Neither Victory Nor Defeat at Northrop Grumman: 28-Day Strike Wins 28 Cents More
On the Mississippi coast, cranes are moving again over Navy warships at the sprawling Ingalls shipyards. Half a mile from the sleepy town of Pascagoula, the median at the entrance to the yards where striking workers chanted, sang, and sometimes prayed is quiet, and at the end of the workday a steady stream of cars and pickup trucks flows down the four lane road towards town.
It is a far cry from the scene here a few weeks ago, when the trickle of passing cars was greeted by workers yelling “scab” through bullhorns at the few hundred who had returned to work.
Striking workers voted by a 60 percent margin April 4 to approve a new contract offer from Northrop Grumman that contains modest gains. Many seemed resigned, if not happy, with the deal.
“It’s a good contract,” said electrician Nick Mariakas, echoing statements made by union leaders. “[Northrop Grumman Ship Systems President] Phillip Teel said he couldn’t go any higher on the wage, but he went ahead and did.”
The new contract contains a pay increase of $1.68 per hour the first year, only 28 cents higher than the contract that workers rejected overwhelmingly in early March. For the length of the strike, many had expected more. “That’s 28 cents for 28 days,” Mariakis noted.
Many workers had cited proposed increases in health care premiums as a prime reason for striking. Under the new contract, premiums will increase $50 a month over three years. Not surprisingly, a need for health insurance may have influenced workers to settle.
On March 31 strikers had their health plans suspended; one solidly prounion electrician privately admitted that he told his son, whose wife recently bore a child, to cross the lines to preserve his health coverage for their newborn.
But while the health premium increases are now offset by wage increases, the cost of living on the Mississippi coast has gone up dramatically and many union members said earlier offers did not keep pace with those increases. Speaking in March of the company’s initial proposal, machinist Billy J said, “[The wage increase] don’t even pay for my gas going back and forth to work, and I live here in town, not to mention the price of groceries going up.”
LONGEST STRIKE IN DECADES
The four-week strike was the first since Northrop Grumman bought the Ingalls facility as part of the purchase of Litton Industries in 2001. All told, nearly 7,000 workers from 14 unions walked out on March 8, effectively shutting down the largest private employer in Mississippi.
Many workers say that Northrop Grumman drove a harder bargain than Litton had and that its negotiators were more polished. “Ingalls at least told you when they were going to screw you,” explained electrician Johnny Baritine II, who has worked at the yards for 21 years.
Baritine described the three-week strike in 1999 against Litton industries as a “little vacation” by comparison. The recent strike was also longer than two strikes in 1971.
Despite a few setbacks, Northrop Grumman managed to hold a hard line. In addition to production problems caused by the strike, the company lost an unrelated $600 million contract with the Coast Guard in mid-March due to design flaws in ships being built.
However, the sheer size of Northrop Grumman allows the company to absorb heavy losses. Grumman is the third largest defense contractor in the world with nearly 200,000 employees.
Northrop Grumman officials were reluctant to make public comments once the strike began, but insisted that production did not stop at the Ingalls yards.
Many striking workers complained about a lack of solidarity from other shipyards, including the Avondale yards near New Orleans, which are also run by Northrop Grumman’s Ship Systems division. Contracts approved by workers at Avondale and two other yards in the region come with “me too” clauses, which allow workers at these yards to enjoy the benefits of a better contract at another yard.
“Why can’t they go on strike instead of having us do all the work for them?” asked Mariakis. Privately though, many workers admitted that the unions at Avondale aren’t as strong as in Pascagoula, and were not likely able to sustain a strike.
Despite any disappointments Mariakis, Baritine, Billy J, and others are back at work. Driving back towards Louisiana, I cross the Singing River, where the Pascagoula Indians who once lived here are said to have marched in and drowned themselves, chanting death songs, rather than surrender and be massacred by the Biloxi tribe.
By comparison, the workers at the nearby Ingalls yards are left with better options. The protracted battle that ended last week doesn’t seem like much of a victory, but it doesn’t look like a defeat either. Instead, the 7,000 workers who walked out in March have lived to fight another day.
Read how the strike began in last month's Labor Notes: Still Reeling from Hurricane Katrina: Mississippi Shipyard Workers Strike for Fair Pay, Benefits