Tenneco, the parent company of Newport News Shipbuilding, has turned down an invitation by Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall to Meet with representatives of the United Steel Workers, setting the stage for a shipyard strike in the near future.

James L. Ketelsen, Tenneco's chairman and chief executive officer, acknowledged receipt of a telegram from Marshall. But he said that the Houston-based conglomerate wouldn't meet with the steel workers because it is contesting in court a decision by the National Labor Relations Board requiring it to bargain with them.

If the shipyard bargains with the steel workers, company spokesmen say, it would forefeit its ability to contest the right of the steel workers to serve as bargaining agents for the shipyard's blue-collar workers in the U.S. Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond.

"We're interested in a fair, unbiased review by the court and will abide by its decision," Ketelsen said.

Jack Hower, a steel workers staff representative in Newport News, said he had not been told that Tenneco has refused Marshall's request for a meeting. But if it is true, he added, the union "is left with no other choice" but to strike.

"They will either meet us in Washington or on Washington Avenue (the street running alongside the shipyard)," he said. "We're not going to stand by and allow the company to unilaterally change the benefits and past practices our employes have enjoyed. We will not continue to allow Tenneco to discharge and suspend shipyard workers without union representation."

The Steel Workers defeated the incumbent Peninsula Shipbuilders Association in an election last January to determine who would serve as bargaining agent for the shipyard's 17,000 production and maintenance workers.

The shipyard has refused to recognize the steel workers, charging that there were election irregularities. It has continued to maintain its position even though the NLRB overruled Tenneco's objections after a nine-month investigation.

Marshall issued a meeting invitation to Tenneco and the steel workers last week, while steel worker representatives were meeting with Labor Department officials in Washington. Tenneco officials also were invited to the meeting, but regused to attend.

The steel workers accepted Marshall's invitation, but the company filed a court petition.

In a separate letter to the court, shipyard attorney Andrew Kramer proposed a schedule for the proceedings and said Newport News Shipbuilding would file its brief Jan. 16, The NLRB would have until the end of the month to file a response.