— In addressing the budget crisis Tuesday, President Obama hit a nerve with Newport News shipbuilders when he said, "You guys must be getting tired of this."
Applause and cheers rained down.
Military spending is more than a matter of national defense for the thousands of workers at Newport News Shipbuilding, the state's largest industrial employer. That money has put food on their table and sent their children to college.
But now that money is under threat from across-the-board cuts under sequestration, which formally takes effect on Friday. Few members of Congress like the idea, but they can't agree on an alternative.
Employees can only wait and hope – and try not to get upset.
Pipefitter Larry Washington, a 30-year shipyard veteran, praised Obama's speech, which was a call for action to shipyard workers to get involved. Washington's opinion of Congress isn't quite so high.
"We pay them, but we pay them to do a job," he said. "Why should we pay you for doing nothing?"
He noted that politicians are quick to visit the shipyard when campaigning for office. Indeed, stopping at the gates to shake hands during a shift change is a common destination for Virginia politicians seeking statewide office.
"Then when they go back to D.C., they forget those people," Washington said. "It's not fair to the people who been here for 30 years, who work in the cold and the rain and the sleet and the snow. We don't get to work inside. We work outside – in the weather where it counts. Congress, they get to go inside, close the doors, sit down and turn on the heat, and do what they do."
Other workers find themselves wanting more information – but there isn't much to be had.
"A lot of speculation, a lot of rumors," said Bobby Johnson of Newport News, a shipfitter. "Nobody knows. Everything hinges on what happens in the next few months, really."
Ricky Jordan is also a shipfitter, but he's worked at the shipyard for 36 years. He's seen some ups and downs in his career, but said, "I haven't seen one like this before. A lot of people are worried."
These comments do not surprise Mike Petters, the CEO of Huntington Ingalls, the parent company of Newport News Shipbuilding. He's telling the workforce to concentrate on its jobs, to stay safe and to not be distracted by the headlines.
But he knows that only goes so far, and the frustration is understandable.
"There is uncertainty out there," Petters said as he waited for Obama to arrive at the yard's cavernous Supplemental Module Outfitting Facility. "I would say they are great shipbuilders. They are staying focused on what we need to do today. But they see the news. They read the news. And they have to be scratching their heads."
Petters said he is worried that his efforts to recruit new workers could be hampered if Washington continues to lurch from crisis to crisis.
"If this goes on for any length of time, where's the next generation going to come from? When do they start to think, how am I going to be supported in my career if I do this," he said.
Also praising the president's speech was United Steelworkers Local 8888 president Arnold Outlaw. The threat to workers' livelihoods has, in a way, brought shipyard management and union workers even as they are locked in contract talks, he said..
"We as the union and the company should be holding and fighting together for the purposes of the jobs here," Outlaw said.
"I understand we're in negotiations but there's common ground here."
The union on Tuesday sent members to Washington to emphasize the severe consequences of the potential cuts.