Company sweetens its offer

Wednesday, April 04, 2007
By BRAD CROCKER The Mississippi Press

PASCAGOULA -- Northrop Grumman Ship Systems and union officials reached a tentative labor agreement Tuesday aimed at getting more than 6,000 workers off the picket lines and back working at Mississippi's largest private employer.

From 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, employees will vote whether to accept the revised three-year contract offer that resulted after four hours of negotiations Tuesday between union and company officials, a proposal being endorsed by national union officials.

The annual average wage would increase from $38,106 to $43,888, according to the proposal. One difference in the new offer is a $1.68-per hour wage increase for the first year which, according to company officials, is one of the largest first-year hourly wage increases in Northrop Grumman Corp.'s history.

The 9.2 percent wage increase the first year -- which is part of a cumulative 15.2 percent wage increase over the three-year deal -- was designed, the company said, "to quickly and directly address the economic impact of Hurricane Katrina on our employees," a major bargaining point by workers who argued the company's previous offers did not address issues such as cost-of-living increases, food, gas and other needs since the last proposal, which lasted four years and expired four days before the strike.

The previous hourly boost offered for the first year was $1.40. The 55-cent per hour pay increases for the second and third years, however, remained the same with the offer presented Tuesday.

Many employees said they were hoping for raises of $2, $1 and $1 per hour and wanted the company to leave health insurance costs at the current level of $144 per month.

However, the company stood firm with its proposal of raising the premiums by 4 cents an hour the first year to $151 per month; 15 cents an hour the second year for a monthly cost of $177; and 10 cents an hour the third year, capping total premium increases to $194 per month at the end of the offer.

Workers also did not receive dental or vision insurance they say is badly needed.

Overall, the new offer contains, over the life of the three-year proposal, a total of $2.78 in hourly wage increases, of which employees will take home $2.49 per hour after insurance is factored in, company officials said.

Although workers will not receive sick pay as requested, the company's offer does contain attendance and shift premium bonuses of up to 61 cents per hour, as well as agreeing to increase vacation pay for workers with four or fewer years of service, which is approximately 30 percent of the current workforce, officials said.

If the new offer is approved, employees on strike can return to work as early as Thursday or bypass the Easter holiday and return on Tuesday.

More than 6,000 employees have been on strike since March 8 after overwhelmingly rejecting two previous offers -- a four-year proposal, then a three-year offer. Insurance coverage for employees also expired over the weekend, forcing many workers to tighten their budgets and more than 400 others to cross the picket line based on their situations.

When negotiations broke Tuesday, there was an optimistic mood among union and company officials.

"This contract provides a very fair financial offer that comprises a competitive wage and benefits package," Philip Teel, president of NGSS, said in a prepared statement. "This proposal meets current and future employees' needs based on the current and potential economics of the Gulf Coast region while staying within a cost structure that is in line with our customer and shareholder requirements."

Mike Crawley, president of the Pascagoula Metal Trades Council, which represents 11 of the 14 unions manning the picket lines, said the tentative offer "reflects changes made in response to employee concerns, as expressed in their votes on those previous proposals."

Crawley said the long standout, which has now surpassed the last strike at Ingalls, a three-week work stoppage in 1999, "showed the strength of the unions here."

Jim Couch, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 733 -- the large independent union that led the strike -- said the new offer is "more in line with what they (workers) were asking for."

But Couch also agreed with Crawley, who said, "the (union) membership is always the decider."

Local union officials declined to predict the outcome of today's vote, but Ron Ault, president of the Metal Trades Department AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., said, "We believe this agreement addresses the entire range of concerns from the members and their families and we're recommending a yes' vote."

Pipefitter Zack Hall, 33, of Pascagoula, said he'll likely vote for the new deal, even though it's missing dental and vision coverage and the pay hike he wanted.

"If I understand everything the way it is, there are some benefits that are coming that are needed," said Hall, one of many workers who said they could hold out longer if necessary.

"A lot of us are ready for this to end," he added, "but I'll continue honoring the picket if that's the way everybody else goes."

Longtime employee Lula Stewart attended many of the negotiation sessions. She agreed with officials that getting facts from one place at one time will prevent any misrepresentation or rumor mills from occurring when the information is disseminated among workers today.

Stewart added that she hoped the membership would vote for the new deal, but also echoed Crawley's and Couch's sentiments of the unknown, especially after the two previous votes were both record-breaking turnouts.

"There's never any guarantee when you have 6,000 people voting," she said.

Reporter Brad Crocker can be reached at or (228) 934-1431.