Shipyard workers fear base closure process could bring privatization

Labor unions ask Congress top take action to prevent the Pentagon from using base closures to eliminate shipyards.

Navy shipyard workers are growing increasingly concerned that the Pentagon might use the upcoming round of military base closures to privatize their jobs and are asking Congress for help.

Federal labor union sources say they believe the Pentagon will use this year's base realignment and closure round to privatize the Navy's shipyards in Portsmouth, Va.; Kittery, Maine; Pearl Harbor, Hawaii; and Bremerton, Wash.

Federal law now prohibits the Defense Department from contracting out more than 50 percent of all work done by civilians at military depots or shipyards, but it's unclear whether that law would apply to closing or realigning military facilities.

"Our fear is they are contemplating privatizing the shipyards through BRAC," said Matthew Biggs, legislative director for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers, a labor union that represents about 25,000 Navy shipyard workers.

A Washington, D.C. attorney, who asked not to be identified because he represents several communities with bases that might be closed, also said the Pentagon is considering using BRAC as a way around the so-called "50-50" rule. He said legal experts are split over whether the law would apply to closing shipyards. "Ask seven attorneys and you'll get seven different opinions," he said.

As a result, IFPTE is asking lawmakers with ties to naval shipyards to pass a law that would prohibit the Pentagon from privatizing more than half of the work done at military shipyards and depots through BRAC closings or realignments.

"Congress should enact legislation, either through a free-standing bill or the more likely alternative of attaching a legislative rider to a bill that is certain to be signed into law early next year, that would prevent the secretary of Defense from waiving the 50-50 law for the purposes of privatizing military depot operations through the BRAC process," IFPTE president Gregory Junemann wrote in a Dec. 21 letter to Sen. Susan Collins, R- Maine.

Similar letters were sent to other senators with naval shipyards and depots in their states, including Sens. George Allen, R-Va.; Judd Gregg, R-N.H.; James Inhofe, R-Okla.; Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii; Olympia Snowe, R-Maine; Arlen Specter, R-Pa; John Sununu, R-N.H., and John Warner, R-Va.

None of the senators has endorsed the proposal, but labor officials say they have yet to meet directly with lawmakers on the issue. One labor source said an amendment could be attached to the Defense supplemental bill, which is due to be passed early this year.

The Pentagon, meanwhile, will not discuss details about BRAC until its proposals for closing and realignments are handed off to a nonpartisan commission in May. The commission then will spend the summer reviewing them before making formal recommendations to the president by Sept. 8. The president would have 15 days to accept or reject the list. If it meets his approval, Congress has 45 legislative days to reject the list or it becomes law.