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Iron Workers Recast Image as Union Celebrates Its 50th Year : Labor: Though Local 627 has always had a raucous reputation, the union's attitude toward management at the Nassco shipyard has tempered.

October 15, 1990|H.G. REZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Robert Godinez, business agent for the Iron Workers Union, Local 627, chuckled when asked to compare the recent launching of a Navy supply ship, which went off without a hitch, and the launching of another Navy ship 10 years ago.

Both ships--the auxiliary oiler explosives (or AOE) Supply and the destroyer tender Cape Cod--were built and launched at the National Steel & Shipbuilding Co. shipyard. But the vessels also symbolized different eras in the sometimes confrontational, but always rocky relations between the iron workers local--the largest of seven unions at Nassco--and the shipyard that spawned the group 50 years ago.

The company had gathered several dignitaries at the Aug. 2, 1980, launching of the Cape Cod, including Navy Undersecretary Robert J. Murray, as Nassco officials proudly waited to present their latest ship.

Murray's approach to the podium was the cue for 200 iron workers, who marched toward the stage in a carefully planned demonstration and took over the platform. Stunned dignitaries, including a prospective Nassco customer, watched as some of the workers used bullhorns to give their own speeches, denouncing working conditions at the shipyard.

Embarrassed Nassco officials reacted swiftly. The company fired 27 of the protesters, including Miguel Salas, then business agent for Local 627. The union responded by staging a three-day wildcat strike that led to more firings.

One year later, an arbitrator upheld the firings of Salas and 12 of the 27 workers.

Local 627, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary on Saturday, has always had a raucous reputation. The men and women who make up its membership come from various ethnic groups and are as tough as the shipyard they work at.

Over the years, Local 627 has survived a near fatal rift within its ranks, an attempted takeover by communist radicals, a takeover by its International Union and negative publicity it suffered when two of its members were convicted in federal court of attempting to bomb the Nassco shipyard during a bitter labor dispute.

Turning to the present, Godinez, who has been a union member and Nassco employee since 1975, explained that the union's attitude toward management has been tempered somewhat since the 1980 incident. Indeed, in April, 1989, the iron workers and other unions joined management in a buyout of the shipyard after the former owner threatened to shut it down, following a $30 million loss.

"Concerted activities" like the one staged at the Cape Cod launching are not necessarily a thing of the past, said Godinez, but a tactic that is now used when all else fails.

"Now, we're making an attempt to work together," he said. "We brought our families to the launching (of the Supply) and everyone had a good time. But we also have to stand firm and defend our rights. That still happens more frequently than you think. Management doesn't really do us any favors."

Despite its adversarial relationship with Nassco, Local 627 owes its existence to the shipyard. The union was founded in 1940 at what was then called National Iron Works. Lloyd Sanders, one of 30 men who organized the local, recalled that during World War II the company built mostly barges and refrigerator boxes for the military.

Sanders, 77, said that it was not until after the war that Nassco began building its first boats for the tuna industry.

"The first 70 or 80 boats we built were tuna boats. Hell, we didn't know if the first one we built was going to float until they put it in the water, and it didn't sink," said Sanders in a telephone interview from his St. Joseph, Mo., home.

Fred Hallett, Nassco's chief financial officer, noted the "highs and lows" that the company has experienced over the years in its labor relations with Local 627, but agreed that both sides are less confrontational these days.

"I think our relationship is excellent. Over the last several years, both sides have learned that it's extremely important to talk to each other," Hallett said. "We don't see everything the same, but we have learned to sit down at the table and understand the other's position."

However, both sides agreed that it was not too many years ago when sitting at a table was merely a prelude to frustration. It was a time when Local 627 represented more than one-third of Nassco's 8,000 employees and the union, led by a group of young and intelligent radicals, relished the power and influence it could muster.

It was also a time when the union appeared to have more leaders than followers.

"Local 627 has had a long and interesting history," said local labor attorney Richard Prochazka. "But the late 1970s and early 1980s were certainly some of their most interesting periods."

Local 627 president Tom McCammon recalled the labor strife that prevailed at Nassco in those years, much of it brought about by union complaints of unsafe working conditions at the shipyard. Worker dissatisfaction with the company also led to a split within the union, which was eventually torn apart by internal squabbling.

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