Battle of Newport News

Battle of Newport News

By Phil Wilayto

Vol. 1, No. 9, 1979, pp. 9-13, 23

The Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company stretches along the northern bank of the James River like a long, narrow industrial city. For over two miles, this largest workplace in Virginia occupies the shore with its docks and piers, warehouses and worksheds, cranes and trucks and roads and parking lots, dominating the landscape and the minds and bodies of its 22,000 employees. The noise is constant, the hustle and bustle never ceases, as military and commercial ships are designed, constructed, and repaired by the largest privately-owned shipyard in the world.

But for 11 weeks this past winter and early spring, the yard was silent. Not a crane moved, not a ship was being built, as some 14,000 members of the United Steelworkers of America fought to win recognition for their union.

“We need a union,” electrician Ronnie Webs, Jr., said during the first days of the strike. “There’s a lot of safety hazards in that yard. The scaffolding we work on is dangerous. There’s no ventilation in the paint areas. We need a grievance procedure.”

“We’re fighting for more benefits,” said Kay Hale, welder and one of the three to four hundred female bluecollar workers in the yard. “We need a decent pension and a retirement plan. I’m a coal miner’s daughter and I believe in unions.”

“The discrimination’s real bad,” said John Devane, a Black crane hook-up man who is classified as a clerk, a lower-paying job title. Close to 40 percent of the yard’s work force is Black. “All the Blacks in my department work outside and all the Whites work inside. The company made one Black guy train a White guy to be his supervisor. I think the Steelworkers will make a difference.”

“It’s time for people to stand up for justice on the job,” added Charles Hawkins, a rigger for eight years. “We need to stand up in Virginia and do what’s necessary to improve ourselves and our community.”

And the Newport News shipyard needs a great deal of improvement. Founded over 50 years ago as a local family concern, it has grown into a giant behemoth that has left all consideration of health and safety far behind. The stories on the picketline tell it all: the broken bones, burnt

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hands, welding flashes, the sometimes fatal falls from unsafe scaffolding – not to mention the company violations of safety procedures in handling asbestos, violations that have resulted in scores of law-suits demanding disability compensation.

For 40 years, workers at the yard had been “represented” by a classic company union called the Penninsula Shipbuilders Association, the PSA. Essentially a rehash of the old governmentsponsored Employee Representation Plan councils, the PSA held no membership meetings, no election of shop stewards, had no safety clause in its “contract” and offered no real representation at all. And yet, backed by the might of the company and the influence of local politicians, the PSA had been able three times to turn back organizing challenges by bona-fide unions.

The sixties brought a number of changes to the yard, some of them good, some not so good. On the plus side, in 1965 a group of Black workers filed a civil rights suit against the company charging discrimination in hiring, firing, promotions, work assignments, and on-the-job discipline. The suit, which was opposed by the White members of the PSA’s governing board, resulted in promotions for over 3,000 Black employees and openings in the apprenticeship training program.

While the immediate gains were important, probably the suit’s greatest significance was the basis it laid for racial unity in the yard, a unity that showed itself a short to years later when the yard’s only pre-1979 strike erupted.

But while the workers’ potential strength was growing, so was the company’s. In 1969 the yard was bought out by the Tenneco Corporation, a multi-national giant based in Houston, Texas. The 19th largest company in America,with holdings all over the world, including South Africa, Tenneco’s empire is based in chemicals, agriculture, and machinery.

As with other U.S. corporations, Tenneco’s profits have been soaring, with 1978 being the single most profitable year in the company’s history. Undaunted by the hatred it has earned from farmworkers in the Southwest or by its recent convictions on charges of widespread corporate bribery, the Tenneco executives, directors, and stockbrokers have looked to the Newport News shipyard with its many defense-industry-related contracts as a stable source of profits. The largest, single, unorganized work force in the country, located in a “right-towork” Southern state with a brazonly pro-big business governor, the shipyard has been seen as an investment in high profits, low wages, and human degradation.

Tenneco only miscalculated in one area: the desire of these Southern workers to be organized.

