8,000 Mississippi shipyard workers go on strike

Eight thousand workers in Pascagoula, Miss., still picking up the pieces of their lives shattered by Hurricane Katrina, went out on strike at Northrop Grumman’s Ingalls shipyard March 8.

Striking workers were still picketing last week with no progress in sight.

Since World War II, the shipyard, Mississippi’s largest private employer, has been a production center for cruisers, destroyers, submarines and ammunition ships. The USS Cole, which was damaged in a suicide bombing off the Yemeni coast in 2000, was repaired at the yard.

Strikers are demanding better wages and benefits to make up for the steep post-Katrina price hikes affecting rents, gas and food.

The company had offered an increase of $1.40 an hour now, followed by two additional raises — 55 cents in July 2008 and 55 cents in November 2009. The meager increase was coupled with a company demand that the workers increase their monthly health insurance premium payment from the current $144 to $217.

Workers noted that the health insurance hike would wipe out the pay raise, and that a gallon of milk in Pascagoula now costs almost $5.

“Hurricane Katrina took everything except our dignity and now they are trying to take that,” said Shirley Hayes, an assembly line worker. “They’re just playing us cheap.”

A worker in the carpenters’ shop described how thousands stayed in the plant, “many with water up to their necks,” during Katrina to protect equipment and “get things up and running” after the storm. “They’ve shown their thanks,” he said, “by forcing us out on strike.”

The strike was called by Local 733 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council. The IBEW represents more than 1,200 workers at the shipyard and the PMTC speaks for 11 unions with more than 6,200 workers.

In a direct membership vote on March 8, over 85 percent of the 2,882 members of the PMTC group voted to reject the company’s proposed four-year contract, said Mike Crawley, the council’s president.

“The vote Thursday was a record-breaking turnout, which included boilermakers, carpenters and joiners, pipe fitters, heating and insulation workers, laborers, machinists, sheet metal workers, teamsters and operating engineers,” Crawley said.

The IBEW made its decision to strike later in the day, making the action workplace-wide.

John Lake, a vice president of the Carpenters union who is also a city council member in Daphne, Ala., said, “The vote should be a lesson to all big companies about just how mad union members are. It’s like a sleeping giant waking up in this country of ours.”

Northrop Grumman is apparently repeating the stalling strategy it used in 1999, the last time workers struck the plant, although a company spokesman declined to say whether the company was trying to force a settlement by refusing to negotiate.

Jim Couch, business manager for IBEW Local 733, while noting the company foot-dragging, said “the workers will hold out indefinitely.”

Support for the strikers is strong. Local businesses and churches are bringing food to the picket lines, and supporters staged a solidarity march outside the shipyard on March 12. Soda, water, ice and hot dogs are among the items being delivered free to the picketing workers every day.

Few places were as hard hit by Hurricane Katrina as Pascagoula. The downtown area was almost completely under water, the beaches were totally destroyed and almost every worker now on strike lost a home or a car.

Prices of many staples have quadrupled since the storm. Thousands of workers at the plant now live in trailers. Those still in their old apartments have seen rents double.

“If we can survive all this, don’t think we are not going to fight to win this thing,” said Crawley.

thewritergdr @ europe.com