More than 1,000 pickets marched outside the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. today and their union claimed to have crippled the shipyard's operations. Officials of the company, Virginia's largest employer, disagreed.

The United Steelworkers of America estimated that the peaceful picket line dissuaded more than 80 percent of the production and maintenance employes from showing up at the start of the day shift, the shipyard's most important work period.

A spokesman for the company, a subsidiary of the Houston-based Tenneco Inc., said less than 65 percent of the scheduled workers failed to report. "We are very pleased at the turnout," said spokesman James M. Griffith, who declined to say how many of the company's 15,500 production and maintenance workers were scheduled for the shift.

Griffith also declined to speculate on how long the sprawling shipyard could continue to operate at such a level.

"That's ridiculous," said Joe Edwards, a steelworker's spokesman of the company's estimate of turnout. "Keep in mind that whatever they put out includes supervisors and secretaries, although they won't admit it. It's a beautiful strike."

Pickets said they would stay out until the company, which has refused to recognize the union since it won a labor election at the yard a year ago, agrees to bargain.

The steelworkers, meanwhile, filed suit in federal court naming Gov. John N. Dalton as a defendant and seeking to overturn a set of guidelines limiting the number of pickets.

Edwards bitterly criticized Dalton's decision to assign nearly 90 troopers to the strike. "It's like the Third Reich," he said. "It's just outrageous."

The governor cited the state's right-to-work law in ordering state police to Newport News to assure the safety of workers crossing the picket lines.

If the strike continues, its outcome could be determined by a court ruling in the company's challenge to last year's union representation election. The shipyard has asked the 4th U.S. Court of Appeals to overturn the steelworkers' victory in that election because of alleged irregularities.

Lt. Gov. Charles S. Robb said today the appeals court may speed up its consideration of the case.

He said he talked to officials of the court, but not the judges, and they indicated that the case would be heard well before the scheduled March 7 hearing date.

A decision either accepting or rejecting the election could end the strike, setting the stage for collective bargaining talks or a new election.

Griffith, the company spokesman, said the yard is "working on those jobs that have the highest priority."

A spokesman for the Navy, which has 10 ships under construction or repair here, said there are no plans to cancel work orders for five more ships due for repairs in the yard. He said the Navy expects the strike to cause delays.

Few of the cranes that hang over the shipyard moved today, and some of the sounds that indicate a busy day were replaced with chants of "strike, strike, strike."

During the normally busy noon lunch hour, Washington Street, the rundown main thoroughfare outside the yard, was deserted except for pickets and curiosity-seekers. "There wasn't a lunch hour today," said John Becouvarakis, partner in Gus' Restaurant, who says he will lay off his employes Monday due to lack of business. At the Dry Dock Restaurant Yang Cha-kwang nailed boards over the windows "in case it gets rough," he said.

Hundreds of workers filed through the union's strike headquarters in a bank building two blocks from the shipyard, signing up for a union health plan and applying for food stamps and temporary jobs.