Peter Veretos glances out the steamy window of his Terminal Lunch restaurant and stares at the main gate of the sprawling Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co.
"I'm going to close my place up and get the heck out of here, because there's going to be a lot of trouble," Veretos swears.
What is troubling Veretos these days also is worrying many merchants and civic leaders here in this seaport community whose name has become synonymous with American shipbuilding. At "Newport News Ship," as townsfolk call the community's and Virginia's largest private industry, there is labor trouble, and strike talk has replaced the sagging Washington Redskins' fortunes as the number one topic at Vertos' lunch counter.
It has been almost a year since the United Steelworkers of America scored what was one of organized labor's biggest victories in decadees, winning the right to represent the yard's 19,000 production workers in a bitterly contested election with a conservative, hometown union. The Steelworkers were certified as the winner in late Octover, but to date the company has refused to bargain -- an act that may be answered Sunday night when shipyard workers meet in a local coliseum on whether to strike the yard.
"Even the Christmas shooping is off this year on account of the fear of a strike," says John Plethos, whose Sanitary Restaurant on Washington Street near the shipyard is in a decaying business district filled with small cafes and seedy X-rated movie houses. "If it is a strike, the whole area is going to feel bad financial conditions," Plethos says.
Two miles from the yard, in a cramped second floor office of Steelworkers Local No. 8888, Jack Hower, a union official from Roanoke, speaks bluntly to a group of shipyard workers. "You'd better start saving your money," he says.
The union has met with local welfare workers about the number of families who might be eligible for food stamps, has set up strike benefits committees and named its picket captains.
No one, however, is predicting when the shipyard workers might actually strike, but most workers say they doubt the union would attempt a strike until would attempt a strike until after the yard closes Dec. 25 for a weeklong paid vacation. Some union officials speak of their need to stage a strike to make their presence in Virginia credible. "I think it would look damned good if we went out on strike and won," says the Steelworker's Hower.
The shipyard, a subsidiary of Tenneco, Inc., a Houston-baxed conglomerate, has attempted to win back what it lost in January. It has sued the Steelworkers in federal court, charging massive irregularities in their election and has launched what the union says is a belated effort to curry workers' support with free noontime offerings of Laurel and Hardy movies and a unilateral 6.5 percent pay increase.
The stakes are huge. To the Steelworkers the shipyard's importance lies partly in its size and its place on the Sun Belt, the swath of southern and southwestern states to which industry is increasingly drawn because of tax incentives and low wages.
"I don't think there is any question that our success (here) will have some effect on the progress of organizing in the Sun Belt," says Bruce Thrasher, director of the Atlantabased Steelworkers District 35. "At least in recent times, it is the largest single bargaining unit (ofganized laber has won) in the country."
Indeed, most labor officials cannot recall so large a bargaining unit since the aircraft manufacturing workers were organized after World War II.
With 25,000 workers when it was at peak production in May, the shipyard was the largest shipyard in the world, and the only American yard capable of turning out aircraft carriers. It pours a half billion dollars annually into Virginia in salaries, benefits and purchases, and is responsible, according to one study, for 30 percent of the household income in the Tidewater area. "It's a right substantial thing," says Nark Kilduff of Virginia's Division of Industrial Development.
That only begins to describe Newport News Shipbuilding, a 470-acre jungle of railroad tracks, work sheds, girders and massive cranes that sprawls for two miles along the James River shoreline like a mammoth erector set.
Sone it was acquired in 1969 by Tenneco, the yard has been a target of organizing drives by unions that sought to replace the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association, the somewhat docile local union that has represented the yard's workers since the 1930s.
In the campaign that led to the Steelworkers' January victory, the Steelworkers charged that the company was pusging for the PSA. "In my opinion, they were a company union," charges Hower.
"It was a do-nothing union," says Michael Jurnigan, a nuclear machinist. "Whatever the company came down with, they tried selling us."
