A cry for economic justice in Virginia shipyard strike

Company says final offer on table

union readies for a long walkout

April 11, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- As Marvin Lowrie, a 52-year-old machinist, walked the picket line outside the giant shipyard here, there was pride laced with bitterness when he talked -- pride that his shipyard produces the world's most sophisticated nuclear aircraft carriers.

But Lowrie, who constructs intricate piping systems for the carriers, voiced unmistakable bitterness that after 27 years on the job making ships essential to the nation's defense, he was still earning less than $30,000 a year.

Seething about what they called stingy wages and pensions, Lowrie and more than 8,000 other workers at Newport News Shipbuilding went on strike after their contract expired Monday in one of the largest walkouts this decade.

"The people here are world-class shipbuilders, yet they get paid peanuts," Lowrie said.

To Lowrie, the dispute is not about whether workers get a 14 percent raise or a 22 percent raise, but about economic justice, about whether workers share in the fruits of economic prosperity. The strikers, members of the United Steelworkers of America, are demanding that the shipyard reward them after they helped nurse it back to financial health by agreeing to a 50-month wage freeze in their last contract. After losing money in 1997, the company earned $66 million in 1998 -- not enough, company officials say, to award the large increases sought by the union.

"Now that the company has had a big turnaround and has a tremendous backlog of work, we want to get our fair share of the pie," Lowrie said.

Unlike many other strikes in their early days, this one does not appear to be shadowboxing. Both sides are digging in, with neither asking the other to return to the bargaining table. The shipyard insists it has made its final offer, while the steelworkers union, Local 8888, has begun determining who among its strikers will need the most financial assistance to endure a long walkout.

"We realize there is every chance that this could be a lengthy strike," said Alfred Little Jr., the shipyard's vice president of human resources.

For now, the workers are in a festive mood, excited by a sense of solidarity while not yet feeling squeezed by weeks without paychecks.

Friday, groups of workers picketed in front of 10 gates at a shipyard that stretches for 2 1/2 miles along the Chesapeake Bay. Beyond the gates were gigantic, 1,100-foot-long, 90,000-ton aircraft carriers under construction or undergoing nuclear refueling.

Shipyard officials insist they have made a generous offer that will increase pensions by at least 10 percent and raise wages by 18 percent over 47 months for most workers.

"This new offer essentially makes our top-rated mechanics the highest paid in the industry when you take into account regional differences in the cost of living," said Jerri Fuller Dickseski, the shipyard's spokeswoman.

The two sides in strikes often see differing realities, and that is certainly the case here.

While company officials hail their proposed 18-percent increase as generous for four years, union members called it ridiculous, saying it would translate into 18 percent over 10 years -- or less than 2 percent a year -- since the workers have not received an across-the-board raise since December 1993.

As for the proposed pension increase of more than 10 percent, Arnold Outlaw, Local 8888's president, termed it paltry, saying it would be an increase from a small base -- most recent retirees receive less than $500 each month.

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