Hundreds of steelworkers took their 12-week-old strike against Newport News Shipbuilding on the road today with a raucous but upbeat demonstration outside the company's annual stockholders meeting here.
Half of the company's 18,000 workers are striking for higher pay and better pension benefits as the storied shipbuilder, Virginia's second-largest private employer behind Wal-Mart, struggles to stay lean in the rapidly consolidating defense industry.
Workers marched, chanted, sang and blew whistles while stockholders, meeting on the 20th floor of a downtown office building, heard company Chairman Bill Fricks signal his willingness to return to the negotiating table for the first time since May. The strike began April 5.
The 113-year-old company has produced some of the nation's best-known ships, including the passenger liners America and the United States and the nuclear aircraft carriers Enterprise and Nimitz. The company is now the nation's only builder of nuclear carriers.
Since World War II, Newport News Shipbuilding has thrived on nuclear carriers and nuclear submarines, but the company has also seen its fortunes rise and fall along with national defense spending. Cutbacks after the end of the Cold War--and the end of dreams of a 600-ship Navy--hurt the company, though it recently has been making a comeback. It now has a backlog of repair and construction work worth more than $5 billion.
With prosperity returning, workers say it's time for a payback after years of concessions.
Today, as most strikers marched, 52-year-old Dan Speight drove his maroon Chevy truck in a loop past the picket lines, blasting a mix of union speeches and funky music from a loudspeaker. He is a second-generation shipyard worker determined to retire on a pension better than what his late father got: $250 a month after more than 30 years as a machinist.
"I don't want to retire like my father did with nothing," said Speight, who has worked for the company for 28 years and now makes $14.53 an hour as an inspector in the machine shop.
Officials of Newport News Shipbuilding say the company is operating at two-thirds of capacity. Salaried employees and some replacement workers have kept projects moving as the 9,200 hourly employees represented by the United Steelworkers of America Local 8888 have struck.
Union organizers said 1,200 workers came on 25 buses for today's demonstration.
They have not received a salary increase since 1993, and many of the strikers spoke bitterly of how they agreed to years of frozen wages to help keep the company afloat during lean times. Newport News Shipbuilding jettisoned its commercial building operation last year after racking up losses of $300 million.
Company spokeswoman Jerri Fuller Dickseski said the company may budge from its "final offer" made three months ago, but she said that Newport News Shipbuilding must stay competitive, particularly with the Navy pressuring its contractors to cut costs. The company is offering a wage increase that totals 14 percent over nearly four years, she said.
"We obviously would like to settle the strike," Dickseski said. But, she added, "We can't pay more than others in the industry or we won't be able to get work."
The company may have greater leverage now that blue-collar manufacturing jobs are growing more scarce both in Hampton Roads and throughout Virginia.
Many on the picket line today said they were eager to return to their jobs as soon as possible, but not before a new contract is signed.
"I'm tired of being used," said Crystal Deans, 40, a painter at Newport News for 18 years and a single mother. She makes $12.59 an hour and gets as much overtime as she can in hopes of saving enough money to send her son to college.
She says the time has come for the shipyard workers to take their stand for a raise. "If we don't get it now," Deans added, "we're not going to get it later."