In late 1976, a small group of shipyard workers, led by some of the Black leaders of the 1965 civil rights suit, asked the United Steelworkers of America (USWA) to start an organizing campaign at the yard.

In many ways, the choice was a good one. With 1,400,000 members and a $127 million strike fund, the USWA is the largest single union in the AFL-CIO, securely concentrated in basic steel, aluminum, copper, containers, steel fabricating – and shipbuilding. Its history of militant struggle runs deep, going back to the days when volunteer organizers from John L. Lewis’ United Mine Workers first began organizing in the steel, auto, and rubber industries, organizing campaigns that grew to become the historic battles of the 30s and resulted in the establishment of true industrial unions.

But in the years since the last great strikes of the late 40s, practically the entire leadership of the U.S. labor movement has grown soft and conservative, and it’s only been in the last few years that an awakening rank-and-file militancy has been able to break through an encrusted bureaucracy, flexing its muscles in struggles like the 197778 miners strike, the ’78 postal workers strike, and the ’78 Norfolk and Western railroad strike.

In Newport News, Virginia, the same economic and social pressures bear down on shipyard workers as affect every other group of workers in the country – daily worsening inflation, the lack of any long-term financial security, unsafe working conditions racial and sexual discrimination, and, above all, the lack of a sense of simple human dignity. By the late 70s, the shipyard workers were ready for a change. Eventually, some 14,000 workers signed up with Local 8888, making it the largest local in the Steelworkers union.

In December of 1978, in the largest single union local meeting in the history of the U.S. Labor movement, the members of Local 8888 voted almost unanimously to authorize a strike. On January 31, a year to the day after the original election victory, Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Co. was shut down tight. Local 8888 was out on strike against Tenneco’s unfair labor practice of refusing to abide by the decision of the Labor Board.

The morning of January 31 was a cold, overcast day, the day of the winter’s first snowfall. As the hour of dawn approached outside the yard’s 50th St. gate on Washington Avenue, hundreds of picketing Steelworkers kept up a series of noisy, spirited chants:

“88 – Shut the Gate!”

“What time is it?”


Across the street, an equal number of undecided workers massed on the sidewalk, lunch buckets in hand, sizing up the situation. Punch-in time was fast approaching and decision had to he made soon. All along

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the shipyard, outside the 17 gates of the yard, the scene was the same, as the legendary “individualistic Southern worker” weighed the alternatives – reliance on the cold paternalism of a corporate giant, or union solidarity.

And in between the two sides were the cops. Besides the company’s barbed wire, water cannons, and special SWAT-style guard team, the union was facing the armed might of the state: the shipyard area detachment of the Newport News police department had been beefed up: Virginia governor Dalton had promised to send in the State Police. The National Guard was on a six-hour alert. Everywhere you looked were riot helmets, the long four-foot batons, growling, snapping dogs, and police cars. And behind this physical power was the legal weight of the so-called “right-to-work” laws. Like 19 other states, most of them in the South, Virginia law forbids the closed union shop, allowing workers to receive the benefits of being represented by a union without having to join and support that union. Before the strike was to end, this “right-to-scab” law was to earn as much hatred as the state police, a group alternately known as the “Gestapo” and “Dalton’s Dogs”.

Outside the gates on that first morning of the strike, the two sides of workers squared off, the taunts and pleas were exchanged, and Tenneco held its breath until one side finally wavered, hesitated, and then broke altogether, as hundreds of cheering yard workers surged across Washington Street to join the picket lines.

The battle was on.

Those first days of the strike were glorious ones. The solidarity was complete, the pride in being a union member as-up-front and on display as the blue and white Steelworker caps all the strikers wore. Black and white, men and women, old and young, these sons and daughters of Virginian and Carolinian farming families were standing together against their own special giant.

“We are together,” a middle-aged Black man declared one evening outside the 50th St. gate. “The first time one of these state police touches one of our people, be they Black or White, that’s when you’re going to see trouble.”

“My parents could have prevented us having to go through this moment here today,” an older White man said quietly, “but they failed, as their parents failed before them, and so on back through the line. But today, for once, the White and the Black are out here together. It’s a new beginning, and it’s going to spread from Newport News down throughout the South. But first we have to win it here.”

