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October 17. 2013 9:05PM

Shipyard workers rally against furloughs, sequestration


Above, federal works hold signs during a rally in Prescott park in Portsmouth on Thursday. Below, Mark MacKenzie, president of the NH AFL-CIO, speaks to the frustrated workers. (GRETYL MACALASTER/Union Leader Correspondent)

PORTSMOUTH — Federal workers returned to their jobs on Thursday but remain insecure about the future.

About 40 workers gathered at Prescott Park on Thursday afternoon with the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard at their backs to rally against sequestration and what they see as continued attacks on federal workers.

About 2,000 of the 6,000 workers at the shipyard were furloughed during the recent government shutdown for anywhere from four to 10 days. This came on top of six days of furloughs for many employees this past summer as a result of budget cuts associated with sequestration.

During the rally, federal workers held signs calling for an end to sequestration and for a restoration of common sense in Washington, D.C.

They spoke about the ripple effect furloughs and budget cuts at the shipyard have on the surrounding economy, including suppliers and contractors, local retail businesses and restaurants, and charities that benefit from various efforts at the shipyard that were curtailed as a result of the shutdown.

Paul O'Connor, president of the Metal Trades Council at the shipyard, said right now they are unable to plan for the long-term or short-term needs of the shipyard because Wednesday's solution to the shutdown was only a temporary one.

Although union leader Debbie Jennings said she hopes it is the last rally shipyard workers have to hold, O'Connor said everyone is wondering if they will be there again in three months.

"Our message today is: 'Congress, find a better way,'" O'Connor said.

At least three unions were represented at Thursday's rally including the Metal Trades Council, The International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers and the American Federation of Government Employees.

Jennings said the shutdown, sequestration and furloughs are creating a sense of "general chaos" at the shipyard.

John Joyal of Somersworth started working at the shipyard 37 years ago when he was just 18 years old.

"I have been through several, probably a dozen, presidents, a dozen … shipyard commanders, and I have never in my adult life seen such disregard for federal employees as I have lately," Joyal said.

Joyal was furloughed for the first time in his life when the government shutdown, but said he was lucky it only lasted four days. Although he could have retired two years ago, with a son in college and two daughters at home, he said he can't afford to.

Denis Houde of Eliot, Maine, came to the shipyard in June, enticed by a training program and job stability. He came from the private sector, and saw the job as an opportunity to move forward, despite lower base pay.He said he still feels good about the shipyard.

"You have to separate government from the shipyard. Government is doing the wrong thing. The shipyard is doing the right thing. We have a lot of work coming but we need the money to do it," Houde said.

O'Connor said Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has indicated that furloughs will not be enough to deal with the 2014 cuts associated with sequestration, meaning layoffs could be necessary.

He said they have not even started dealing with next year's budget, and right now are focused on January.

On Wednesday night, Congress passed and President Barack Obama signed a bill providing funding to keep the government running through Jan. 15.

gmacalaster@newstote.com


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