Our Working Lives


Originally published in the Winter 2022 edition of the Virginia Defender, issue 67, printed February 3. Reproduced here for accessibility and archival purposes. To find other stories in the Winter 2022 issue or to download the full PDF, see this post. For the full web catalog, see our Full Issues page.

By Phil Wilayto

USW Local 8888 members attach signs and flags to their vehicles as they get ready for their car caravan Nov. 10. A key union demand in contract negotiations has been recognition of the shipyard workers as “essential” during the pandemic. Photo by Phil Wilayto.

After voting down an earlier contract agreement late last year, members of United Steelworkers Local 8888 will be voting soon on a new deal with their employer, Newport News Shipbuilding. And this time the proposed contract may meet a key union demand: recognizing shipyard workers as “essential.”

An article in the Jan. 29 Daily Press quoted a union spokesperson as saying the new agreement includes annual pay agreements, pension enhancements, a cap on health care costs union members pay and the first domestic partners benefit. Like the rejected contract, it would run for 60 months.

But according to a Jan. 31 report by ABC Channel 13, a union spokesperson also said the deal included recognition of employees as essential workers for working through the pandemic.

That had been a key bone of contention between the company and the union, according to union members the Defender spoke with last Nov. 10, when the union staged a car caravan outside the massive shipyard while members of its negotiating team were meeting with management.

“Grocery workers, hospital workers are considered essential, and they get hazard pay because of the COVID,” one worker, a welder, told the Defender. “They tell us we’re essential too, but where’s our hazard pay?”

Details of the new agreement will first be shared at a series of briefings to the 12,000 shipbuilders in the union’s collective bargaining unit; then members will vote on it.

The shipyard workers have been laboring under the old contract, which expired last year, but said that, if necessary, they were prepared to strike. If that happened, it would be the first strike since the union went out for 17 weeks in 1999.

Before that, the only other strike had been in 1979, during the organizing drive that resulted in the workers winning the union.

Newport News Shipbuilding, a division of Huntington Ingalls Industries, is the largest industrial employer in Virginia and sole designer, builder and refueler of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers, as well as one of two providers of Navy submarines.

In 1979, Phil Wilayto was a shop steward with the Carpenters & Joiners union in Norfolk. He helped organize support for the 1979 strike and wrote the union’s official strike song, “Organize the South!”

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