The United Steelworkers of America will strike the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co., the world's largest shipyard, Jan. 31, the union announced yesterday.
The strike is set to begin exactly a year after the Steelworkers won a National Labor Relations Board election victory among the yard's 17,000 production and maintenance workers. The company, a subsidiary of Tenneco Inc., has refused to recognize the election victory.
Jack Hower, a Steelworkers staffer at Local 8888, said that he expects 90 percent of the workers within the union's jurisdiction to honor picket lines and that the strike could last up to a year. But, he said, "We are not going to condone violence down here. Hopefully, there will be none."
In response to the strike threat, company spokesman James M. Griffith said. "We intend ot keep the shipyard yard open to fulfill our obligations to both our employes and our customers."
The company, charging that last year's election was plagued by irregularities, this week filed a 60-page brief in the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, asking the court to set aside the election or at least order the NLRB to review charges of Steelworkers misconduct in the voting process.
In the election last year, the union, which claims 14,000 members, defeated the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association, which the Steelworkers charged was too compliant with company demands.
The appellate court will hear the case the week of March 5, but the union has said that litigation could delay bargaining between it and the company for up to a year and a half.
Local union officials announced earlier this month that they had set a strike date, but refused to disclose it until yesterday. Plant workers were notified of the strike date with flyers handed out at the plant gates.
"As you know, this date represents one year of patience and tolerance by this local union's membership," local officers said in a telegram sent Wednesday seeking permission for the strike from Steelworkers International president Lloyd McBride in Pittsburgh. "Tolerance and patience can but go so far."
McBride could not be reached yesterday, but Bruce Trasher, the district director in Atlanta, said he had "no doubt" McBride would approve the strike.
Even a partial walkout at the yard, Virginia's largest private employer, is bound to have enormous impact on the economy of the Tidewater area. The company provides 30 percent of the personal income in the immediate surrounding area, and buys more than $77 million a year in goods and services from Virginia companies, according to Griffith.
The annual payroll, he said, including benefits, amounts to more than $430 million for the shipyard's 23,000 employes.
Newport News City manager Frank Smiley said the state police and National Guard have sent officers to the city to make plans to back up the city's 250 uniformed police officers in case of violence. "We're not sure what will happen," he said. "I'm concerned about the long-range (economic) impact."
Violence erupted at the shipyard during a three-day wildcat strike 11 years ago.
Asked if the company has made any special preparations for the strike, company spokesman Griffith responded, "none that I'm talking about." But the company recently surrounded its employe parking lots with a chain link fence topped with barbed wire and mounted water cannons on its fire trucks.
A strike by 1,000 draftsmen at the shipyard, also organized by the Steelworkers, has entered its 20th month. The shipyard is currently working on the $2 billion nuclear aircraft carrier Carl Vinson, two supertankers and a liquefied natural gas carrier.