Steelworker supporters reserve most of their anger, however, not for the PSA but for Tenneco."Tenneco's trying to be the J.P. Stevens of the shipbuilding industry," fumes the Steelworkers' Thrasherm referring to the textile giant that repeatedly has been in federal court on unfair labor practice charges.
"We have no eating facilities in the yard and the restrooms aren't worth a damn either," said one of a small knot of workers gathered in a circle one recent afternoon.
"We've got damn near more people watching us than we do working," said another worker who complained that supervisors have been harassing workers since the January election.
"In order to get a raise, you shouldn't have to go fishing with your supervisor," said another. Lettle be little, the voices approached the crescendo of a revival meeting until one man exploded: "They don't give a damn about you."
"No, no, not so," says company spokesman James M. Griffith, who points to company efforts on behalf of the work force such as the apprenticeship school, a reasonably steady employment rate, and a new pension plan that Tenneco maintains surpasses the old one.
Still, life inside the shipyard is not conducive to comfort. In the Hissing glow of their torches, welders deep in the innards of tanker hulls resemble gnats isdide a stuffy brown paper bag without an opening.
Outside, where much of the work is done, employes labor under the whims of weather amid enormous gantries that move slowly over stacks of rusting steel girders and plates that are the flesh and bone of ships. It is tiring work and often hazardous, as the constant barrage of safety signs indicates.
"What a guy used to put up with in the '30s and '40s, the young guys today just aren't willing to put up with,' says Hower. "I think the vote itself clearly indicates the need for a strong union." And even an industry official concedes privately that the PSA was "neither smart nor aggressive" in serving its members' needs.
But the same industry source questions the wisdom of a strike. "This is a big deal for the Steelworkers in the South," he says. "How the hell would it look for them if they call a strike at the first company they organize here?"
Much of the company's argument against the Steelworkers, in fact, is that they will tend to strike too much.
"This international could give a damn how it looks to management," retorts Hower. "This international has made a commitment to these workers and their desire to take the company on."
All this comes at a time when the yard -- and the industry -- has enough prooblems of its own. For one, Newport News Ship is now under a federal grand jury investigation involving cost overruns on Navy ships built at the yard. For another, business is off.
"You've got to have the cargo," says Robert L. Hartsock, the company's marketing vice president. He explains in clattering marketing jargon that American shippers aren't getting business, wihich in turn means they aren't building commercial ships, which in turn again means that the yard will have no commercial ships under construction by the end of next year.
Shipbuilding worldwide is at its lowest in 13 years, in fact, according to the latest issue of Lloyd's Register of Shipping, and American yards are getting a smaller slice of the smaller pie as cheaper overseas costs draw away business.
A study last summer ordered by Virginia Gov. John Dalton for the Southern Governors' Conference found that declining shipbuilding would cost 45,000 of the nation's 175,000 shipyard jobs over the next four years, 26,000 of them in the South alone.
"If you've been watching the market for commercial sjip construction, you've noticed there isn't a market to watch," says Griffith, the shipyard's public relations director.
Even Navy ahipbuilding, on which the yard once thrived, is way off. Despite the yards' heavy business in overhauling and refitting, and an effort to diversify into areas such as landbased nuclear reactors, there were 1,000 layoffs in June. Another 1,000 jobs were lost by attrition since, and a Newport News executive warned the Navy in August that the company might have to lay off 4,500 more workers next year.
"There is nothing labor intensive like building ships, and therein lies the problem," says Griffith.
But here at Newport News Ship, two questions remain. One is whether the steelworkers strike will happen, the other is whether violence will accompany one that does.
For the second question, history has an answer. During a nasty three-day wildcat strike at the yard 11 years ago, a police car was burned, and the use of police dogs against strikers bred hard feelings.
There has been pushing and shobing and an occasional punch during the latest labor dispute, and the specter of 19,000 workers with divided loyalties confronting each other at a limited number of plant gates is an awesome prospect to many.