Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

NASSCO Shipyard Workers Taking the “War” Inside

First Published: Workers Viewpoint, Vol. 5, No. 32, September 1-7, 1980.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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SAN DIEGO, Ca. – Things are definitely not business as usual here at the National Steel and Shipbuilding Company NASSCO). Shipyard workers both inside and outside the company gates are carrying on their offensive that began after union steward Steve Crain, of the International Association of Bridge, Structural and Ornamental Iron Workers, Local 527, was indefinitely suspended on July 30 for cussing out a foreman.

Workers disrupted a launching ceremony for a newly-finished Navy ship and, when NASSCO fired 17 union stewards and workers, staged a three-day wildcat strike. The majority of the 17 are stewards of Local 627 (the strongest union in the yard with Communist Workers Party sympathizers in union leadership positions) and a local of the International Association of Machinists. The strikers returned to work under pressure of a court injunction and the lack of support from the International and the city’s Building Trades Council. Meanwhile, two other ironworkers and Local 627 business agents had been fired. But the rank and file returned with the spirit of “taking the war back inside,” and that’s exactly what they’ve done. (See WV, Aug. 18-24, 1980)

Served Notice, Company Cracks Down in Desperation

Freaked out and on the run, NASSCO has worked overtime trying to make people believe that everything is back to normal. Larry French, president of the company, even sent a letter to all the workers apologizing for the “inconvenience” caused by the fired workers and signed, “Larry”. NASSCO is trying to put the blame on its victims, and is pushing hard that the legal system is the only way to resolve problems. But this is a lie and the company knows it. NASSCO has been served notice that the workers aren’t going to take the shit anymore, and it’s scared stiff. That’s a victory right there. That’s why on Monday, NASSCO desperately fired four more workers and suspended four others 30 days for strike activity, bringing the total fired to 28. That’s why the company has hired extra Pinkerton security guards and kept militant workers in isolated work areas. And that’s also why NASSCO has refused to let workers see their safety committee representatives, fearing any type of walkout over working conditions.

Workers Pursue Success Inside and Out

Shipyard workers are pursuing their success. There have been spontaneous acts of sabotage. An explosion occurred and a fire started in one of the tenders, and lights continue to flick on and off as lines get cut. A scab got hit in the head although he wasn’t even one of the hardcore scum. Rallies continue to be held in the yard in defiance of the company, one of NASSCO’s conditions in exchange for amnesty for the strikers was that the union only meet with members on a one-to-one basis, thus trying to block the union from having lunchtime meetings in the parking lots and yards. The front line of stewards is beginning to be rebuilt.

Outside the gates, the fired workers continue to organize. On Tuesday, between 150 and 200 workers kicked and batted around an effigy of NASSCO president French and the Department of Defense, chanting “French, you liar, we’ll set your ass on fire”. It was clear what the workers thought of his letter blaming the victims, as the effigy was lit, and it was packed with eggs hurled at the Front Office, letting the company know the battle was still on.

Thursday night at the Ironworkers monthly union meeting, the membership voted five resolutions that resoundingly sealed the strike victory and outlined some measures to continue the fight. These resolutions said with one voice that the strike was necessary and correct, called for supporting the 28 fired workers, and demanded that the International take a position against union-busting.

The International didn’t back the wildcat with any support or strike pay. When the International’s representatives came to town, they stayed in a hotel just two blocks from NASSCO’s superintendent of industrial relations. They were so busy meeting with other unions to cover themselves and not get sued that they didn’t even bother contacting the local first or visit the picket lines to see what was really going on.

Marcos lied, saying that the strike was provoked by saboteurs, and had to confess that he was forced into agreeing with the strike. This is the same Marcos who pushed the company’s view during the last contract negotiations that the rank and file couldn’t ask for too much because it would hurt NASSCO’s profits. One woman asked why she never saw him out on the strike lines and exposed his lack of support for the workers.

NASSCO Served Notice Again, Hot Debate Sparked

The next day, Friday, the offensive continued with a rally outside the front gates. Stravinsky, a labor relations punk who likes to intimidate workers by talking tough, was called out. Fired workers took turns on the bullhorn, telling him that if he didn’t come out and face the crowd of workers gathering, they would go in and get him. Stravinsky was found crouched behind the secretaries after he lost the tug-of-war to lock the labor relations office door. The rat could only shake as demonstrators indicted him and took the sign plate off the office as a trophy for the crowd of 200-300 workers. Meanwhile, “Payback” and “F----NASSCO” were painted on the walls of the front office.

This action sparked off a hot debate among the rank and file strike leaders. Many in the yards loved it and said the union was showing “guts”. Others thought we should rely on arbitration and not hurt company property or do anything out of line that might hurt the arbitration chances. While this debate goes on, it is vital what position strike leaders take in providing leadership and informing the workers. Among the strike leaders there is also some confusion, but two clear positions stand out – those who support the Friday action want the union to keep up the offensive and back up what it says, others are on the defensive and want to confine the fight to the legal process.

Channel 39 came out with an editorial saying that the union should pay for the spraypainting done around the strike, and some people are reacting to this. Others like Miguel Salas, an ironworker and business agent of Local 627, are clear. In a reply to Channel 39, he pointed out that NASSCO is trying to bust the union and 39 has to take a stand on this.

Some of the officials of other unions have threatened to sue the Ironworkers union. These bureaucrats never supported the wildcat in the first place and never fought for the interests of shipyard workers. They stand exposed in contrast to the fighting leadership coming from some of the Ironworkers’ leaders, and these hacks would do anything to get back to a peaceful, share-abed relationship with NASSCO. Redbaiting has also been used, blame the whole fight on outside agitators, as if 6,000 workers are outsiders at tin own plant.

One of the main forces pushing redbaiting besides the company is the so-called “Communist” Labor Party. They are incapable of providing any real fighting leadership, have always taken company positions, and can’t stand to see real working class leadership developing. And what the union needs most of in this critical time is strong, clear leadership.

More at Stake Than Firings – Two Roads in the 80’s

What the NASSCO shipyard workers are up against is more than just the company, they’re taking on the Department of Defense and the U.S. Navy too, It was admitted in court that the Navy has been in constant contact with the company during the negotiations over the fired workers to pressure for its ships to be built on time. NASSCO’s negotiator with the union is not the usual labor relations dog, but rather it is Samuel Timmons who specializes in contract compliance. This means he usually deals with the buyer, the Navy. NASSCO’s close ties to the government can be seen in the fact that NASSCO got $100 million worth of contracts to build cable-laying ships, despite the fact that a shipyard in Quincy, Massachusetts submitted a lower bid. The Defense Department made this decision knowing that the Quincy company would go out of business without the deal.

For the same reason that NASSCO workers are up against more than just the company, the issues go beyond 28 fired workers. The only way for the capitalists to get out of the economic crisis ripping the country apart is to win a World War III with the Soviet Union, redivide the world and reconquer markets and sources of raw materials. As the drive towards war speeds up, this means more deaths and crippling injuries for shipyard workers in exchange for starvation wages and benefits stripped to the bone. Any resistance will be increasing met by brute repression, fascism. At the same time, with millions of Americans forced to look toward a radical change the 80’s and the ruling class locked in its own infighting, we have a unique opportunity to seize power into our own hands.

Whether to take militant action at the ship launching or not, whether to wildcat or not, whether to build up the leadership and fighting ability of unions or allow them to be busted, whether to fight and have a chance of living or lay down and die – these are all part of the two roads challenging our trade unions in the 80’s. These are extreme times requiring us to respond with extreme measures.