“You see that yard down there?” a young Black worker asked. “You can’t hear nothing. Nothing’s moving. We did that. Now I know what power is – you can’t build ships with a pencil.”

The significance of the strike wasn’t lost on the High Priests of Big Business. From the local press to the national media like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, the refrain was the same: “A test case for labor” “A challenge to Southern industry”: “a fight to unionize the South”.

And not only the mouth-pieces of the corporate empire-builders recognized this fact. From the shops and factories in the surrounding Tidewater area, right across the country and up into the lofty citadels of the labor bureaucracy, every union member in the country could see that this struggle was, as one of the local daily papers put it, “the biggest test of labor since World War II”. It was a challenge to open up the largely unorganized South, a challenge to the run-away shops from the North, a challenge to the “right-to-work” laws – and a challenge to the national offensive by Big Business against all of labor.

In the first weeks of the strike, the yard was 85 to 90 percent shut down, with most of the skilled trades departments solidly out. Although the local press had been predicting mass violence on the picket lines, the union’s leadership’s strategy was to avoid any open fighting with the scabs. However, this didn’t stop scores and eventually hundreds of individual, off-theline incidents of tire slashings, sugar-in-the-gas-tank, and anti-scab fisticuffs, as union members fought to protect their jobs and their union.

Nor did it stop the police from harassing the picket lines.

From the very first days of the strike, the arrests started piling up, most of them for alleged violations of the “right-to-work” laws. One striker was busted for pointing his finger at a scab. Another was taken in for throwing a cigarette near a scab’s car. Local 8888’s president Wayne Crosby was arrested for the simple act of walking past one of the gates with a picket sign.

The issue of police involvement in the strike was to become a major issue in the battle. The AFLCIO Central Labor Councils in the area passed resolutions demanding that local police departments forbid their members to moon-light as security guards for the yard. State AFLCIO president Julian Carper demanded that governor John Dalton pull his state police out of the area. And all along the picket lines, the strikers themselves got a concrete lesson in the role of the police in labor disputes.

“I grew up here in Newport News,” 8888 treasurer Kelly Coleman said, “I fought in Vietnam and had an uncle on the police force. I used to really respect the cops, but no more. After seeing the way they’ve been treating our people, I just don’t give a damn for them anymore.”

On February 24, the union made an attempt to broaden the base of support for the strike. The call went out to all Virginia labor unions to come to Newport News

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for a solidarity march.

And they came. They came from Tidewater, Richmond, Lynchburg, the Southside, Arlington, Roanoke, and Waynesboro. Plumbers, carpenters, mill workers, teachers, nurses, boilermakers, shipyard workers, factory hands, merchant marine sailors, telephone workers, retail store clerks, all came with signs identifying their unions and declaring their solidarity with the Newport News strikers. Some 5,000 trade unionists and their supporters stretched over 20 blocks along Washington Street, marching past the shipyard’s fortified gates, chanting, “88 – Shut the Gate!” Many of the marchers wore bright yellow buttons distributed by the Center for United Labor Action that read, “Stop Union-Busting in the South”. Walking along the line of march, the power of labor could he almost physically felt, as picketing Steelworkers reached out to shake hands with their comrades in the labor movement.

And then it was back to the picket lines. Slowly but inevitably the days and nights passed, in cold, in rain and snow, the occasional arrest, the taunts and jeers at the scabs. Standing around the fire barrels and Salamanders, holding cups of coffee and sandwiches brought by the union’s mobile canteen, the conversation moved easily between the banal and the sublime, the passing and the historic. Bull sessions about the company turned into debates on the value of keeping alive parasites like the Rockefellers and the Gettys. Comparisons, were made between the strike and the mass uprisings taking place in the streets of Iran. Consciousness of taking part in an historic strike led to talks of other strikes, of the 30s, of the great labor battles of 100 years ago. The strike became a social classroom and the strikers were wrenching their lessons directly from the concrete reality around them.

