Unions at National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. have joined with management in an unusual lobbying effort to attract a contract for three new Navy tankers worth “hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs,” spokesmen for the unions and company said Monday.
The agreement to begin a massive lobbying effort comes after a bitter, drawn-out series of negotiations on a new labor contract. After almost a year of stalemated talks, the unions struck for three weeks in August and were subsequently forced to take up to 50% cuts in the pay of some workers. But, within days of the signing of the new agreement, a new set of negotiations began on a lobbying strategy to ensure work for the shipyard.
Union spokesman Peter Zschiesche said representatives of the seven unions signed a letter that was sent to Navy Secretary William L. Ball last month asking him to consider awarding the tanker contract, known as the TAO program, to Nassco.
‘A Very Big Contract’
“Three ships of this magnitude are worth hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs in the next three to four years,” said Nassco spokesman Fred Hallett. “It’s a very big contract to Nassco and to the employees.”
Hallett declined to be more specific about the contract’s worth because Nassco is one of four shipyards competing for the job.
Avondale Shipyard in New Orleans has gotten the contracts for the last 12 Navy tankers that have been built. Normally, the contract for the three tankers yet to be built would probably be awarded to Avondale, which would be able to submit the lowest bid simply because it has already done the engineering work and would not face start-up costs.
But Congress recently directed the Navy to consider geographical disbursement of the TAO contract, partly in an effort to help the struggling U. S. shipbuilding industry.
Nassco is the only privately owned shipyard left on the West Coast and has seen its earnings and labor force shrink dramatically over the last eight years. The company has gone from a peak employment of 7,600 workers in 1980 to about 1,800 today. Morrison-Knudsen, Nassco’s parent company, reported that the shipyard lost $20 million for the second quarter of 1988.
“We tried to add some muscle to the letter,” Zschiesche said of the letter sent by the unions. “We wanted to let the secretary know that we’re ready to go on the TAO. We want the work. We commented on the fact that we’re the only privately owned shipyard left on the West Coast.
“We talked about the fact that we have lost a lot of jobs. . . . We talked about the fact that we have to make Nassco a survivor on the West Coast. We have a stake in the company.”
Besides Avondale, the Baltimore Division of Bethlehem Steel and Tampa Shipyards Inc. are competing for the contract.
According to Zschiesche, lobbyists for the unions and Nassco have joined forces in Washington to lobby the Navy for the contract. Hallett said Nassco’s Washington office “has used its best efforts to persuade the Navy that the TAO should be built here.”
“The issue of geographical disbursement is a big issue in U.S. shipyards,” Zschiesche said. “We’ve sort of broadened our lobbying effort to use whatever influence we have as union members, both locally and in Washington.”
He said there are also plans to have the rank and file fire off letters to local congressmen, Sens. Alan Cranston and Pete Wilson and the Defense Department in a massive lobbying effort. Copies of the union letter to Ball have been made available to both presidential campaigns, Zschiesche said.
After the unions ended a three-week strike in August, Zschiesche said, Nassco officials briefed union leaders on the shipyard’s efforts to obtain the TAO contract. The union leaders then offered to help the company in the lobbying campaign, and both sides agreed on a strategy, he said.
“It’s one of the ways that we’re taking advantage of the opportunities to do things together, where we both have something to contribute in order to achieve the same goal,” Zschiesche said.