of its most important tenants. No one talks any more about 6,000 jobs. The promise has been trimmed down to 1,300 jobs, and even that may be pie in the sky.
Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was so determined to get Chiquita that he offered a $15.5 million taxpayer-funded incentives package to lure it from Gulfport, where the company had been operating for 40 years.
Chiquita must be lapping up all the love. This is a company used to enjoying taxpayers' largesse. The city of Charlotte, N.C., spent $23 million to get Chiquita to move its headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte in 2011. Chiquita now plans to merge with the Irish firm Fyffes, and the new ChiquitaFyffes company's headquarters will be abroad in Dublin. Chiquita says some operations will stay in Charlotte, but its promise of a high-paid workforce of 400-plus there may be a pipe dream.
Few major corporations have a darker history than Chiquita. In 2007, the company agreed to pay a $25 million fine as penalty for dealing with terrorists in Colombia. Chiquita paid an estimated $1.7 million in protection money between 1997 and 2004 to the United Self-Defense Forces, also known as the A.U.C., a paramilitary group designated by the U.S. State Department as a Colombian terrorist group that targeted unions, workers and civilians.
Chiquita and the Dole Food Company, another Gulfport tenant, were involved in an international scandal as a result of their use of the dangerous chemical pesticide nemagon on their plantations in Central America even after the chemical was determined to be dangerous and potentially cause sterility and other health problems. The Dole Food Company, which has signed a lease to stay in Gulfport at least through 2017, continued to use nemagon in Central America even after it was banned in the United States.
Dole Food Company founder and owner David Murdock's personal history makes him a perfect fit for his company. When the billionaire sold textile giant Cannon Mills in Kannapolis, N.C., to Fieldcrest Mills in 1986, he returned to his home in California with millions of dollars in pension funds from Cannon Mills workers.
It took a lawsuit and legal battle with the Amalgamated Clothing and Textile Workers Union of America to force Murdock into an out-of-court settlement to return $1 million of the funds. Murdock had spent an estimated $37 of the $102 million pension fund to finance another company takeover.
Joe Atkins is a veteran journalist and professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi. Email him at [email protected].