As the time for the Circuit Court decision on Tenneco’s legal objections approached, the union leadership made a new appeal for labor support. This time there was to he a National Day of Solidarity in which trade unionists from around the country would come to Newport News to declare their support for the Steelworker struggle. The date was set, Hampton Coliseum was rented, and the call went out.

But there were some problems. USWA president Lloyd McBride had just made a statement at a Miami press conference that the union might have made a “tactical blunder” in agreeing that the strike was part of a struggle to organize the South, that this might have helped galvanize Southern corporations against the Steelworkers and encouraged them to support Tenneco. The National Day of Solidarity came off, but it was held on a Friday afternoon, when most workers are still at work.

Half-way through the rally, the court decision came down. McBride announced the results from the coliseum stage: the trial judge had thrown out all but one of the company’s objections, all but the question of “chainvoting,” an obscure and antiquated means of rigging elections in which one person controls a succession of votes by having a single blank ballot snuck out of the voting booth, marking it, and passing it along to the next voter. That voter deposits the marked ballot in the booth and sneaks out another blank ballot to be marked by the leader, who passes it along to a third voter, and so on down the “chain”. It’s a throw-back to the days of illiterate Southern sharecroppers and foreign-language Northern immigrants, people who wouldn’t know how the ballots were being marked. In today’s literate work force, the scheme has no relevance, but this was the single issue that the courts sent back to the NLRB for review.

And so it went, as the days dragged on, as strike benefits ate into the union’s treasury, as the number of workers crossing the picket lines gradually increased 10 percent to IS percent; 20 percent to 25 percent. The skilled trades held solid, but the prospect of further court delays stretched out to the horizon like a lonesome, corporation-owned railroad track.

And Tenneco had help. Besides the la the cops and

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courts, the governor, and the media, the giant from Houston had other allies as well. The single largest customer of Newport News Shipyard is the U.S. Navy. Submarines, nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, service vessels of every kind – new construction, rehaul jobs, in every way Newport News is essential to the Navy, and the Navy knows it.

Throughout the course of the strike, the Navy paid the shipyard a total of $302 million, in the form of cost overrun settlements, timing the payments to come at critical moments in the strike. And these outright grants to the company’s strike fund weren’t the only means of help. Navy officials sat down with the yard executives and drew up priority lists for military work, which contracts had to he taken care of right away and which could be put off for awhile. Then there were the continuing lease payments for yard property use, and the physical and psychological presence of Navy ships and personnel remaining in the yards during the course of the strike.

And yet nowhere was this federal support for Tenneco mentioned by the union. As the Navy, the Labor Board, and the weight of Carter’s “wage guidelines” decrees all lined up on the company’s side, the center of the company’s opposition shifted to Washington, but the center of the union’s resistance remained in Newport News.

The workers became restless, and the picketline strategies changed. With 30 to 40 percent of the yard’s work force now crossing the lines, Local 8888 began to beef up its presence at the gates. A Women’s Auxiliary was formed and wives, daughters, and friends of strikers began marching as a group. On April 2, some 300 Steelworkers gathered outside the North Yard’s 68th St. gate, standing five to six solid in rows on either side of the gate. As the procession of scabs approached, flying bottles joined the taunts and jeers that were thrown at the strikebreakers. The cops were obviously tense and apprehensive as the crowd turned its attention to them as well as to the scabs. But the day passed without serious incident.

Finally, the Steelworkers’ Pittsburgh headquarters made a decision: the strike would be “suspended” until the legal delays were over. Immediately, Tenneco made an announcement. Returning strikers would be made to sign a waiver of all their rights to their former jobs, to seniority, and to any possible claims for back pay from the company. They would also be made to report to the personnel office, sign in, and wait to be called back, an obvious attempt to weed out the most active union supporters.

The workers balked. On April 13, over 6,000 Steelworkers attended a mass meeting at the coliseum at which staff organizer Jack Hower attempted to explain the Pittsburgh decision, It didn’t go over.

