Steelworkers mark 40 years at shipyard, recall 1979 strike
NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (AP) — In 1979, Jan Hooks ended up on the wrong end of a policeman’s riot stick when she fought for union recognition at the Newport News shipyard.
Rickie Pike experienced a different sort of pain. He was blackballed by members of his own family for his union views.
Since then, an entire generation has passed through Newport News Shipbuilding and new hires are on the way. Management has changed, too, and while disputes remain between the two sides, it no longer involves police, guard dogs and riot sticks.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the vote that created United Steelworkers Local 8888, today a staple of shipyard life. Union members are marking the milestone with events throughout the year.
The vote to authorize the union took place on Jan. 31, 1978. It set off a celebration that was short-lived.
The company, then owned by Tenneco, protested the election results, as did the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association, the yard’s old union. It dragged on, and after a year had passed, the United Steelworkers had had enough. On Jan. 31, 1979, exactly one year after that successful vote, the union voted to strike.
The walkout lasted nearly three months, dividing the company, the city and families. But the drive to unionize was rooted in a deeper struggle, according to Lane Windham, author of the book “Knocking On Labor’s Door: Union Organizing in the 1970s and the Roots of a New Economic Divide.”
By the mid-1970s, women and people of color had “a new sense of rights” from the struggles for racial and gender equity, Windham said.
Those struggles affected the shipyard in a big way. Black workers fought for equal pay, additional promotions and access to the apprentice school through the courts. The fight took several years. It eventually prompted the federal government to tighten standards at the yard, holding up $700 million in new contracts until the company signed a conciliation agreement in 1970 that stressed equal promotion, training and recruitment.
In 1973, the company made a major push to hire women, prompted by a changing legal environment, and not wanting to risk its federal contracts “being out of step with government expectations on civil rights,” she wrote.
In an interview with the Daily Press, Windham said that women and blacks who entered the shipyard “had the wind at their backs, essentially, from these larger social movements happening in society.”
But even civil and gender rights could only go so far. In order to earn a decent wage, these workers needed labor law. It is no coincidence, Windham said, that past unionization efforts failed, whereas the steelworkers’ succeeded with large groups of women and blacks in the vanguard.
“In some ways, it took so much to be a woman production worker at the shipyard,” Windham said. “You had to overcome so many hurdles that by the time you’d overcome those, then you keep going and you push for a union to make sure this job you’ve got isn’t just a job, but that it is a really good job.
Jan Hooks can relate.
Hooks began work at the yard on July 13, 1976. She was preceded by her identical twin sister, Ann, who was among the first group of female production workers hired there. At the time, workers relied on the Peninsula Shipbuilders Association (PSA), a smaller private group that Windham likened to a “union stopper” to keep out a more effective union.
When the steelworkers started their drive, Hooks signed on. The PSA hadn’t done much for the workers, she said, and the steelworkers were thought to have more resources and clout. Hooks got creative when it came to spreading the word.
She talked up the union during her lunch hour. She passed out cards while standing behind walls or rows of toolboxes. And she didn’t take any guff. The idea of women working shoulder-to-shoulder with men in dirty, strenuous shipyard jobs wasn’t accepted by some veteran workers.
Hooks said she never had problems.
“I’m brassy,” she said. “I don’t pay any attention to them. We had no boys in our family, so daddy taught us how to use a hammer.”
She credits her parents with telling her and Ann that they could do anything they wanted. Hooks took that confidence into the yard every day.
“The guys got smart with me — hey, say what you want to,” she said. “I can handle that. But put your hands on me, you’re coming back without a hand.”
Her effort, and those of other steelworkers’ supporters, paid off in that successful January 1978 vote. One year later, she found herself walking the picket line.
The strike lasted nearly three months. Picketers marched during the coldest weather of the year while a battle dragged on in federal court. But as weeks turned into months, as people crossing the picket line and as union members felt the need to earn a paycheck, sentiment began to shift. Maybe they could return to work — under the right conditions.
The company demanded that strikers could return to work only if they signed forms declaring they were returning unconditionally, what amount to unconditional surrender. The workers were having none of that. Steelworkers’ leaders offered to return to work in a week if the company dropped the “unconditional” proviso.
There was no response by the time a series of marches began that following Monday. Hooks was standing away from the picket line when weeks of tension touched off a powder keg. As she recalled, city police began moving through the streets. Both sides were tense. The strikers were upset. Some knocked over garbage cans, or what Hooks called “stupid stuff.”
Then the tension exploded. Police began making arrests and riot sticks started swinging. Hooks was grabbed from behind by a policeman, who hit her across the back and kidneys. She sought refuge in a restaurant and eventually spotted her sister and two other men. Her sister went to the restaurant. One of the men was grabbed by police.
“They took a billy club, and as God as my witness, rammed it between his legs, from the back,” Hooks said. “He went to his knees and they picked him up and throwed him in the paddy wagon.”
Hooks eventually made it to the union hall, but things were no safer there. Police tried to storm the hall, and Hooks said workers began throwing things down the stairs to keep them at bay. The police eventually backed off, but one union member suffered a broken leg when he was tossed through a plate glass window, she said.
The day, April 16, became known as Bloody Monday. Most of the strike’s 70 arrests and 50 injuries came that day. The strikers returned to work one week later, on April 23, and the company dropped its unconditional provision. The court fight continued to drag on, but on Oct. 18, 1979, the 4th Circuit Court ruled in favor of the union, and contract talks began in November.
The company and the steelworkers signed their initial contract on March 31, 1980.
Returning to work after the strike was a leap of faith for Hooks.
“I cried every step of the way,” she said.
Today, Pike is a state-level director with the United Steelworkers with offices in Hampton. In 1979, he was part of an extended family of shipyard workers. His father and uncle worked there, as did cousins and a brother-in-law.
His father and uncle held positions in the PSA, the rival to the steelworkers union.
When the steelworkers first began their drive, Pike stuck with the PSA. But he eventually voted to strike. The steelworkers had more resources, and the fate of the PSA seemed sealed.
His family members didn’t agree. And it led to an emotional and serious divide in the family.
In March 1979, while the strike was going on, Pike’s wife gave birth to their daughter. Pike had just come from a part-time job. He was dirty and tired, but justly proud. He called his mother, who “still had something to do with me,” as he put it.
Pike sneaked by the house when his dad wasn’t there to show his mother “strike checks.” He wanted her to know he would be OK.
All well and good, but she didn’t want to chance a hospital visit that day — even to see her new grandchild — because of the divide within the family.
“She said, ‘Well, I don’t think I can come down there,’” Pike recalled. “It was kind of a difficult time.”
It took months for the family to come back together, but they eventually did. All but one member of his family eventually joined the steelworkers.
The union has had growing pains since then, and disagreements with the company over wages and benefits still carry high stakes. But he credits both sides for improved relations.
“I think we’ve come a long way,” he said. “Today, I think the relationship is a lot better than it’s ever been.”
Information from: Daily Press, http://www.dailypress.com/