US & Canada

US naval workers all at sea as sequester looms

  • 26 February 2013
  • From the section US & Canada
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US Navy battleship in Newport News, Virginia 26 February 2013
The defence industry is a key part of Virginia's economy

It is an overcast day, and the skies are brooding over the Virginia coast, where two great grey US Navy ships are in dock.

On the deck of one of them, there is a high rectangle of scaffolding, incongruous amid the thin bristling weaponry and communications gear.

This is just down the road from the shipyard where President Barack Obama made a speech, urging workers to contact Congress and ask them to do a deal.

If not, there will be savage cuts across the government, but the military budget will be slashed by 10%.

It is ironic: there is a big sign over the gate thanking the workers for the job they do everyday. Soon, they may not have a job.

Stoic but worried

That I am here, interviewing workers and filming the ships tells you something.

Mark Mardell shooting in Newport News, Virginia 26 February 2013
It is unusual for the media to have access to military shipyards

TV cameras are not usually welcomed inside these gates, but both BAE Systems and the Pentagon want to get the message out - that deliberately savage cuts would do huge damage to this community and the economy.

The Navy has told the company that if the cuts go ahead they would have to scrap planned work on 13 ships.

So BAE has sent out letters to 3,500 workers, here and in the states of Florida, Hawaii and California, warning them they could be laid off.

The mood among the workers I talk to is worried, if stoic, unwilling to contemplate exactly what it would mean to lose their job.

They don't have much time for the politicians - President Obama or Congress.

Economy already damaged?

Tom Ehret has worked here for 34 years and tells me: "I am not going to have the life that I've got now. I'd have to take cuts, tighten up.

"It sucks. It's really bad. It's going to affect a whole load of people, not just shipyard people - uniformed people, McDonald's down the street, Chicken Shack, everybody," he says.

"It's going to destroy this country, put us in a worse depression than the '20s."

Mr Ehret is unimpressed with the politicians: "I think they ain't doing a good job, I won't vote for them again.

Mark Mardell doing an interview with Tom Ehret in a military shipyard in Newport News, Virginia 26 February 2013
Many workers seem fed up with politicians' rhetoric

"They are not doing a job - they didn't vote for anything and then they took 10 days' holiday. They should have stayed and done their job.

"I've got to do my job. I don't do it and I get in trouble - they don't. They get away with it."

I ask: "They get away with it?"

Mr Ehret says: "Yeah, they still get paid."

Others blame the president. One man who didn't want to be named said Mr Obama should be in the White House doing his job and sorting out the mess, rather than making speeches and touring shipyards here.

I am not surprised that people here are fed up with politicians.

There is quite a lot of idle talk about the world not ending on 1 March and that everything will be sorted out in a couple of weeks.

While it is perfectly true that the impact of the full cuts will take a while to bite, what I take away from my visit to Virginia is that the looming crisis is causing a lot of people intense worry - I also suspect it has already damaged the economy.

In January, it turned out that the economy contracted in the fourth quarter due almost entirely to the looming fiscal cliff and a drop in defence spending.

Don't be surprised if the same happens again.

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