BY BRIAN WILLIAMS
NEWPORT NEWS, Virginia - Spirits are high among the 9,000 Steelworkers on strike here who are determined to win their fight for a decent contract and respect and dignity on the job. The members of United Steelworkers of America (USWA) Local 8888 at Newport News Shipbuilding build and repair ships, including the U.S. Navy's nuclear aircraft carriers.
"This is for our livelihood, our families and, most importantly, respect," Stanley Womack, who works as a rigger in the yard, told the local Daily Press. "And that's something never given by the shipyard to its workers of Local 8888." Enthusiastic strikers chant, "88, Close the Gate" and "What do we want? A contract. When do we want it? Now!" at the 50th Street gate entrance. Pickets are being maintained around the clock in front of the 10 gates at the shipyard, which stretches for two and a half miles along the Chesapeake Bay. Strikers have planned a march on Washington April 21 and on company headquarters April 28.
The strike, which began April 5, is one of the largest walkouts in the United States this decade. Through the first full week of the strike, the Steelworkers have succeeded in shutting down virtually all production in the yard. "See how this yard looks," striker Michele Afforter told the Militant as she pointed to the idle giant cranes and lack of movement of any materials in the yard. "This is how it's been all week." Several workers on the picket lines made the point that the company was surprised the Steelworkers actually went on strike and that support for it has been so solid.
"People are pulling together," stated William Hines, who has worked at the yard for nine years. "The union is stronger now than it's ever been. As the strike goes on, we have more people joining." More than 80 percent of the 9,200 hourly workers have joined the union. And this figure continues to rise. This is up from about 50 percent in 1997. Because Virginia is a so-called "right to work" state, the USWA cannot have a union shop agreement where workers in the bargaining unit automatically join the union. Mark Zephir, who was picketing at the 37th Street gate, described a video by company chairman William Fricks where he says that if workers don't like the way he does business they can go to Hardees to flip burgers. "Well, we will flip burgers before we build William Fricks another ship," stated Zephir.
The shipyard employs thousands of nonunion contract workers, many of whom face immediate termination if they do not go into work. A number of these workers give the striking unionists the thumbs up as they enter the yard. "We realize we have to go in, but we're milking them for everything they're worth," was how one of these contract workers summed up his view of things, according to Zephir.
A lot of people were recently hired and still on their 90- day probation when the strike started. Ron Taylor, 37, who has worked in the yard 11 years, stated, "We've been telling them, the best place to be is in the union. A lot of them have come out and picketed with us."
Support from the community and area unionists has been impressive. The Teamsters and Communication Workers of America (CWA) are honoring the Steelworkers picket lines. Teamsters at United Parcel Service (UPS) have refused to make deliveries through the gates. Some have even walked the picket line in solidarity with the strikers.
Meanwhile, the company in an April 8 bulletin announced that it was going to two 12-hour shifts and a 56-hour workweek for salaried supervisors and scabs who have crossed the line in order to be "more efficient and productive."
"They won't get much of anything done until we go back in there," was how striker Marvin Lockley, who does nuclear work on the Nimitz aircraft carrier, reacted to the company's announcement.
The main issues in this contract fight are wages, pensions, and health benefits. In 1995 the union took a concession contract with a wage freeze and surrendered two holidays and 10 percent of workers' vacation time. Yard workers were locked into a contract that kept pay at 1993 rates, while inflation has risen 12.3 percent and Virginia's average manufacturing wage has gained 17.7 percent over the past six years. The company "wants to give us a 50-cents-an-hour raise and then jack up our medical expenses so that we'd actually be losing money," stated striker Donna Schneider.
Michele Afforter, pointed out that she currently pays about $40 a month for health coverage for herself, her husband, and son. The company wants to raise this to $160 a month.
Striker Marvin Lockley, who has worked 32 years in the shipyard, would only get a pension of $260 a month if he retired now. Out of this he would have to pay $152 a month for medical insurance. "We're demanding a $900 a month pension for 30 years of service," stated Lockley.
"I'm out here for the people who have been injured and stepped on for years, and for people who are retired" said Stacey Lilly, who has worked at the shipyard for 19 years but is currently on picket duty. "The yard drains blood out of you and they're working on the bone marrow. There's not much more left."
"People don't understand what a shipyard worker goes through," stated Barry Credle, a pipefitter. "This is a nasty environment. I work in tanks no bigger than an oil truck in the bowels of ships. It's dark and nasty. One misstep on a ladder and I could lose my life." Chenelly, another pipefitter, pointed out, "This is a plantation. They've changed the name from plantation to corporation. If you can pay your workers mediocre wages then you can become a corporation giant."
An electrician at the yard for 38 years who walked the picket line with his family said, "The next two weeks are critical. We've got them if we just hold out." When asked what he sees as the biggest difference between the current strike and the 85-day walkout for union recognition 20 years ago, the unionist stated, "This strike has a different breed of people - a lot of young people with guts who will take a chance." Eric, a sailor from the Nimitz, was going through the 50th Street gate to do his job on the ship. The Navy requires sailors to work through the strike. He said, "Everybody supports the strikers. They deserve what they're asking for. If we were allowed to, we would all walk out with them."
The U.S. bombing of Yugoslavia is a topic of discussion here, with strikers and sailors expressing various views. The carrier Theodore Roosevelt left the shipyard here shortly before the strike and is now in the Adriatic Sea, off the coast of Yugoslavia. Eric commented, "Yugoslavia is not really a war. We're just dropping bombs on them. But my uncle told me this is what Vietnam looked like in 1962. So, we'll see what happens."
Brian Williams is a member of USWA Local 2609 in Sparrows Point, Maryland. Stu Singer, a member of the United Transportation Union, contributed to this article.
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home