Picket lines went up around the New port News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. here tonight as the United Steelworkers of America began a strike among the shipyard's 17,000 production and maintenance workers.

At the same time, city police took up positions just inside the shipyard gates to help workers through the picket lines. Virginia State Police also are present in force in Newport News on the orders of Gov. John N. Dalton, who acted under the state's right-to-work law in an effort to guarantee the safety of any workers who want to stay on the job. The state troopers brought an armored car with them.

The pickets began massing at about 30 sites near the shipyard at about 9:30 p.m. There was some shouting at police. One picketer at the main gate called out, "we've got the right to assemble and we've got the right to strike."

City Police Chief George Austin said he had received no indications there would be violence, but police were issued helmets, riot sticks and gas masks.

The stakes in the strike against the largest shipyard in the U.S. are enormous. The company is Virginai's largest private employer, pays $430 million a year in wages and benefits, buys $77 million in goods and services from Virginia companies and furnishes $17 million a year in state and local taxes. Shipyard jobs provide 30 percent of the personal income in the Tidewater area.

The strike is over the company's refusal to recognize the steelworders' union, which defeated the rivald Peninsula Shipbuilders Association a year ago in a National Labor Relations Board election to become bargaining agent for the workers. The company has gone to a U.S. appeals court in an effort to overturn that election, citing what it calls irregularities in its conduct.

The union local claims a membership of 13,900.

The hundreds of pickets who began walking in front of the company's gates tonight were meant to head off employes arriving for an 11 p.m. shift change. Union officials said they did not know how many of the more than 1,000 employes who normally work the shift showed up.

The main confrontation is expected to begin at 7 a.m. Wednesday when the bulk of the yard's workers are scheduled to arrive for the day shift.

The shipyard has planned to continue in operation druing the strike and Wednesday's events could give a good indication of whether it will be able to do so.

The company has surrounded its parking lots with fences topped by barbed wire. On Monday, shipyard president Edward J. Campbell told reporters in Washington that the company had mounted a water cannon for crowd control on at least one of its fire trucks.

A company spokesman declined to specify the shipyard's strike plans, but a source said that shipyard executives will arrive at work by helicopter Wednesday to avoid picket lines and that some workers will be bused to the shipyard from remote parking areas.

The Steelworkers' union set up a strike headquarters scveral blocks from the shipyard's main gate. Hundreds of workers gathered there and at another strike office yesterday after the day shift ended to sign up for strike benefits and receive picketing instructions.

"Strike's fine with me," said James Riddick, a welder who said he does not expect to return to the yard until the company agrees to bargain with the Steelworkers. "I brought out everything that was mine just in case."

"I was kind of keyed up today," said Gordon M. Bowling, an electrician. "Some of the guys that's been here a long time are going back in because they say they're just too old to get other jobs. Not me."

The company and the union both ran full page advertisements in today's local newspapers. The Company's was headlined "Why Strike?" The union's carried a long list of grievances.

The state police and Chief Austin have declined to say how many troopers are on duty in the shipyard area.

The state police armored car was hidden from view near city hall until reporters discovered it this afternoon. Then it was quietly moved to another, undisclosed location.

During a three-day wildcat strike by crane operators in 1967, a police car was burned after state police arrived with dogs.