Contract Talks Under Way at Newport News Shipyard

The island structure of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) is lifted into place at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo: U.S. Navy, courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding.)
The island structure of the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) is lifted into place at Newport News Shipbuilding. (Photo: U.S. Navy, courtesy of Newport News Shipbuilding.)

The union leaflets handed out Wednesday at the gates of Newport News Shipbuilding put the current labor talks in perspective.

"Well, the first weeks of contract negotiations have been short on drama (a good thing)," the first sentence reads.

So it goes as negotiators for United Steelworkers Local 8888 seek a new deal with the Newport News shipyard, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries and Virginia's largest industrial employer. The current contract expires July 9.

The talks come at a pivotal time. Preceding months have seen two waves of layoffs at the yard, followed by a ramp-up in hiring. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have visited. Ambitious plans are in the works to expand the Navy fleet, which would include more submarines and another aircraft carrier, both products of the Newport News yard.

The leadership of the company is in transition. Matt Mulherin is retiring as shipyard president, and Jennifer Boykin will take over July 1.

Contract talks, which began last month, have so far focused on noneconomic issues, said Dwight Kirk, a union spokesman. Talks are expected to shift to more substantive topics in the next week or so.

In the weeks leading up to formal negotiations, there had been discussions about extending the current contract. The company, which normally does not comment on labor negotiations, issued an April update on its Facebook page that disclosed details of competing proposals.

The union proposal would have extended the current contract for 15 months, paid a ratification bonus of $2,000 to all employees and provided a 3.5 percent general wage increase in July. The company's offer would have extended the current agreement 18 months with a ratification bonus of $1,500 and a 2.8 percent general wage increase in March 2018.

Unable to agree on the terms of an extension, the focus is now on a new deal.

As talks progress, Kirk said two major issues will be on the table besides compensation. One is health insurance.

"We want to make sure there is fairness," he said. "We don't want to pay for the uncertainty in the marketplace. We want to make sure our folks are protected, and we will resist any type of cost-shifting."

Another important issue is pensions, especially for longtime shipbuilders nearing the end of their careers.

Both sides had proposed financial incentives for members with at least 15 years of continuous service to retire or terminate their employment.

Union President Arnold Outlaw addressed additional concerns when he spoke at HII's annual shareholders meeting in May.

For the company to recruit and keep skilled workers, "it must recognize the needs of a new generation of workers and the demands of shift-work for women and families with children," he said, according to a prepared statement.

He also mentioned employee health care contributions, which he said have significantly increased during the last five years.

Down at the 46th Street Gate, union Vice President Charles Spivey was busy handing out leaflets and union buttons prior to the mid-afternoon shift change.

"I believe it's going to go well," he said. "Hopefully it goes well. We want to bargain in good faith."

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