Outside Gate 2 at Naval Air Station Patuxent River, a group of striking machinists finished their early morning picketing along the town’s main road to go to Linda’s Cafe, a homey place with a Texas owner, to have some coffee.
In this rural, conservative part of southern Maryland 60 miles southeast of Washington, where the Patuxent River meets the Chesapeake Bay, the naval base and its aviation-testing facilities dominate the economy. So for there to be a militant labor contingent out on the street is a little surprising to locals: a sampling of customers at Linda’s Cafe questioned by a McClatchy reporter had never even heard about the machinists’ strike.
It’s a little-noticed subset of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers strike at Lockheed Martin Aeronautics Co. in Fort Worth, Texas – now in its 10th week – that the disputed contract covering 3,400 machinists in Texas’ Tarrant County also includes about 170 workers at Pax River, as it’s known, as well as about 200 at Edwards Air Force Base in California, the two testing centers for the F-35, which is at the center of the contract.
But the Pax River strikers have been especially active, taking advantage of their proximity to Washington to sometimes picket Lockheed Martin’s corporate headquarters in Bethesda, Md., and, they hope, draw attention to their issues as well as embarrass the bosses. Lockheed Martin spokeswoman Jennifer Whitlow said, however, that “we respect their right to do peaceful informational picketing.”
The strikers are upping the ante in other ways, with the move to the very public Gate 2, as well, since base commander Capt. Ted Mills had designated Gate 3 – a few miles away, used by contract workers and well off the main road – for their use, where strikers have camped out almost daily. Machinists’ association business agent Joe Alviar, detailed from Fort Worth during the strike, promises more “high-profile” picketing sites if mediation, which started last Wednesday, doesn’t result in a deal.
“Now we’re keeping them on their toes,” said Gilbert Torres, the union’s chief shop steward for Lockheed Martin at Pax River. As long as the strikers keep their informational picketing across the street from the gates, they can’t be moved. And the Pax River machinists say they’re giving up their spot at Gate 3.
Still, they hope the mediation sticks.
“It’s been tough not having any income,” said Rick Bertele, a striker and a single father. “The reasons we’re out here are pensions and affordable health care.” The strikers rejected the corporate plan for higher-priced health plan choices and a pension plan for new hires that doesn’t have a defined benefit. “It’s taught us all important budgeting skills.”
The Navy isn’t taking sides. Pax River Base spokesman Gary Younger said, “This is a corporate matter, and the Navy’s staying out of it.”
The weeks have taken their toll, with only 75 to 80 of the original 170 machinists still on strike. The strikers who remain say they’re in it to "the end." About 50 made it to the informational picketing line outside Gate 2 one morning last week.
One striker may lose his house by the end of the month. All are out looking for jobs – one is hoping to be a state trooper – and they budget for everything, though the union’s nearby national training center is providing box lunches and dinner four nights a week.
“We have lives,” said Peggy Boyd, adding, “Well, we don’t have ‘lives’ lives. We’re all looking for jobs.”
Greg Collins, who’s on strike although his wife, Donna, needs medications for multiple sclerosis, had a retail job for a day until the employer realized he was a striker who wouldn’t stay long. Now Collins is worried about losing his home. “I have until the end of the month,” he said of his $2,800 property tax bill.
The strikers say the reaction to their being on strike is mixed, even from their own families.
Rob Salerno, who still owns a home in Mansfield, Texas, from when he worked for the Texas Air National Guard, said that when he told his sister-in-law about the strike during a visit to Pennsylvania, she turned on him and said, “I hope you lose.” He ate quickly and left.
It isn’t any easier in southern Maryland. “Most locals say, ‘You shouldn’t be on strike,’ ” Salerno said, although his church has helped him with housework and splitting logs. “I’m probably one of the most fortunate,” he said, since he can rely on a disability check from an injury during military service in Iraq.
Lee Cagwin, who has 23 years with the company and moved here after cutbacks at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, is keeping life simple, staying in the RV he brought from the Sunshine State. “Checking out the mobile lifestyle,” he said. “I used to have money for retirement.”
Cafe owner Linda Palchinsky, who’s from Victoria, Texas, has owned the restaurant for 24 years and once saw the strikers out at 5:30 a.m. in pouring rain. “They must really believe in what they’re doing,” she said. Unaware of their issues, she spoke with the group of nine machinist workers sitting at a table.
A customer, George Little, who sat at the counter at the back of the cafe, grunted when he was asked what he knew about the strike. “My sort of son-in-law was in it,” he said. Little, who’s from Lake Jackson, Texas, and is retired from a civilian job at the base, said the former striker was his daughter’s companion and the father of his grandchild. The man went back to work “because he needed the damn money,” Little said.
What does Little think of the strikers? “I think they’re idiots,” he said. “They’re never going to make back what they’re losing.”
At a booth, Shane Taylor, the general sales manager at Team Hyundai, a dealership less than a mile down the road from Pax River’s main gates, said, “I wasn’t aware of a strike. I had not heard one thing.”
“This area thrives and lives off this base,” Taylor said. “Without this base, you’re looking at a ghost town.”