Seven thousand workers at defense company Northrop Grumman’s Pascagoula, Mississippi shipyard went on strike March 8, following their rejection of the company’s proposed contract. The strikers, members of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 733, are demanding wage increases and protesting the company’s proposal to shift health care costs onto the workers.
Pascagoula was ravaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005; many strikers note that since the hurricane, their cost of living has increased dramatically.
Striker Shane Buckhalter, a pipe welder at the shipyard for the past two and a half years, said that Katrina “wiped several towns along the coastline completely off the map.” As a result, said Buckhalter, “Insurance has gone up, housing has gone up. ”
Nick Mariakas, an electrician at the shipyard, agreed with Buckhalter. “Since Katrina,” said Mariakas, “you can’t get housing. People raised the rents up so high-they pretty much price gouged. There’s just not a lot of houses left down here.”
Mariakas noted that some Grumman workers “are still in FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) trailers-and FEMA’s fixing to take those trailers away. We can’t live off what they’re trying to pay us.”
What the company tried to give the workers, according to Mariakas, was a four-year contract with no pay increases and increased health care costs for workers. The workers voted down this contract by 90 percent in late February.
According to Mariakas, the company came back the following week with “pretty much the exact same contract.” Though the company reduced the contract length to three years and lowered the workers’ health insurance premiums a bit, the contract offered only miniscule wage increases– $1.40 the first year, $.55 the second two years of the contract.
Given the increased cost of living and proposed health insurance cuts, by the third year of that contract, said Mariakas, workers would “barely make what we make now.”
The workers rejected the second proposal March 6 by about 90 percent and walked off the job three days later.
The strikers immediately set up pickets at the shipyard entrance. Buckhalter, on strike for the first time, said he was impressed by the spirit on the lines.
“There’s a lot of energy,” said Buckhalter. “There’s constantly people with signs, lots of people showing their support. People have drinks and grills out here-there’s folks from all the unions.”
On March 12, more than 2,000 strikers marched six miles from the shipyard into Pascagoula. Speaking to the local ABC News affiliate, pipe welder Kimberly Huckaby said, “Six miles is a lot, but maybe that will show the company we’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the money that we need.”
PROFITING FROM DISASTER
While workers in the Gulf Coast have suffered mightily since Hurricane Katrina hit, the disaster landed Northrop Grumman some extremely lucrative contracts. The U.S. Navy gave Grumman $2.7 billion to repair Katrina damage, while FEMA gave the company another $356 million.
Said Mariakas, “[The company] acts like we’re greedy. If we’re greedy, why is Grumman asking for so much money after they landed $2.7 billion? We do work for the government, but we don’t make government pay.”
Mariakas noted that there are issues at stake beyond pay and benefits. Despite the billions Grumman received to rebuild the shipyard, he said, shipyard workers often labor in hazardous conditions with inadequate protection.
“I had two heat strokes last August,” said Mariakas. “They had to carry me off the boat. When we get hurt, they stop our pay. We faint, they stop our pay.
“We got welders working with toxic smoke. People’s eyes get burnt from the reflection off the tin and sheet metal. We don’t get dental and vision coverage. We go to the doctor, we get stuck paying most of the bill.”
Mariakas continued, “If people came down here and saw the destruction that Katrina did-they wouldn’t believe it. All we’re saying is, let us have some pride and dignity. Let us try to have a little comfortable life.
“We’ll keep fighting for that until we get what’s fair. We’ll stay out as long as we have to.”