“We couldn’t go back under the company’s conditions,” one rank-and-file activist said. “If we were going back, it had to be together, with our heads up high. There was a lot of dissension at the meeting until this one guy, a Black guy, got up and made a motion that the union send a telegram to Tenneco saying they had to drop the conditions or we wouldn’t go back. Everybody went for that idea and the motion passed unamimously.”

And so the telegram was sent. Half of Tenneco’s reply came the following Monday morning, April 16, when company officials announced there would be no change in policy. The other half of the answer came a few hours later.

About 10:00 a.m., over a hundred state and local police gathered on Washington Avenue, formed themselves into a phalanx block, and began sweeping down the street. They pushed and clubbed and beat picketers away from the gates, broke into restaurants and drove customers and owners alike into the streets, and chased individual strikers down alleys and across parking lots.

“It was incredible,” one man told this reporter. “It was like that show the Holocaust’, with the Gestapo

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rounding up the Jews. I never thought it could happen in America.”

The attack didn’t stop there. Twice the strikers tried to regroup and march back down to Washington Street, twice they were repulsed. Finally, the cops approached the union’s strike headquarters itself. Scores of strikers were milling around outside the building as the police came up, yelling at the Steelworkers to get off the street. Then, as the strikers were attempting to get inside their building, the cops attacked again.

Clubbing their way inside, the police broke one man’s arm, threw another through a window and then beat him as he lay in the broken glass, and beat up the 14-year-old daughter of a striker. After clearing out the downstairs lobby, the cops then tried to storm up the stairs to reach the union offices on the third floor, but they were met in the narrow staircase by a solid mass of Steelworkers. With chairs and fire extinguishers, the union members, Black and White, men and women, prevented the cops from taking their headquarters and eventually drove them from the building.

In all, over 60 Steelworkers were injured, some 40 of them requiring hospitalization, and over 70 were arrested, including organizer Jack Hower.

Even the news media could not ignore this one. The local papers carried bloody pictures of crowds of cops beating individual strikers. The TV crews filmed a young Black woman being taken out of strike headquarters on a stretcher. The NAACP announced it would handle court suits for the strikers charging police brutality. Local 8888 began a petition campaign demanding the removal of the Newport News Chief of Police.

Two days later, Tenneco backed down, saying that strikers would not have to sign a waiver of their rights in order to return to work. USWA District Director Bruce Thrasher refused to accept this reversal until it was communicated directly to the union, and a few days later the company reportedly contacted the local’s lawyers.

On April 22, a small crowd of strikers held a “last hurrah” at one of the shipyard gates, the picket lines were disbanded, and the historic strike of Local 8888 was “suspended.”

A few days later, the labor board judge made his decision: the company’s charge of chain-voting was “without merit,” the Steelworker election victory and certification were valid, and the labor board’s order to Tenneco to sit down and bargain was reaffirmed.

The company announced it would file “exceptions” to this finding to the full board in Washington. Meanwhile, the yard had already announced that it was suspending all strikers who had been arrested in connection with the strike, a total of close to 200 union members, including Local 8888’s president Wayne Crosby and treasurer Kelly Coleman. The union has since promised that it would fight all such suspensions and would continue to financially support the suspended workers.

Estimates for a full labor board decision on the company’s new “exceptions” vary from a few months on up, and union spokesperson Bill Edwards has said that a company decision to appeal the full Board’s decision to Richmond might well result in the strike being activated again.

Meanwhile, the union is continuing to function. A new lease has been signed for the strike headquarters, more volunteer organizers are being recruited, and steward training sessions are being organized.

“No, we didn’t win recognition for the union,” one rank-and-filer said as he prepared to head back to work,”and we didn’t win a contract. Not yet, anyway. But we showed the company that we would stand up for our rights, that we were ready to fight. We didn’t win what we went out for, but we aren’t broken, either. We’re regrouping, we’ll be back, and we’ll get our union.”

A union shop steward and newspaper reporter in the Tidewater, Virginia, area, Phil Wilayto is a member of the Center for United Labor Action which was active in building support for the Steelworker strike in Newport News. He is the author of the song “Organize the South,” used in the Steelworkers strike movie and played at the statewide and national solidarity rallies.