NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (PAI) – After six weeks of bargaining, the 8,500 Steel Workers at the nation’s largest shipyard ratified a new 52-month contract on June 9. And, this time, they didn’t have to strike to get it.

The pact between USWA Local 8888 and Newport News Shipbuilding Company passed by a 1,877-856 margin. It gives the workers a 16.5 percent raise over its life and restricts outsourcing, union President Alton Glass said.

An end to hiring outside contractors was a key demand of the workers. “We want these outside contractors to go home,” USWA District 8 Director Billy Thompson told a mass rally of 1,500 workers before bargaining began.

As Newport News shipyard officials kept a watchful eye from atop a building on the peaceful, chanting, praying and singing workers – many of them African Americans – Thompson added: “This is our work. These are our jobs and we want them [the contractors] to leave.”

This contract, Glass said “recognizes the value of the work done by Local 8888 members for the first time. This is a contract that we can build on.”

The new pact was approved three days after the old one expired. That old pact came only after a 10-month strike which saw the local put the yard – then under another owner – on the AFL-CIO’s list of firms using taxpayer money against unions.

“We said at the time this was taxpayer money making up for the company’s losses during the strike,” then-Local 8888 President Arnold Outlaw told the People’s Weekly World.

In those talks, and during that strike, USWA said Newport News, which builds nuclear-powered aircraft carriers and submarines, paid its mostly African American workers wages far lower than the mostly white workers doing the same construction at the General Dynamics yard in Groton, Conn.

Beside the wage hike and job security provisions, other key sections of the new Local 8888-Newport News contract include:

• A 22 percent pension increase and recognition for the first time of past years of service.

• A cut, from 18 years to nine years, in the time that a worker needs to reach the top pay grade.

• A 60 percent increase, adding 1,300 slots, in higher-paid specialist positions.

• A cap on employee health premiums and a cut in employees’ share of the increase in health care costs, from a 50-50 split down to a 25 percent employee share.

The contract sets a pattern for other shipyards, since Newport News, now owned by Northrup Grumman, is both the nation’s largest shipyard and the only one that can handle all Navy demands, USWA President Leo Gerard said.

The pact’s health care cost containment provisions “significantly reduce the burden of health care costs on workers and their families, which is virtually unheard-of these days when other unions are striking over this issue,” the USWA said. It also noted the anti-outsourcing provisions “go against the grain of most recent settlements.” And Local 8888 “broke through the stubborn, patronizing culture that had prevailed in previous negotiations and laid the foundation for more normal labor relations with Northrop Grumman and other employers in the South,” the union stated.

Glass said the new pact spurred more worker involvement. He said Local 8888 gained 600 members – in a right-to-work state – since January due to its contract campaign, and created a database of 4,000 members willing to get active in the shipyard and the community. The number of members pledging money to USWA’s campaign finance committee “has soared from 65 to 420 in just two months,” he added.