BY BRIAN WILLIAMS AND MARY MARTIN
NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia - Six weeks into their strike against Newport News Shipbuilding'(NNS), thousands of members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 8888 are determined to stay out until their just demands are met. "This started as a strike over wages and benefits, but everyone knows it's really about respect," stated Delano Harrison, a rigger with 22 years at the yard. "That's why everyone walked out."
"This strike remains solid," stated striker George Hightower. "We can't work for free. I can't afford to go back in there, so I'm going to hold my ground. I'm prepared to stay out as long as it takes, that's the bottom line."
Some 9,000 members of USWA Local 8888 struck April 5. The union is demanding a $3.95 an hour raise over three years, $900-a-month pensions after 30 years of service, and restoration of the holidays and vacation time given up in 1995. The company's "final offer" was $1.50 in raises over four years, plus a pay-for-performance package that could add up to another dollar for some of the workers. The last wage increase at the shipyard was in 1993. Since then workers have lost more than 12 percent of their paychecks' purchasing power due to inflation.
"It's ridiculous what they want us to retire on," said Douglas Turner, who has two years' seniority and also worked in the yard for five years in the 1980s. "You work here for 30 years and get only $500. Some get less. I've got four kids and have to clothe and feed them. It's impossible to do this on $13.50 an hour."
"I'm not going to cross the line, the way I've been treated all these years," stated Alton Brown, a pipefitter with 39 years' seniority. "You ask for a raise and the supervisors say, `Sure. I'll raise you from working on the second ship deck up to the third ship deck!' "
A few years back when gas fumes on a ship killed three workers, Brown quickly found his way through a tunnel in the ship to cut off the appropriate valve, preventing further loss of life. "You saved a lot of lives," his boss at the time told him. "You should be rewarded." Brown noted, "Later on I was awarded a plaque for being one of the best pipefitters in the yard and a package of cookies."
Concerns over safety
Jim Keenehan, a nuclear electrician, voiced concern about safety in the yard as the company tries to push through work utilizing insufficiently trained contract workers or supervisors. This work involves replacing the nuclear fuel rods in the nuclear-powered naval aircraft carriers in the yard.
Another worker on the picket line, who requested that his name not be used, elaborated further. "We heard the yard is planning on moving [nuclear] fuel [rods] in the near future with workers who are not trained. All the trained nuclear refuelers are out here on strike. No one in there now is experienced in this work. This means the potential for release of radiation increases greatly. This won't just effect the yard but the whole community."
The company ended health coverage for all striking workers as of May 1. The union on April 23 opened a special office at a nearby shopping center where the strikers can pick up food and request financial assistance to pay bills. Strikers are not receiving regular weekly strike pay, nor can they get unemployment compensation. On any given day, scores of Steelworkers are waiting around for appointments to discuss their financial situation and pick up checks. Some have had to keep coming back over the course of several days.
In an interview outside the benefits office, maintenance worker Marvin Allbritton commented, "I think that if we get this part organized, we could all be back at the gates on the picket lines. We'd rather be at the gates than in here. It's the solidarity on the picket line that shows the company something."
"Anybody who thinks that our strike has nothing to do with others is living in a fools paradise," stated Steelworker Brian Riblett in an interview on the picket line at the 50th Street gate. Riblett is a veteran of the 1979 strike battle that fought for union recognition here. "Everything is connected. If you're not union, you're at the company's mercy."
The strikers continue to receive strong support from other unionists and throughout the community. Teachers have come by to join the picket lines as well as postal workers and machinists from the Siemens Automotive plant in the city. International Longshoremen's Association Local 1784, based in Newport News, pledged $500 and use of a freezer.
A particular bone of contention with many strikers is the huge salary and bonuses being given to William Fricks, the chairman and chief executive officer of Newport News Shipbuilding, while workers' wages remain frozen and the amount they must pay to cover health benefits is rising. In 1998 Fricks received $4.48 million in salary, stocks, and other perks. "He makes more than $600 an hour and then says [to us], `You don't need any more money,' " said Jim Stoecker, a welder at the yard for 18 years, as quoted in the May 4 Newport News Daily Press.
`I'm in it `til the end'
In an April 25 Daily Press article, staff writer Jim Spencer points to some of the feedback he has been receiving from strikers at his Internet site. One woman who identified herself as "Striking Annie," wrote, "We are sinking now, slowly. With each passing month, we are going a little deeper in debt. I decided it would be less painful to drown now, backing a good cause, and if necessary, relocating and starting fresh, than to work another four years, give my best to a company that obviously could care less about me and my family, and still drown in deep debt. The decision is made, and I am in it `til the end."
Meanwhile, Litton Industries Inc., has offered to buy Newport News shipyard for $1.25 billion in stock. They also plan to acquire the New Orleans-based Avondale Industries Inc., which NNS had previously announced plans to buy. This bid comes just a few days after the Pentagon blocked a move by General Dynamics Corp. to take over the shipyard. Upon announcement of Litton's merger proposal, stock values for Newport News and Avondale shipyards rose by 21 percent and 13 percent respectively.
This flurry of merger bids occurs as the Pentagon is demanding further cutbacks at Newport News shipyard - a demand that pits them directly against the Steelworkers' fight for a decent contract. Defense Secretary William Cohen, in a letter to Congress last month, warned of "more far- reaching changes for the shipyard if it fails to cut costs over the next five years." A new agreement between the yard and the Navy commits Newport News to save $360 million between now and 2003 through cuts in labor costs and materials.
Brian Williams is a member of USWA Local 2609 in Sparrows Point, Maryland. Mary Martin is a member of International Association of Machinists Local 1759 in Washington, D.C.
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