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A year of ups and down for private ship repair, shipbuilding shipyards

As repair yards brace for unstable funding from Washington, there is labor unrest at Newport News.

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — 2021 has been a year of ups and downs for private shipyards in Hampton Roads.

The yards build and repair Navy ships.

There were significant success stories. But there are also major concerns about what the future holds.

At Newport News Shipbuilding, they christened the future USS New Jersey, the Navy's 23rd Virginia Class submarine.

And, there was also much celebration with the first cut of steel for the future USS Doris Miller, the Navy's fourth Ford Class aircraft carrier.

"And I like the shipbuilders to feel the pride that, 'hey, I did this, I built this, I'm part of this,'" said Jennifer Boykin, Newport News Shipbuilding President.

But, with the good, also came the bad.

The Navy proposed retiring seven of the 21 active guided missile cruisers in the fleet, which would hurt repair yards.

Rep. Rob Wittman (R-Virginia, First District) blasted the idea.

"You can't do addition by subtraction," he said. "You can't get to a 355-ship Navy by taking these sever cruisers out."

The President of the Virginia Ship Repair Association, Bill Crow, agreed, saying, the more ships, the better.

"The more ships that we have in this port, the more robust the demand is going to be in regards to fixing, maintaining, modernizing and repairing," he said.

In 12 of the past 13 fiscal years, including this one, the Defense Department has had to deal with continuing resolutions, with funding frozen at the prior year's level.

That's not good for shipyards.

"So when we can't fund the government on time, they can't get their work started on time, they can't pre-plan and buy the materials to build the ships, repair the ships," said Rep. Elaine Luria (D- Virginia, 2nd District), Vice-Chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

Finally, there are big worries about what could happen in 2022 at Newport News Shipbuilding, Virginia's largest industrial employer, the world's only maker of nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, and, one of two companies in the nation that build nuclear-powered submarines.

Will negotiators reach a deal on a new collective bargaining agreement?

Or, will there be a strike for the first time since 1999?

United Steelworkers Union Local 8888 President Charles Spivey isn't sure.

"We had a ratification vote, voted down two to one," he said. "And, the question is, where do we go from here?"

What happens at the yards is vital not only to the Navy but to Hampton Roads.

More than 25,000 people work at Newport News Shipbuilding, which saw operating income for the three months that ended Sept. 30 increase by 11% over the previous year's level, to $88 million. 

And four smaller private ship repair yards which work on Navy ships, and the 285 companies which support them, employ more than 60,000 people and contribute more than $6 billion to the local economy.

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