Thousands go back to work at Miss. shipyard

Thousands of workers were back on the job April 5 at Northrup Grumman’s huge shipyard in Hurricane Katrina-ravaged Pascagoula, Miss., after a 28-day strike that began March 8.

The 7,400 workers, most of whom had lost cars or homes to Katrina, had remained solid in support of the strike. They voted 3-2 to accept a new three-year contract giving them a $1.68 per hour raise the first year and 55 cents per hour during each of the second and third years. They also gained new bonuses including extra vacation time.

The strike had been called by International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 733, representing 1,200 at the shipyard, and the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council, which speaks for 6,200 workers in 14 unions.

The company had offered annual raises of $1.40, 55 cents and 55 cents just prior to the massive walkout that shut the nation’s largest shipyard.

As they walked through the gate on their first day back, workers voiced mixed feelings to reporters from WLOX TV based in nearby Biloxi, Miss.

“I feel pretty good going back. It’s about time,” Jimmy Briggs said. “We got a cost of living increase in the contract. That means if things go up, we get a few pennies or a few dollars.”

But Danny Smith said, “I feel that they still whipped us.” He commented, “They’re already making the money so why not pay the workers that are making the money for them?”

Smith’s remarks reflected the opinions of the 40 percent who voted against the new contract.

Northrup Grumman’s highly profitable Ingalls Shipyard has, since World War II, been a production center for cruisers, destroyers, submarines and ammunition ships. The USS Cole, damaged in a suicide bombing off the Yemeni coastline in 2000, was repaired at the yard.

While Gulf Coast workers have suffered ever since Hurricane Katrina, the disaster resulted in lucrative contracts for Northrup Grumman. The Navy gave Grumman $2.7 billion to repair Katrina damage, while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) gave the company another $356 million.

Positive features of the new contract include 80-cent hourly premiums for some shifts, attendance bonuses of up to $1,040 annually and cost of living increases in the second and third year. There will also be additional vacation time for workers with the company less than four years.

The company had originally sought health insurance premium hikes from the current $144 to $217 with no caps. The new contract allows the premiums to rise to $194 but caps them at that level.

When the workers shut down the huge shipyard, they apparently fired a shot “heard around the world.”

It drew an unprecedented picket line visit by Philip Teel, president of Nothrup Grumman’s Ship Systems. Teel’s visit was spurred by the company’s fear that it could be sued by billionaire contractors worried about delays and that it could lose the stable workforce it needs to maintain its profits.

U.S. government anxiety was reflected in an April 3 meeting by a federal mediator with company and union representatives.

Workers blame the lengthy strike on Northrup Grumman, which used a stalling strategy to drag out talks, wear down worker resolve and win concessions from the unions. Despite this, workers held out for nearly a month with the help of strong community support.

Local businesses and churches brought food to the picket lines every day and even staged a solidarity march outside the shipyard on March 12.

“Our members, who are still suffering from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, have stood up and refused to be victims any longer,” said IBEW President Ed Hill. “The wage increases are the highest ever achieved by unions at the yard,” he added.

thewritergdr @ europe.com